Shakespeare-Movie Soliloquies and Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight

Directors usually handle Shakespearean soliloquies in three ways: (1) they have actors speak directly to the audience, as they would have on the Elizabethan stage; (2) they have actors speak to the air, as if yammering on cellphones; or (3) they use a voice-over, as if we were wire-tapping the characters' brains.

Each strategy has its advantages.

Speaking directly to the audience works well for villains, who share their nasty schemes, preparing us to watch with horror as they dupe unknowing victims. The technique also allows for dark comedy: for example, Ian McKellan's Richard III and Harry J. Lennix's Aaron (in Julie Taymor's Titus) act as satanic stand-up comedians, terrifying us and making us laugh with the same speech.

Having actors talk to themselves produces a different effect, allowing us to pretend we're hearing a character's inward thoughts. This works in both comedies and tragedies. In a comedy, we laugh—or chuckle inwardly—when we hear Emma Thompson's Beatrice (in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing) or Helena Bonham-Carter's Olivia (in Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night) describe sudden changes of heart. And we pity Imogen Stubb's Viola (in Nunn's Twelfth Night) and Calista Flockhart's Helena (in Michael Hoffman's Midsummer Night's Dream) when we hear them lament that their love is unrequited. In a tragedy, the technique gives us access to the minds of a complex protagonist, such as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.

Branagh can whisper and be heard by a movie audience, but he still speaks the soliloquies much as Richard Burbage did during the original performance. Speaking aloud is to some extent a holdover from the theater, since in a film we can hear an actor's voice without his lips moving, as if we've got a direct line to his brain. Though less common than the other two methods, this way of rendering soliloquies can be used to great effect, as it is in Roman Polanski's Macbeth. In that film, when we hear Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's thoughts, we feel how their crimes have isolated them, locking them in their heads and destroying their minds.

Many directors employ more than one strategy. For example, Polanski sometimes gives us part of a soliloquy as a voice-over and another part aloud, much as troubled people speak fragments of their thoughts. In Oliver Parker's Othello, Kenneth Branagh as Iago sometimes speaks as if unaware of the audience but then addresses us, startling us and implicating us in his plans.

Orson Welles uses two methods for rendering soliloquies in The Chimes at Midnight. He has John Gielgud speak Henry's "Uneasy lies the head" speech aloud (2 Henry IV 3.1.1-31 in The Norton Shakespeare), but he has Hal and Falstaff speak their soliloquies to one another—a method not used in any other Shakespeare film I've seen.

The technique allows Welles to develop what many consider the most interesting feature of the Henry plays: the relationship between Hal and Falstaff.

We see this with Welles's handing of Hal's first soliloquy, spoken in The First Part of Henry IV after Hal's companions have left the stage. Hal tells us that he hangs around these men so he will appear more impressive when he abandons them, a notorious bit of calculation that reminds some critics of the way Shakespearean villains plot their crimes in secret, revealing them only to the audience.

In Welles's film there's nothing secret about Hal's plan.

Hal, played by Keith Baxter, begins the soliloquy as he is leaving Falstaff, whom we see over his shoulder. He stops in front of some twigs and branches. Fingering the twigs, as if contemplating how he might be snared by his loose companions, he begins in a soft voice, "I know you all and will a while uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness." He stretches out the "while," emphasizing that his time with Falstaff and company will come to an end.

When he looks up, squints, and speaks the next lines—"Yet herein will I imitate the sun . . ."—a worried look appears on Falstaff's face.

He still speaks so quietly that we can't be sure that Falstaff hears him—until a few lines later, when Falstaff gives a small, worried chuckle.

When Hal begins to reveal his plan—"So when this loose behavior I throw off . . ."—he speaks more loudly, then turns and looks directly at Falstaff as he talks of how the plan will work. In the background on the right, we see the cart upon which Falstaff's body will be wheeled away at the end of the film. Behind Hal's head is the castle, representing the court world that is his true home.

Hal speaks the final couplet, turns, and walks from Falstaff, toward the castle. Falstaff calls after him, engaging him in their usual banter, but that banter now has a sense of desperation. To believe that Hal won't reject him, Falstaff must ignore what he's heard. This is harder than ignoring the hints Hal gives throughout the plays. By having Hal speak the soliloquy directly to Falstaff, Welles highlights Falstaff's self-deception and heightens the tension between the characters.

He uses the same technique for Hal and Falstaff's other soliloquies. For example, Falstaff speaks his famous "honor" soliloquy (1 Henry IV 5.1.127-39) directly to Hal, who looks toward the battlefield but hears every word. The new context turns Falstaff's comic "catechism" into a real attempt to teach Hal his philosophy of life, an attempt we know will fail.

Welles makes Falstaff's last soliloquy, an encomium to wine (2 Henry IV 4.2.78-111), even more poignant. He does this by relocating the speech to the end of the battle of Shrewsbury and connecting it to Falstaff taking credit for killing Hotspur. In 1 Henry IV, the king doesn't hear Falstaff's story, but in Chimes he does—and gives Hal a look weighted with pain and disappointment. Hal seems on the verge of disputing Falstaff's lie, and Falstaff swallows as if ashamed of what he's doing. The king takes a last look at Hotspur's body and walks away. Falstaff has stolen Hal's chance of redeeming himself.

The silent tension between Hal and Falstaff is interrupted by Hal's brother John, who tells Falstaff that "the king hath severed you and Prince Harry." In 2 Henry IV, this line belongs to the Lord Chief Justice, and Falstaff's rejoinder—"I thank your pretty sweet wit for it"—is directed at him. In The Chimes at Midnight, Falstaff speaks the line to John and, after John walks away, begins the last "soliloquy."

In the original, the speech's opening is occasioned by John's cold mien and reluctance to speak well of Falstaff. In Chimes, Falstaff is blaming John for separating him from Hal, as if the slander of men like John would be the only reason Hal would distance himself.

The next part of the soliloquy—the praise of wine—now seems an attempt to get back into Hal's good graces. Falstaff gets Hal to drink with him and tries to entertain him with his wit, but the look on Hal's face shows us that he is not amused, unlike the men who hoist their cups whenever Falstaff says something funny. Their reaction seems like mockery when Falstaff attributes Hal's courage to his drinking.

Hal walks away before Falstaff reaches the conclusion of the speech, in which Falstaff says he would teach his sons to addict themselves to sack (white wine). Falstaff implies that he has taught this to Hal when he raises his cup in a toast to the prince, joined by the men behind him.

Hal responds by turning away, and the smile fades from Falstaff's face. Hal drops the cup and walks after the soldiers, leaving Falstaff behind.

The next time Falstaff speaks to him—"My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!—Hal will respond with the devastating "I know thee not, old man."


Russ Gomery said…
The Play was great as a movie rendition, i feel that in this old medium of black and white the true expressions and facial towns that the actors truly wanted to portray was a little lost, in the proverbial shadows that is the black and white film.
Liz Curtis said…
I think the new ways in which you can tweak and interpret shakespeare's plays through film are so interesting. The use of voice over is a great example of that. The effect of not seeing an actor's lips move while we hear a voice can be very eerie and something not achieved elsewise. However, i do agree with Russ that an unfortunate affect of black and white film is the occasional loss of intended expression.
Jon Schifferle said…
I noticed this at the beginning of Henry IV. I thought it was somewhat odd the way they did it, because I hadn't really seen that used in the other movies. I think it is better when they try and do it one of the other two ways, especially voice overs.
Mary Larson said…
One thing that I thought was very interesting was the way that directors incorporate the soliloquies that Shakespeare has the characters say. I thought it was a good point that this post makes about how there are three ways specifically that soliloquies are made. Either by the character speaking directly to the audience, speaking to themselves, or as a voice over and the voice is more of a thought. I thought this was interesting because I have seen all three ways of soliloquies shown in the films we have watched.

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