Movie Interpretations of the “Hamlet” Tragedy
How many different interpretations can be derived from one source? Due to the ubiquitous distinctions that exist within each person, the result we perceive from an event changes with each individual perception. Out of the various editions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version pairs historic visuals to the original script. Equally critically acclaimed is Gregory Doran’s 2009 television film adaptation, embodying a modern take on the timeless tale. The various elements in each not only allow for the viewer to understand the plot of Hamlet, but also facilitate differing perspectives on one scene: the death of Polonius, and Hamlet’s subsequent reaction and treatment of Gertrude. Although they share the same plot, the differences between Branagh’s and Doran’s rendition of that scene illuminates the contrast between a literal interpretation and a contemporary retelling.
Upon first glance of Gertrude’s bedroom in Branagh’s film, one immediately takes note of the opulent mise-en-scene in which an abundance of regal furniture and antique ornamentation garnish the spacious set. Dusty pinks, sky blues, and gold-plated goods dominate the colour scheme, reinforcing the immense wealth possessed by the royal family. In fact, Gertrude’s gilded dress is a prominent source of colour within the scene. The combination of these hues creates a cheerful, calm ambience – A complete juxtaposition to Hamlet’s pure black outfit and “antic disposition.” The high-key lighting crafts an illusion of a more voluminous room, which ironically symbolizes freedom out of the characters’ reach. On the contrary, the setting in Doran’s film features a completely dissimilar colour palette, with black, grey, and brown shades overshadowing much of the embellishment in Gertrude’s bedroom. By using neutral undertones for the majority of the props, a portentous atmosphere is created, amplifying Hamlet’s aggressive actions toward his mother. Furthermore, the colour pattern hints toward minimalism, an especially popular design in the modern era. In Doran’s case, Hamlet’s frenzied behaviour complements his gloomy surroundings. Low-key lighting manipulates the hostile mood of the scene by emphasizing subtle shadows. A sombre environment is fashioned with the use of underlighting. Stark contrasts between light and dark areas of the shot allude to Hamlet’s psychological self-division stemming from both internal and external conflicts. As a result of the colours and lighting representing opposite ends of the spectrum, each film reflects elements of different time periods.
Another key point for analysis is Hamlet’s treatment of the people around him. Branagh’s screenplay does not deviate from Shakespeare’s script in regard to how Hamlet treats Gertrude. Utilizing belligerent actions to restrain his mother, it is evident in Hamlet’s punitive language that he aims to determine whether or not Gertrude had a role in his father’s murder. The audience is left to their own judgement as to whether or not she is guilty, as seen by her anger and bewilderment at Hamlet’s ‘madness’. Moreover, Polonius’ death also adheres to the original story. Each film’s protagonist shows no hesitation in killing who they believe to be Claudius. Hamlet’s lack of remorse at his extreme blunder goes so far as to even insult Polonius’ corpse, calling him a “wretched, rash, intruding fool.” The 2009 rendering does not diverge from the above. However, the main difference lies in Hamlet’s final words to Polonius. In Branagh’s portrayal, the prince speaks with a seemingly reverent tone, whereas Doran’s Hamlet spitefully spits out a few last remarks. Despite the variance, one may conclude that these vital plot elements supersede contrasting historical eras.
Incidentally, Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s ghost varies greatly with the actor. In Doran’s depiction, the ghost is seen as a domineering figure that still maintains control even from beyond the grave. Upon his arrival, Hamlet cowers on the ground in distress, holding his head in his hands. His foetal position and body language implies that Hamlet is fearful of his father due to his procrastination in revenge, which is also shown by his frightened and high-pitched words. Non-diegetic sound plays during the ghost’s visit, establishing a sombre mood that intensifies Hamlet’s apprehension. The ominous instrumentals build a foreboding aura that soon climaxes at the ghost’s departure. In comparison, Branagh’s Hamlet gazes upon the ghost with longing and nostalgia. Through his tears and the soft tone of his voice, one can see the extent of Hamlet’s grief and love for his dear father. Parallel sound complements the raw, emotional scene, with melodious harmonies featuring soft violins. Although this is only the second time that he has seen the supernatural figure, Hamlet treats him with the same respect as if he were alive. Consequently, people in the middle ages would be more disposed to believe in superstitions and omens, such as the appearance of a deceased being. This explains how readily Branagh’s Hamlet accedes the ghost’s manifestation, whereas Hamlet in Doran’s neoteric version recoils in alarm.
The most compelling evidence of each film’s different time period is the choice of props within the scene. An effort to emulate the historical setting of the play is clearly seen on Branagh’s set. Richly illustrated murals blanket the expansive walls of the royal bedroom. Vintage luxuries such as marble pillars and ornately framed paintings supplement the eloquent ambience of the environment. Gertrude dons a golden, Victorian-era gown, with a modestly high neckline and a snug bodice. A principal example of the old-fashioned décor is clearly seen when Hamlet presents the pictures of his father and Claudius to Gertrude. Encasing the images are small wooden lockets, flaunting intricate carvings that are not common in the 21st century. Contrarily, Doran’s precise visuals compel the idea that his film is set in the present day. The simple nature of the bedroom furniture hints toward a modern lifestyle, as there is not as much material lavishness as one would expect of the royal family of Denmark. Gertrude wears loose, casual nightwear consisting of dark green fabric with a low-cut neckline that is a staple in present-day sleepwear. The flagrant display of her smoking and drinking is behaviour commonly seen in today’s films that showcase adults under stress. Even more jarring is Hamlet’s use of a handheld gun to kill Polonius, who foolishly hides behind a mirror. Given the social scene in today’s urban society, guns are increasingly becoming a household item. Pulled from a bedroom drawer, this would explain Hamlet’s easy access to such a merciless weapon. This is in direct contrast to Branagh’s edition where Polonius dies as a result of primitive stab wounds by Hamlet’s dagger. These inconsistencies only bolster the audience’s perception of the disparity in eras between the two films.
In essence, Kenneth Branagh’s historic rendition and Gregory Doran’s modern adaptation shed insight on varying perspectives of the same play. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a classic story of hubris and hamartia, depicting the tragic descent of human nature. Through the discrepancies between the time periods in which the films take place, one is able to fully grasp the intricacies of Hamlet’s quest for revenge. Along the journey, the audience learns that an eye for an eye may yield unforeseen consequences. Despite the differences in use of lighting, colour, props, and human behaviour, both films achieve their goal of exhibiting the universal themes of death and moral corruption.
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