To Be, Or Not To Be Speeches
The To be, or not to be (3.1.64) speech, in Hamlet portrays Hamlet’s thoughts about suicide and avenging his father’s death. Although you receive this message while reading the play, the way a performer acts it out tells more about Hamlet’s character and (possibly) foreshadowing of the play. Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Mel Gibson all perform this speech, but have very different styles of approaching it.
How each actor performs this speech creates different meanings to the words and Hamlet’s character. Kenneth Branagh’s performance of this speech tops Mel Gibson’s and Laurence Olivier’s performance due to the area it is performed in, the emotion and phrasing, as well as the hidden messages it gives the audience.
Kenneth Branagh creates a very complex scene with an incredible setting for the audience. Branagh sets the scene in a bright hall with one way mirrors surrounding him on all sides. Hamlet knows he is being spied on by Claudius and Polonius due to noise in the background. He approaches one mirror and looks deeply into it, staring at himself, truly expressing his emotions and pondering suicide and murdering Claudius. He says To die, to sleep- / To sleep, perchance to dream (3.1.72-3). He can either commit suicide, or avenge his father and be killed for treason, which would allow him to dream. He pulls his dagger and points it at the mirror. Doing this represents the contemplation of suicide, avenging his father’s death, but also foreshadows killing Polonius, who is hiding behind the mirror.
Mel Gibson’s speech is too focused on contemplation. The scene was filmed in a dark, gloomy tomb, which creates the idea that Gibson is asking the dead what he should do. Throughout the soliloquy, the camera changes from face shots to the tombs; Gibson’s eyes also travel from the ceiling to the bodies as if he is asking them for guidance. Gibson says, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come (3.1.74) as he walks towards a lifeless body. Gibson cannot choose how to act and looks to the tomb for help. Where the scene is shot does not allow for Claudius and Polonius to spy on him. This not only misses a significant message in the play, but it also does not give the audience any foreshadowing.
Laurence Olivier’s performance in Hamlet has a strong emphasis on committing suicide. Olivier reflects upon his life as he gazes above the ocean and rocks from the castles guard post. He contemplates jumping and ending his life. Olivier then sits on a rock atop the post and ruminates on the thought of death and the afterlife. After hearing the words echo in his head saying, To sleep (3.1.72), he suddenly has no desire to commit suicide. The quick change in his thought process and expression is strange and too sudden. The location of the soliloquy also does not allow for Claudius and Polonius to spy on him, Ophelia is also not able to be there. This means that the play has to be changed to involve the Get thee (to) a nunnery (3.1.131) scene. A very important scene displaying Hamlet’s thoughts and love for Ophelia, but also an act for Claudius and Polonius.
Kenneth Branagh simply puts on the best show for the audience, as well as creating a very dramatic and complex scene. The use of the one-way mirror and foreshadowing shown in Branagh’s performance creates excitement, and a sense of mystery of what he will choose to do. Gibson’s and Olivier’s backdrop for their performance creates an uninteresting scene for the audience where no foreshadowing is displayed. The lack of foreshadowing and eavesdroppers in Gibson’s and Olivier’s performance creates no sense of mystery. Branagh’s acting and setting creates for a better experience for the audience with a deeper meaning to the scene.
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