The Shakespeare Institute
MA "Shakespeare and Theatre"

Module: Acting and Directing Shakespeare
Essay # 2
Take one scene from three or more productions of one play
making a close examination of directorial choices
(you may use film for this question).

          William Shakespeare wrote his plays for the stage, and, as a member and shareholder of the acting company for which he wrote, he was most likely also involved in the supervision of their staging.  In Elizabethan theatre, however, the position of "director," and interpretive direction as we know it today, did not exist.  It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that directing became an independent position.  Since that time the director has become much more than simply a "traffic cop" for the actors, setting exits and entrances.  Patrick Stewart, in the narration of Discovering Hamlet, described a stage director's job:

                    Staging a play is more than acting.  It involves costumes, sets, lighting, music, a
                    myriad of details small and large which all must come together precisely on opening
                    night.  A director must coordinate all of these.  

Even more than that, today's director has become a creative and interpretive artist whose vision and choices influence every aspect of production and performance.  Little evidence remains of what staging choices Shakespeare and his company made, but today's directors have found their own approaches to Shakespeare's texts, often creating excitingly new and very different interpretations. 

          Hamlet is a play that lends itself to interpretation.  A psychological drama more than a physical one, the analysis of its structure, and the motivations and actions of its characters have been the subject of centuries of study, exploration and interpretation.  At the heart of Hamlet is one of the best known and most debated moments in Shakespeare's canon: Act III, scene 1.  As written, the scene is framed by Claudius and Polonius' plot to discover the cause of Hamlet's apparent madness, their concealment to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia's contrived encounter and their reactions to what they have witnessed.  The scene's focus, however, is Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be" followed by what is commonly known as "the nunnery scene"  Hamlet's confrontation with Ophelia, his discovery of what he perceives as her treachery, his realization that he is being spied on, and his wild, often violent reaction.   This scene has been treated very differently, in character interpretation, physical staging, and textual cutting, by directors and actors working not only on stage, but in film and television as well, and its examination in four very different productions with different directors using different media, shows just how wide the range of directorial choices may be.

          Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 Academy Award winning film adaptation of Hamlet was one of the most influential Shakespeare films of our times.  Directing himself in the title role as well as co-writing the screenplay (with Alan Dent), Olivier deconstructed the play, radically cutting the text by almost half and totally eliminating the characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras.  Restructuring it to fit into a more conventional time frame of about 2 ½ hours, he removed all the political aspects of the play, making the film much more of an intimate family drama.  Influenced by both German Expressionist film techniques and American film noir, Olivier's choice to film in black and white and his use of stairways, long empty stone corridors, and camera angles which suggest the constant presence of an unseen watcher, all contribute to the sense of alienation and unease that dominates the film and is a reflection of his portrayal of Hamlet as "a man who can't make up his mind." . 

          Olivier's elimination of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern necessitated major rewriting and the rearrangement of certain scenes.  The set up to Act III, scene 1 was a major part of this restructuring, and the scene was strongly affected by these changes.  Olivier chose to condense Act II, scene 2, cutting entirely the scene between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and moving the entrance of the players until after the nunnery scene and Hamlet's soliloquy,  leaving only Polonius' plotting with Claudius and Gertrude followed by his confrontation with Hamlet.  Olivier has Hamlet overhear their plans, making his exchange with Polonius far more pointed and specific and impacting his state of mind on meeting with Ophelia.  On Hamlet's "except my life," he fades out as he exits and Ophelia appears in the archway. Eliminating the first 41 lines of the scene completely, she is immediately given her instructions by Polonius who then hides with Claudius.  Olivier took the bold step of having Hamlet confront Ophelia immediately, repositioning his soliloquy after the nunnery scene.  Since Hamlet already knows of Polonius and Claudius' plans to use Ophelia as a lure and eavesdrop on their conversation, the whole tone of the scene changes.  There is no moment of realization  he is aware of the spies from the outset.  He sees Ophelia as he enters, his "Soft you now, the fair Ophelia" suspicious, knowing, quietly angry and bitter.  She sees him and, unsure what to do looks down at her book, then up at him.  He approaches her looking around, searching for those he already knows are hidden.  His first words to her are angry and she starts to react in kind, but her love softens her reaction.  Hamlet's questions to Ophelia are obviously meant for those he knows are hiding as is the anger that fuels his diatribe against women, but, having overheard the plot he knows that Ophelia is not to blame and his nunnery lines to her take on almost a tender pleading for her to remove herself from the noxious atmosphere of the court.  Unlike many other productions, he does not physically abuse her.  In fact, he repeatedly tries to leave and only pushes her away when she follows and attempts to embrace him.  Jean Simmons' Ophelia is traditional  an innocent, torn between her love of Hamlet and obedience to her father  Her anguish seems to come more from not understanding his words and behaviour and from her own guilt at being forced to betray him than from any real physical abuse.  Despite this, Deborah Cartmell in her article 'Franco Zephirelli and Shakespeare' describes Ophelia in the aftermath of the nunnery scene:

                    Jean Simmons, after Hamlet reluctantly abandons her, collapses on the staircase
                    in the position of a rape victim while the camera moves up the stairs in the direction
                    of Hamlet, her figure becoming smaller and increasingly insignificant.

Olivier's camera follows Hamlet to the topmost ramparts of the castle where only now does he contemplate suicide as he stands at the very edge overlooking the pounding waves crashing on the rocks below.  His isolation and the precariousness of his position is the perfect setting for the soliloquy and placing it after the nunnery scene gives it an immediacy and motivation that it appears to lack in the text.  Olivier also made the choice to use voice-over for part of the soliloquy to allow the audience to "hear" Hamlet's thoughts.  This cinematic technique allowed Hamlet's focus to be clearly internal, the camera angles and his physical movements denoting self-examination.  Lounging on a rampart Hamlet fingers a dagger through much of the speech, dropping it only on "Thus conscience does make cowards" and finally, on "lose the name of action", he turns and walks away from the edge, exiting down stairs, as the scene ends.  

          The BBC's much acclaimed Complete Works Series brought their production of Hamlet, directed by Rodney Bennett with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, to television in 1980.  Jacobi had just finished a two year tour of Hamlet, directed by Toby Robertson for the Prospect Theatre Company, opening at London's Old Vic, then touring the Far East and Australia.  In it they experimented with a number of variations to the traditional staging, including an innovative approach to "To be or not to be", treating it not as a soliloquy but rather as a speech given directly to Ophelia.  During the tour, and through two different Ophelia's, the production evolved, and the result was that the London and Tokyo performances were "totally dissimilar." The BBC production became "a synthesis of both performances."  However, Rodney Bennett did not simply adopt Toby Robertson and Jacobi's staging; he used what he felt worked, but also made his own choices.  His first was to film it on a stark minimalist set with lush, fur trimmed costumes, almost as if it were being performed on stage.   Significantly he chose to stage "To be or not to be" directly to the camera rather than to Ophelia as Jacobi been playing it.  Jacobi recalled:

                    The BBC's brief for the Shakespeare productions is not to be controversial but
                    to respect tradition, and they fought shy of the idea of presenting the most famous
                    soliloquy ever written as part of a dialogue.  I think they felt that, if we did that, it
                    would be the only aspect of the production anyone would discuss afterwards, and
                    I could see their point.

Bennett felt that a soliloquy addressed directly to the camera, rather than internally as Olivier did it, or to another actor as Jacobi preferred, gives the character the opportunity to share personal thoughts and feelings directly with the audience.  Mary Maher, based on her 1980 interview with Rodney Bennett, wrote:

                    By means of the in-camera option, the soliloquy still functions dramatically as it
                    should in Hamlet, as a window to Hamlet's mind, enabling him to make sense of his
                    feelings as well as to comment on the action.  But because of the medium of video,
                    it also takes us one step further, so that Hamlet becomes the "narrator."

This audience-actor intimacy was the effect that Bennett sought.  To achieve it he had Hamlet enter without seeing Ophelia, walking slowly, aimlessly, lost in his thoughts.  Then Hamlet suddenly turns to the camera, as though seeing the audience for the first time, and here Bennett inserts a camera "cut," emphasizing the turn and Hamlet's connection to the audience, his confidant with whom he can share his thoughts and feelings.  As Jacobi speaks, he moves to sit in Claudius' chair and the camera frames him in a waist shot, very gradually tightening in close-up.  His actions are small, intimate, his voice becoming almost conversational, but the effect is a "very close psychological bonding with the viewer."

          Bennett considered having Hamlet overhear Claudius and Polonius plotting, as Olivier did, but he ultimately rejected the idea on the grounds that it:

                    takes away from his scene with Ophelia, with his sudden realization that he's
                    indeed being listened to from behind the curtains If he already knows that, you've
                    squashed that idea completely and there's nothing for the actor to do.

Instead he has Ophelia's prayer book, which she is pretending to read, upside down, which Hamlet immediately notices and cynically reverses for her, and, seeing her fear, recognizes that something is very wrong.  His initial tenderness toward her turns to scorn and cruelty, and he plays with her like a cat with a mouse. When she returns the scarf he gave her, he slowly wraps it around his hands like a garrote and suddenly whips it around her neck pulling her to him as though he would strangle her.  But it is only when he asks her, "Why would you be a breeder of sinners?" grabbing at her crotch and she reacts by wincing away and turning fearfully toward the door which hides her father and the king, that he realizes that they are being overheard.  At that point his anger takes over, his words aimed at the unseen listeners.  When he asks "where's your father" and she lies, betrayal and hurt take the place of anger and he rails at her, almost in tears, until ultimately, both of them on their knees, he shakes her violently.  Then, as if suddenly aware of what he is doing, he stops and pulls her to him in an embrace realizing "it hath made me mad."  He caresses her face and his last lines to her are tender and protective and very sad as he walks away gazing back at her all the way out.  Lalla Ward, as Ophelia, seemed less the innocent, more composed than Jean Simmons, and less the guilty child.  Her speech as Hamlet leaves is not the hysterics of an abused woman, but rather heartbreak over the dissolution of the man she loves.

          Eight years after the BBC production, Derek Jacobi had the opportunity to direct Hamlet for Renaissance Theatre Company, staged in the intimate space of the Birmingham Rep's experimental studio with Kenneth Branagh playing the title role for the first time.  Jacobi set the play in the period immediately before World War I, with the threat of war imminent, simply staged against a red curtained backdrop, costumed in dark formality.  Drawing on his own performances as Hamlet, he took the opportunity to do what he could not do in the BBC production and have Hamlet speak his soliloquy directly to Ophelia.  Firmly rooting his reasons in the text, he defended his choice in Discovering Hamlet, a video documenting the rehearsal process of this production, saying that it helped the Ophelia's he acted with in their portrayals:

                    Ironically, all of the things that Hamlet says in that soliloquy about suicide and
                    madness happen to Ophelia.  He talks about them, she doesn't.  And the irony of
                    that, for me, is very telling and very dramatic He speaks at her, through her,
                    around her.  Essentially, he soliloquizes to her.

Branagh clarified:

                    Derek wants me to do "To be or not to be" to Ophelia as if a thought as profound
                     as that, the idea of taking his own life, he could only voice to someone like her
                    whom he, one would imply, feels very strongly for.  In doing so he kind of opens
                    himself, makes himself even more vulnerable in the context of the scene.

At the end of the soliloquy "But soft, the fair Ophelia" is addressed gently and directly to her.  Sophie Thompson's Ophelia is quiet and quiescent, fearful but not strongly emotional.  A glance from Ophelia to where her father and Claudius are hiding on "Where is your father?" triggers a violent response from Hamlet, building to a point where he throws her to the stage and shakes her like a rag doll.  As Branagh explains, "Something snaps.It's not irrational, but it's very savage, and it's very extreme and it's very painful and disturbing to watch, as well as to play."   At "The rest shall remain as they are" he throws open the curtain revealing Claudius and Polonius and, with a pointed "To a nunnery, go!" to Ophelia, he stalks out.  Jacobi cut Ophelia's speech and then next line is Claudius' disgusted "Love! His affections to not that way tend" further emphasizing the growing enmity between the two. 

          Unsatisfied with his 1988 Renaissance Hamlet performance, Branagh admitted:

                    I was unready.  I produced a hectic Hamlet, high on energy but low on subtlety
                    and crucially lacking depth The chief lesson of the production was that I should
                    do it again and that the time must be right.

He knew that he wanted to film Hamlet but, unlike Olivier, he wanted a full-length production:

                    My film-maker's instincts made me long to take the play into the cinema in its
                    fullest form.  I longed to allow audiences to join Fortinbras on the plain in
                    Norway, to be transported, as Hamlet is in his mind's eye, back to Troy and see
                    Priam and Hecuba.

The result was his 1996 full-text film version of Hamlet.  Following in Olivier's footsteps, Branagh directed and wrote the screenplay as well as playing Hamlet.  His screenplay describes Elsinore as a "gorgeous Winter Palace a Versailles-like tribute to the power of the Danish Royal Family, here in the midst of the Nineteenth Century."   The scenes of Elsinore were elegant and ornate and, in fact, filmed at Blenheim Palace.  He set Act III, scene 1 in a vast empty "State Hall" surrounded by mirrored doors  two way mirrors behind which Claudius and Polonius hide.  Hamlet enters and walks aimlessly past the mirrored doors gradually stopping, unknowingly, in front of the one behind which Claudius stands, and gazes into it.  Branagh's intention is that Hamlet, having put his plans into motion, is at that moment, "a man faced with the prospect of murder or his own death.  He faces both as absolute realities and it is the most quiet and terrifying dread he has ever known."   Hamlet, without realizing it, is now face to face with the object of that dread, Claudius, played by Derek Jacobi, and unwittingly speaks "To be or not to be" directly to him.  The audience sees both Hamlet speaking to himself and Claudius reacting to what he hears and sees as though it is addressed to him, and the effect is chilling.  Branagh has focused "To be or not to be" neither inwardly, as Olivier did, nor outwardly as Bennett did, nor even at Ophelia, as Jacobi did, but, uniquely, directly at Claudius, while still retaining its identity as a soliloquy.  In effect, he turned the soliloquy into an implied threat, which the guilty Claudius understands and takes personally even though Hamlet does not intend it as such.

          As Ophelia, played by Kate Winslet, reveals herself, Hamlet approaches her with relief and obvious caring.  Branagh has made the directorial choice of playing them as lovers, and the stage directions in his screenplay give us real insights into their intentions.  Hamlet is surprised by her uncharacteristically formal greeting but moves to embrace her.  He kisses her but she pushes him away giving him a packet of his letters.  Not understanding, he is hurt and petulant.  She is hurt by him in turn, and he lashes out at her.  His anger is kindled by her actions, not by any hint of being observed.  So far, this appears to be a lover's quarrel, fueled by the misunderstandings between them  her need to obey her father, and his personal circumstances and need to warn her of the danger they are all in.  "Get thee to a nunnery" is a plea for her to escape.  A small noise makes Ophelia turn "and then it dawns.  The Hall is empty.  As never before.  It's a trap."   He tests her with a whispered "Where is your father?"  And she lies.  She, who has never been dishonest with him, has betrayed his trust and he explodes.  He drags her down the hall, opening and closing doors.  He starts to leave then rushes back to her dragging her to the other side of the room, squeezing her face in his hand and shoving her against the mirror behind which Claudius and her father stand.  The audience sees them from within, distorted on the glass, and Hamlet's threat is directed at Claudius.  He pulls open the door and throws her to the floor just as Claudius and Polonius escape, and then turns and runs out leaving her sprawled in the doorway.  Kate Winslet is a very real Ophelia, strong, loving, confused, afraid, abused but yet not a victim.  Her grief is for Hamlet and for what they have lost.

          When faced with his first production meeting as director of Hamlet, Derek Jacobi quipped, ""Is that what directors do?  They make decisions?"   These four productions clearly show that today's directors do far more than simply making decisions. The textual, artistic, staging, character, interpretive, motivational and relationship choices they make impact the very structure, content and understanding of the plays they direct.  From Olivier's abbreviated, darkly moody and introspective Hamlet to Branagh's full-text vividly opulent epic film; from Bennett's minimalist yet traditional television video to Jacobi's innovative stage production, these directors have each created their own individual Hamlet's, each of which challenges audiences to reexamine the play, to see it with new eyes, and to find in each something new and unique they have never seen before.

                                                                                                                                  --- Arlene Schulman, November 2007