what was kenneth branagh thinking?

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i'm just wondering what kenneth branagh's interpretation of hamlet is. is he portraying hamlet as truly mad, or a person who is "but mad in craft," faking it so that he could justifiably kill the king? i just watched the "to be or not to be scene," where he simply stares into the mirror. it seems as if his interpretation of the speech is not so much a lament over the "sea of troubles" that has come over him, or the suicidal, gloomy madman who is faced with a prospect (of killing his uncle, the king because a ghost told him to), as it is simply an actor who doesn't really know what he is talking about. i say this because the text does not really support his acting. i know that it's a moot point, but it's also a very important aspect of the play: is hamlet really mad? or is he faking it and breaking down at the same time? or is branagh just loofy? also, the interpretation of the ghost of king hamlet: is the ghost a demon sent to destroy hamlet's life, or really his father who seeks revenge? it's would strengthen branagh's version if i knew why he filmed it the way he did.

-- gerald (compost_man@thespark.com), February 08, 2000


As to whether Hamlet is mad, the answer is no. Consider the speech he makes about Yorick. When Hamlet was young the castle had a fool, as did many courts at that time, think of other fools within Shakespeare's plays. Consider what Touchstone says in As You Like It: The more pity that fools cannot speak wisely what wise men do foolishly. Then consider the fact that when the play takes place there is no fool at court. Hamlet simply takes on that role. The fool is allowed to speak out without censure. Unfortunately no-one recognises the fool in Hamlet so they assume he is mad. Watch the film again taking on board the fact that Hamlet is not mad and then realise the position he is in. To kill a King was a very serious offence, even though Hamlet is certain of his Uncle's guilt he still cannot bring himself to kill a King. He tries every way he can think of to bring about a confession but eventually allows circumstances to dictate his actions. The speech regarding the fall of a sparrow gives an answer. If it be now etc. Hope this helps.

-- Sam Portlock (Sam.Portlock@userm.avonhealth.swest.nhs.uk), February 18, 2000.

I agree very much with the first person who replied to this question. In regards to the 2B/not2B speech. I think that Branaugh does a wonderful portrayal of that. When I first saw the movie, I was confused about that because just prior to that, Hamlet makes the speech about his plans to "catch the conscince of the King." Branaugh portrays that speech as very emotional. He is deeply grieved at his sluggishness in bringing about revenge. However, the task that the ghost had set before him was a very serious one, for it was considered a major sin to 1)Kill a person, 2)Kill a family member, and 3)Kill a King. He would be commiting 3 sins in one if he were to carry out the ghosts orders. Therefore, he wanted to be completely sure that Claudius was guilty. In the "catch the consience of the King" speech, Hamlet gets excited because he figures out a way to be sure of the ghost. However, in the 2B/not2B speech, Hamlet is wondering to himself about the all too famous question.. WHY? His emotions have gone through so much by this time that he is simply wondering why he hasn't committed suicide. Why would anyone put up with all of the pain that accompanies life, when they con end it all in a couple of seconds with a "bare bodkin"? The way I see it, this speech isn't really an emotional speech. It is simply a brilliant mind asking questions and being curious. If that is not what it is, then by that time you could say that he was at that point at which the emotions ran so high that he couldn't express them. However, I highly doubt that because of the way that he first acts when Ophelia appears. Watch it and think about this and see if I'm not right. Any rebuffs are more than welcome.

-- Rebecca Haagensen (menudo@danceart.net), April 10, 2000.

i think-and i know-that hamlet in keneth's film was not mad but playing the part. I hope you dont forget mel gibsons film when you make your criticsms of kennths film. I mean come on, hamlet wasnt a barbaric killing machine portrayed in gibsons film. I truel believe that kenneth has mastered hamlet to a "T". his portrayl of hamlet from the text written by shakespeare is marvelous! it is clear to everyone that watches the movie that he is using hamlets play with words to make everyone think he is mad-duh!!! when he speaks to rosencrantz and gildenstern he says "would you play upon this pipe as you would play upon me". and of course less we forget the scene where tells gertrude he is not mad and is playing the part! it is so bluntly spelled out that hamlet isnt mad but acting!

-- melissa h (mkisshall@aol.com), August 06, 2000.

OK, here goes! I think you need to study the black and white text and the Elizabethan period a bit. Branagh has played the role on stage around 300 times, including having been directed in it by the sagacious Derek Jacobi, who has also actually played it. If there is something you don't get I would suggest it's you, not that Branagh doesn't know what he is doing or saying.

"To be or not to be ..." is a carefully constructed piece of rhetoric with rhyths and cross rhythms and flowing consciousness - music in words which I thought Branagh delivered beautifully without the usual frustrating pauses. It is not a "lament" such as you describe: it is an intelligent but passionate man's attempt to calmly and intellectually debate in his mind the possibility of taking one's own life. As we see with Ophelia, the Church regards this as a sin. In the classical tradition revered by the renaissance humanists, ancient heroes who fell on their swords when shamed or thoroughly grief-struck were considered to have acted "nobly" (cf ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA for eg.) Hamlet is a Christian, but has also clearly received a 16th C humanistic education at Wittenberg. By the 16th C humanism focused more on the virtues of contemplation over action. He is in a state of "melancholy" (sadness and depression; pensive sadness - Shorter Oxford Dictionary) and also of shock over his mother's remarriage, and also of frustrated anger over Claudius, "He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,/ Popped in between th'election and my hopes [ie got the kingship instead of Hamlet]". Hamlet is therefore a very unhappy and troubled young man carrying a huge burden: a little ranting is understandable, but he is not mad.

Branagh himself has said, "I don't think Hamlet is mad". Hamlet himself proves it to his mother in the closet scene, and in all his private dealings with Horatio, when he is very coherent and clear-thinking. The madness thing comes from Shakespeare's source, Saxo the Grammarian's DANISH HISTORY, in which Feng (Claudius) kills his brother Horwendil (Old Hamlet) and marries Horwendil's wife Gerutha. The murder is common knowledge (no ghost) but feng justifies it by saying that Horwendil was mistreating Gerutha. Amleth is Gerutha's clever and cunning son and plans to avenge his father, but he is closely watched by Feng's men (cf Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). So Amleth pretends to be mad to divert suspicion, shames his mother into collaborating with him(cf the closet scene) and succeeds in killing Feng and obtaining the throne (happy ending - yay!).

Shakespeare layers this basic structure by turning Amleth/Hamlet into a Christian humanist who has no sure proof of his uncle's guilt. He is therefore very troubled about committing revenge.

The ghost is added as a common feature of the Renaissance revenge play genre. It's honesty is

-- catherine england (catherineamer@hotmail.com), October 01, 2001.

(continuing where I got cut off:- sorry for the epic) is proved through Claudius' speech in III.iii.36f

-- catherine england (catherineamer@hotmail.com), October 03, 2001.

There is a multitude of passages in Hamlet where it is clear that Hamlet is pretending madness, but this madness in craft is also interesting from other points of view, since it marks a character whose words and actions are different from his mind.

Tragic plays, and Shakespeare's no less than others, grew out of the renaissance of the Grecian tradition where words and actions were what defined character, the outward appearance or persona (from the Greek word for mask), rather than the thoughts - which one after all cannot observe except as they appear in words or deeds.

Our very first meeting with Hamlet in the play is marked by his explanation to the Queen of the difference between the outward appearance, which seems, and what is inside, which is. This difference is very important to the rest of the play, and to the understanding of Hamlet's character, and is probably also why Shakespeare lets Hamlet speak these words so early.

Throughout all of the play, consequently, we have to deal with two Hamlets: The outward appearance which merely seems, and the inward that is.

But, just as this marks his madness in craft, where his words and actions strongly differ from his actual self, it also means we cannot be certain of what truly goes on in his mind, even in his soliloquies and private moments, and we can never be entirely sure whether truly is some madness in him. This is one of the points that makes Hamlet one of the most complex and fascinating characters in world literature.

After all, what is madness? Polonius is onto this subject in his confession to the King and Queen of Hamlet's affection for Ophelia: "Mad call I it, for to define true madness, what is't to be nothing else but mad?"

This passage also points out something that is very prominent throughout "Hamlet". Hamlet is a complex person, whose inward self and outward appearance is very different, but everyone else act in the old terms of actions and words as the sole means to define character.

Hamlet is then seen by many as symbolic of the first Renaissance man, in a world where no longer the Divine marks the centre of attention, but man, and all his faculties - which are divine as Hamlet himself points out in his "What a piece of work is a man"-speech.

Hamlet is quite miserable, depressed, and even contemplating suicide, which could be considered signs of true madness. However, this was still a few hundred years before psychology was "invented", and madness was defined by outward appearance, as we get a good example of in Ophelia's madness which, again, works as a contrast to Hamlet's madness in craft.

Another way to view Hamlet's soliloquy "To be or not to be" is as a foreshadowing of his impending death. He has a sense that he will die, and perhaps even that it will be soon, and he knows that he will spare himself of much misery if it is sooner rather than later.

In general terms, the speech is also about how life for so many is just a long series of misery and hardship, and that the only thing keeping us alive and not wishing to end it by our own hand is the fear of what comes after death. It is thus not necessarily his own suicide he contemplates, but the notion of suicide, and his conclusions are very general and an explanation almost of the human condition and dilemma of life: That fear of what comes after death is what keeps us alive.

Analogously, this fear is the fear of all that is unknown, which again is important to the Renaissance motif, with religion versus science, where religion explains whatever is unknown to science and reason.

The subject of what happens after death is recurring several places in Hamlet, from Hamlet's dialogue with the ghost of his father, who is damned to some hellish place, Ophelia's disputed burial in holy ground, and in Hamlet's contemplation of killing Claudius at prayer, which would send him to Heaven.

Anyway, I think I have drifted a bit off on the side of the original question...

-- Hakon Soreide (mail@hakonsoreide.com), December 29, 2001.

... who cares: it's a great read.

Of course, don't we all have a private face and a public one, things we'll say or do in public and things we won't? WS is brilliant at presenting both of these on stage.

Coleridge and his ilk have a lot to answer for. An "enigma"? No. A normal young Renaissance man shoved into some unusual circumstances. We just need to try to put ourselves in his shoes. Actually I think he's remarkably stable considering.

Fear of the unknown was certainly a factor in the Renaissance, but it was also a great period of exploration and colonisation. HAMLET could be said to explore life and death, setting aside fear.

In his attitude to death and the purposes of life before it, Hamlet reflects the ideology on these matters of Renaissance society.

He begins the play disillusioned with life because death is inevitable and he finds mortality vulgar ("common") and it depresses him. But depression is not insanity.

Towards the end of "To be, or not to be ...” he complains that the possibilities of life are not fulfilled because of fear of death.

But in Act V he comes to embrace a broader Renaissance view of death. Savonarola, preaching on death, encouraged people to visit cemeteries and “to take a skull in one’s hand and contemplate it often.” Shakespeare, explicit as ever, has Hamlet actually do exactly this to come to an acceptance of the inevitability of the reality of mortality.

He is then able to move beyond fear and horror of it to the Renaissance vision that life, more than just a preparation for death, was also a period in which something of value could be achieved and passed on to the future, allowing the individual even to live on through fame.

Hamlet actually helps bring about the deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then in the graveyard he faces and accepts death in general, then the death of Ophelia which hits him very personally.

Yet now, as he did not after the death of his father, he gets on with his life to plan and achieve his purpose, the death of Claudius; and he even displays a degree of humour with Osric whilst he knows he is risking his own death. He accepts, too, that the timing and manner of that death must be left up to “providence”. And when he does come to die, he has two concerns: the future welfare of the state, and his own future name.

"It is commonly said that a good life brings a good death ... reason constrains me to die willingly, and so may it please the Lord God to concede me the grace so to do." Giovanni Rucellai, 1473

"There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow ... The readiness is all."


-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), January 01, 2002.

On 'seeming': I guess Hamlet's very first line shows the problems of what seems. Hamlet voices a feeling and a thought: to him Claudius seems at once, complicatedly, 'A little more than kin, and less than kind'. He feels it, the feeling becomes a thought, it is voiced, the audience hears it but the characters of Hamlet's world do not. He doesn't tell Claudius or Gertrude what he really thinks of them. And the audience sees and hears it as the actor's Hamlet chooses to say it as much as how he feels it.

How great is that, and how real! In life as well as theatre all we know of anyone and all anyone knows of us is through what is said and done and how it is said and done, and then of course, how anyone interprets that. So, so often we are misunderstood, or misunderstand others ourselves; or we don't say or do what we would or should, or how we would or should.; or we pretend what we don't really feel for fifty avid reasons or no good reason at all. The whole wonderful complexity of communication and non-communication and mis-communication. That's what we get all through HAMLET.

And so in a way we're all acting all the time, and 'All the world's a stage ...' . Or this, the last stanza from Nash's “Adieu! farewell earth’s bliss!” (1593):

'Haste, therefore, each degree To welcome destiny: Heaven is our heritage, Earth but a player’s stage: Mount we unto the sky. I am sick, I must die. Lord, have mercy on us!'

-- catherine england (catherine_england@hotmail.com), May 12, 2002.

ditto, all!

-- annelise (annelise04@msn.com), March 02, 2005.

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