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Literature Essay on Hamlets Revenge through Branagh and the BBC

Literature Essay on Hamlet’s Revenge through Branagh and the BBC

Tormented by the implications of righting his father’s murder, Hamlet, the hero of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ has been presented on film, stage and television in many different ways. As a man of action, in the 1990 film by Franco Zeffirelli, as a member of staff for a corporation called ‘Denmark’, in the 2000 film of Michael Almereyda and in Laurance Olivier’s production in 1948 as a man who could not make up his mind’. In all these different styles of character, Hamlet, most renowned for the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy on life, is characterized by indecision.

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However, the long speeches of Hamlet and his indecision, are what make him a tragic revenge hero and why the play, in all its different adaptations fits into the category of revenge tragedy.

Revenge tragedy has been around for centuries. An example of ancient Greek revenge tragedy that survives is Aeschylus’ ‘Oresteia’. In this play, the tragic hero, like Hamlet, must avenge his Father’s death.

The 1600’s in England were a popular time for revenge play. Many of them were based on Seneca’s revenge plays and contained a ‘pay-back’ type of theme. Shakespeare may not have read any Greek tragedy but may have had access to Seneca. Revenge as a theme may be the motivation for a comic text, to right a social slight, such as what becomes of the upstart Malvolio in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’. However, for a text to fit the category of revenge tragedy it must contain death and the revenge code-how the death is to be righted.

What makes a revenge tragedy tragic is not merely the death of the hero or others but the implications of avenging a death. A tragic revenge hero must suffer the complications of his acts. Not only because ‘blood will have blood’ (Barton p14) but because of what it does to the character and life of the avenger.

Questions of divine intervention, religion, justice, mortality and the importance of human life are all issues a tragic revenge hero must encounter. The reason why ‘Hamlet’ is such a lengthy play is not merely because he is hesitant or cannot make up his mind but because he must deal with facing the consequences for his actions.

In taking revenge there will always be social consequences. A civilized society cannot ignore murder. Therefore, revenge is not a straightforward act; it will always ensure implications. The deed that a revenger sets out to do may change them forever; they may become bitter or bloodthirsty.

Some avengers such as Hamlet go mad or appear to have become mad or irrational, not because the text requires it for length, but because ‘the strains imposed upon them by the period of lonely preparation and waiting become psychologically intolerable’ (Barton, p14).

Revenge is viewed sympathetically by an audience or reader where the law has failed to pass justice or where there is not enough evidence to convict the murderer. However, in revenge tragedy, a hero may lose sympathy after he commits murder, for he is then stained by it.

This is, however, not an issue in ‘Hamlet’, either for Hamlet himself or the other avengers in the play. Hamlet retains sympathy by his complex character, in his words, thoughts and soliloquies, and on his questions of mortality and life.

Hamlet does not include any point in which the hero should relinquish his acts and leave the revenge to the state or God, as is the case in other texts of revenge tragedy. However, Hamlets’ ultimate tragedy is that revenge will not give him back the world he has lost forever. Hamlet is not the only avenger in the play; the tragedy contains the strong theme of revenge.

Tied in with the theme of revenge are father and son relationships and blood ties. Laertes whishes to avenge his Father and later his sister, young Fortinbras whishes to avenge his father, killed by Hamlet’s father and Hamlet of course has to avenge his father. Avenging the death of one’s blood kin is a popular choice for revenge tragedy.’The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ was written as a theatrical production. Any reproduction of the play on screen is therefore an adaptation, and it is to the director’s discretion what is included or omitted, what themes are focused on and how the scenes are linked together, in transferring the play to the screen.

The two productions I have chosen to focus on are ‘William Shakespeare’s Hamlet’ (1996) directed and starring Kenneth Branagh and ‘The BBC Shakespeare Hamlet’ (1990) directed by Rodney Bennet, taped for television.

The productions are greatly different from each other, yet share some similarities.In terms of the period of production these two follow Laurance Olivier’s ‘Hamlet’ in (1948), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 production of ‘Hamlet’ starring Mel Gibson.

The BBC version is influenced by neither, it is in colour, not black and white like Olivier’s’ and it does not cut any lines or scenes from the original play, like Zeffirelli’s. Olivier, however, may have influenced Branagh, in that he has bleached his hair for this role.

Branagh has also chosen to make some of the same choices of Shakespearian play adaptations as Olivier and is recognized as the ‘current steward’ (McDonald p378) of that tradition. Like Olivier, Branagh was also nominated for an Academy Award. Originally, the theatre was a form of entertainment that was mainly verbal and concentrated on ‘telling’ to show production or play.

The cinema originally tells a story by using a video camera and ‘showing’. In her article on Branagh’s Shakespeare, Sarah Hatcheul (2000) discusses how now the two acts of ‘showing’ and telling’ have been assimilated in the cinema, introducing a narrator that is neither verbal nor purely semiotic, but exterior.

The exterior narrator combines showing and telling, giving us on-screen things such as different characters’ points of view of, their imaginings and thoughts, and their reactions. The exterior narrator also has control over time; it can show the past by way of flashback, and parallel montage can show things happening in different places at the same time. The exterior narrator replaces the verbal one of the theatre.

Hacheul also explains how a movie is made in three stages; what happens in front of the camera, the actual camera work and the editing of the film. The narrative of a film is created through the third stage of editing, which includes what to omit or include, how to connect different scenes together, and in what order.

It is through this narrative process that a film production differs from that of a theatre production. In the theatre the director has control over what and who is on the stage, who speaks what line and when. Also in control of the director are setting, casting, and costume.

However, what the film narrative can include that the theatre cannot is the camera and what the camera has the availability to show in this editing process. The camera can show several things happening at the same time, it can show memories of characters and can flashback to the past.

Another aspect of the exterior narrative is how many things it can show at once, things can happen at the same time that the spectator is privy to, but other characters are not.

Shakespeares’ plays however have never been worried about time-lapses. In some plays, up to twenty years pass before the next act. Shakespeare dealt with this orally in the theatre. The visual narrator on the screen, however, can do it visually.

Both productions deal with the revenge tragedy in similar ways. Hamlet’s lines in both are reproduced almost to the letter from the text, as are his actions. Hamlet is at the beginning of his text already tragic, as he mourns the death of his father and the remarriage of his mother.

When he becomes aware of the revenge he must carry out, he shows the problems of a revenge hero, he feels like a peasant, slave and coward for his indecisiveness. Hamlet himself is familiar with revenge plays-as shown with the arrival of the players at Elsinore, but he cannot make himself like the hero of one of them. Both productions show the tormented struggle of the avenger.

Adapting a Shakespearian play to the screen has been done many times and over the last fifteen years or so, Shakespeare films have been subject to a lot more variation. It is no longer standard for a Shakespearian text to be reproduced exactly as it was written, nor in the same period.

Later Shakespeare adaptations have been set in a wide variety of different contemporary settings. ‘Hamlet’ is no exception. The 1990 production starred Mel Gibson, mainly known for his action movies such as Mad Max, as Hamlet.

The latest film production, Michael Almereyda’s ‘Hamlet’ (2000), is set in Manhattan, and Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, gives the famous soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ in the action section aisle of a video store.

The BBC version of ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ was made for television. This is a very important factor to consider when comparing this production of ‘Hamlet’ to other film adaptations.

As Jose Ramon Diaz-Fernadez discusses in his article on Shakespeare on television, (2000), one must recognize what a different medium television is to film and that dangerous oversimplifications can arise when ‘ the same criteria are applied to a filmed stage performance, a TV production or film adaptation’.

It must be taken into account that this production, although on-screen is dramatically different to film productions. Television is made on somewhat a smaller scale than a Hollywood film. Casts are smaller, budgets are tighter and most importantly, the director may not have complete artistic licence. This is very much the case for the BBC production.

The BBC, in concert with America’s public broadcasting Service and Time-Life television productions, decided on a project to tape all of Shakespeare’s plays. However, this huge project did not allow for experimentation, it had a sense of ‘permanence’ and directors were curbed in what they could experiment with for; ‘when would the world be offered another film of ‘Pericles’?’ (McDonald, p380).

As a result, the BBC ‘Hamlet’ is very canonical. Who says what, and when, which scene follows which and the action are the same as the play almost to the letter. The setting is simple, and costumes are period.

However, as in theatre there is still room in this television production for interpretation through the actors. What should be spoken is controlled yet, not how. Certain actions can be added and not interfere with the original text. This is where a director still does have some artistic licence, as do the actors.

Derek Jacabi as Hamlet demonstrates this well with his facial expressions and looks at other characters, particularly in his scenes with Polonius (Eric Porter) to show that he is not mad, but only playing on it.

That he realizes what is going on in the ‘nunnery’ scene is obvious with the question of ‘where is your father?’ which is spoken, however, in actions he listens to the doors to the lobby. He also realizes Ophelia (Lalla Ward) is up to something by taking the book she is ‘reading’ out of her hands and putting it the right way around.

The setting in the BBC production is very simple and kept to a minimum as far as setting goes. There are no elaborate backdrops or props. It is shot solely in a studio with a small number of room sets used, the chambers of Gertrude, (Claire Bloom) Polonius and Claudius (Patrick Stewart), the lobby, hall, the gravesite and the ‘port’ where Laertes (David Robb) bids his family farewell.

The effect of these settings is similar to watching a taped stage production. The sets used could easily be recreated for theatre. This reinforces that the story is a play, an adaptation of a play and not a film.

Sound effects and music in this production are also kept quite minimal. Music is only to signal action, such as when the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Patrick Allen) appears or when Ophelia is buried. Sound effects are limited, the sound of seagulls at the port, trumpets for the King’s revelry and voices in the background when Laertes returns, all of which could be reproduced on stage.

The cast of the production is quite small, it contains all the characters as included in Shakespeare’s play, and a few extras, in the scenes where the court is assembled, in the background at the port and playing dice in the hall.

The editing of the production is also quite simple. One scene moves quickly onto the next, there is no slow fade in and out, no blackouts, no slow motion, no long musical interludes.

The fact that this is a television production shot in a studio is very apparent, as there are no scenes shot on location, no stills of backgrounds or buildings and no long panning shots. This too reinforces that we are watching an adaptation of a play.

When in the theatre, our vision is limited to what is on the stage, which is in full view of the audience the whole time. In television and film, the action may be taking place in two separate places to which the spectator has access to.

This is not the case in the BBC production, all the action takes place before us and is mainly from a single point of view-that which the camera is focusing on at the time. Hamlet, when delivering the famous soliloquies, sometimes looks directly at the camera.

This also reinforces the adaptation of a play, a Hamlet on stage would also perhaps look at the audience at these points. The lack of directorial experimentation makes the BBC achieves their objective of producing a version faithful to the text, canonical and straightforward. The audience has no other factors to deal with, simply the action before them.

The lack of experimental elements also puts the main focus of the production on the dialogue, the speeches and soliloquies of Hamlet, which is why the play has been acclaimed a masterpiece. As far as casting goes, Derek Jacobi is a convincing Hamlet, the amount of interpretation the role allows him is done well.

Ophelia is perfectly cast as a gently sweet and pretty maid, which makes for all the more shocking when she goes mad. Claudius comes across sufficiently arrogant, and Gertrude a caring mother, though unchaste wife. Polonius is cast perfectly as the pompous old interfering fool-such as he appears in the play.

Branagh’s production differs greatly from the BBC production for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a film, not a television production. Secondly, Branagh does not have to curb his directorial style; he adds scenes and develops characters. Thirdly, this film uses the exterior narrator. ‘Branagh makes effective use of the specific cinema narration drives that modify the original play, ellipsis, flashbacks, and parallel montage.’ (Hatcheul 2000).

This results in heightened drama, greater tension and character development. Branagh’s casting differs greatly from that of the BBC production. He uses an international cast and allows actors to keep their accents.

He uses a great deal more extras, the court when fully assembled and the army of Fortinbras. Branagh also, as he is noted in his Shakespearian adaptations, uses actors not well known for classical roles.

In ‘Hamlet’ these actors are Billy Crystal and Robin Williams.

The BBC production focuses on Hamlets’ torment through dialogue, speeches, thoughts and indecision. Branagh’s film focuses more on the torment Hamlet must actually see daily, his uncle and his mother, and also flashbacks, remembering his life before his Fathers’ death.

The characters of Ophelia (Kate Winslet) and Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) are more developed in this film than those of the BBC production. Branagh achieves this development by using voiceovers, and the exterior narrator to supply flashbacks, allowing the audience to see their thoughts and memories.

Ophelia thinks instead of says ‘I will obey my Lord’, in the scene where Polonius (Richard Briers) tells her to stay away from Hamlet. We get flashbacks of her thoughts, including passionate scenes in bed with Hamlet, giving us an idea of their past relationship, something neither the original text nor the BBC production do much of.

Branagh also adds scenes with Ophelia. When her father is borne away dead, she flings herself on the gate screaming. We see her being hosed down in her cell, and later taking the key out of her mouth. This provides an explanation to how she escaped from her cell after the king ordered ‘let her be watched over closely’ -something we do not see in the BBC production.

In providing the flashbacks to her bedroom encounters with Hamlet, Branagh also builds upon the suggestion that Ophelia may have been with child when she took her own life. Branagh also allows Ophelia to read the letter from Hamlet in front of the King and Queen which does not happen in the play, however overcome by emotion she cannot finish it.

In her ‘mad’ scene the focus is more strongly on her then the reactions of those around her, as is the case in the BBC production. Instead of her singing being wild and garbled as she skips around she is seen in a still shot and sings slowly and plaintively.

The result of Ophelia’s character development is to make her role more subjective, getting across her point of view to the spectator, something, which the Ophelia in the play or on the BBC production does not do.

Ophelia’s subjectivity enhances what Hamlet has done to her by killing her father and rebuking her love, showing the consequences of the avenger’s actions. Flashbacks serve to make most roles in this production subjective.

When Claudius (Derek Jacobi) is racked with guilt he flashes back to murdering the king. Hamlet has flashbacks to when he was a child playing with Yorick (Ken Dodd), whose skull he now holds in his hand.

Polonius is again cast as a meddling man, yet his character has room for development in the scenes where we see him alone with another character. When he speaks with Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet, he is not giving ‘fatherly advice’ such as it is portrayed in the BBC production, but rudely chastising her to stay away from Hamlet.

In the BBC production he is seen as merely looking out for his son, when addressing a messenger to go to France. In Branagh’s film he comes across as more cunning. The line ‘what did I just say?’ in the BBC production makes him appear old and forgetful. In Branagh’s film it makes him seem as though he is checking that his messenger is listening closely.

There is also a prostitute in his chamber at the beginning of the scene. Polonius is shown to be cunning and calculating, perhaps even deceitful and ambitious. Claudius in this production, plays the old man as smug and arrogant, much the same as the BBC Claudius, yet the extra scenes Branagh include show his character more deeply.His behaviour, which is so intolerable to Hamlet, is only reported in the BBC production. In Branagh’s film extra scenes are included as well as the dialogue, showing him drinking heavily and literally jumping into bed with Gertrude. (Julie Christie)

Yet Branagh does not cut any lines from the play or introduce new ones, he works with the same verbal material as the BBC production. In this respect Branagh’s film is unique as modern Shakespearian directors generally cut a lot of lines from the original play.

To create tension Branagh has also used cross-cutting or parallel montage. This takes place when Hamlet is apologising to Laertes (Michael Moloney) and the army of Fortinbras (Rufus Sewell) is storming the castle.

What is happening with ‘old Norway’ (John Mills) and Fortinbras is also shown, not only reported verbally by one of the characters, as in the BBC production. What the flashbacks and cross-cutting serve to do is not only create tension and subjectivity but to give ideas and images to the audience, of how the original play can be interpreted.

By showing flashbacks of Claudius and Gertrude before the king was murdered, the suggestion to the viewer is they may have been having an affair before the King died. Ophelia’s love scenes with Hamlet suggest she may have been pregnant, and that Polonius was justified in speaking harshly to her previously.

These scenes also make the text of ‘Hamlet’, which is quite complex, more accessible to a wider audience. For those spectators who are unfamiliar with the play or find it hard to understand, the extra scenes and flashbacks help.

However, above all they work with the revenge theme, what Hamlet must be tormented by seeing and how his role as the avenger affects others. Editing also included is the different point of view for each of the characters.

‘Like many Shakespearian directors, Branagh shoots long sequences in one continuous take. He says one unbroken shot can allow the characters to interact with each other and retain a certain idea of theatre.

The spectator too, also gets several points of view from one take.’ ( Hatcheul 2000)

The scene with Hamlet and Gertrude in Gretrude’s chamber is a good example of this. The ghost of Hamlet’s father (Brian Blessed) appears to Hamlet in this scene to remind him of his ‘almost blunted purpose’.

In the theatre either Hamlet’s or Gretrude’s point of view would have to be shown-as Gertrude cannot see the ghost. Either the ghost appeared on stage or was heard off stage.

The visual narrator however, can show both points of view to the spectator. In both productions, Branagh’s and BBC’s the two different points of view are shown, Gertrude seeing nothing and Hamlet, his Father’s ghost.

Branagh also uses quasi-subliminal deception in the scene where Hamlet decides to kill Claudius, but then changes his mind as Claudius is at prayer and will go to heaven. It actually shows Claudius being stabbed, however it doesn’t actually happen- this is the type of subjectivity we get from editing, which serves to show Hamlets’ thoughts, and to reinforce the revenge theme.

The setting of Branagh’s film is dramatically different to that of the BBC production. It shoots on location and there are scenes about the grounds of the palace. The palace itself is huge with myriads of rooms; the lobby has another storey with a staircase that goes the whole way around. The sets are a lot more detailed.

There are also a large amount of doors, secret and false ones. In this way the actual setting shows different points of view. One of the mirrored doors in the lobby is a two-way mirror that enables us to see the point of view and reactions of Polonius and Claudius when Hamlet delivers his speech ‘to be or not to be’, directly to his reflection.

Although the process of editing, character development and setting make Branagh’s film dramatically different to the BBC production, both films use the same text. Both are an example of how wide the scope for interpretation is with Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’.

In terms of revenge tragedy, both productions face it in much the same way, Hamlet speaks his lines as in the play to show his suffering and torment as an avenging hero. The other characters such as Laertes carry the theme of revenge also through their lines, as do the other characters that are affected by Hamlet’s task.

The difference in the two productions in approaching the category of revenge tragedy is what the film camera is capable of showing to the spectator by the exterior narrator. Thus the torment of Hamlet and other characters is shown in both productions, but is heightened in by Branagh’s use of subjectivity, and flashbacks.

Both productions, by basing themselves clearly on the text become revenge tragedies. If lines or scenes were cut out if Hamlet was not allowed all his soliloquies the struggle of the avenger would be lessened.

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Literature Essay on Hamlets Revenge through Branagh and the BBC. (2021, Sep 25). Retrieved October 23, 2021, from