Hamlet (1948)



He’s totally about to make out with that skull.

As I mentioned in my last post, I got the chance to tour the Globe Theater in London last summer. One feature in the museum portion was a series of audio clips from famous performances so that you could get a sense of how different actors throughout history (audio-recorded history, anyway) performed some of the most familiar soliloquies. I wish now that I’d spent more time in that section, but it appeared close to the end, and there was a group of teenagers hanging around and I was probably hangry, so I only gave it a cursory listen and moved on. I’m sure Laurence Olivier’s “To be or not to be” speech was included, against other famous versions on film and stage. It’s such a neat comparison to make, and it’s too bad we can’t hear how actors read lines in Elizabethan times.

I’ve always liked Shakespeare – but maybe not loved him. At the risk of sounding dumb, I’ve never been great at parsing and comprehending the language. On the plus side, that means that each time I read or watch a play I’m already familiar with, I notice something that went over my head the last time. But then, what if the way Shakespeare writes was just how everybody talked back then? All their conversations just played out in perfect iambic pentameter, with clever use of metaphor. Maybe we’ve been giving ol’ Willy too much credit.

Hamlet is one of those plays that I think have the basic storyline down pat at this point, but even after a several readings, and probably several performances, I am still fuzzy on certain subplots. Like, for example, Ophelia and Laertes and, why not, Polonius. What’s their deal? I would probably have a better understanding if I hadn’t dosed off a couple of times during this film. I mean, honestly. It’s in black and white, and quiet as hell, full of murmuring in a not-quite-foreign language.

Olivier’s Hamlet starts out with this portentous voiceover: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Which somehow comes off as a bit heavy-handed or awkward. Why didn’t Shakespeare use that in his subtitle? The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who was Indecisive (Get it?). There are a few places where he made creative use of voiceover and condensing to get the film under three hours – and for that, I thank him. But in the process, we lose everyone’s favorite pair of minor characters that later get their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. <gasp!>

One of my old friends from MFA school used to talk about writing a story concerning what happened to Hamlet during the interlude where he gets hijacked by a pirate ship on his way to England and then just rolls with them for a while, NBD. I still think that’s an awesome idea. Pirates were basically the superheroes of the 1600s. Throw a few in your play and you’ve got a guaranteed blockbuster.

Although it wasn’t the most exciting movie, I did really like the setting of this Hamlet. It actually takes place in a castle, full of winding steps and bleak seascapes. I actually believed they’d found some medieval castle on the coast of England or something, but that would be too perfect; the movie seems to have been filmed only in studios (according to IMDB). One odd quirk of women in film is that Olivier, at the time of filming, was 41 years old, and Eileen Herlie, who plays Queen Gertrude, was 30. Curious, and maybe also explains why Hamlet makes out with his mom so much here.

This is the only Shakespeare adaptation that has won Best Picture. I haven’t looked it up, but I suspect other versions have earned actors and actresses a win for particular roles (including Olivier, for his only Best Actor Oscar win – pay attention, trivia nerds). I suppose Shakespeare is the gold standard of acting, but most of us would still rather watch something a little easier to understand, and maybe with more pirates.


Theme: Shakespeare

First Time Watching? Yes, at least this particular version of the play.

Final Verdict: Ay, there’s the rub.


Shakespeare in Love (1998)

In a way, it’s surprising how rarely Shakespeare turns up in the Oscars lists. Perhaps in his day, though, he would have been considered too lowbrow for such an august awards ceremony, too entranced with swordfights and dick jokes. Whatever the case, I’m glad this film was on my list, since it captures the spirit of Shakespeare really well, what with its women-disguised-as-men and wordplay and noble rivalries.

I hadn’t realized that Tom Stoddard was credited as a writer on the screenplay, which probably explains why it’s so awesome. I really liked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Thank God for Shakespeare fanfiction. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in watching movies throughout Oscar history is how films portray other sorts of entertainment – like how in this age, we look at the early era of Hollywood, and the early era of Hollywood often focused on other forms of theater, pre-movies. So in this film, we see theater from several hundred years ago, and yet it’s remarkably recognizable. Is that because it reflects the way actual theater looked back then, or simply because it mirrors what is most familiar to us today? To be fair, it’s probably a little of both, though I can’t help but notice that we can’t be so different from medieval folk if we all can enjoy watching other people acting out stories.

Just the other day, I watched some behind-the-scenes bit on a Doctor Who episode that focused on Shakespeare (battling a supernatural witch creature rather than falling in love). They were excited about filming in the restored Globe Theater in London because, according to David Tennant, even the Shakespeare in Love people weren’t given permission to film there. Regardless, they managed to replicate the same look of that era’s theater in the sets of the Rose.

On my brief trip to London last summer, I was thrilled that I made time to tour the Globe, a little thatched-roof theater on the South Bank of the Thames. I’d debated watching a performance – I think they were doing King John in honor of the Magna Carta, and if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t even know that was a Shakespeare play. In the end, though, I think getting the guided tour was far preferable to standing on a patch of ground for three hours, or worse, sitting on one of those cramped bleacher seats.

It seems like the kind of film that would only be enriched by knowing more about Shakespeare’s time and the contemporary environment of London. Of course, there’s little we actually do know about his life, only the generalities of theater and politics in that era, from we can extrapolate personality traits or suppositions. I like the idea of a sexy young Shakespeare, filled both with passion and loss.

Some of the moments in the film I liked best were those ones in which we see parts of a play in parallel with scenes from life, with the lines serving both parts in different ways. There’s an acted-out sword fight interrupted by an actual angry nobleman and his guards, brandishing real weapons. Shakespeare visits Viola in her rooms, using his own lines as foreplay. “I’ll come again,” he says, rehearsing lines during sex. It’s complicated and convoluted and difficult to explain as a plot point, just like your average Shakespeare play, which may be why we still find them so compelling today.


Theme: Shakespeare

First Time Watching? No, though I apparently slept through most of it the first time.

Final Verdict: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?