To play Hamlet well is to succeed on the stage or on the screen. It is one of the most complex of the Shakespearian roles that many actors have aspired to master or at least, bring something distinctive and fresh to the pivotal character. There is no doubt that Hamlet “brazenly solicits interpretation”, demonstrated by modern day actors including Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke and Kenneth Branagh, in the medium of film. Throughout the 20th Century, film adaptations have finely developed both the character of Hamlet and have nurtured a performance of the play, in some very creative and exciting ways. Film directors Franco Zeffirelli, Michael Almereyda and Kenneth Branagh have brought “Hamlet” to varying levels of success on the screen while achieving this through stark differences in interpretation and through realising very different creative ideas.
Zeffirelli’s 1990“Hamlet” is an interpretation designed for the mainstream Hollywood audience, who by now were thoroughly interested in Mel Gibson – one of the rising stars of the early nineties. Gibson does well to externalize the flurry of emotions tormenting Hamlet and this allows the mainstream audience to follow quite easily, his complex and changing mindsets. The famous Act Three, Scene One “To be or not to be…” soliloquy is done especially well, with Gibson maintaining an aura of strength, even as Hamlet revels in his own misery and contemplates suicide. Zeffirelli and Gibson have combined their ideas to create an interpretation of Hamlet that is sensitive but never weak, very active and external in the portrayal of emotion – but not over the top.
Perhaps the most controversial scene in any screen adaptation of Hamlet is contained in the Zeffirelli production, in which Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her bedroom. Interestingly, this confrontation is one of the most successful scenes of the movie as it is finely acted and very intense! At the same time, it leaves itself most open to criticism. Hamlet’s fury at Gertrude (played by Meryl Streep) is demonstrated when Hamlet taunts his mother and then jumps on her to mock her sexual exploits with Claudius. Hamlet’s violent anger over his mother’s apparent betrayal fits very much inside an Oedipal interpretation of the play. Zeffirelli’s makes his opinion quite clear on the theory of “Hamlet’s Oedipus Complex”. Zeffirelli is of the school that Hamlet cannot kill Claudius;
“because of his relationship with [Hamlet’s] mother. A classical Oedipus Complex: he is incapable of killing the man who sleeps with his mother because that would mean that he would have to admit to himself his own feelings about her, something which overwhelms him and disgusts him… Hamlet can kill Claudius only after he knows that his mother is dead and that he is going to die” (Johnston, online). Zeffirelli’s very Oedipal “Hamlet” while a logical interpretation, is not an idea that I can fully agree with as it disturbs my own interpretation of the play. However, his use of cold castle sets and authentic middle age costumes are very agreeable to my images of a production of “Hamlet” and my interpretation of the play. Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet in Almereyda’s 2000 film, is as far removed from Gibson’s interpretation as a modern New York setting is from Zeffirelli’s traditional approach. Hawke is a much more arrogant Hamlet with a pretentious New Yorker film student persona. Unfortunately, while the idea of Hamlet as a snobby film student is not a bad one, Hawke does not fulfil its potential in a number of ways. Firstly, in true “Sean Penn” method actor style, he mumbles his lines. While this could be a valid interpretation of Hamlet’s grief and frustration, the zest of Shakespeare’s language is lost in Hawke’s dull monotone and tired, depressed voice. Secondly, unlike the Gibson Hamlet, Hawke transforms into an annoying wimp during the same Act Three, Scene One soliloquy. Amusingly, this scene takes place in an isle of a video store! While Gibson’s performance...
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