Four Hamlets
November 21, 2015 7:23 PM   Subscribe

The Many Facets of Hamlet: Hamlet's most famous monologue, spliced together from performances by Mel Gibson, Laurence Olivier, David Tennant, and Kenneth Branagh.

Inspired by a similar video which spliced together the three filmed versions of Red Dragon (previously).
posted by showbiz_liz (28 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
This merely confirms me in my long held opinion that everyone plays this monologue exactly wrong. Far too slow, and far too in the manner of a self-conscious Great Actor amping up the profundity to deliver the Greatest Soliloquy in the Western Canon. It's a story. You're playing a character who is debating whether or not to kill himself. Stop trying to hypnotize the audience and think about how a real human being might speak these lines. And blink, dammit, blink. You can be a good actor and still blink. Here ends my unsolicited advice to Laurence Olivier and company.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 7:45 PM on November 21, 2015 [26 favorites]


hoist with his own pet aardvark
Best Metafilter comment in ages (and there are many great comments here.) Thank you.
posted by cccorlew at 8:24 PM on November 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


[It was only after posting that comment that I realized the eponystericalness of me lecturing people not to mistreat the text of Hamlet.]
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 8:54 PM on November 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Lighting the way for aardvarks to their dusty..wait, no that's Macbeth. Sorry, never mind. Good point about playing it too slowly.
posted by Oyéah at 9:05 PM on November 21, 2015


This merely confirms me in my long held opinion that everyone plays this monologue exactly wrong.

I am not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion, exactly, but I was struck by how seamlessly the four performances fit together. There were long stretches where, if I looked away, I might not have known different men were speaking (Olivier's accent and the different sound quality would have always given him away, though). I thought it was going to be a fascinating study in actors doing different things with the material, but except for one line delivered by Mel Gibson, it was all the same monotone whisper.
posted by not that girl at 9:12 PM on November 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Some of the worthwhile ones you are missing:

Derek Jacobi

Ethan Hawke (in a Blockbuster video store)

And, of course, Patrick Stewart on Sesame Street (A "B" or not a "B")
posted by blahblahblah at 9:23 PM on November 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


I think any discussion of the various ways one can approach the performance of a Shakespeare monologue isn't complete without including a bit of Ian McKellen's analysis of Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" soliloquy for consideration.

I would not presume to debate the merits of his deconstruction and analysis, but just watching how it takes it apart is fascinating.
posted by chambers at 9:27 PM on November 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I dunno, I think the desire for "naturalism" in performances is more recent than the Elizabethan conventions. A real human being wouldn't be speaking these lines at all, they're a soliloquy: a direct window into the innermost soul of the character. And draMATic presenTAtion was supposedly even more stylized originally than modern audiences would accept. It isn't just that this one is performed like "the Greatest Soliloquy in the Western Canon", but that everything from the Elizabethan era would have been written to be performed that way.

And for me, what really made Olivier's performance stand out, unfortunately, was that era's insistence on having a full orchestra next to the camera to make sure we all know how to feel about what we're seeing. Speaking of intrusive conventions of the time period...
posted by traveler_ at 9:43 PM on November 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


I dunno, I think the desire for "naturalism" in performances is more recent than the Elizabethan conventions.

A great deal of the change from the traditions of exaggerated movement and speech can be attributed to David Garrick's innovations in the mid 18th century, by emphasizing natural speech, realistic sets, and better lighting, which I first learned of from this ~3 minute segment from the third series of James Burke's Connections.
posted by chambers at 10:11 PM on November 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Olivier -- "I am an ACTORRRR!"
Tennant -- "This character is really confused."
Branagh -- "Watch me kick Olivier's ass."
Gibson -- "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:13 PM on November 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


Maximilian Schell in MST3K episode 1009
posted by Marky at 12:01 AM on November 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell - Gibson's Hamlet came well before he went that particular brand of loopy, back in the very early 90s. I saw that in the theater and found it to be pretty good.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:49 AM on November 22, 2015


I would advise them to speak the speech trippingly on the tongue. If they mouth it, as many of the players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke the lines. Nor should they saw the air too much with their hands, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, they must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise! I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant: it out-herods Herod; pray avoid it.
posted by kyrademon at 4:44 AM on November 22, 2015 [12 favorites]


Ian McKellen's analysis of Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" soliloquy

Previously.

It isn't just that this one is performed like "the Greatest Soliloquy in the Western Canon", but that everything from the Elizabethan era would have been written to be performed that way.

I'm no expert, but I don't think this is true -- theater was much more of a living art form back then, more a branch of entertainment than of literature. The audience who first heard Richard Burbage speak the soliloquy at the Globe couldn't have known they were listening to what would become some of the most famous words ever written in English, and I'd like to see a Hamlet who tried to recapture that freshness.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 8:13 AM on November 22, 2015


Mel Gibson, Laurence Olivier, David Tennant, and Kenneth Branagh

And Schwarzenegger
posted by kirkaracha at 9:00 AM on November 22, 2015


The best Hamlet I ever saw was The Wooster Group's production in 2007, which had the live cast acting in front of a screening of Richard Burton's 1964 performance. It sounds super-gimmicky, but it was the first time I really understood the raw horror of the play. The echo made the emotional turmoil clear to me. At intermission my friend and I turned to each other and with wide eyes and we both were on the edge of our seats.

I think the other performances I've seen were concentrating too much on making the words clear, and losing sight of the big picture - I mean, (spoiler alert!) basically a college kid comes home for the weekend and everyone in his family has lost their minds and by the end of the weekend pretty much everyone is dead.
posted by maggiemaggie at 10:42 AM on November 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


David Ball makes an excellent point in his Backwards and Forwards that Hamlet's speech is not a soliloquy. Hamlet knows he's being spied on by Claudius and Polonius. He's in danger of being murdered just like his father. So he pretends to be suicidal.

The proof? Hamlet says death is "the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns." But the instigating incident of the play is that his father's ghost returns from death to tell him that Claudius murdered him. Hamlet knows perfectly well that people return from the land of death.

The opening to Henry V is a soliloquy. The opening to Richard III is a soliloquy. Shakespeare's most famous soliliquy is a monolog performed self-consciously by Hamlet to keep his enemies guessing.

You can't understand Hamlet if you don't reconstruct the staging. When Hamlet goes off at Ophelia ("get thee to a nunnery!") it's because he almost certainly has overheard Claudius and Polonius asking her to spy on him.

The hardest thing about putting on Shakespeare is getting people to treat the lines as if they're people talking to each other, trying to get things from one another. Actors tend to treat them as Poetry. But if you can get them to treat the lines as drama, the plays are almost bulletproof.
posted by musofire at 11:22 AM on November 22, 2015 [9 favorites]


There actually may still be a VHS tape deep in the bowels of a storage room at my high school where I am reciting this speech. My senior year, a friend and I co-wrote an anti-nukes sort of sci-fi post-apocalyptic movie for her TV production class - the premise was that World War III had broken out but there were a bunch of kids that had been "beamed" into a shelter by an alien race that was symbiotically connected to humans; if we died, they died. But they didn't want to keep us alive if we didn't want to be, so each of the kids had 24 hours to decide whether they wanted to stay and live, or leave - and leaving meant guaranteed death.

The bulk of the movie is the group of them all talking about the choice and what they're going to do. I wrote the bulk of the script, and at the time I thought it'd be an awesome literary choice to have the bookish character recite this speech as a sort of Literary Summation Of The Choice We Characters Are Facing or something ("she reads a lot, so yeah, this is how she'd express herself, yeah that works").

However, while I was writing it I neglected to keep in mind that this character was the same one I would actually be playing in the film. So since I'd written the script to have this character recite "To be or not to be"....that meant that I would therefore need to be able to recite "To be or not to be."

So that tape probably consists of several takes of seventeen-year-old me, doing something like:

"To be or not to be....that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take...to take....oh CRUD, what's the next bit, is it 'take arms'?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:28 AM on November 22, 2015


David Ball makes an excellent point in his Backwards and Forwards...

Yes! Amazing - and short - book on how to read a play. Ball uses Hamlet as his example text. Read that book!
posted by ao4047 at 11:56 AM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I like Burton's Hamlet best in film (even though it was a stage production).

Richard Burton, Hamlet (1964), "To be or not to be..."
posted by rmmcclay at 4:46 PM on November 22, 2015


David Ball makes an excellent point in his Backwards and Forwards that Hamlet's speech is not a soliloquy. Hamlet knows he's being spied on by Claudius and Polonius. He's in danger of being murdered just like his father. So he pretends to be suicidal.

I have seen a lot of Hamlets - both on film and on stage. I've read a lot of essays about Hamlet. I had never heard this theory before. I love it and my mind is blown.

I mean, a lot of recent productions play up the overhearing stuff - to the point of making Denmark a surveillance state. But that Hamlet is pretending to be suicidal because he's being listened to, that's brilliant.
posted by crossoverman at 5:44 PM on November 22, 2015


But Polonius isn't in the room at the time. He's not being spied on then; Polonius doesn't hide behind the arras until Scene 4.
posted by lumensimus at 5:56 PM on November 22, 2015


I'm no Shakespearean scholar, but I believe there are small armies perpetuating the ancient feud of Hamlet the Master Planner versus Hamlet the Truly Mad Doubter. So:

musofire: The proof? Hamlet says death is "the undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns." But the instigating incident of the play is that his father's ghost returns from death to tell him that Claudius murdered him. Hamlet knows perfectly well that people return from the land of death.

Yeah that's one interpretation. But not proof—in the other interpretation Hamlet is doubting, among everything else, the identity of the visions of his father. Ghost? or demon? or hallucination? And like most things these aren't usually strictly-opposing interpretations, but starting points for examination. All the different readings supportable by the text are part of the actors' palettes in giving the roles their own coloring.
posted by traveler_ at 11:13 PM on November 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


He's not being spied on then

He is, actually, although it's still up for interpretation as to whether or not he's aware of it. This is from just before the "To be or not to be" speech:
CLAUDIUS
Sweet Gertrude, leave us too,
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as ’twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia.
Her father and myself (lawful espials)
Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge,
And gather by him, as he is behaved,
If ’t be the affliction of his love or no
That thus he suffers for.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 12:59 AM on November 23, 2015


...all of this has reminded me. If you haven't seen the TV series Slings and Arrows--and if you haven't, go watch it right now--there's this lovely bit where the director character is telling a nervous actor who's previously only done action films how to do the soliliquy.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:05 AM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Some of the worthwhile ones you are missing:

Ethan Hawke (in a Blockbuster video store)
FTFY
posted by pxe2000 at 6:53 AM on November 23, 2015


Just saw the telecast of Benedict Cumberbatch's Hamlet. His performance was - imho - brilliant, and the soliloquy sounded new. Within seconds I forgot I'd heard it before, and just listened.
posted by QuietDesperation at 3:58 PM on November 23, 2015 [1 favorite]


Don't forget TRIPLE FISHER, in which all three made-for-TV Amy Fisher movies are edited together.
posted by altersego at 9:44 PM on November 23, 2015


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