The Many Faces of Hamlet

Hamlet is a character that excites such excitement, mystery, sadness, and confusion. It is the last of these that most concerns the average audience members. When examining this play it is important first and foremost to examine performances of it for this is the media in which it was meant to be performed. Three productions will be examined in the following paragraphs,’ two specially done for film, and one which is for the stage but produced for the screen. Of the two film versions, one is complete, the other is an adaptation.

The stage version directed by Bennet and starring Jacobi is complete. It is performed in a way that the author originally intended, on the stage. The set is simplistic and only suggestive in most cases. It is set in the classical time period around the time of Elizabethan England. This is a very basic, very acceptable production. All of the technical elements are there, as is the text.

Despite all this the play seems to lack something. What it lacks is imagination. The actors in this play are classically trained and this seems to lend itself to doing exactly what the text calls for, nothing more. Richard Courtney believes that an actor must see what is beyond the text and bring this out. In this production, Jacobi certainly performed the text, but in most eases he failed. He acted mad, but it was a kind of madness that was predictable, this paradox proves the ineffectiveness of his performance. Hamlet is meant to catch the audience unawares with every line. Because of this predictability Jacobi appears to be a man pretending to be a man who is pretending to be mad. This is precisely what he is, and that is precisely what, is not called for in a role such as Hamlet. Jacobi has failed to live up to the role of Hamlet and all of its complexities.

Franco Zeffirelli’s production of the play was designed specifically for a wide audience on the silver screen. In order to accommodate this audience Zeffirelli made certain changes to the script which Shakespeare had not done, thereby changing Shakespeare’s message, even if only lightly. This light change does the play an enormous disservice, but it will still be examined in spite of this inherent flaw.

In this production Mel Gibson takes the title role. His Hamlet is a large step up from the basic and predictable Jacobi. Perhaps this stems from his previous experience in movies which would certainly not be considered classics. For whatever reason, Gibson gives a fantastic performance of the Dane. He alternates between “bitter melancholy and unrestricted l’unacy”. Hamlet must be mad. Gibson changes from railing and violent, to quirky and comedic and back in but a few lines. His performance of Polonius is more joking and playful than Jacobi’s. This is the essence of Hamlet’s character, or of any character to be exact. It must be believable. If the audience sees an apparently mad person behaving in a rational way, then one would have a hard time believing the verisimilitude of that character. However, the opposite is also true. The actor must not allow themselves to over-do their performance either. In this Gibson has erred badly, for he represent Hamlet in a way in which he actually does appear to be insane. In the opinion of the author Tom Stoppard, Hamlet is not insane and therefore Gibson has allowed his imagination too much freedom, and he needs to remember the majority of Hamlet’s character which remains coldly sane and alert.

The final production to be examined is that of Kenneth Branagh in which he played the role of Hamlet. His version of the character is simply superb. He follows the directions of both Stoppard and Courtney and, most essentially of all, he surprises the audience. His feigned madness is not consistent like Jacobi’s, nor is it exaggerated like Gibson’s. It instead strikes that perfect balance between being “too tame,” and being a “torrent, tempest and…whirlwind of…passion” (Shakespeare 94-95). This production is imaginative to say the least, and at the same time it holds true to the text and few liberties are taken. Whereas the other two productions are, for the most part, dark and shadowy, this one is surprising and refreshing in its brightness and joviality. Elsinore is decked out in the beautifully rich style of the 19th century with all of its royalty and opulence. This change from the previous versions is surprising, when in fact it should not be, the palace has just seen a new king crowned and memories of the dead king are quickly fading. Because of this there is no reason why the feeling at Elsinore would not be happy and care- free. The men all wear bright military type outfits which suit the times as Branagh describes them. This setting makes Branagh’s portrayal of Hamlet all the more believable and effective. His melancholy and underlying anger stand in hard contrast to what is going on around him. This varies greatly from the previous two versions in which Hamlet was just another dark figure among more dark people. In the Bennet production, Jacobi only stands out as an exceptional character because he has more lines than everyone else. This is almost certainly not what Shakespeare intended when he wrote the part. Branagh on the other hand is instantly visible in his black outfit because of the brightly colored backgrounds that he is set against.

In his article about the play, Richard Lanham states that Hamlet and Laertes are essentially playing the same role. They are seeking revenge for their father’s murder. This element of the play is essentially written into the script and is well performed by the actor who plays Laertes in both the Bennet and Zeffirelli productions. However, thanks to the setting, Branagh’s Hamlet has not only Laertes as a foil with which he can stand in contrast to, he has an entire set and cast which he can stand in contrast to. This contrast is visible not only in his appearance, but also in his actions. He is more contemplative and sane than Gibson’s Hamlet and more wild and outlandish than Jacobi’s, he has, once, again struck the right balance between the two.

Branagh’s superiority over Jacobi is surprising because of the similarities in their training and the fact that Branagh became inspired to act when he saw Jacobi’s rendition of Hamlet. In this case it can truly be said that the student surpassed the teacher because Jacobi even directed Branagh in the part (Interview). If nothing else this proves that Hamlet is a role which cannot be taught because it comes so much from within the actor. Though Hamlet was speaking of death when he said “the undiscovered country,” he may also have unwittingly given a clue to all the actors who would portray him in the future because the character of Hamlet is a journey which has many endings, and only after discovering them can each person know which is correct.

In the end the ultimate tragedy is that Hamlet has done nothing wrong, he has done what he thought was right, and he receives the ultimate punishment for his beliefs. This is why Hamlet is a tragic hero, his flaw is his human nature. Only Branagh was able to show a character of Hamlet like Shakespeare’s character thought.