Shakespeare’s Hamlet inspired many film directors to adapt the play onto the big screen. In Kenneth Branagh’s version, he takes on the challenge of both directing the film and portraying Hamlet. In Marco Zeferelli’s edition, celebrated actor Mel Gibson stars as Hamlet. The directors use different aspects of cinematography and mise-en-scene to depict distinctive interpretations of the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
Branagh interprets the scene as a contemplation of Hamlet’s decision whether to kill himself or Claudius, whereas Zeferelli construes the scene as a deliberation of life, death, and the afterlife. Branagh uses props, varied camera angles, and thoughtful acting to describe the “To be or not to be” soliloquy as a brooding decision haunting Hamlet of action versus inaction. Branagh begins the soliloquy facing a two-way mirror, with Polonius and Claudius hidden behind it. The audience sees Hamlet staring directly at himself, while also facing the concealed men behind the mirror.
This personifies the idea that Hamlet is hesitant about taking action against his own life or taking the life of Claudius: “Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And, by opposing end them” (3. 1. 65-68). The camera angle consists of a medium close-up on the intense concentration of Branagh’s face, expressing the critical contemplation of his life and Claudius’s. Later in the soliloquy, Hamlet uncovers a bodkin, pointing the weapon towards the two-way mirror in a manifestation of action versus inaction.
The lighting of the scene highlights Branagh’s face and disposition with explicit detail, leaving no question to the viewer about his intent on either killing himself or Claudius. However, Branagh neglects to analyze Hamlet’s actual contemplation of death itself. Zeferelli focuses on Hamlet’s reflection of death as an experience and also the ambiguity of the afterlife. Mel Gibson recites the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in a royal tomb where his father is buried. The morbid setting suggests a theme of death. The low-key lighting emphasizes an ominous quality associated with Hamlet’s musing of the afterlife.
Gibson meticulously edges through the graves, using composed speech to reflect upon his life and the life of his father: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause. There’s the respect / That makes calamity of so long life” (3. 1. 74-77). Hamlet believes that the hardships of life become resolute through death. The turmoil of human affairs perishes along with an individual’s life. Gibson’s acting and disposition suggest that he thinks death is more appealing than life.
His ponderings are not a question of action and revenge but a question of the actual prospects of death and what comes after death. The setting in a tomb highlights this as well as Gibson keenly looking up towards heaven during the soliloquy. Although the two directors interpret the “To be or not to be” soliloquy differently, similarities exist between the two scenes. The acting of Branagh and Gibson both reflect deep contemplation; Branagh being more concerted and Gibson being more reflective. Both actors use Shakespeare’s words very thoughtfully and precisely, and keep their voices in a soft but convincing monotone.
The camera angles of the scenes are also similar with the shot situated intently on the actors’ faces, either focused in a fixed position on Branagh to represent great credence or zooming in slowly on Gibson’s face to represent a more reflective quality. Both directors do an exceptional job conveying the message that their cinematographic and acting choices suggest. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy is interpreted in many different ways, but Branagh and Zeferelli artfully choose one aspect of the scene to focus on.