Mark Twain once stated, “It is curious – curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.” The zealous struggles between internal and external gratification and somatic and ethical honour have incontrovertibly led to man’s continual battle for integrity – pride versus ethics. Religious teachings impart that one show respect to all and utilize the power of oration to convey ideologies; yet religious crusades have instigated the bloodiest and most deadly battles in human history. Man’s universal and timeless question asks whether it is ethical to defend one’s honour through brutality or if the use of language and moral lessons are sufficient to deliver the message. Analogously, William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet bequeaths enlightenment to its audience of the universal beauties and faults of mankind on the comprehensive debate of integrity.
The tragic hero, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, vies to comprehend his uncomfortably altered environment, while he relentlessly endeavors to seek morality, logic, and reason in a world where corruption and greed autonomously dictate action. His mother’s precipitous remarriage, the tormenting death of his father, and the forsakenness Hamlet feels from those he held close lead him to render epiphanic cognizance. Shakespeare’s use of soliloquys bestows unto the audience a voyeuristic view into Hamlet’s personal meditations, highlighting Hamlet’s introspective state. Though his vulnerability and pathos at times render him ineffectual and indecisive, it is purely reflective of his humanity and that is what entices him to the audience. Hamlet is in an internal battle with the imperfections of the world around him.
In the hypocritical nation of Denmark, Hamlet is thrust into witnessing indecencies, both externally and in his own home; thus Hamlet’s lack of action is conjured not by feebleness of character. It is the moral contradictions and duplicity in the world before him that hinder his actions; he operates therefore with ethics, prudence, and wisdom. Heroic valor sets Hamlet apart from the supplementary nobility in Denmark. After the enigmatic death of the erstwhile King Hamlet Senior, goes unquestioned, Hamlet’s morals compel him to seek answers. Before Hamlet can pursue the truth he must however come to terms with his mother Gertrude’s remarriage to his father’s brother, Claudius. Disappointment in his mother and grief for his father, lead Hamlet to his first soliloquy, wherein he describes the consequences of suicide and his mother’s immorality. Even in his melancholia Hamlet understand the magnitudes of “self-slaughter,” as “the Everlasting [has] fixed / his canon ‘gainst” it (1.2.135-136).
His ability to look past the superficial transient benefits of iniquitous actions helps Hamlet to stay firm in his beliefs throughout his journey. Though dismayed as to how “rotten in the state of Denmark” it is, Hamlet expresses his emotions by reacting to his surroundings in a gallant manner (1.4.90). Upon meeting the ghost of the late King, Hamlet is incensed by the horrific crime his “uncle-father” has committed (2.2.399). However, Hamlet does not immediately take the words of the ghost as factual; in his second soliloquy he concludes “the spirit that [he has] seen / may be a devil” and that he cannot trust him without evidence (2.2.627-628). Hamlet decides “the play’s the thing / wherein [he will] catch the conscience of the king” (2.2.633-634). Hamlet realizes the depravity of slaughtering a man based on the conjecture that he is a murderer. He refuses to place such marginal worth on an individual life as to take it without knowing the truth.
In the most famous soliloquy of all the Shakespearean plays, Hamlet debates the value of life and the consequences of death; Hamlet asks “to be or not to be” (3.1.64). Realizing that death is a misleading and temporary fix, as one knows not of what lies hereafter – possibilities of eternal suffering from “the pangs of despised love” and life’s unanswered questions – Hamlet concludes “conscience does make cowards of us all” and with over analysis action is lost (3.1.74-96). Though the ghost’s words attest to be true as the players reenact the murder of the late King Hamlet in The Mousetrap, Hamlet waits to execute his plan. Morality often stifles one’s acceptance and trust in others. As his family has forsaken him, his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern comply with the will of the king to remove him, and those living within the walls of Elsinore Castle perceive him to be insane, Hamlet has but one true confidant – Horatio.
Hamlet’s most enlightening epiphanic moment comes as he prepares for the match against Laertes; he finally untangles the webs of deceit which have been clouding his moral judgment. He responds to Horatio’s worry for the battle’s conclusion by telling him, “not a whit, we defy augury ” he further explains, man does not control fate; if it is meant to happen, it will (5.2.231-238). Hamlet has hitherto looked at life like a slow moving game of chess, evaluating each move he makes by weighing the consequences of the subsequent moves; he now understands he must leave his fate in the hands of providence. Hamlet’s dawdling journey comes to a rapid close in the final act of the play. During the match against Laertes Hamlet is made witness first hand to his “uncle-father’s” crimes; Claudius accidentally murders both Gertrude, with the wine he had poisoned for Hamlet, and Laertes, by the poisoned sword intended for Hamlet.
Hamlet no longer stands idly by whilst the injustices of Claudius tear his country down. Though he too is poisoned by Laertes’ blade, Hamlet fights for the justice of Denmark and slays Claudius once and for all. The tragic resolution leaves a bloodstained Denmark distraught and uncertain, yet the heroic legacy of Hamlet’s valor and morality live on. Horatio recounts Hamlet’s tragic tale as Fortinbras of Norway captures Denmark. Hamlet is buried “like a soldier to a stage, / for he was likely, had he been put on, / to have proved the most royal” (5.2.442-444). Though Hamlet never wishes to be king, his pure humanity and strong morals prove to manifest his capabilities, even after death. It is integral for any actor playing the role of Hamlet to be well versed in the characteristics of his Hamlet predecessors, and to embrace their qualities while learning from their frailties.
Whether on stage or on film, Hamlet is one of the most challenging roles for any actor to play. Two contemporary silver screen adaptations of Hamlet by Kenneth Branagh and Franco Zeffirelli portray the young Prince as a grieving individual vying to keep his virtue as corruption ensues. Branagh presents Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy as the cinematic essence of the unraveling of Hamlet’s layers. Hamlet questions the meaning of right and wrong, while searching for his own purpose within the mirrors. Unfortunately for Hamlet, the mirrors neither hold truths nor divulge answers, thus he is left feeling a forsaken sense of betrayal. Branagh’s acting and directing are impressive in this scene, his emotions depict Hamlet’s internal conflict; he attempts to keep hold of his morals in a world void of any such ethics. Zeffirelli’s interpretation of Hamlet’s renowned “To be or not to be” soliloquy captures a darker side the tragic hero.
Though Mel Gibson’s superb acting highlights Hamlet’s emotional conflict of where he morally stands, the distrait directorial choice to locate the scene in the family crypt conveys too nefarious a mood and is confusing to the audience. Zeffirelli’s redemption comes in a glorious form – his interpretation of Hamlet and Horatio’s conversation in the play’s final act. Zeffirelli shows an excellent understanding of the play’s overall purpose. He depicts Hamlet’s epiphany as a monologue rather than the end of a discourse between friends. By omitting Horatio from the latter portion of this scene, the audience is able to see Hamlet’s shift in perspective develop on its own.
Hamlet overlooks the ocean and its horizon as he decides let his fate rest in the ebb and flow of life. Contradictorily, Branagh, using Shakespeare’s original context, does not enhance the viewer’s perception of Hamlet’s conflict. Rather Branagh chooses to show the intimate relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. Kenneth Branagh’s brand of symbolism in “Hamlet” delves into the true meaning beneath the pages of Shakespeare’s written word. He surpasses the usual film adaptations of a drama, which fail to provoke the imagination. He probes the audience with strong symbolism forcing thought, questioning, and imagination beyond the physical. Franco Zeffirelli, dissimilarity attempts to engage the viewer by shortening the scenes and speeches apropos to the common Hollywood adaptation.
While the pace may be more exciting, it loses in cinematic depth. A great production of Hamlet incorporates the strife between the external forces pulling man from his values and learned morals. Hamlet should be portrayed by his struggle to protect his humanity while those he cares for try to strip the essence of morality from him. As Hamlet traverses grief, the actor should have the emotional depth to connect with the viewer, and versatility to surpass the realm of pure poignancy to enter profundity.
Hamlet’s instructions to the players should be heeded by any director “let your own / discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the / word, the word to the action, with the special / observance, that you overstep not the modesty of / nature” (3.2.17-21). Plays should convey a universal struggle of man and act as a window to the natural world, where the audience members are permitted to view the intimacies of a society contrasting their own – to this rule, Hamlet is no exception.
Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, and Alan Bates. DVD. Hamlet. Dir. Kenneth Branaugh. Perf. Kenneth Branaugh, Julie Christie, and Derek Jacobi. DVD. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat. Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.
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