Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5, focuses on the moment when Hamlet and the Ghost finally encounter one another. Branagh intensifies the meaning behind Hamlet’s endless determination to seek revenge for his father’s death after the Ghost reveals the truth behind his murder, with the incorporation of varying music, sound effects, and emotional drama of the characters. In doing so, Branagh conveys the arousing impact of scene, which allows the viewers to understand the content of this scene not only through words but through all of these theatrical aspects.
The scene begins as Hamlet runs through dark and dreary woods in search of the Ghost. Hamlet quickly and breathlessly quotes a passage from Act 1 Scene 4 as loud music and special effects play to the swift speed of Hamlets’ movement. The camera switches from one image to the next as Hamlet speaks, intending to illustrate his words as the readers hear of the gruesome things he describes. Such as when Hamlet said, “…King, father, royal Dane. O, answer me!/ Let me not burst in ignorance…”(Shakespeare 45-46) and with the aid of special effects, images of things being blown up in the back of the woods and fire erupting depicts the “…burst in ignorance…”(46) Hamlet speaks of. Also, as Hamlet says, “Why thy canoniz’d bones, hearsed in death,/ Have burst their cerements…” (47-48) an image briefly appears of someone shutting the eyes of Hamlet’s father, as he lies dead on a table. Music builds just as Hamlet abruptly stops and tries to catch his breath in the cold air, as he turns and is confronted by the Ghost.
The Ghost delivers his lines in a whispering tone for the majority of the time that he speaks with Hamlet, which shows how the Ghost does not want anyone else to hear him tell Hamlet the secrets of his death. The Ghost’s tone also alludes to the idea that he is bitter and angry about the events of his death and the aftermath. As the Ghost begins to speak, he is dressed in a steel armor suit, as if he is prepared to fight and there is also a clear difference between the Ghost and Hamlet because the Ghost is more elevated than Hamlet, which forces him to look up toward his father. The positioning of the characters is important because it means the Hamlet surrenders to his father’s will and is more than eager to execute his father’s wishes. When the Ghost said, “…the secrets of my prison-house …would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood…” (16) an image of a foaming, frosty river appeared to symbolize the horrendous environment of the prison-house. A similar effect was conveyed as the floor began to split apart as he spoke of an “…eternal blazon…” (21).
As the Ghost continues, the tone of the entire scene intensifies with this interaction: Ghost: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther” Hamlet: “Murther!” Ghost: Murther most foul…” (25-27). Each time the word, “murther” (25) was repeated, there was a loud bang, followed by a pink image with blood pouring out of three holes. At first, this picture was difficult to decipher because it was shown abruptly, however, with the aid of the description of the Ghost’s murder in Hamlet,: “And in the porches of my ears did pour… holds such an enmity with blood of man…” (63-65), the viewers can conclude that this was a picture of the Ghost’s ear and the gruesome, bloody, affect the poison had on his ear.
The camera then cuts to a clip that has a lighter setting, where there is snow around, and Hamlet senior is shown sleeping in the Orchard. The difference in setting and lighting from clip to the setting of the majority of the scene eludes that Hamlet senior was peaceful and happy in his old life. A swift change in tone is made when a person somberly walks into the clip and the only visible items are black gloves and black shoes. Another quick change occurs and the Ghost’s face only appears in the video as he says “…the serpent that did sting thy father’s life/ Now wears his crown…” (38-39) and immediately Hamlet understands that King Claudius killed his father. By showing only the Ghost’s face at that moment, the severity of the Ghost’s words was expressed and the viewers and Hamlet see the great extent to which the Ghost desires revenge.
The camera gave another close-up shot of the Ghost’s eyes staring into Hamlet’s eyes as he speaks of the queen. At that point, the Ghost’s eyes looked very determined, but also possessed at the same time, which leads to the belief that he is obsessed with the King and Queen. He said, “…contrive/Against thy mother aught./Leave her to heaven…” (85-86) The usual soft tone of the Ghost’s voice slightly shows how he still loves the queen and greatly despises that the King and Gertrude are now together. The fact that the viewers were looking directly into the Ghost’s and Hamlet’s eyes also meant he truly wanted Hamlet to understand his will and by Hamlet gazing back at him, it showed that he believed every word and he was willing to do anything possible.
As the Ghost fades away, Hamlet grabs his hand in affection and says “O earth! What else?” (92) and falls to the ground. This dramatic portrayal of the release of emotions between the Ghost and Hamlet concludes as Hamlet jumps to his knees and raises his sword toward his face and says, “ …Adieu, adieu! remember me.”(111) The camera slowly moves toward his face as he says, “ I have sworn’t”(111), leaving the viewers to see in his eyes, a longing for his father’s return but the courage and overwhelming aspiration to execute his father’s wishes.
Hamlet’s soliloquy can be interpreted in many different ways and it seems as if there were two distinct versions portrayed in the videos. One interpretation is portrayed as if Hamlet contemplates taking his own life, while the other interpretation is portrayed as if Hamlet wants to take the life of King Claudius. Based on further reading of the play, the best interpretation of Hamlet’s state of mind is captured in Kenneth Branagh’s video because he interpreted Hamlet’s soliloquy as his desire to kill King Claudius rather than himself.
Although Laurence Olivier and Alexander Fodor’s videos interpreted Hamlet’s soliloquy as if Hamlet wanted to kill himself, while Branagh’s video showed Hamlet as more vengeful and desiring to kill King Claudius, there were major points in the soliloquy that were portrayed in an array of different ways in all three videos. The way in which certain key lines or moments were portrayed in each video may lead to a better understanding as to why there were different messages represented.
The opening line, “to be, or not to be, that is the question” (55) is spoken nearly in the same way in all three videos, with a soft and subtle voice. In Olivier’s video, the viewers first see a glimpse of rocky waters as soft music plays. As the music picks up in tempo, the viewers suddenly see Hamlet’s face as he slowly pulls out a knife and says, “or take arms against a sea of troubles, and opposing, end them” (58-59). Lines 60 and 61 are crucial points in all three videos, and in Olivier’s video Hamlet begins to recite these lines in this head, “…to die, to sleep-no more…” as he draws the knife closer to his throat. In Fodor’s video, those same lines are actually spoken by Hamlet as the camera shows the faces of two women and one man. With Branagh’s videos, those lines are also spoken by Hamlet as he slowly approaches the full length mirror he had been staring into. When comparing that way those lines were represented in each video, it is clear that they are key points and they established the way in which the rest of the video was going to run, especially with Olivier’s video because he seemed to portray a more literal translation of Hamlet’s words, for instance, showing a shot of the sea just before Hamlet says, “…take arms against a sea…” (58-59).
Olivier’s literal translation continues as he says “…perchance to dream…”(64) just as he abruptly appears to have awoken from a dream. The next major point of the soliloquy occurs in lines 74 through 75 when Hamlet said, “when he himself might his quietus make/ with a bare bodkin…” and these lines proved to be visually significant because all three videos required Hamlet to act in different ways. With Olivier, Hamlet slowly raised his knife and puts it towards his heart, a gestured interpreted as Hamlet wanting to kill himself. Fodor portrayed Hamlet saying those lines as the camera slowly draws closer to Hamlet’s face. The viewers are left with a shot of one of Hamlet’s eye balls and behind him; there is a bright white light, implying some sort of death. The message in Branagh’s video is clear in those very lines because the camera quickly switches to a shot of King Claudius just as Hamlet quickly pulls out his knife and points it directly at the mirror, but the viewers see him pointing it at an allusion of King Claudius. The expression on the king’s face is that of a look of terror and surprise, which reiterates Hamlet’s desire to kill the king rather than himself.
Lines 79 through 81 are other key situations in the videos and it is interesting that during each video when those lines are spoken, the camera gives a close shot of Hamlet’s face. In Olivier’s video just as Hamlet recites, “…no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of…” the camera quickly switches from a shot of Hamlet’s face, to that of the rocky water below him. This leads to the idea that Hamlet may want to kill himself by jumping off the cliff. At that moment in Fodor’s video, the camera is close up on Hamlet’s face, while he stares into the viewers eyes but quickly looks away. In fact, he looks down, as if he is ashamed or surprised at the words he is saying. With Branagh, the camera shows Hamlet still staring into the mirror, as his tone of voice increases and he raises the knife toward the middle of his face and the viewers see determination in his eyes.
The ending of each video is quite different, for instance, as Olivier closes the scene, Hamlet walks toward he edge of the cliff and looks over it. Speaking softly he says, “…with this regard their currents turn awry…” (86) and Olivier’s literal translation prevails once again as Hamlet turns away from the cliff as he says, “…turn awry…” (86) only to soberly walk down the other end of the cliff as soft music plays. It is assumed that Hamlet walks off the cliff into the water and kills himself. With Fodor, Hamlet is seen lying on the floor, dressed in all black with his eyes closed, in a similar position as another man was (possibly his father) throughout the entire video. Everyone in the scene who came across Hamlet senior, kissed him on the lips, and the same action took place as Hamlet lied on the floor as church bells that could signify a funeral rang, however, once the girl kissed him, he awoke. Assumedly, Hamlet envisioned himself dead, but the kiss awoke him from that dream. Finally, with Branagh’s videos, as Hamlet says, “… and lose the name of action…” (87) he gently hits the mirror with his knife. Although both Olivier and Fodor’s scenes ended with Hamlet saying “…and lose the name of action…” (87), Branagh’s video continued as Hamlet sees Ophelia and walks slowly towards her. Hamlet’s demeanor changes entirely when he sees her, he seems slightly happier and this could show the viewers that such a quick change in his personality from one moment to the next may show that he could be insane enough to actually kill the king.
In all, Olivier’s literal translation and the black and white color video appeared to be an older version and it did not consider a deeper meaning behind the words. The constant white lighting, black clothing, and recording of Hamlet’s dying words in Fodor’s video lead to the belief that their interpretations were solely based on Hamlet killing himself rather than seeking revenge and killing the king. However, Branagh’s video provided the best interpretation of Hamlet’s desire to seek revenge and kill King Claudius rather than himself, based on Hamlet’s constant look of revenge and anger in his eyes.