The 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.
These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.
Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.
Moreover, watching the different versions meets the Common Core State Standard:
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare)
This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.
For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.
The scenario of film clips went in this order:
Act I; scene i: The “Who’s there?” opening:
- Branagh (Note: Jack Lemmon as Marcello is woefully miscast)
- BBC (Patrick Stewart plays both Ghost and Claudius)
- Olivier (students thought the graphics and set were amazing for 1948)
Act I; scene v: In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet. I started with Zefferelli, and then moved to the Branagh version. I added two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the 1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor. To have a sense, here are some clips to compare of the Ghost meeting Hamlet:
I had asked the students to consider the origin of the Ghost-from Heaven (“spirit of health”), from Purgatory (“till my sins were purged”), or Hell (“goblin damned”). Where did they believe the Ghost originated? After watching the clips, they decided:
- Zefferelli: Heaven or Purgatory (“The ghost looks so sad..”)
- Branagh: Hell (“there’s fire coming out of the ground! it’s Hell unlashed,” said one.)
- Hallmark: Hell (“there is a hand that comes from the ground!” “He’s wounded by the Ghost!”)
- Fodor: Hell (“That’s an abusive dad!”)
- Grigori Kozintsev: Hell or Purgatory (“Darth Vadar!”)
Act III; scene iv: The students also watched the stabbing of Polonius in Gertrude’s bedchamber where Zefferelli’s version veers into a disturbing Oedipal psychoanalysis akin to Olivier’s version. Students compared that version with the more toned down version from Branagh before moving onto Act IV.
Finally, when we arrived at Act V; scene ii, I lined up the five different versions moving between the Smartboard and a small projector. This year, I followed this order and have summarized the student responses:
- Starting with Zefferelli’s authentic combat, Hamlet is both clown and avenger. The three bouts are elaborate and full of suspense; my students were amazed at the hand-to-hand combat that would have been for “entertainment.” Glenn Close’s Gertrude dies in pain with wonderful contortions, and one student noted hearing “a satisfying “crunch” when Claudius is finally stabbed. As the camera pulls away, four bodies litter the stage, and the “rest is silence.”
- Branagh wisely kept Fortinbras in the play (all four hours of it!) using the setting of Blenheim Palace in England, which could serve as a substitute for the Russian Winter Palace of the Tsars in his Marxist take on the play. The students did not care for the elaborate staging in the death of Claudius who is “fed” poison after he has been lanced by a foil and crushed by a falling chandelier. They did, however, give “thumbs up” to the editing which juxtaposes the combat between Laertes and Hamlet with the invasion of the palace by Fortinbras. One of the open-ended questions I had asked was to choose “Fortinbras or Hamlet: The soldier or the scholar?” This film put most student squarely in Fortinbras’s corner as the man of action.
- The BBC version switches between security camera feed and with a single-camera setup giving the impression that the action recorded will be later viewed in some criminal investigation. Patrick Stewart returned to the BBC as Claudius where played the same role in 1980 with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. In the final scene, confronted by Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius takes the cup and with a resigned shrug, drinks the remaining poison and falls dead a few inches from his beloved queen. My students thought this version was hilarious, a dark and cynical twist on justice.
- The Almereyda version suggests that Gertrude, played by Diane Venora, willingly drinks from the cup in order to protect Hamlet and that Laertes played by Liev Schreiber is not Claudius’s dupe. As Hamlet remarks to Laertes, “You do but dally. I pray you, pass with your best violence,” Schreiber’s brutish and vengeful son of Polonius stands up with a concealed weapon and, in the scuffle that follows, shoots Hamlet in the abdomen before being wounded in the same way himself. My students reacted in shock:”didn’t see that coming!” Once avenged, Schreiber’s next act is one of brotherhood towards Hamlet as he hands the weapon off for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Viewers should note that Horatio has something useful to do in this version, as he holds the dying Hamlet upright to hunt Claudius.
Watching these four Hamlets die took all the time we had in our block schedule (80 minutes). A few more minutes, and I could have offered a fifth? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal. There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”
Die again, Hamlet, please, die again.