Characterization of Hamlet Thesis

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¶ … Characterization of Hamlet

Hamlet may be one of literature's most famous characters and he is probably one of the most difficult to portray. He is a complex man with many things contributing to his character. Shakespeare's Hamlet is a broken man. Critic Harold Bloom observes, "something in Hamlet dies before the play opens" (Bloom 86) and this notion is critical in establishing our first impressions of Hamlet on film. Pinpointing the character of Hamlet is essential to understanding the plot of the play. Mood and tone express many things and this is especially true when viewing films. Hamlet is a complicated character to capture. Much of his popularity stems from the notion that he is a complicated character and very human at the same time. Not all film versions have captured the true essence of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Perhaps the one that comes closest to revealing and exploring this character is Franco Zeffirelli's interpretation. In contrast, Kenneth Branagh's does a less adequate job of capturing the mood of this troubled character. While both films tell Hamlet's story, they each focus on different aspects of Hamlet's character, and the best interpretation hones in on the barren emotional landscape that is Hamlet's mind.

Shakespeare's Hamlet never finds a place of comfort or peace. Throughout the play, he is in angst. This never leaves him and this element of his personality is critical for the audience. Zeffirelli successfully portrays this mood in his film. Hamlet, from the opening scenes is lost. He is searching for something he will never find; he is awaiting something that never comes. Zeffirelli's Hamlet lingers near the edge of sanity more times than once and Gibson's expressions convey this very well. Hamlet never relaxes during this film and the audience can only relax when it is finally over. Zeffirelli understands the importance of capturing and securing a particular mood for the characterization of Hamlet. He uses every resource available to do this. The dark and somber emotions are reflected in the medieval architecture. Rarely do we see a sunny day or a blue sky. The costumes are very fitting. All of these components allow the audience to focus on the character of Hamlet. In comparison, Kenneth Branagh's version of Hamlet misses this point. This version depend far too much on costume and setting and is detracts from the characters themselves. Elaborate decorations pull our eyes away from people and this hurts the film. This version of Hamlet tries to be too modern in setting while using the text from the play. It comes off as being too confusing for the audience. Both films demonstrate how much a director's interpretation influences the outcomes of a film. Branagh's Hamlet is like a star and Zeffirelli's Hamlet is not. They are completely different images of Hamlet and they influence how we perceive the man. The most successful version will make us think of a man buried in grief and sorrow. Realizing this is a dark place to be, a good interpretation of this will be gloomy, dark, and even depressing. Zeffirelli captures this perfectly.

One of the most powerful scenes representing Zeffirelli's stage direction takes place in the crypt. Here we see Hamlet pondering death. He is weighing the importance of life with the aspect of death. When he speaks, we suspect that he is serious and sincerely wants to discover the answers to these questions. Hamlet moves through the crypt between the tombs -- between the dead, pondering life and death's purpose. This is a powerful scene because it places the viewer in the murky mess of Hamlet's mind. Hamlet wonders about death and his answer lies with them in the cold earth. Hamlet wonders endlessly among the tombs and this illustrates how his has lived most of his life since returning to Elsinore. Hamlet is going in circles and coming no closer to an answer than he was before he started. This scene captures the dark and melancholy nature of this man and his mood. When he asks, "To be, or not to be" (Shakespeare III.i.56), he is genuinely confused and when he wonders if it is "nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles" (III.i.56-9), he is sincere. To consider death as preferred over the "heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to" (III.i.61-3) is to seriously question life and one's place in it. Zeffirelli emphasizes these moods perfectly in the crypt. We can see Hamlet's angst in this scene. In contrast, Branagh's interpretation of this scene has Hamlet looking into a mirror and while we could say it is a scene of reflection, this does not capture the mood of Hamlet in the same way Zeffirelli does. Hamlet is not convinced the solution to his problems comes from within. He is looking for answers but he does not know from where they come. The soliloquy is famous because it questions life and Hamlet wonders if what lies on the other side is somewhat more comfortable than the slings and arrows on this side. Nothing compliments this aspect of Hamlet's character better than the image of him wandering through a row of tombs, containing the dead to whom Hamlet cannot speak.

Hamlet creates the most important images in the play. Even when reading the play, Hamlet is the character that sets the mood and tone for what is happening. There are moments when Hamlet is amazingly poetic but even still, he never loses his melancholy spirit. Hamlet is never at peace and he is removed from the other characters. He is detached and a loner. To emphasize this, Zeffirelli places Hamlet in "removed" places. We see him emerge from a catwalk over the courtyard eavesdropping. In Polonius' library, he hangs from the tops of the shelves. To convince everyone that he is mad, he jumps on a tabletop. These scenes prove that Hamlet is not exactly "present" as all of the other characters are. Hamlet is distant, jumpy, and nervous. Spying, hanging from above, and jumping around portray these characteristics perfectly. Hamlet is infinitely sad but there is more to him than this. His character is richly human and this makes him difficult to pinpoint with complete accuracy. However, Zeffirelli does so better than any other director does by focusing primarily on reflecting Hamlet's mood throughout the play.

While Zeffirelli's version of the play departs from Shakespeare with the opening scene of the film, we can see why he does so. By opening the film with the somber scene of King Hamlet's funeral, we are taken immediately to Hamlet's state of mind. The dark scenes and the limited use of color establish the mood and tone not only for the entire play but also for Hamlet. This funeral, the reason Hamlet must return to Elsinore, is difficult enough but Hamlet must also look at his mother who has already remarried his uncle. The scene and the actions leading up to it make Hamlet who is. Zeffirelli captures this from the very beginning of the play with this scene. We see Hamlet in the shadows and that is where he shall remain for most of the film. He never steps out into the light of reason and understanding. Staging Hamlet this way portrays his sense of being on the outside in this film. When we see Gertrude and Claudius looking at each other over King Hamlet's coffin, we sense Hamlet's sense of loss and angst. We also sense something very sinister. Zeffirelli captures this better than anyone does. It is powerful and the audience never forgets it. While Branagh stays true to the play, opening with the ghost scene, there is something to be said about capturing the essence of Hamlet in the first… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Characterization of Hamlet.  (2009, December 3).  Retrieved December 13, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/characterization-hamlet-one/29038

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