Making Mother Matter: Repression, Revision, and the Stakes of 'Reading Psychoanalysis Into' Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet
Courtney Lehmann
University of the Pacific

Lisa S. Starks
University of South Florida

Lehmann, Courtney, and Lisa S. Starks. "Making Mother Matter: Repression, Revision, and the Stakes of 'Reading Psychoanalysis Into' Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 2.1-24 <URL:

  1. In her book Suffocating Mothers, Janet Adelman contends that Hamlet signals a pivotal point in Shakespeare's dramatic vision, wherein the maternal element -- conspicuously absent from the Henriad and Julius Caesar -- returns to cause "the collapse of the fragile compact that had allowed Shakespeare to explore familial and sexual relationships in the histories and romantic comedies without devastating conflict." [1] Hamlet, a play that centres on the crisis of the masculine subject and its "radical confrontation with the sexualized maternal body," foregrounds male anxiety about mothers, female sexuality, and hence, sexuality itself. [2] Obsessed with the corruption of the flesh, Hamlet is pathologically fixated on questions of his own origin and destination -- questions which are activated by his irrepressible attraction to and disgust with the "contaminated" body of his mother. Hamlet's peculiar bond with his mother has been the focus of numerous productions of Shakespeare's play on stage and screen. Influenced by psychoanalysis, filmed versions of Hamlet in particular have emphasized the desire between sons and mothers and, in so doing, have uncannily reproduced the play's own Oedipalized attachment to the maternal. Following Franco Zeffirelli's mother-centered film (1990), Kenneth Branagh attempts to break with this tradition in his self-proclaimed "non-Oedipal" Hamlet (1996). Sanitized and allegedly "Oedipal free," Branagh's Hamlet avoids any representations of non-normative sexual desire, repressing the sexualized maternal body with a vengeance. In contrast to Laurence Olivier's (1948) and Zeffirelli's adaptations, in which popularized notions of psychoanalytic interpretation are foregrounded and exaggerated, Branagh's recent full-length film displaces Hamlet's desire onto his surrogate father, who offers "metal more attractive" for this Hamlet and, as we shall see, for Branagh himself. [3] It seems, then, that Branagh "doth protest too much," for despite his efforts to ensure that his adaptation be "liberated" from the tradition of psychoanalytically-based Hamlets, Branagh's Hamlet reproduces the Oedipal triangle in its most conspicuous, paternalistic form, offering an epic homage to the patriarchal family romance -- Hollywood style.

  2. Branagh's apparent disgust at the whole "distasteful" subject of psychoanalysis and how it has been used by twentieth-century critics to interpret sexual desire in Hamlet is shared by many critics who have written recently on psychoanalysis in filmed Hamlets, as well as by several Shakespeareans who have reviewed Branagh's film. [4] Apparently, there exists a popular critical opinion that twentieth-century psychoanalysis has "read sex into" Shakespeare's Hamlet, and that since then directors have capitalized on the sensationalism by depicting scenes suggesting and sometimes enacting Hamlet and Gertrude's incestuous desire. [5] Careful readings of Hamlet and its performance history have always demonstrated, however, that the play deals on various levels with constructions of sexuality and its relationship to the flesh and mortality. While the play does focus on a son's obsession with his mother's physical body and her sexual relationship with his uncle, it is important to recognize the extent to which these preoccupations and anxieties are inextricably bound up in early modern discourses of misogyny and hatred of the flesh, as numerous critics have shown.[6] Hamlet's own disgust toward the body and sexual behaviour, coupled with Ophelia's erotically-charged songs, did not suddenly become "about" sexuality after Freud. On the contrary, censorship of the play in performance during various historical time periods indicates that the tragedy has always been perceived of as highly erotic, and often dangerously so. [7] Even in the context of twentieth-century interpretations of Hamlet, critics have been reluctant to engage in genuine confrontations with the problem of the play's sexuality and its underlying anxiety. For this reason, Jacqueline Rose has claimed that critics writing on Hamlet, beginning with T. S. Eliot, have conflated their puzzlement over the play with the Western notion of "woman" as the bearer of an impenetrable secret. [8] In exploring the enigma of the play's meaning, Eliot fixates on Gertrude as a figure of mysterious "femininity," one that serves as an emblem of the play's resistance to simple interpretation. For Eliot, argues Rose, "The aesthetic inadequacy of the play is caused by the figure of a woman, and the image of a woman most aptly embodies the consequences of that failure." Therefore, in Eliot's reading of Hamlet, "Femininity thus becomes the stake, not only of the internal, but also of the critical drama generated by the play." [9] This intellectual manoeuvre, which also occurs in the aforementioned articles on filmed Hamlets, repeats Hamlet's disgust with the sexualized maternal body, revealing the critic's own horror at the anxiety posed by that body in performance. As they seek to invalidate Oedipal interpretations of the play, these critics tend to demonstrate their own enactment of the traditional psychoanalytic narrative they denounce.

  3. While psychoanalysis provides methods of reading the constructions of sexuality in Hamlet, it does not implant sexuality in a text that otherwise has no reference to erotic subject matter. Rather, psychoanalysis has focused on how the play dramatizes, as its raison d'être, the problems of the unconscious and repressed desire. Well before Eliot registered his symptomatic resistance to Shakespeare's play, Freud's exploration of the play generated what would become the theoretical basis for modern psychoanalytic readings of sexuality in Hamlet. [10] Nineteen years before Eliot wrote his essay, Freud addressed the issue of the unconscious in Shakespeare's tragedy in his famous note in The Interpretation of Dreams. Following an analysis of the "primeval dream-material" that structures Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Freud touches on Hamlet which, he suggests, represents the emergence in Western civilization of the trend toward the repression of sexual desire. Therefore, the myth of Oedipus can be detected only in the subtext of Hamlet:

    Another of the great creations of tragic poetry, Shakespeare's Hamlet, has its roots in the same soil as Oedipus Rex. But the changed treatment of the same material reveals the whole difference in the mental life of these two widely separated epochs of civilization: the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind. In Oedipus the child's wishful phantasy that underlies it is brought into the open and realized as it would be in a dream. In Hamlet it remains repressed; and -- just as in the case of a neurosis -- we only learn of its existence from its inhibiting consequences. [11]

    According to Freud's interpretation, the Oedipal myth structures Hamlet's unconscious desire, which is never manifested on the literal level in Shakespeare's play. Consequently, Jacques Lacan explains that in its reappearance as distorted remnants in the development of modern civilization, the Oedipal myth and its Freudian interpretation "justifies and deepens our understanding of Hamlet as possibly illustrating a decadent form of the Oedipal situation, its decline." [12] Most important to Freud's reading, Lacan stresses, is "not simply that the subject wanted, desired to kill his father and to violate his mother, but that that [desire] is in the unconscious." Therefore, "Freud himself indicated . . . [that] when we lived out the Oedipal dream, it was destined to be in a warped form, and there's surely an echo of that in Hamlet." [13] For both Freud and Lacan, then, Shakespeare's play epitomizes the movement towards a distortion of the Oedipal dilemma and its repression within the unconscious, conveying a mystery which perhaps no amount of analysis -- clinical or literary critical -- can "pluck out." [14]


  4. Contemporary film theory, however, provides new methods of analyzing the relationship between the unconscious of both the text and society. Laura Mulvey argues that psychoanalytic film theory enables us to read film and culture in general as a "massive screen on which collective fantasy, anxiety, fear and their effects can be projected." [15] In this light, cinema "speaks the blind-spots of a culture and finds forms that make manifest socially traumatic material, through distortion, defence and disguise." Branagh's Hamlet, seen from this psychoanalytic perspective as a film consciously and actively positioned against psychoanalysis, becomes an intriguing text in which one can witness the manoeuvre described by Mulvey as an "aesthetic of disavowal," a strategy which "can easily provide a formal basis for a displacement which moves signification considerably further away from the problem of reference." [16] In the case of Branagh's Hamlet, this "problem of reference" is denied in the film's avoidance of the inquiry into the unconscious--the horror of femininity, sexuality, and repressed desire -- staged by Shakespeare's play. Similarly, the film responds to contemporary American culture's own dominant constructions of sexuality (codified by Hollywood films and other media representations) and puritanical abhorrence of non-normative sexualities. These attitudes provide the cultural milieu of Branagh's 1996 film, and they are reinscribed through the film conventions he employs in transforming the play into a Hollywood "Epic."

  5. The "enigma of femininity," according to Mulvey, is represented in Western culture through the binary oppositions of "inside/outside" and, more specifically, through "the seductive mask and the box: each [of which] conceal[s] a secret that is dangerous to man." [17] Psychoanalytic interpretations of Hamlet have sought to "reveal the secret" enclosed in the emblematic "Pandora's box" in order to uncover, exhibit, and explore the nature of the anxieties triggered by this concept of "woman" and the maternal body. Branagh's Hamlet, on the other hand, refuses this reading, representing instead the closed box -- showing only its surface and deflecting attention away from the troubling questions posed by the play and emphasized by psychoanalytic critics. Indeed, in this epic adaptation, a luxuriously decorated palace, magnificent frozen terrain, ornate costumes, dramatic cinematography, sentimental flashbacks, over-the-top special effects, and a star-studded cast all serve to diffuse the intensity of an otherwise deeply disturbing drama about the "enigma of femininity." [18] The visual impact of the film alone suggests the desire both to purify and to contain the threat of the sexualized mother/woman. The frigid, snowy exteriors set against the blood-red interiors lend the palace a virginal cast, while the bright, expansive, Dr. Zhivago-like landscape starkly opposes the often dark, sombre, and womb-like set designs featured in other, explicitly psychoanalytic Hamlet films. [19] In Olivier's film, for example, narrow corridors, swirling staircases, and confining quarters signify the interior of the mother, or "the womb, the enclosing space inside the mother's body, that provides an instant source of connotation and a 'poetics of space' quite usual in culture." [20] Zeffirelli's Hamlet also articulates the play's preoccupation with the maternal in its equally cave-like, undulating interiors and its claustrophobic staging of surveillance among its characters -- the ever-triangulating gazes between Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude neatly articulating an Oedipally-charged "poetics of space." [21] By contrast, Branagh's mise en scène implies a total disavowal of the maternal body, for the film's vast interiors and its luminous exteriors actively shun the horror of the womb, thereby averting the dilemma female sexuality poses for the male subject. As Mulvey succinctly explains, this dilemma is characterized by the representation of "the woman's body as the site of her wound and the sight of the Medusa. Within this aesthetic, masculine desire is caught in an oscillation between erotic obsession with the female body and fear of the castration that it signifies." [22]

  6. If this kind of formal play with space and its modes of occupation suggests both an erotic and anxiety-ridden relation to the female body, then Branagh counteracts this anxiety not only through settings which are brightly lit and pristine, but also through his emphasis on size and scale, an assertion of phallic prowess par excellence. This assertion is most obvious in Branagh's much-publicized desire to produce a full-text version of Hamlet. This is the "lengthiest" Hamlet film of all time; it is a Shakespearean adaptation which, in its obsession with showing us the "full text," operates on another level to show us the "full monty." It is, in other words, an audacious flexing of filmic and Shakespearean muscle which subscribes to the view that size matters -- a claim which Branagh cannot resist in promoting the film: "'We want this Hamlet to be a big, big treat. We're trying for more epic sweep than is usually contemplated . . . there will be thousands of extras for some sequences. The Ghost is going to be a lot scarier than some faintly benign old sort walking on stage in a white shirt. It ain't gonna be three-and-a-half hours of talking heads.'" [23] Branagh's rhetorical appropriation of American slang, replete with the promise of a "big and bad" Hamlet, all but blazons the mechanisms of "distortion, defence, and disguise" through which he attempts to keep the combined threats of Oedipal temptation and castration safely beneath the captivating surface of the film.

  7. Perhaps the most striking and symptomatic strategy through which Branagh keeps the viewer's attention hostage to the sparkling surface of the film is demonstrated by his use of mirrors. Familiar to audiences weaned on the postmodern privileging of surfaces and the concomitant loss of depth-deception, the thirty-plus mirrors lining Elsinore's magnificent interiors offer a portrait of Shakespeare's self-absorbed prince as more of a "beauty school drop-out" than a brooding product of Wittenberg, an aspiring cosmetologist rather than a melancholy philosopher. [24] "'No glam spared,'" Branagh glibly remarks of his multi-million dollar sets, as if issuing a tacit warning to the viewer not to scratch these expensive surfaces. [25] Indeed, this mise en scène is designed to repel the surgical precision with which the play cuts through surfaces in its tireless effort to "pluck out" the mystery of Hamlet's obsession with the maternal. On another level, then, these mirrors suggest an attempt to return Hamlet itself to the mirror stage, the pre-Oedipal phase of psychic development wherein the mother is nurturing and non-threatening, rather than the harbinger of sexual difference, castration anxiety, and forbidden desire. [26]

  8. Taking Hamlet at his word when he claims to be interested in "metal more attractive" than his mother (3.2.103), Branagh's Hamlet -- surrounded by squeaky clean reflecting surfaces -- spends his time developing other, more "healthy" relationships at the Danish court. [27] More specifically, Branagh's film steers clear of two taboos -- incest and homoerotic desire -- which have inflected the majority of previous Hamlet films. At pains to depict Hamlet as a well-adjusted adult, the film off-sets any hint of underlying incestuous desire between Hamlet and Gertrude by accentuating Hamlet's desire for Ophelia. This effect is achieved principally through the use of flashbacks. For example, as Ophelia agrees to obey her father's wishes in rejecting Hamlet's romantic advances, she remembers making love with Hamlet in flashbacks that are evocative of classic Hollywood love scenes -- from the clichéd body positioning to the rapturous visual tones of the lighting. Gratuitous even in a full-text version of Shakespeare's play, these scenes literalize the phallic prerogatives Branagh assumes in offering us a "full length" Hamlet by actually showing us the hidden sexual virility of Shakespeare's otherwise gloomy Dane. Branagh seizes another opportunity to underscore Hamlet's intense and ongoing desire for Ophelia by having her (rather than Polonius) read Hamlet's love letter aloud to the King. And, when Polonius begins reading as Ophelia's voice-over ends, the camera flashes back to Ophelia's recollection of Hamlet reciting verses to her in bed, offering yet another glimpse of Hamlet in a healthy heterosexual light. By generating the illusion of a serious, committed relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (a relationship which is tenuous at best in Shakespeare's play), Branagh also succeeds in making the failure of this relationship a crucial causal agent of Hamlet's madness. In Shakespeare's play, this failure is clearly rendered as an effect of Hamlet's temporary insanity. Branagh, however, reverses this causality in the crucial nunnery scene by both directing and playing this scene in a way that links Hamlet's rage directly to Ophelia's rejection of him. In so doing, the film virtually absolves Hamlet of his ensuing phallocratic tyranny toward Ophelia, for this tyranny is greatly mitigated by the fact that Ophelia has wounded him in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. This "explanation" of Hamlet's cruelty toward Ophelia thus succeeds in further displacing Hamlet's obsession with the "villainous" sexual activity of his mother and, once again, stresses his status as a normative male: Hamlet plays the jilted lover in this scene, not the fixated son who rejects Ophelia because his mother has rejected him.

  9. Despite Branagh's own contention that his film is definitely not a psychoanalytic interpretation of Hamlet, his symptomatic denial of non-normative sexual desires and their displacement onto non-threatening images of sexual behavior throughout the film provide more evidence for Freud's reading than any other cinematic interpretation of the play. Indeed, in addition to downplaying the incest card, Branagh's film focuses on Hamlet's healthy heterosexuality by avoiding the homoerotic overtones which are often emphasized in Hamlet's relationship with Horatio -- Horatio is, after all, the figure whom Hamlet wears in his "heart's core" (3.2.69). Rejecting the lingering embraces, longing gazes, and other physical displays that have characterized previous visualizations of this friendship, Branagh creates a conventional Hollywood "buddy" relationship between Hamlet and Horatio, who approach each other with brisk pats on the back and boyish exchanges, as if they were fraternity brothers rather than "secret sharers." [28] The depiction of Hamlet as exemplary of American ideals of masculinity and normative sexuality is further evidenced in Robin Williams's characterization of Osric as the stereotype of a gay male. [29] In their interactions with this flaming "Mrs. Doubtfire" version of Osric, both Hamlet and Horatio maintain their "straight" identities through their snide remarks and quips, which take on stridently homophobic overtones in the context of Williams's dandyism. Ultimately, then, this scene serves less to advance the plot of Shakespeare's play than to perform an act of textual and sexual damage control. Through its jocular, locker-room derision of male homoerotic desire, this interpretation of Osric's relationship to Hamlet and Horatio fuels the film's ideological preoccupation with the normative, again insuring that Branagh-as-Hamlet and Branagh's Hamlet follow the "straight" and narrow path of dominant cultural attitudes towards sexuality.

  10. These extensive "establishing shots" of Hamlet operate visually -- at the level of form -- to deflect attention away from the verbal content of Hamlet's soliloquies, in which he reveals his obsession with Gertrude's body and sexuality. The visual effects of the sets, stars, and flashback sequences thus undermine the powerfully erotic and intense language that Shakespeare's Hamlet employs in his soliloquies to voice his irrepressible fixation with his mother. Accordingly, by the time we arrive at the primal scene of the play's Oedipal subtext, namely, Hamlet's visitation to Gertrude's bedchamber, the viewer is in no way encouraged to identify the occasion of this meeting between mother and son as Hamlet's problem; Hamlet is here solely to expose "what's the matter" with his mother (3.4.14). In contrast to other filmed Hamlets, Branagh's version of this scene neither imagines nor enacts sexual intercourse between Gertrude and Hamlet. Instead, mother and son are more business-like in their dealings, as Hamlet makes good on his vow to Gertrude that he shall "set you up a glass / Where you may see the [inmost] part of you" (3.4.19-20). [30] What is most striking about this scene, therefore, is the fact the central prop Branagh utilizes for this confrontation is not a bed, but rather, a daybed or couch. Quite ingeniously, this conspicuous icon of psychoanalysis offers further "proof" that Branagh's Hamlet is immune to standard Oedipal readings of the play. For what this suggestive staging creates is essentially a patient/physician dynamic between mother and son in which Hamlet occupies the coveted position of the "subject presumed to know," that is, the figure of the analyst, who is presumed to know the meaning of the analysand's symptom. [31] As an analyst figure, Branagh's Hamlet once again turns away from consideration of his own psychosexual pathologies and becomes the site of other characters' transferential desires -- including our own. This effect is enhanced through the strategic and indeed ubiquitous use of mirrors in the film: no matter where we look or who we are looking for, Hamlet answers our gaze. In a sense, then, the viewer occupies a position akin to Gertrude's in the bedchamber scene throughout the film.

  11. Of course, it is no great leap from the analyst's couch to the director's chair, for this interpretation of Hamlet's character plays into Branagh's own extra-diegetic fantasies. As director, Branagh is the "subject presumed to know" Hamlet, equipped with the special knowledge of how to "pluck out" the mystery of performing Shakespeare's most challenging play. This elision between Branagh-the-director and Hamlet-the-analyst becomes particularly compelling when we realize that Branagh is the figure credited for having coaxed Julie Christie (who plays Gertrude) out of retirement, as if he knew the meaning of her reclusiveness and the cure for her dormant career. What Branagh offers Julie Christie in allocating her the part of Gertrude, is, in effect, a "talking cure" for her long silence as an actress. Establishing Hamlet and Branagh as a version of the Lacanian "subject presumed to know" also serves a practical purpose in enabling Branagh to sustain an illusion of total control both within and beyond the diegesis of the film. Branagh has often humorously noted the difficulties he has in maintaining on-the-set control over his ingenious cast members, whose lists of acting credits frequently far exceed his own. In the case of Hamlet, which audaciously assembles the likes of Richard Attenborough, Richard Briers, Julie Christie, Judi Dench, John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, and Charlton Heston, the stakes of Branagh's ability to establish authority multiply exponentially, for these are the very figures who once provoked his transferential desire; now, however, they must become the willing subjects of his structuring gaze. By positioning himself as the "subject presumed to know" both on and off stage, then, Branagh is able to streamline and sustain his directorial authority whether he is behind the camera or in front of it. And, as Mark Thornton Burnett observes, by drawing so shamelessly upon "the pooled resources of Stratford-upon-Avon dignitaries," Branagh "sets himself up an another epic filmmaker, as a bardic interpreter with impeccable credentials." [32]

  12. The bedchamber scene, laden as it is with these extra-diegetic manoeuvres, thus resonates as one more mode of "distortion, defence, and disguise" through which Branagh submerges the Oedipal pathologies of the play's textual content in recognizably normative visual forms. But according to Lacan, the "unconscious" reveals itself in the gap between form and content; as Slavoj Zizek explains, "in this very keeping the content at a distance from the form -- the 'repressed' truth of the content finds room to articulate itself." [33] Branagh's efforts to distance Hamlet's obsession with the specter of the maternal return to haunt this production in the form of the paternal, where Branagh's diversionary emphasis on fathers plays out an Oedipal rivalry that far exceeds the psychoanalytic compass of Shakespeare's play.


  13. While the content of Shakespeare's most famous of tragedies hinges on the mechanisms of fascination and disgust triggered by encounters with female sexuality, structurally, the play revolves around fathers. In its provocative conflation of the familial and the political, Hamlet revolves around the worshipping and the killing of father-kings, as well as the succession of sons. What is most interesting about Branagh's interpretation of these primal scenes is the way he uses them for the purposes of worshipping and killing what he refers to, appropriately, as the "ghosts" of other Hamlet performances. Much has been made of the fact that it was Derek Jacobi's impersonation of Hamlet that jump-started Branagh's love-affair with Shakespeare back when Branagh was merely a wide-eyed fifteen year-old from Belfast. Just over a decade later, in 1988, Jacobi directed Branagh as Hamlet in the Renaissance Theatre Company production of the play. Contrary to the response we might expect from Branagh on the subject of this dream-come-true, Branagh's memories of his experience were not fond: "I felt much more crushingly the weight of the ghosts of other performances," he claims, recalling his intimidation by "the weight of expectation that comes with any young actor playing the role . . . . It was not a relaxed experience." [34] But in 1996, Branagh was able to get his "revenge" by playing both son and father to Jacobi's Claudius, that is, by playing Hamlet within the film and by directing Hamlet behind the scenes. [35] Here again, Branagh creates a clever elision between his real and fictive roles; as we shall see, as the "heir apparent," this prince aspires less to the throne of Denmark than to the mantle of English theatrical royalty.

  14. Before we proceed to explore the stakes of Branagh's family values, however, something more must be said of the traditional interpretation of Hamlet under the lens of the Oedipus complex. According to Freudian-based psychoanalytic theory, healthy progression through the Oedipal triangle culminates in the male child's renunciation of the mother as an object of desire and his subsequent identification with the father, or more specifically, with the paternal signifier or "law" of the father. In so doing, the male child also learns to generate substitute objects for the mother which, according to Lacan, are the objets (petit a) that form the very basis of fantasy and structure the metonymic pursuit of desire. In Hamlet, Shakespeare's protagonist remains trapped in the inaugural phase of the Oedipal triangle, wherein the subject desires his mother and therefore wishes to kill the father. This pathology stems in part from the way in which the play complicates the status of the paternal signifier by killing Hamlet's real father and replacing him with an evil substitute, who is clept a drunkard, an incestuous adulterer, and a murderer. Initially, Hamlet's course of action appears to be a "no brainer"; he should identify with the place of the father -- that is, his real, deceased father -- by revenging Old Hamlet's murder and claiming the throne for himself, fulfilling both the familial and political mandates with which he is saddled. The problem is, as Linda Charnes observes, this symbolic mandate issues from "a corrupted enunciatory site," a site "blossoming" with sin, as the Ghost himself describes it (1.5.76). [36] As Zizek explains, the knowledge that the Ghost imparts to Hamlet not only concerns the revelation of his murder, but also, "a dark, licentious side of the father-king who is otherwise presented as an ideal figure . . ." [37] Unable to identify with either Old Hamlet or Claudius, then, young Hamlet spends the majority of the play unwilling to accede to the symbolic position of the father and, as a result, he grows increasingly obsessed with the "matter" of his mother. When Hamlet at last assumes his symbolic mandate, appropriating the utterance reserved for Kings as he leaps after Laertes into Ophelia's grave, crying "This is I, Hamlet, the Dane" (5.1.243), it is too late to re-direct the play's momentum. Hamlet has "forgot himself" (5.2.76) for too long, and the machinery of his own destruction has already begun to close in around him.

  15. As suggested earlier, Branagh avoids situating his Hamlet as the object of the play's "slings and arrows" of Oedipal desire by positioning him in the invulnerable position of the subject "presumed to know." In order to consolidate this identity for his Danish prince, however, Branagh must play the usurper, replacing the memory of his theatrical "father," Derek Jacobi, in the British theatrical imagination. By casting Jacobi as the villainous, illegitimate King Claudius, Branagh appears to make easy work of this task, allowing the play itself to dictate this necessary overthrow. But herein lies the rub: the Oedipally-charged desire that Branagh attempts to diffuse between Hamlet and Gertrude must seek its object elsewhere, and in Branagh's film, the body this wayward desire claims is none other than Jacobi's Claudius. As we shall see, Branagh's novel approach to Hamlet-as-analyst is a "fiction" which, as Lacan claims of all disguises, reveals the underlying structure of the "Truth." [38] Despite Branagh's effort to make his Hamlet the blank screen onto which other, less-normative characters (Ophelia, Gertrude, Osric) project their pathological desires, this Hamlet cannot maintain the sanctity of the analyst-analysand relationship when it comes to Jacobi's Claudius, who becomes the object of Branagh's transferential desire. In other words, while Shakespeare's Hamlet ultimately solves his own crisis of identification by determining to "follow" the Ghost (1.4.86), Branagh's Hamlet appears more intent on following Claudius's, that is, Jacobi's immortal footsteps.

  16. Branagh was only fifteen when Jacobi first activated his transferential desire. "Surprisingly," Branagh claims, at a time when he was only interested in soccer and girls, "what did grab my attention . . . was a television serialization of Robert Graves's I, Claudius. I was particularly impressed by the actor playing the title role. His name was Derek Jacobi." [39] Branagh's interest in Derek Jacobi led him to purchase his first ticket to a Shakespeare play, Hamlet, in which the fabled actor was playing the lead. Embarking on a train bound for Oxford, Branagh recalls the journey as being his "first real independent outing as an adolescent." As for the experience of the play itself -- it was, according to Branagh, tantamount to an epiphany, for not only did it make him "resolv[e] to become an actor," but also, it shaped the course of his life: "I believe that much of what has followed in my life was affected by that experience." [40] Jacobi's portrayal of Hamlet also seems to have shaped the course of Branagh's Hamlet, for the pronounced resemblance Branagh creates between his Danish prince and Jacobi's Claudius clearly articulates a desire to be like Jacobi -- to be, in effect, his "natural" son. In contrast to the members of the court who surround them (and the sea of 500 extras who occasionally converge upon the mise en scène), Hamlet and Claudius are the only two figures who have bleach-blonde hair cut in a military flat-top style, which accentuates their difference from the distinctly non-cropped, darker hair of the rest of the cast. Likewise, their costumes distinguish them from the crowd: Claudius and Hamlet both wear black, plain, and form-fitting outfits which they occupy with the stiff posture of bowling pins, quite unlike the relaxed poses, softer hues, and more lavish designs bedecking the other members of the vaguely nineteenth-century court. These pale, svelte, and decidedly phallic images of Claudius and Hamlet could not be further removed from the image of Old Hamlet, whose peppery hair, incandescent eyes, gargantuan physique, and sulfurous breath make a grotesque spectacle of Shakespeare's more (sym)pathetic Ghost. In this film, then, Hamlet's identificatory crisis involving his two fathers is further complicated by Branagh's own fascination with Jacobi, the "father" which, in more ways than one, he must "kill."

  17. Branagh's film thus presents us once again with a provocative conflict between form and content. For despite the fact that Branagh's Hamlet appears to grieve for his deceased father more excessively than the part demands (he consistently weeps upon the very mention of his father), this performance of filial loyalty is betrayed by the film's formal representation of the more convincing visual relationship between Hamlet and Claudius. Repeatedly bludgeoning us with an uncanny family resemblance between stepfather and son, the film posits a mirroring relationship between Jacobi's Claudius and Branagh's Hamlet which attests to the depth of Branagh's extra-diegetic admiration for Jacobi. At one level, their extraordinary physical resemblance in the film suggests that Branagh identifies with Jacobi in imaginary terms as his "ideal ego." As Zizek explains, "in imaginary identification we imitate the other at the level of resemblance -- we identify ourselves in the image of the other inasmuch as we are 'like him' . . . " [41] But if this is the case in Branagh's Hamlet, then why doesn't Branagh simply cast Jacobi as Old Hamlet, staging the fulfillment of his transferential desire to be like this otherwise inimitable Shakespearean precursor? The answer, we might conclude, revolves around the fact that Branagh must come to identify with Jacobi in symbolic, rather than imaginary, terms. Branagh must succeed from the realm of the "ideal ego" to that of the "ego ideal" by identifying himself with precisely the point at which Jacobi is "inimitable, at the point which [he] eludes resemblance." [42] This transition from imaginary to symbolic identification involves a critical shift of gazes in which the subject learns to align himself not with the position from which he appears likable to himself, but rather, with the position from which he appears likable to others. In casting Jacobi as Claudius, then, Branagh brilliantly streamlines this identificatory process by evoking the primal scene of his adolescent, imaginary desire to be like Jacobi in I, Claudius and by placing his Hamlet in a symbolic position to "kill" this father-figure according to the dictates of the play. Consequently, as Branagh's Hamlet thrusts the poison down the throat of Jacobi's Claudius and commands him to "follow my mother" (5.2.308), he is quite literally giving Jacobi a taste of his own medicine; supplanting his life-long experience of transferential desire for Jacobi, Branagh hereby stage-directs and succeeds him as the "subject presumed to know" Hamlet. Thus ends the most Oedipal filmed Hamlet of all time.

  18. But the cycle, or rather, the triangle, is not complete until Derek Jacobi's last day on the set, when he "springs a surprise" on Branagh:

    He holds up red-bound copy of the play, that successive actors have passed on to each other with the condition that the recipient should give it in turn to the finest Hamlet of the next generation. It has come from Forbes Robertson, a great Hamlet at the turn of the century, to Derek, via Henry Ainley, Michael Redgrave, Peter O'Toole and others -- now he gives it to Ken. [43]

    Like father, like son. In the context of the Oedipal overthrow staged by Branagh's Hamlet, this little red book represents the objet petit a, the object around which Branagh's fantasy of theatrical succession is structured. [44] No longer the Belfast-born step-son of the English theatre, Branagh is hereby offered a new patrilineage by none other than Derek Jacobi, who renders this latest Hamlet both natural son of and heir apparent to English theatrical royalty. As we shall see, however, the specter of the repressed maternal element haunts even the Hollywood ending of this family romance, which encodes the necessary corrective for "what's the matter" with Branagh's mother -- that is, his motherland.


  19. Hamlet is a play about primal scenes, both familial and political. But this play also constitutes a return to primal personal scenes for Branagh. Hamlet is, after all, the play that first introduced Branagh to Shakespeare and indoctrinated him into the "family" of Shakespearean actors which, in turn, led him progressively further away from his own family and his Irish homeland -- initially through the adoption of an English accent, and later, through his choice of residence. Ever since his family fled the Troubles in Belfast to settle in English suburbia, Branagh recalls with bitterness his forced choice of becoming "English at school and remain[ing] Irish at home" as the most expedient means of escaping playground bullies seeking an Irish scapegoat for their English rage. "The seventies were not a good time to be Irish in Reading [England]," Branagh relates. "Many of the children at school had older brothers in the [English] Army. Every death reported on the television news made me try to change even further; I longed to just blend in." [45] Unable to celebrate his Irish motherland or to acquire full acceptance into his newly adopted English fatherland, Branagh was traumatized by what he calls -- to this day -- his "Anglo-Irish sense of 'belonging nowhere.'" [46]

  20. His adolescent response to this identity crisis was to turn to acting permanently, hoping to transcend his undesirable Irishness by fashioning what he describes as a "quintessentially English" identity. Branagh accomplished this objective by suppressing his Irish accent entirely and, subsequently, by gaining approval for his "performance" from the two great arbiters and sculptors of English "character": the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Following his prodigious success and the formation of his own theatre and film company, appropriately named Renaissance, Branagh merged his ongoing process of personal "adaptation" with his new interest in cinematic adaptation, successfully bringing his life-long love for the English Classics to the screen in highly-acclaimed Shakespearean and Hitchcock-inspired productions, including Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and the suspense-thriller Dead Again, as well as in his less successful epic adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. [47] In light of Branagh's "troubled" family history, we might interpret his cinematic romance with the English classics in light of what Freud describes as the "family romance," which revolves around a fantasy of replacing one's biological parents with new and improved ones -- in Branagh's case, English parents. [48] In this context, Hamlet operates both as the pièce de resistance in Branagh's "quintessentially English" opus and as a piece that activates his resistance; for its story of a son torn between filial loyalty to an all too present mother and an all too absent father is much too close to home for him.

  21. As we have seen, then, rather than staging Hamlet in light of these provocative Oedipal tensions, Branagh repeats -- in art -- the repression of the maternal upon which his pursuit of an English pedigree in life is based. [49] But Branagh is not without guilt over his denial of the motherland, nor does he hesitate to link this guilt to his Irish heritage. What is more striking is the fact that he identifies Hamlet as the play which most elicits this guilt. [50] Playing analyst to the last, then, Branagh attempts to prescribe his own cure by returning to the primal scene of his flight from the maternal, debuting Hamlet in -- of all places -- Belfast. Mark Thornton Burnett has recently argued that "[b]y staging the premiere in Belfast, Branagh, poised between two cultures in that he was born in Belfast but brought up in England, is bringing Shakespeare back to an adopted Irish homeland." [51] Burnett's comment raises a crucial question: how can one's homeland be "adopted" -- isn't the homeland the site of one's natural "parents"? That is the question. At first glance, Branagh's decision to bring the Bard back to Ireland suggests a politically daring move, one which challenges the traditional English stranglehold on Shakespeare's patrimony and legacy. By making Belfast rather than London the site of the film's United Kingdom debut, Branagh appears ready to affirm his long-repressed motherland, as he suggests in his recent observation about England's classic covetousness towards the Bard: "I resist slightly the appropriation that this country [England] makes for [Shakespeare]." [52] But as we shall see, Branagh resists too slightly England's appropriation of Shakespeare, revealing instead the extent to which he has modelled his own career on an internalized narrative of English imperialism.

  22. At the end of his introduction to the shooting script for Hamlet, Branagh explains that "[c]ertainly for me, an ongoing relationship to this kind of poetry and this kind of mind is a necessary part of an attempt to be civilized." [53] The civilizing mission staged by Branagh's Hamlet is nowhere more apparent than in the film's apocalyptic conclusion, which unmistakably reduces Branagh's colourful cast to a caste system and exposes the imperializing contours of his "family romance." Setting the stage for this imperial subtext, Branagh shoots Elsinore's exteriors on location at Blenheim palace, the legendary home of the Churchills and the palace built to commemorate England's victory over the French at Blenheim in 1704. We can therefore expect that the one French actor in the film, Gerard Depardieu, will not occupy a privileged place in the Danish royal court. And indeed, Depardieu's Reynaldo is not merely Polonius's "informant," as he is in Shakespeare's play, but is embellished in Branagh's film as Polonius's morally-suspect pimp. However, the very bottom of the socio-cultural strata in Hamlet is occupied by the hordes of exotic extras who form the literally colorful backdrop of the Danish court. Offering a faceless synecdoche for Branagh's trademark investment in international casting and, on a more sinister note, a catalogue of England's colonized Others, these extras give Branagh's Denmark a flashy United Nations feel only to be uniformly dispensed with in the bloodbath that concludes the film. Slightly more distinguishable are the American actors, recognizable by their accents and their roles as second-class citizens to the Danish (English) royals; Billy Crystal is a poor gravedigger, Jack Lemmon is a sentry, Robin Williams is a court parasite, and the veteran Charlton Heston is an inveterate player. By the time we have climbed the social ladder up to the Danish royalty, then, we find that these roles have all been allocated to the English theatrical "royals." And, lest we fear the obliteration of this latter royal line in the film's violent ending, Branagh cleverly heads the attacking Norwegian Army with a Captain played by the real Duke of Marlborough. [54] Thus, no matter how Branagh splices the film's conclusion, English royalty -- whether in its actual or theatrical form -- prevails. This is the "civilization" that Branagh imagines himself heir to at the end of his Hamlet.


  23. While for Freud and Lacan the maternal is the placeholder of a mysterious and disturbing lack, for Branagh, this "lack" translates into a lack of "civilization" and, indeed, a lack of "Englishness." Accordingly, when it came time to appear at the primal scene of the film's United Kingdom debut, Branagh concluded that to lay claim to Hamlet in Belfast would be to risk reclamation by the motherland. Staging a finale to the "poetics of disavowal" so central to his Hamlet, Branagh opted to absent himself from a potentially infelicitous encounter with his own site of origin, leaving Julie Christie to appear in his place. Still playing the doting mother, Christie welcomed the audience, proudly introducing the film and fondly referring to Branagh as "your boy." [55] But for an audience eager to name this prodigal son as their own, disappointment followed. Rather than acknowledging his familial and political debt to Belfast, Branagh preferred to remain, like Hamlet, at "school" -- in Hollywood -- where he was learning how to become an American in Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man. [56] As Mark Thornton Burnett points out, however, Branagh was present at the premiere as a "ghost," that is, in the form of a videotaped message voicing his support for "First Run Belfast," the charity targeted by the Hamlet screening. [57] In more ways than one, then, it is a ghostly, Hamletian legacy that this son bequeaths to his "adopted" Irish motherland. For "First Run Belfast" sponsors the efforts of local thespians to study or to stage drama outside Northern Ireland, offering tacit encouragement for the next of Branagh's generation to follow his lead in "adapting" their work to greener pastures -- perhaps even to become, like Branagh, ghost sons of a willfully forgotten Ireland in favour of Shakespeare's sceptered isle.

  24. At a time when the Irish motherland is asserting her own claim to independence, the stakes of Branagh's repression of the maternal in Hamlet exceed the psychoanalytic theatre of the mind and extend to the stony limits of English imperialism. Pushed to a pressure point not only by Northern Ireland's drive for independence but also by the specter of the European Union -- a merger which threatens to level the differences through which the English Father/Nation maintains the power to infantilize its postcolonial neighbours and nurturers -- England will have to find more subtle ways to assert its nationalistic gaze in the arena of the New Europe. [58] The power of cinema to focus this gaze, particularly in the context of an approaching millenium, cannot be underestimated, and it is within this ideological frame that we must consider Shakespeare's peculiar and prolific reemergence as the once and future saviour of the British film industry and the new staple of Hollywood. Kenneth Branagh, the undoubted father of this Shakespearean revival, has been likened to a Pied Piper "leading moviegoers to the Bard." [59] Consciously or unconsciously, Branagh's Hamlet leads us to a place where psychoanalytic and geopolitical barriers converge, and where the value of reading not only "into" and "between" these lines, but also across them, is crucial to our understanding of the repression upon which all "civilizing" missions -- personal and political -- are based. Indeed, Branagh may be crediting with leading the masses to Shakespeare, but we must realize that he has done so only by "first run(ning)" away. [Body of document; numbered paragraphs; here's a footnote link[24]]


1. Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to Tempest (New York: Routledge, 1992), 11. We wish to thank Linda Charnes for her helpful comments and suggestions for revision.

2. Adelman, 17.

3. See Franco Zeffirelli, dir., Hamlet, Warner Bros., 1990; Kenneth Branagh, dir., Hamlet, Columbia Pictures, 1996; and Laurence Olivier, dir., Hamlet, Two Cities Films, 1948.

4. In an issue of Film and Literature Quarterly devoted to Shakespeare on screen (25.2: [1997]), three critics deal with psychoanalytic interpretations of Hamlet films. See John P. McCombe, "Toward an Objective Correlative: The Problem of Desire in Zeffirelli's Hamlet," 125-31; James R Simmons, Jr., "'In the Rank Sweat of an Enseamed Bed': Sexual Aberration and the Paradigmatic Screen Hamlets," 77-94; and Philip Weller, "Freud's Footprints in Films of Hamlet," 119-24. Though these three critics approach the theory and the films from different perspectives and positions, each expresses a disapproval of psychoanalytic interpretations of Hamlet on screen. In a review in The Shakespeare Newsletter, John Andrews and others praise Branagh's decision to make a non-Freudian Hamlet. See John F. Andrews, "Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet Launched at National Air and Space Museum," The Shakespeare Newsletter 46.3 (1996): 53, 62, 66, 76.

5. Simmons goes so far as to suggest that films from Gade onward have created "sexo-centric" Hamlets (111), insinuating that, previous to filmed adaptations, Hamlet was not "sexo-centric."

6. For some time, psychoanalytic critics have pointed out Hamlet's misogyny and hostility directed towards his mother. For an extensive analysis of Hamlet's disgust of the sexualized maternal body from the position of object relations theory, see Adelman; for discussions of the anxiety and desire of the mother in Hamlet from a Freudian/Lacanian view, see Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), as well as Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993).

7. In Elaine Showalter's article tracing various representations of Ophelia from early modern England to postmodern America, she reveals that Ophelia, in all her incarnations, has always responded in complex and disparate ways to cultural notions of female sexuality and madness. For more on the history of Ophelia in performance and in popular culture, see Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism," Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Routledge, 1985), 77-94.

8. For other insights on Rose's reading, see Lupton and Reinhard, 65-66.

9. Rose, 124.

10. As Rose argues, the importance of the unconscious and sexuality in twentieth-century criticism of Hamlet can even be detected in Eliot's famous critique of the play for its failure to exhibit an "objective correlative." To Eliot, the writer must transcribe subjective reality -- feelings and emotions -- into the objective realm of the literary text in order for it to achieve the appropriate aesthetic effect. In his attempt to uncover the missing "objective correlative" of Hamlet, Eliot is forced to confront the "unconscious" of the play. Despite his resistance, as Rose repeatedly observes, Eliot crosses dangerously into the terrain of sexuality in his reading of Shakespeare's enigmatic tragedy.

11. Sigmund Freud, The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, trans. and ed. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985), 298. Freud's commentary on Hamlet was included as a footnote in the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, and later as part of the text in printings after 1914. His ideas on Hamlet first appear in his letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated October 15, 1987, in which he moves from the topic of mourning to that of the Oedipus complex and Hamlet's unconscious desires (Complete Letters 270-73). For a comprehensive discussion of Freud's writings on Hamlet, see Lupton and Reinhard, 11-33.

12. Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet (1977)," Literature and Psychoanalysis -- The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1993), 11-52 (45).

13. Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," 45, 44.

14. It should be pointed out, however, that it is Ernest Jones, rather than Freud, whose writing had the most immediate influence on Olivier's and hence subsequent versions of Hamlet on screen. Jones undertook the task of uncovering Hamlet's unconscious wishes, a project that was attempted on screen by Olivier, Zeffirelli, and others, who have also attempted to make the latent manifest, to uncover the unconscious and render it visible. Such a move is anti-psychoanalytic, for to make the unconscious visible is to make it conscious and to deny the repression of desire in the unconscious (see Lisa S. Starks, "The Displaced Body of Desire: Sexuality in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet", Shakespeare and Appropriation, eds. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer [London and New York: Routledge, 1999], 160-78, 162-4). On the history of Jones's influence and Olivier's work, see Weller; for an in-depth biographical analysis of psychoanalytic theory in Olivier's film, see Peter S. Donaldson, Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), esp. 31-67.

15. Laura Mulvey, Fetishism and Curiosity (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996), 12.

16. Mulvey, 12, 13.

17. Mulvey, 58.

18. Branagh's strategic use of Hollywood stars, for example, certainly adds to the glam factor; but more importantly, it initiates a string of cinematic allusions which leads further and further away from the "matter" of Shakespeare's play. As each star bursts onto their respective scenes, the viewer's attention is drawn into a state of kaleidoscopic splintering: enter Billy Crystal's "city slicker" gravedigger, Robin Williams's flaming "Mrs. Doubtfire" version of Osric, Jack Lemmon's "grumpy old man" Marcellus, and Charlton Heston's Moses-like Player-King. Of course, none of these actors appear for more than five minutes in the course of this four-hour epic, but the promotional material nonetheless insists that Hamlet "stars" each and every one of them, betraying Branagh's reliance on name-brands other than "Shakespeare" to get moviegoers into the seats.

19. See David Lean, dir., Dr Zhivago, Carlo Ponti, prod., 1965. See also Starks 173-4.

20. Mulvey, 58.

21. For an exciting and vigorous examination of the Oedipal dynamics of Zeffirelli's Hamlet, see Linda Charnes, "Dismember Me: Shakespeare, Paranoia, and the Logic of Mass Culture," Shakespeare Quarterly 48.1 (Spring 1997): 1-16, esp. 7-11.

22. Mulvey, 59.

23. Branagh's remarks are cited in Gary Arnold, "Branagh Breathes New Life into Classics," Insight on the News 15 January 1996: 36-37.

24. For a detailed discussion of the postmodern aesthetic, see Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1991). Jameson observes that within the structuring logic of postmodernism, cultural production has exchanged its interest in depth for a fascination with surfaces, activating formal play with surfaces through the production of simulacra, self-reflexivity, pastiche, and intertextuality. The resulting representations are those of a culture wholly determined by "consumers' appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and 'spectacles' . . . " (18).

25. For Branagh's remarks on the making of Hamlet, see Russell Jackson's Film Diary in Hamlet, By William Shakespeare: Screenplay, Introduction, and Film Diary (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), 175-208 (193).

26. See Jacques Lacan, "The Mirror Stage," Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977). According to Lacan, the mirror stage is the "jubilant assumption" of the child's "specular image . . . at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence . . . " (2). It represents the point at which "the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject" in the drama of sexual difference (2).

27. All citations of the play are from Susanne L. Wofford's edition; see William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Susanne L. Wofford (New York: Bedford Books, 1994). For a detailed analysis of these "healthy" realtionships, see Starks 173-178.

28. The term "secret sharer" refers to Bruce R. Smith's discussion of the confessional, homoerotic nature of Shakespeare's sonnets in Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991), esp. 225-270.

29. For an extensive discussion of the (hetero)sexual politics of Branagh's Hamlet, see Lisa S. Starks's essay "The Displaced Body of Desire: Sexuality in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet," Shakespeare and Appropriation, eds. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 160-78.

30. In previous filmed versions of Hamlet, most notably Laurence Olivier's, Tony Richardson's (Richardson, dir., Neil Hartley, prod., 1969), and Franco Zeffirelli's films and Jonathan Miller's BBC production starring Derek Jacobi (1980), Hamlet reveals his incestuous longings. After aggressively hurling his mother onto the bed, these Hamlets either succumb to erotic romantic caresses and kisses or "top" Gertrude, making lewd movements suggesting sexual intercourse.

31. For multiple interpretations of the "subject presumed to . . ." see Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York: Verso, 1989), esp. 185.

32. See Mark Thornton Burnett, "The 'Very Cunning of the Scene': Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet," Literature-Film Quarterly 25.2 (1997): 78-82 (81).

33. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 189.

34. Samuel Crowl records Branagh's observations in a 1994 interview, "Hamlet 'Most Royal': An Interview with Kenneth Branagh," Shakespeare Bulletin 12.4 (Fall 1994): 5-8 (6).

35. In this schema, Branagh's role as director operates as a fail-safe, supporting a fantasy of parthenogenesis whereby Branagh, the directorial father, begets not only Jacobi's performance, but also reproduces himself as his own son, Hamlet.

36. Charnes, 4.

37. For Zizek's reading of Hamlet's "obscene father," see Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992), esp. 159.

38. According to Lacan, "'the Truth has the structure of a fiction,'" revealing itself in the form of chance encounters where we presume "the presence of 'mere appearance'" (qtd. in Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology 191). The "'shock of the truth,'" as Zizek explains, "consists in its sudden emergence in the midst of the realm of reassuring phenomena" (190).

39. See Branagh's "Introduction" in Hamlet, By William Shakespeare: Screenplay, Introduction, and Film Diary (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), xi-xv, esp. xi-xii.

40. Branagh, "Introduction," xii.

41. Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 109.

42. Ibid.

43. Jackson, 206.

44. In Lacanian theory, the objet petit a is a critical component of the structure of fantasy, for it represents the object-cause of desire. At the same time, however, in "going through fantasy," we experience how this fantasy-object, as Zizek explains, "only materializes the void of our desire," that is, the constitutive lack which it is the role of fantasy to conceal (The Sublime Object of Ideology 65). As the cite of both a surplus-enjoyment and a fundamental impotence, then, the objet petit a perfectly demonstrates the way in which Branagh's fantasy of becoming "English" is based on the fundamental lack posed by his Irishness.

45. Branagh records these observations in his autobiography, Beginning (New York: St. Martin's P, 1989), 23.

46. Beginning, 81.

47. Branagh starred in and directed all of these films. See Henry V, Renaissance Films, 1989; Much Ado About Nothing, Renaissance Films, 1993; Dead Again, Paramount Pictures, 1992; and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Shelley Films, Ltd., 1994.

48. Sigmund Freud, "Family Romances," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 9. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1959), 237-241.

49. The stakes of this repression are uniquely heightened by the fact that the Irish motherland, not unlike the threatening figure of the mother in Shakespeare's play, has been traditionally represented through the mythology of the "devouring mother." This image of mother Ireland has been popularized by literary figures like Yeats, Joyce, and Synge, as well as recent filmmakers like Neil Jordan. As Patrick Keane observes, because Ireland is typically personified as a conflation of "beloved, mother, and Muse . . . . she is a necessarily ambivalent figure: . . . at once creative and destructive, benevolent and malign, nurturing and devouring." Thus she draws her male children in particular into an eternal state of Oedipal dependency--what James Joyce has quippingly described not as an Oedipus, but as an "eatapus complex," embodied in the womb that swallows its sons. Accordingly, by refusing to "make mother matter" in the first place, Branagh's Hamlet offers Branagh a fantasy resolution to the crisis of his own birth, reinscribing his Irish site of origin with a quintessentially English narrative of male theatrical parthenogenesis. For a discussion of Ireland as a "devouring mother," see Patrick J. Keane, Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland, and the Myth of the Devouring Female (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1988).

50. Branagh, Beginning, 74, 58.

51. Burnett, 82.

52. For Branagh's remarks, see Paul Meier's 1997 interview "Kenneth Branagh: With Utter Clarity," The Drama Review (Summer 1997): 82-89.

53. Branagh, "Introduction," xv.

54. Adding further "intertextual" echoes to this subtext of English imperialism, Blenheim palace was originally constructed for the Duke of Marlborough as a gift commemorating the landmark victory over the French in 1704. Thus, the current Duke of Marlborough fits nicely in this scene of conquest; the Duke is, in effect, returning to his "rightful" home.

55. See Burnett, 82.

56. Hamlet is of course admonished by his mother for failing to look on Denmark "as a friend," for Hamlet prefers to remain at school in Wittenberg. For Branagh's impersonation of a Southern lawyer in Altman's film, see Robert Altman, dir., The Gingerbread Man, Todd R. Baker, et. al, prod., 1998.

57. Burnett, 82.

58. For a rigorous discussion of the European Union vis-à-vis the "Northern Question," see Katrina Irving, "EU-phoria? Irish National Identity, European Union, and The Crying Game," Writing New Identities: Gender, Nation, and Immigration in Contemporary Europe, eds. Gisela Brinker-Gabler and Sidonie Smith (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997), 295-314.

59. See Thom Geier, "Branagh Creates a 'Very Palpable Hit,'" Rev. of Hamlet, U. S. News and World Report 13 January 1997: 14.

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).