A Son Less Than Kind: Iconography, Interpolation,and Masculinity in Branagh’s Hamlet

L. Monique Pittman
Andrews University

Pittman, Monique. "A Son Less Than Kind: Iconography, Interpolation,and Masculinity in Branagh’s Hamlet". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006):4.1-27 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-3/pittham2.htm>.

  1. While Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film adaptation of Henry V declared the young actor-director’s self-appointed status as cinematic heir to Laurence Olivier, the film also established the context of warfare as a crucial and persistent element of the masculine identity imagined by Branagh and scripted in his subsequent treatments of Shakespeare.  The relentlessly sunny Much Ado About Nothing (1993) begins with more than a battle of wits, deliberately alluding to war just past and welcoming the soldiers galloping home from battle.  Similarly, Love’s Labour’s Lost (1999) constructs a fantasy landscape for the four sets of would-be lovers then disrupts that world with the intrusion of a conflict resembling World War II.    Branagh’s infamous “full-text” Hamlet (1996) likewise relies upon military conquest not only as an image of masculinity but also as a pre-text to open out the stage drama of Shakespeare, to give the film the vaunted “epic” feel Branagh claimed in publicity interviews: “‘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’” (qtd. in Lehmann and Starks par. 6).  By featuring the military threat of the Fortinbras plot contrary to the filmed Hamlet tradition, Branagh remains true to the bravado of his claims: the swaggering colloquial “ain’t” inevitably associating Branagh’s project with the cadence and stride of an American Western film hero.[1]

  2. Branagh’s assertions offer an allusive map to the masculinity envisioned by the scope of his endeavour.  Phrases such as “big, big treat,” “epic sweep,” “thousands of extras,” and the dismissal of “talking heads” imply a masculinity grounded on a series of oppositions--action/inaction; deeds/words; grandness of scale/puny inadequacy.  The male agent of change chooses deeds over words, avoids the feminization of passive indecision, and expresses agency by means of violence when necessary.  In Branagh’s film, the Fortinbras invasion of Denmark does double duty: it provides epic material for the action genre aspirations of the film, and it legitimizes Branagh as a sedulously faithful interpreter of Shakespeare’s original text.  However, in the vexed treatment of Hamlet Senior and the conquering Fortinbras’s prowess, Branagh articulates ambivalence about the ideal of active masculinity the film ostensibly celebrates and capitalizes on for box-office profit.  A cluster of iconographic moments in the film demonstrates this ambivalence.  Branagh’s heavy-handed deployment of interpolated matter–the convention whereby visual additions explicate text–deepens the conflict over masculine subjectivity.  In Branagh’s Hamlet, interpolation paradoxically expands uncertainty about masculine identity by protesting too much.  It is no accident that the scene most laden with cuts to interpolated material is also the one most burdened by the imprint of the father’s authority–the ghost scene.  As the father calls his son to martial vengeance, the son/director asserts a narrative authority that while appearing to confirm the Ghost’s tale actually presents an alternate masculine subjectivity that speaks rather than acts and that trumps physical aggression with epistemological certainty.  What emerges from Branagh’s Hamlet is a concept of masculinity as tortured as the titular hero himself–one that asserts deeds over words but ultimately transforms words into a superior form of action.[2]

  3. The film’s presentation of masculinity thus always threatens to dissolve into contradiction and can be traced to the director’s defiant stance towards Oedipal readings and performances of the play.  Contrary to his filmed Hamlet precursors, Laurence Olivier and Franco Zeffirelli, Branagh assiduously distances himself from Freudian interpretations.  Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks both examine Branagh’s suppression of Hamlet’s psycho-sexual complexities in deference to a predominantly hetero-normative vision of masculine selfhood.  Starks points out that Branagh’s analeptic sex scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet “invest Branagh with the screen image of a ‘healthy’ hetero-Hamlet, who exemplifies normative ideals of masculinity and sexuality” (Starks 177).  Starks argues that this “‘masculinization’ of Hamlet” derives from an avoidance of any incestuous or homoerotic desire in the film’s treatment of the brooding Dane.  Crucial to the co-authored argument launched by Lehmann and Starks is a resulting effacement of the original play’s “anxiety about mothers, female sexuality, and hence, sexuality itself”:  “Branagh’s Hamlet avoids any representations of non-normative sexual desire, repressing the sexualized maternal body with a vengeance” (par. 1).  Starks further contends that although Branagh has dismissed a psycho-sexual interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, his work is the “most ‘Oedipal’ of all filmed Hamlets, ironically replicating Freud’s own repression of the maternal through symptomatic denials and displacements in its representations of desire and sexuality” (160).  Lehmann and Starks read Branagh’s filmed Hamlet as a drama of fathers and sons that elides the complex of desire posited between Hamlet and Gertrude to pursue the son’s identification with and replacement of the father.  In this case, Branagh’s own biography as a Northern Irish outsider comes to bear on the play’s conflicts; the young Branagh, first inspired to acting by a Derek Jacobi performance of Hamlet, now directs and kills Jacobi in the step-father role of Claudius.  As a result, Branagh can at last assume a place of pre-eminence within the institution of classical English theatre, signified not only by Jacobi but also by the countless English theatrical luminaries jostling for screen-time in this crowded film (Lehmann and Starks par. 15).  The over-wrought aesthetic of the film derives in part then from an anxiety-of-influence plaguing the outsider, Belfast-native Branagh in relation to England’s Bard and to previous film adaptations of the great tragedy.   Lehmann and Starks construct a convincing reading of the formative creative role played by Branagh’s extra-diegetic psychological baggage; however, their reading assumes too un-tempered an admiration of the “phallic prowess” they see exemplified throughout the film in its “emphasis on size and scale” (par. 6).  Their reading of Branagh’s unintentionally Oedipal film can be sharpened by a reconsideration of Hamlet’s relationship to the ideals of martial masculinity and to the epistemological authority claimed by the interpolative material in the film.[3]

    “These hands are not more like”: Icons of Paternity

  4. Horatio’s insistence that “these hands are not more like” asserts his correct identification of the Ghost as Hamlet Senior and speaks the play’s fascination with likeness and knowing, but in Horatio’s words lurk the uncertainties about identity and similitude that Branagh’s film expands.  Horatio’s assertion begins with “I knew your father” and ends with the claim “these hands are not more like” (1.2.211-12).  But what kind of confirmation is this?  Horatio may hold up his hands and compare one to the other and accord that degree of similarity to the Ghost and the old King Hamlet, but two hands are not, in fact, alike.  The comparison stumbles further as Horatio claims the similarity derives from his memory of the dead father (invoked by the past-tense “knew”), a decidedly mediated comparison.  Furthermore, while the “not” declares an absoluteness of similarity, it can also imply the obviously negative and opposite meaning of an absence of likeness.  In addition, the logic of the line demands a tighter comparative conclusion such as, “I knew your father, the Ghost is not more like”; yet, Shakespeare’s poetry denies this logical progression and substitutes the ambiguous and allusive hands of Horatio.  In Branagh’s film, this question of likeness emerges early on as a problem that troubles the son’s desired identification with the father and finds roots in the text’s characterization of Father Hamlet in terms consistently martial.

  5. The play’s initial presentation of Hamlet Senior as a war hero begins with Horatio’s description: 
    Such was the very armour he had on
    When he the ambitious Norway combated.
    So frown’d he once when in an angry parle
    He smote the sledded [Polacks] on the ice.  (1.1.60-63)
    The text establishes immediately Hamlet Senior’s identity as a divinely gifted military force, citing two enemies–Norway and Poland–and echoing descriptors of the Old Testament God of vengeance in the verb “smote.”  Horatio’s extended explanation of the “sweaty haste” with which Denmark prepares for war next recounts the famous bout of single combat between Hamlet Senior and old Fortinbras.  The early accumulation of detail in the play categorizes the deceased King Hamlet as a victorious man of the sword.  In Branagh’s film, Hamlet Senior’s first appearance is not as the Ghost but as a war memorial bronze atop a chiselled plinth outside the gates of Elsinore.  Although Douglas Lanier argues that the film’s “larger-than-life statue” reflects “Hamlet’s idealization of his father,” the figure is simultaneously a problematic one (159).  In Branagh’s imagination, Hamlet Senior exists as an artistically mediated object from the outset, a representation ontologically distanced from the “questionable” shape of Shakespeare’s Ghost.  He is, from his first appearance, both more and less real as a result.  While Shakespeare’s Ghost poses an epistemological dilemma for Horatio and the night watch, Branagh’s Ghost begins the film as an object undeniably and materially present.  However, as a representation, the statue-ghost visibly declares the distance between animate physicality and created art object.  The Ghost begins the film already as a created representation or fiction, and one outside the circumscribed space of the palace itself.  The fictionality of idealized martial masculinity thus literally takes centre stage before a word of Shakespeare’s text has been uttered. 

  6. Casting underscores the artificiality of the image; the phallic verticality and self-contained pose of the statue do not mirror accurately the corpulent physique or expansive presence of Brian Blessed, the actor playing the elder Hamlet.  The film records a discontinuity between the bronze image and the human being we later see and learn is memorialized by the statue.  Furthermore, the film’s discomfort with the constructs of inherited masculinity as emblematized by the father, statue, and Ghost can be observed in the visual dissimilarity between Branagh and Brian Blessed.  The fleshy, round face, grizzled hair and beard of Blessed bear little resemblance to Branagh’s bleached blond hair, pale, narrow face, and thin moustache.[4]  Branagh’s Hamlet is not his father’s son; rather, he appears much more the step-father’s heir–his costume, hair, and physique more closely matched to that of Jacobi.  The film offers another son to fill the space–Fortinbras (played by Rufus Sewell)–whose martial aggression matches the play’s verbal descriptions of the ghost and the visual details of the film.  Both visually and aurally, Sewell’s Fortinbras better echoes the portrait of Blessed’s elder Hamlet.  The piercing eyes, darker hair, and noticeable beard link the two.   Forced to speak in controlled, relatively uninflected whisper for most of his Act 1 narration to Hamlet, Blessed’s Ghost also establishes an aural tie to Fortinbras.  Throughout the film, Sewell’s Fortinbras speaks in unshaped, wooden phrases, presumably voicing the man-of-action ethos he embodies but also aligning him with the malevolently whispering Blessed.  
  7. The play text constructs Fortinbras as an unseen and shadowy menace for much of the drama, only ushering him on stage in his moment of triumph over the oblivious Danish state.  In contrast, Branagh presents this alternative to Hamlet within the first five minutes of the film during the same scene that depicts the ghost of Hamlet Senior for the first time.  As Horatio explains the cause of Danish preparations for war, a close-up reveals the hand of an angry Fortinbras scattering the flagged markers on a map of troop movements.  Addressing with disdain a listener not visible to the viewer, Fortinbras mouths aggression and strides towards a hanging map which he grabs as the camera moves to a close-up of his face. When the Ghost reappears in Act 1, Scene 1 with beaver up, we see an older, more monumental version of the figure of Fortinbras just previously interpolated.

  8. This distance between biological father and son finds further expression through the film’s visual vocabulary at the end of the Act 1 encounter between Hamlet and his Ghost-father.  At the close of the scene, Branagh composes a visual homage to fathers and sons that figures both the son’s alignment with and estrangement from the paternal ideal of masculinity.  As the father utters “Adieu, adieu! Hamlet.  Remember me,” the camera closes on a shot of the Ghost’s steel-encased hand extending down in diagonal from the top left of the picture frame to Hamlet’s hand in black leather glove reaching up from the bottom right corner.  The camera lingers briefly on a tableau that iconographically invokes several referents for father-son identification and separation.  A visual pastiche, the image’s first referent is the often-reproduced detail from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam: the languid hand of Adam stretching towards his father-maker-God’s outstretched arm and extended index finger.  Michelangelo’s image famously captures both the in potentia of prelapsarian humanity and the always/already fallen state of humankind–the end of the story that viewers read into the moment of creative animation.  Thus the artwork figures both creation in the Father’s image and the son’s failure to reflect fully that image.  Read in terms of the dynamics of masculinity established by the film, Branagh’s Hamlet reaches not only to a now-lost familial relation but also to an image of invulnerable male identity beyond his grasp, signified by the metal plate gauntlets of the Ghost that disappear when Hamlet’s extended hand closes on an absence.  

  9. Furthermore, Branagh’s image lades on popular cultural referents that underscore discomfort with models of maleness predicated upon violence; the image is Michelangelo meets Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.  Other critics have noted Branagh’s earlier invocation of Star Wars in the entrance of King Henry V as “some medieval version of Darth Vader” in the 1989 film (Crowl 224).  Branagh once again appropriates the man/machine elision of Vader in the moment Hamlet reaches for his father’s hand.   The Ghost stands over a kneeling Hamlet much as in the culminating father-son duel of The Empire Strikes Back, Vader towers over a suppliant and fallen Luke.  After cutting off Luke’s right hand, Vader reaches to his son having revealed his paternity and urging Luke to join the Dark Side.  Luke clutches the metal promontory and rejects the outstretched arm of Vader.  The same scene, replayed in Return of the Jedi, reverses the composition where the son now looms over the father who grasps a metal rail, cowering under the rain of blows from Luke.  A low angle shot displays Vader’s wounded arm (his hand now missing) which extends towards Luke who occupies the right quadrant of the frame.  Branagh thus closes on an image that inter-textually highlights first the son and then the father’s inadequacy and raises questions about the world represented by the father.  In the Star Wars narratives, the son’s refusal to fight to the death redeems a fallen father and implies that the capacity for violence need not nor should not constitute a masculine ideal.  Branagh’s use of the image cuts in two opposing directions then: first, the mourning son’s awareness of how short he falls of the glory of the father (the Michelangelo reference); and second, the son’s salvation of the father from the self-destructive impulses of violence.

    “The courtier’s soldier’s, scholar’s eye”?

  10. The persistent anxiety over adopting martial exercise as masculine identity appears in perhaps the most over-wrought scene of the film.  Branagh’s filmed version of “How all occasions do inform against me” has been called by Lanier “perhaps the film’s most hotly debated sequence and cinematically one of its most elaborate” (162).[5]  The scene reads as one of the “big” moments promised by Branagh, a moment ornamented by a grandness of production values that signals Hamlet’s determination to follow a course of action he has avoided for most of the play.  However, in the histrionics of the visual scale and musical scoring, Branagh captures Hamlet’s (and perhaps the director’s) uncertainty about the route he so adamantly chooses.  The scene typifies a performative masculinity the actor and the character fear they cannot match.

  11. The scene begins with a cut from Claudius to Fortinbras in charcoal-coloured greatcoat against the snow and fog of an unidentifiable landscape.  He orders his captain to notify Denmark of his plan to march across the country.  After establishing the vague location and Fortinbras’s position horseback, the camera closes in to mark the intensity of his martial drive.  In the screenplay, Branagh describes this moment: “Slowly out of the mist and like a great god comes a chillingly calm FORTINBRAS....He speaks with quiet authority, barely looking at his CAPTAIN, watching always” (120).  What Branagh describes as god-like translates on screen as woodenness in Sewell’s performance.  He speaks with little to no variation of intonation and adopts a steady, blank gaze that one might imagine as purposeful but that conveys on film as emptiness.  Drums beat a martial time with horns above in a staccato dotted rhythm.  The captain departs; music crescendos until a diagonal line of soldiers appears crossing from the back left to right; the shot switches to a ground-level camera that records the wagon wheels and marching feet of the soldiers.

  12. As filmed, the depiction of Fortinbras and his men serves as a short-hand for the normative concepts of masculinity that Hamlet will embrace later in the scene.  However, the appeal of that ideal is muddied by the inhuman presentation of both Fortinbras and his soldiers.  Marching in uniform tread as an invulnerable mass, the army represents the dehumanizing results of martial action, the loss of a discrete and articulated self.  By contrast, when Branagh begins “How all occasions do inform against me,” his highly individualized identity is underscored by the camera’s close proximity to his face.  He speaks framed by a distant mountain range and a valley crossed by horizontal lines of ranked soldiers.  The screenplay notes describe this perspective: “From the hill it’s like seeing a massive army of deadly ants, dotting and cutting through the mist with silent, ominous power” (Branagh 120).  During the soliloquy, Branagh remains still, but the camera slowly begins to pull back as the music gradually crescendos into a medley of the film’s other melodic themes.  At the outset of the speech, the orchestra begins with timpani, low strings, and low-ranged woodwinds in a melodious composition that contrasts with the drums and trumpets just moments earlier associated with Fortinbras.  Higher-register strings and woodwinds join the ensemble in a major key; violins begin to soar underscored by French horns.  The logical turn of “how stand I then” is heralded by a transition in the music when an off-beat percussion signals a key change up the scale.  As the music climbs the scale and the volume of the orchestra rises, so does Branagh’s voice, the gradations of increase choreographed with the retreating movement of the camera.  Eventually, the camera is so far removed that no detail of Branagh’s face can be observed.  At last, when Hamlet declares, “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” his arms jab out from the shoulders and punctuate the word “bloody,” a gesture only observable because he wears black against the white background.

  13. The resulting impact of the elaborately scored and staged scene is to suggest that it takes the full measure of cinematic extravagance to propel Hamlet into action.  Mark Thornton Burnett describes this change in Branagh’s Hamlet as a progression from “grieving son” to “explosive ‘man of action’” (78).  However, details of the moment belie its hawkish turn to action.  First, Fortinbras and his Captain ride on horseback, whereas Hamlet, who travels with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, does so on foot.  Carrying no visible weapon and costumed in an overcoat that bears no military insignia or designation such as that worn by Fortinbras, Hamlet declares his turn to action.  Branagh’s Hamlet may claim action, but his bearing suggests otherwise.  Lanier articulates the cinematic intertext for the scene: “Branagh delivers ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ as a rousing declaration of heroic resolve....reprising his ‘Crispin Crispian’ speech in Henry V in theme and delivery” (162).  However, significant observable contrasts complicate Branagh’s re-vision of the earlier set-piece: while the Henry V scene relies upon the same aggrandizing combination of speech-making, lengthy continuous takes, and swelling orchestra, the moment generates dynamic movement through tracking shots of Henry addressing the troops.  In contrast, Branagh delivers the “How all occasions” speech standing stock still, with no movement until at the close of the speech when only mouth and arms are allowed the slightest range of motion.  Thus, Hamlet may be declaring a turn to martial action with all the fanfare and energy he can muster, but the truth is, he remains static, unmoved.  In Henry V, the camera closes in on Branagh’s face to authenticate his determination to wage war alongside this “band of brothers.”  In Hamlet, the distancing of the camera actually undermines rather than enhances the eponymous hero’s declaration.    Furthermore, the obvious paradox of the textual passage which is then underlined by Branagh’s cinematic interpretation is that Hamlet still delivers this impulse in a virtuosic display not of action but of words.  And in fact, such a long continuous shot makes considerable demands on the spoken performance of the actor as well.  The ironies of the scene as filmed underscore an ambivalence about the masculinity associated with both Hamlet’s warrior-father and soldier-rival Fortinbras.  The full impotency of the over-blown soliloquy finds elaboration in subsequent details.  In Hamlet’s Act 4 letter to Horatio describing the pirate attack at sea, he writes:  “Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compell’d valour, and in the grapple I boarded them” (4.6.17-19).  Branagh, who has not shied away from countless previous opportunities to “show” rather than simply “tell” the meaning of a line or passage, here opts for narration alone, offering no visual evidence for the transformed Hamlet.  

  14. In the final scene of the play, anxieties over modes of masculinity meet in a last confrontation.  As the stage is set for the combat between Laertes and Hamlet, the camera cuts from Hamlet’s speech of conciliation to an exterior shot of the palace guarded by the lone soldier Francisco.  The screenplay notes describe the juxtaposition:  “This speech is intercut with images of the outside attack.  Poor FRANCISCO surprised from behind, just as we see FORTINBRAS’s Army crest the hill.  Close on FORTINBRAS as he gives the order to charge, ending on an epic view of the thousands of Norwegian troops silently engulfing the palace” (162).  A series of cuts reveal Fortinbras in extreme close-up–steely eyes to mouth, the blade of his sword wiping across the screen and in front of his face.  Again, the army moves in a diagonal line from right to left on screen.  While Hamlet relies upon language (Branagh’s disembodied voice-over) rather than arms to foster concord with Laertes, Fortinbras’s army approaches.  The editing prompts two questions that once again highlight ambivalence about the project of arms: does the editing emphasize the impotence of words (previously linked to the commerce of the whore) or does it underscore the loss of conciliation at the hands of martial aggression?  Just as this uncertainty about Fortinbras’s actions may be detected, Branagh asserts an invulnerable masculinity for his character previously softened and sentimentalized in speech.  The screenplay describes Hamlet and Laertes as they disrobe for combat:  “They take off their gowns to reveal a sort of high-tech combination of a modern fencing jacket with a Roman gladiator’s breast plate.  They could be two graduates of the Robocop academy” (163).  Here Branagh calls upon three modes of martial masculinity–the fencing competition, the gladiatorial bouts of ancient Rome, and American cinema’s mechanized Robocop–to shore up the visual characterization of his combatants.  Once again, it seems possible to conclude that a bit of compensatory over-signification is going on here.  This tendency to over-signify is endemic to the film and no more evident than in the rampant interpolated matter, but much like the young men who try too hard to embody a masculinity beyond their abilities or desires, the interpolated material continues the perhaps unintentional scepticism concerning the masculine self that relies upon violence for identity.

    “Speak with most miraculous organ”: Interpolation and Authority

  15. In filmed Shakespeare, the “miraculous organ” becomes the cinematic art form itself and its ability to show so much of what the play text only tells.  Following an established tradition in cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare, Branagh’s film vocabulary relies heavily on the narrative dilation accessible through the interpolated scene.  Taking up a device used by other directors to render more richly visual the discursive art of theatre and to explain knotty passages of poetic fancy, Branagh deploys this technique liberally in Hamlet.  Branagh’s heavy-handed interpolation certainly attempts “to reduce complexity, to elide ambiguity, and to erase doubt,” as Iska Alter has argued (168).  And it is perhaps no surprise that a film director would incline towards interpretive surety when confronted by a play so rich in and troubled by unknowingness.  The epistemological anxieties at the heart of Hamlet -- how does the human know?  what can the human know?  how much knowing justifies action?  can the self know the other? and, for that matter, can the self know the self? -- perhaps prompt the director to overcompensate using the cinematic tools available.  But it is a sad irony that the director seems not to have learned the lessons of the play he films.  Let us not forget that this is a play in which Polonius, the character who insists, “I will find / Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / Within the centre,” is the first of the principals to die and does so caught in his own clumsily crafted trap for truth (2.2.157-159).  But this seemingly naive instinct to explication through visual depiction may very well be related to the more deeply felt anxiety permeating the film’s iconography–an ambivalence about the paternal authority and inheritance Branagh’s Hamlet seems so eager to embrace and exceed.

  16. Sarah Hatchuel links meaning-making and narration in Branagh’s Hamlet to the shift from theatrical to cinematic story-telling, wherein film editing inserts a narrative authority absent from stage productions:  “Editing bodies forth a discursive, organising authority, necessarily subsequent and exterior to the filmed event.  It introduces the figure of a ‘virtual narrator’ who leads the spectators by the hand and orchestrates the focus of their gaze.  This narrator can shape space at will, create different levels of realities, and reorganize the succession of events in time” (par. 3).  Interpolation functions quite similarly, allowing Branagh to position himself as the master narrator of the film, deciding when a line requires further explanation and offering like a benevolent father the explanatory material the uninitiated may require.[6]  Hatchuel places Branagh “in line with the aesthetic of narrative cinema which tries both to make diegesis–the story told in the film–more natural and make the film enunciation submerged within the narrative flow” (par. 19).  In this approach, “film is shaped to provide the impression of a natural and real world, and the enunciative discourse is drowned into that universe” (par. 19).  While in general this is true of Branagh, the intrusive and importunate host of interpolations in the ghost scene disrupts this aesthetic rule and call attention to the mechanism of cinematic and narrative truth in a way not typical of Branagh’s naturalistic film technique.

  17. Generally in filmed Shakespeare, interpolation, defined by Alter as “pictorial additions which amplify or illustrate specific moments of verbal text” (161), accomplishes three broad categories of narrative work (161).  First, an image may define or identify.  An interpolation may reinforce the meaning of a fairly accessible phrase or clarify in visual short-hand a tricky line or arcane word; for example in Branagh’s film, at the close of Act 1, Scene 1, Horatio’s “the morn in russet mantle clad” is accompanied by a long shot of the sunrise.  This first category of definition and identification includes the cut to a face that matches the name of a character being introduced through expository dialogue, such as when Horatio names Fortinbras in the opening scene of the play and the film cuts quickly to a shot of Sewell playing the part.  Secondly, interpolation offers an extended visual depiction of expository, descriptive, or narrative matter in the play text; this mode often includes flashback.  As Hamlet listens to his father’s tale of murder, the audience watches a re-enactment of what the father describes.  Lastly, interpolation may be constructed as a depiction of a character’s thought content such as when the cornered Ophelia remembers love-making with Hamlet while subject to a lecture on female chastity delivered by her father.  The film techniques employed to knit the interpolated material together and establish continuity–voice-over, quick cuts, form cuts, musical scoring, and camera angle choices–create a language of narrative authority that illuminate Hamlet’s Oedipal struggle with the paternal.

  18. Many viewers and critics comment on the crowded world of Branagh’s Hamlet, stuffed with countless extras, numerous stage stars who appear in bit parts throughout the film, and manically paced interpolated scenes.  These features prompt Starks to characterize the production as “the epitome of Hollywood excess” (173), and even a more generous critic of the film, Burnett, concedes, “there are moments when the film suffers from a textually unwarrantable amount of scenic business.  Such is the enthusiasm to illustrate the action, that the film occasionally provides the audience with a surplus of informational materials” (80).  All of this proves more overwhelming in the context of a film that boasts the “full-text” of Shakespeare’s four-hour drama.  The sheer length of the play text and the grandeur of Branagh’s aspirations mean that speech must be delivered almost constantly and at a rate not often employed in film adaptations of Shakespeare targeting a general audience.  As a quick demonstration of this, one might contrast Al Pacino’s overly deliberate Shylock in the 2004 Michael Radford Merchant of Venice with the almost machine-gun-like articulation of Branagh and many of his fellow cast members in Hamlet.  This rapid speech runs contrary to the conventions of film which demand that language be pared down, plot opened out, and an easier rhythm of visual and verbal language govern pacing.  Branagh compensates for this barrage of language by relying on interpolation most extensively during the first half of the film, counting on the visual explication to smooth over the time it takes for a general audience to adjust to the pace and density of the language.  Through interpolation, the visual and the verbal happen synchronously; thus, Branagh manages to open out the visuals and clarify meaning without giving in to slower speech delivery or film moments completely devoid of speech, techniques that would only lengthen an already dangerously unmarketable and long film.  In contrast, two directors who limit the amount of interpolation when adapting Hamlet, Olivier and Zeffirelli, instead opt to cut text to an extraordinary level and, especially in the case of Zeffirelli, to film much longer establishing pictorial segments entirely free from language as an accommodation to the cinema audience.

  19. In Branagh’s Hamlet the highest percentage of interpolations accrues in roughly the first half of the play.  If one counts as a single interpolation the first cut to inserted material, there are a total of nineteen interpolative moments in the film.  Of the nineteen, fourteen of them (74%) take place between the opening scene and Act 3, Scene 3–Claudius at his prayers.  This does not, however, represent the number of times that within a single scene, the film may cut to the same interpolated material, nor does it count the number of different scenes an initial cut to interpolation may ultimately include.  If that broader principle is followed–a count of every different interpolated location or event–the result is a total of thirty-one scenes, twenty-six of which occur by the end of Act 3, Scene 3 (84%).  The number of cuts expands the total even further since unlike Olivier, for example, Branagh tends to cut back and forth between interpolated material and the play text’s delivery.  For example, in the ghost scene alone from the moment Hamlet follows his father until the Ghost’s disappearance, the film cuts a total of sixteen times to interpolated material.  Furthermore, the whole of Branagh’s ghost scene depicts eight different interpolated locations or distinct occasions.

    “The son of a dear father”:  The Son Subsumes the Father

  20. An initial catalogue of interpolations from the ghost scene demonstrates the hyper-anxiety and, frankly, hyperactivity of a scene that lasts just over ten minutes (until the disappearance of the Ghost).  While Hamlet explains Danish drinking rituals, the film cuts to courtly merry-making in which Claudius and Gertrude dance their way down a corridor of the palace and arrive at their chamber where they collapse on the bed.  Hamlet’s first frenzied address of the Ghost is accompanied by a cut at “canonized bones” to the head and upper torso of the dead King Hamlet (1.4.47) and at “sepulchre” (1.4.48) by a foreshortened shot of the dead king laid out on a bier and viewed through an iron gate.  As the Ghost delivers his initial charge, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder,” the film cuts three times to blood streaming out of Hamlet Senior’s ear.  Each time, the cut to bloody ear is punctuated by a percussive beat (1.5.25).  The visual melodrama continues with a cut to a slow-motion Claudius who looks over his shoulder and towards the camera when Hamlet responds, “my uncle,” to the naming of his father’s killer.  Next follow several cuts to the same extended scene of the Hamlet family curling in a corridor of the palace.  Claudius hands a smiling Gertrude a game piece, and he leans over to assist her while Hamlet Senior walks with an arm around his son.  A later moment of this same scene displays a family portrait:  Hamlet Senior seated on the left, Gertrude at the apex of the triangle, and a crouching Hamlet on the lower right edge of the frame.  Quick cuts deliver moral punctuation to pejorative terms used by Hamlet Senior to describe his widow and brother:  words such as “wretch” (a medium shot of Claudius) (line 51), “virtue” (Claudius and Gertrude curling) (line 53), and “lust” (line 55) (a close-up of bodice laces undone).  As the narrative of the fratricide begins, the orchard scene unfolds: a close-up of Claudius’s feet and hands with a vial, a close-up of Hamlet Senior as the poison is poured in, a cut to the dying Hamlet Senior, holding his head, looking at and reaching towards his brother, and a close-up of Claudius.  The scene concludes with a high angle shot of the writhing Hamlet Senior, whose body is inverted with his head near the bottom of the frame and legs stretching diagonally upwards and to the left.   

  21. As the film moves back and forth between the play text’s ghost scene and the extra-textual material of the interpolations, a battle over authority and narrative truth-telling ensues.  The schizophrenic emotional register of the scene–ranging from horror-flick terror to sentimentally ripe mourning–derives, in part, I would contend, from the conflict over subject-object positioning transpiring between dead father/ghost and bereaved son/director.[7]  For much of the scene, Hamlet occupies a position of abjection, subject to the power of the father; however, the scene modulates between such subservience and a narrative dominance on the part of the son that reverses the visually implied power relationship.  On the grounds of the palace, the Ghost first appears as Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus approach the iron gates; high angle shots of Hamlet and company contrast with low angle shots of the Ghost to emphasize the Father’s larger-than-life status, a “militant spectre of colossal proportions” as described by Burnett (80).  A quick series of close shots of Horatio, Hamlet, and Marcellus, faces framed by the iron bars of the gate, confirm the limits placed on their subjectivity.  Even after Hamlet has opened the gates to follow the Ghost, the camera remains positioned at a high angle, continuing to minimize the authority of the three figures clustered in the lower right quadrant of the picture plane.  However, a shift in authoritative orientation occurs with the second and third interpolation, shots of the dead Hamlet Senior lying in state.  The second is especially illuminating as it depicts a foreshortened perspective on the dead father’s body viewed through the iron gates of a crypt.  This compositional use of gates is a leitmotif that Branagh uses throughout the film to signal powerlessness; Laertes and Ophelia, Hamlet, and the dead king are all viewed in this way.  The result in the ghost scene is briefly to render vulnerable the figure inciting fear in the son.  Furthermore, like the orphaned and lost children of the play, the idealized father stripped of armour and special effects occupies a position of confined and truncated agency. 

  22. In the forest, as Hamlet follows the Ghost, the alteration of high and low angle shots reasserts the more obvious power relationship between Hamlet and his father who grabs the son by the throat and then flings him against a tree.  Immediately, the camera zooms up towards the face of the father and then down to another high angle shot of the terrified son.  This commanding paternal aggression takes a peculiar visual turn during the narration of the murder with quick cuts to Hamlet Senior’s bloody ear and swollen face.  These are followed by an extreme close-up of his speaking mouth that estranges and distances the Ghost, “creating a bizarre effect of exaggerating his speech, emphasizing every syllable of his commands,” as Starks has noted (176).[8]  While the thrice-repeated image of the bloody ear might be intended to elicit sympathy for the suffering father, when combined with the extreme close-up of the mouth the image simply reduces the ominous wholeness of the father to his anatomical parts.  By invoking the acts of speaking and hearing, the images also key the viewer into the inter-subjective dynamics of the encounter between father and son, the one the speaking subject, the other the listening object.  However, the bloody ear reminds the viewer that the father’s authority as speaking subject has been violated by the murder where his ears have been made the passive receptacle for poison.

  23. For most of the Ghost’s tale, Hamlet kneels at the feet of his speaking father, the object and ready vessel of the father’s narration.  But the interpolations continue to wrest narrative authority from Hamlet Senior and place it squarely on the shoulders and in the mind of the son.  The son’s mind’s eye becomes the lens through which the viewer sees and interprets, and the bulk of the extended interpolations represent the son’s re-interpretation of past events.  In particular, the series of family images presented in slow motion create the effect of a mind remembering and gradually, painfully re-evaluating a past experience.  The cinematic cues imply that this reassessment takes place in the mind of the son Hamlet since Branagh repeatedly cuts from interpolated matter to shots of the pensive and distraught Hamlet’s face, as if capturing visually the mental process of historic revisionism.[9]  Hamlet recalls the happy memory of father and son camaraderie and of mother-father-son union now overshadowed by the insinuating presence of the adulterous and conniving Uncle Claudius.  From that same curling sequence, the family portrait composed as a pyramid inevitably invokes the Oedipal triangle that, as Lehmann and Starks have previously noted, the film zealously avoids.  But it is intriguing nonetheless that the remembered wholeness of the family configures as a triangle in which the father sits, appearing almost worn by the exertions of the sport.  Brian Blessed’s oddly lumbering presence adds to this impression as his corpulence might better fit a Falstaff rather than a now-dead war hero who “smote the sledded Polacks” and defeated Fortinbras Senior in single combat.  The family portrait shot speaks in two voices: on the one hand, it constructs the remembered family unit properly governed by the father, his wife leaning against him and his son kneeling at his feet; but on the other hand, it simultaneously suggests an inadequacy on the part of the father who rests from his exertions and who appears oblivious to the disruptions plotted by his own brother.  This portrayal of the remembered father creates an interpretive impasse within the film as it contradicts the aggressive masculine selfhood imagined for the father in both the war memorial bronze and his heavily-armed manifestation as the Ghost.  Contradiction appears to be the minor cost paid to supplant the paternal, but its ironic by-product is the exposure of the fissures inherent in the process and in Branagh’s own attempts to create a relentlessly phallic narrative.

  24. Because Branagh treats in such similar ways the interpolated matter recreating Hamlet’s family memories and the material depicting the father’s murder, the ghost scene interpolations steadily elide the distinction between genuine proof of a story’s veracity and the mind’s imagination of a tale as it is told.  Alter finds this the most troubling aspect of Branagh’s use of interpolation to recreate the murder of Hamlet Senior:

    These scenes act as immediate and independent corroboration of Hamlet’s suspicions, thereby eliminating not only the textual and performative ambiguities that so complicate the play script, but also the need for and the possibilities of interpretation itself....these pictures, especially, cut the heart out of the play’s mystery, assuring, even insisting, to the audience that Hamlet’s decisions are absolute and his conduct justified because his vision has been shown to be fact.  (164-65)

  25. The full impact of Branagh’s choice is underscored by a brief comparison to his own notable father-ghost and predecessor Olivier.  Olivier’s version has Hamlet kneel and listen to the whispered tones of his father, and as the Ghost begins to describe the murder, several techniques signify a narrative shift and leave ambiguous the truth of the interpolation.  First, Olivier’s Hamlet closes his eyes, preparing to see the Ghost’s words in his mind’s eye when the narration begins at “sleeping within my orchard” (1.5.59).  Next, the shot fades from a frontal view of Hamlet, and the camera moves in on the back of his head, drawing closer and closer to his mind before dissolving again, this time to the image of Hamlet Senior reclining in the orchard.  An oval-shaped mist frames the interpolated scene and insists upon its imagined state; we see only the hand of the murderer, not the face, and even when the camera pulls back to reveal the body of the murderer standing over the dying Hamlet Senior, the misty border obscures the identifying features of the murderer’s face.  As the scene concludes, the image dissolves to Hamlet, eyes closed and hand out-stretched, an echo of the final shot of the dying Hamlet Senior whose hand reaches to his murderer.  This gesture confirms that what has just transpired visually replicates the thoughts of Hamlet who has been so moved by the images conjured in his mind’s eye that he imitates them himself as he reaches towards the hand of his father.  No such signalling accompanies the interpolations in Branagh’s Hamlet, and the result is two-fold: one, to eliminate the epistemological uncertainty traditionally associated with the Ghost’s narration, and two, to eliminate that ambiguity by asserting the primacy of the son’s narrative perspective.  Thus, the father’s story takes a paradoxical, even illogical, route to narrative authority: it becomes truth because the son’s mind recreates it.  The son has effectively grappled subjectivity from the father, and this fact is emphasized by a series of extreme close-ups near the end of the ghost scene.  Branagh films in extreme close-up the Ghost’s right eye and Hamlet’s left eye, then reverse cuts six times between them, revealing each eye three times, so that the father’s and son’s eyes merge into a single pair.  The powerless object of narration early in the scene, the son’s eye (I) has become an equal to the father’s, seeing all and knowing all, prepared to act from this position of epistemological primacy, becoming the eye who sees and the “I” who speaks Truth.

  26. Of course, Branagh’s over-emphatic filming misleads since Hamlet’s “I” takes approximately another three hours to become the subject who acts.  The filming thus runs counter to the shape of the play itself which builds towards Hamlet’s revision of his earlier “To be” questions: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be [now], ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it [will] come–the readiness is all.  Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows what is’t to leave betimes, let be” (5.2.223-24).  Tortured by its conditional and future tenses, Hamlet’s acceptance of all that remains outside his understanding and beyond the scope of his agency does not come easily, yet it does come.  Ultimately, the interpolative energy expended by Branagh throughout the film undercuts this brief moment in which the masculine subject gives up the need for the pre-eminence that comes with epistemological certainty and accepts that past, present, future, all elements of time, place, and person remain a maddening mystery with which the human is forced eternally to contend.

  27. At the close of the film when Hamlet has been released through death from any obligation to embody and maintain the masculine ideal of his father, solace finds expression in the voices of men.  While Fortinbras’s soldiers pound away at the statue of the Father Hamlet, an all-male chorus sings in Latin words adapted by Russell Jackson from The Book of Wisdom; not surprisingly, these words reach towards yet another father--the ultimate law of Father God:  “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the torment of death will not touch them” (Doyle).  In many ways, Branagh’s tortured presentation of Hamlet’s struggle with forms of masculine subjectivity brilliantly accesses a crucial undertone of the play’s metaphoric content and characterization; however, like so many other contemporary cinematic adaptors of Shakespeare, Branagh finds no escape from the world of male competition that destroys the individuals it defines.  The film’s numerous interpolations strenuously assert the son’s predominating agency; however, those never unalloyed moments again and again generate a mountain of contradictions that undermine the son’s claim to phallic supremacy.  Thus, to return to Lehmann and Starks’s assessment of the film, we see a Hamlet who has steadily suppressed the maternal but who cannot ultimately identify with or emulate the paternal quite as relentlessly or successfully as Lehmann and Starks suggest.  The final mournful irony of the film’s close is that the son who most accurately reflects the father, Fortinbras, obliterates paternal memory, decapitating the statue so that the head falls to obscure the engraved plinth that names him “Hamlet.”  And in this parting image of Fortinbras’s soldiers steadily at work, the film offers a directorial lamentation for the futile scramble to primacy that the masculine subject seems destined to enact again and again, despite his better judgement.


[1] Mark Thornton Burnett applauds Branagh’s restoration of Hamlet’s “military subtexts” and argues the militarism of the film’s imagery rightly derives from the “martial rhetoric” of the play itself (78).

[2] Douglas Lanier similarly perceives Hamlet’s “idealization of his father” as “the centerpiece of his [Branagh’s] performance” (159); however, this idealization is accompanied by a parallel instinct to over-go the father’s image in the unacknowledged yet persistently oedipal economy of the film.

[3] Ironically, the dust jacket of the Chatto and Windus published screenplay highlights the unacknowledged tension arising from Branagh’s celebration of the hetero-normative male and suppression of sexual discontinuities.  The dust jacket is divided into three horizontal segments: at the top a side-view, two-shot photographic still of Hamlet and Gertrude (Julie Christie); in the middle, Kenneth Branagh’s name above the title “HAMLET” in all caps, which dominates above the centered tag-line “By William Shakespeare”; another photographic still occupies the bottom panel, a shot of Fortinbras’s army running the attack on Elsinore (Blenheim Palace).  In the dust jacket’s format, Branagh’s name at the center of the composition appears to mediate between the mother-son relationship so long a feature of post-Freudian interpretations and the self-assertive martial ethos of Fortinbras as Branagh imagines him.  Branagh thus carries the viewer from the domestic tragedy to the national crisis that closes the play.  However, what the screenplay cover belies is the far from unalloyed depiction of Fortinbras and his army.  Even as Branagh’s name above that of Hamlet and William Shakespeare achieves a visual supremacy, it remains trapped between two related interpretive modes that cannot quite be reconciled–the Oedipal son’s desire for and revulsion from the mother–and the commanding hetero-normative “phallic prowess” embodied by Hamlet Senior and Fortinbras.   

[4] Lehmann and Starks note this lack of resemblance between father and son and the unusual similarity between son and familial (as well as theatrical) step-father, Claudius/Jacobi, whose closely cropped hair and tailored suits are a match for Hamlet’s: “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” (par. 16).

[5] I have yet to show this scene to a group of students when it didn’t raise amused titters from the crowd.  Perhaps their laughter gets at the heart of the problem in Branagh’s intricate filming of this scene and its soliloquy climax: the director “doth protest too much, methinks.” 

[6] This follows Lehmann and Starks’ assessment that Branagh positions himself as “‘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” (par. 11).  Branagh’s manipulation of interpolation furthers his status as reliable explicator of the Bard.

[7] This uncertain emotional range is reflected in the widely-varied musical tonality of the scoring–at one moment dissonant and percussive and the next moment sweetly melodic thanks to the tunefulness of woodwinds and strings.  Similarly, Burnett identifies other moments in the film where “several musical themes seem inappropriate” (80), and Alter offers harsher criticism of the Patrick Doyle score: “The sounds merely act to tug at the heart or wring the tear as they routinely and crudely signal, with obvious harmonic cues, every critical situation, every familiar speech, and every important soliloquy, telling the audience what to feel, no matter that the response extorted by the music insistently contradicts the language and the action of the written text” (168). 

[8] Samuel Crowl contrasts the range of camera movement in the film with moments of stillness such as the extreme close-ups, praising the lingering shot of the Ghost’s mouth which directs “full attention to the word and its reception” (232).  The impact on most viewers is not generally as felicitous as Crowl contends; students have typically found the close-up distracting, disruptive, and inconsistent in a film primarily employing naturalistic techniques.

[9] The full impact of the flashbacks can be felt when placed in the context of Branagh’s career as Alter describes it: “But the most important interpolative mechanism in this Hamlet is the flashback, whose frequency of use throughout Branagh’s film work suggests that it has become his directorial and imaginative signature, indicating the strength of his concern with memory, a process which absorbs not only a single individual’s past but a culture’s history” (163).  Thus, if the flashback is an identifying marker of the son/director, then its use in the ghost scene only intensifies the reversed father/son power dynamic at first established by the hierarchizing film techniques deployed.

Works Cited


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

© 2006-,Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).