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