Friday, 11 September 2009

Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branagh 1996)

Does Hamlet count as popular culture? Well, it was in Shakespeare's day so I guess it does!

Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and Kenneth Branagh's film of the 'Eternity' version is one of my favourite versions of it (I've also seen a couple of great stage productions, one starring Sam West and the recent one starring David Tennant). I first read Hamlet when I studied it for A-Level. At the time, I hadn't done any Classics (I'd done some Ancient Greek as a hobby, but I didn't bother with the history much and I hadn't done any Classics formally). I knew pretty much nothing about the ancient world except what I saw in I, Claudius, so although I loved the play, the section in which the First Player recites a long speech about Priam and Hecuba left me pretty cold. Hamlet is a pretty long play and I couldn't understand why this was in it (and yes, I know why it is in there now, but I was an A-Level student revising several long plays and a big bit of Chaucer, give me a break!). I certainly didn't have a clue who Priam or Hecuba were, what was going on, why people's ears were being chopped off or why I or Hamlet should care.

Branagh's Hamlet came out on DVD a while back and I bought it, post-two Classics degrees, and watched it again. The First Player's speech is now one of my favourite parts of the film! For starters, the First Player is played by Charlton Heston, who is absolutely brilliant here, and his deep, gravelly voice is just right for a long Shakespearian monologue. Then, during the speech, Branagh cuts away to a fantasy view of Priam and Hecuba themselves, played by John Gielgud and Judi Dench. Gielgud, wonderful as he is, doesn't really get to do very much, but Dench makes an impression in her few seconds screentime with a heart-wrenching silent scream of grief. They're surrounded by generic images of burning and people running around chaotically. For anyone familiar with the story of the Trojan War, it's a very moving few minutes.

Judi Dench as Hecuba

I do wonder, though, what my 17-year old self would have thought (at the time, I only saw the Franco Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version, which I think cuts the Priam/Hecuba speech). On the one hand, actually showing Priam and Hecuba makes it a bit clearer what's happening - I don't know about anyone else, but, much as I love Shakespeare, I sometimes get a bit lost during the long speeches. So actually seeing a figure looming over Priam with a sword and Hecuba seeing his body and weeping helps me to follow what's going on and why the First Player is crying. On the other hand, how invested can you be in characters you have no knowledge of? If I didn't know who Hecuba was, would I find the scene so moving?

This is a common problem with Shakespeare - without a Classical education, you need a book of students' notes to explain a lot of the references which Shakespeare seems to assume that everyone knows. Obviously, my solution is that I think we should make sure everyone is familiar with Classics! But in the meantime, Branagh's solution is good one - at the very least, everyone can tell that some kind of fight is going on and this woman's husband has just been killed. This sort of thing isn't possible with every Classical reference in Shakespeare, but it works well here, making the reference a bit clearer and showcasing some fabulous actors in the process.


  1. I wonder how many of the Classical references yer avridge groundling would have picked up? Wasn't that part of Shakespeare's brilliance, that he could write on so many levels at once so that it doesn't matter if you don't get all the references? Unless you're studying a play of course, which I'm sure he had no conception anyone would be doing. Though I do remember a short story by someone (Asimov?) in which WS is brought forward using a time machine, and fails a university extension course on Shakespeare's plays.

  2. I did wonder about the groundlings. I guess there would have been lots of contemporary jokes that we either need explained or don't see because they were based on physical comedy etc, so there would have been plenty for the groundlings to get and enjoy. Our problem is we don't get contemporary Elizabethan jokes and we don't get Classical references either! (We also did Ben Johnson's The Alchemist for A-Level and it was hideous because the whole thing was made up of Jacobean jokes we didn't get)

  3. It's amazing how tied down to time and place comedy can be. There are re-runs of "The Nanny" on TV here. It was only made 15 years ago and although most of it is still very funny, there are still things that leave me scratching my head because the references are too American or are about people and events I've forgotten.

  4. I know what you mean, I always find it strange catching an old pop culture references that doesn't quite work any more... I love my pop culture references, but I do worry about anything that over-uses them, as they date so quickly.

  5. I do agree :)
    Take Aristophanes' s comedies for example. One should have done a bit of research to understand what is going on, or else parts of the play do not make sence.


  6. Indeed, that can be read into tragedy also, to an extent (can of worms, there), but Aristophanes, for sure.

    South Park operates in a similar way. The impact of the show (especially in the latter seasons) comes from it being highly topical. The allusions to recent events and social tensions will become difficult to understand once time has passed.

    That said, like Aristophanes, I have no doubt that it'll still be funny, and trying to understand the context will be fully worth it.


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