Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 filmic translation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a dramatic telling of the classic story which is as well acted as it is entertaining. Aside from these points, Zeffirelli’s (and co-scripter Christopher Devore’s) screenplay is an edited, and re-mixed version of the original which has many lines cut, as well as the entire sub plot concerning Fortenbras, completely removed. Franco Zefirelli’s private interpretation of Hamlet, although divergent in some ways from Shakespeare’s version, still remains a superior rendering, due to the continuity of the screenplay.
Zeffirelli’s divergence from the original script begins immediately. Rather than opening with the traditional sequence involving the first sighting of the ghost of Hamlet’s father (here, Paul Scofield), Zeffirelli instead opens with a funeral sequence of his own design. In this scene the director establishes Hamlet’s distrust of Claudius (Alan Bates) as well Claudius’ desire to act as a father figure to Hamlet. To fully display this, Zeffirelli plucks these lines from a later scene, "think of us as of a father; for let the world take note you are the most immediate to our throne, And with no less nobility of love Than that which dearest father bears his son Do I impart toward you." (1.2.113-119). These lines show Caudius’ attempt at good intentions, while Mel Gibson’s (as Hamlet) response shows the distrust the character holds for him. This also sets up the relationship between young Hamlet and Claudius excellently for both the familiar audience as well as the audience inexperienced in Shakespeare. Still the question remains of why Zeffirelli chose to eliminate the opening scene that Shakespeare intended. In Shakespeare’s version the opening scene establishes the existence of the ghost, and the bravery and learnedness of Horatio (as he is the one called upon to "speak to it". (1.1.45)), while simultaneously predicating the impending arrival of young Fortenbras. In Zeffirelli’s version these are neither established in the opening scene, nor at all. Horatio becomes more of a background character, rather than the well established, strong character found in Shakespeare. The existence of Fortenbras, as well as the entire sub-plot concerning Norway has been similarly omitted. It seems to be Zeffirelli’s intent to remove as much diversion as he can from the actual quest of Hamlet, and what he sees as Hamlet’s end. Zeffirelli lessens the character of Horatio to force this Hamlet into the stance of a loner as opposed to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who has a strong (if not ever-present) sidekick. Likewise, Zeffirelli removes the Norwegian element so that this subplot cannot interfere with the plight of Hamlet, or with Zeffirelli’s version of his ultimate end.
The director’s personal interpretation is seen again soon after the opening. Act one, scene two, containing the scene during which Claudius holds court, commenting on the events which have so recently transpired, has been altered to fit Zeffirelli’s take on the story. Shakespeare intended nearly the entire scene to take place before the court of Claudius. This is evident in that two flourishes (or trumpet fanfares) are sounded, one to signify the beginning, and one the end of court. In this version the second flourish comes early, freeing up the remaining components of this scene to take place in private. The first instance is Claudius’ meeting with Laertes (Nathaniel Parker). Rather than taking place at court, this sequence occurs separately. What marks this exchange as distinctly Zeffirelli’s is the change in Claudius’ tone from the script to the screenplay. In the Shakespeare script Claudius is in a politician’s mode, stating Laertes’ name five times between lines forty-two and forty-nine, while referring to himself as "the Dane" (1.2.44), meaning he is the supreme embodiment of the people of Denmark. In the filmic translation, Claudius uses Laertes’ name only twice, and does not refer to himself at all. This change distances Claudius the high and mighty political head and shows him as more of a real person. This can be explained, as Zeffirelli’s Claudius is more immediately real and fallible, rather than confident and high for the majority of the play as Shakespeare’s Claudius is. Considering Zeffirelli’s many time-saving cuts it makes sense that he would begin Claudius’ vulnerability early on. Also adapted for this version is the exchange between Claudius and Hamlet before the court. Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s hostility toward Claudius during the court sequence with lines like "A little more than kin, and less than kind." (1.2.64-65), and "I am too much in the sun." (1.2.67). In the original version these and such lines pose the question of whether this is a public insult, or a private war. Zeffirelli’s version leaves the lines basically intact, yet eliminates their ambiguity, as rather than taking place before the court, the sequence takes place in Hamlet’s living quarters. The question of Hamlet’s intent is gone as his lines are said directly to Claudius, and seemingly with the intent of malice. His asides are not directed at the audience, but are directed, again, to Claudius so as to affirm the notion of his direct hostility. Zeffirelli does this for two reasons: first to continue Hamlet’s image of the brooding loner, one who refuses to attend court, for to attend with malice could be a gratifying acknowledgment of Claudius. The second reason is to leave no doubt that this Hamlet’s a brave, and direct hero who chooses his words, but does not bother with secret asides to the fourth wall, deciding instead to send his words like daggers to his enemy. Through the elimination of still other lines, namely those belonging to Claudius, Zeffirelli gives time alone to Hamlet and Gertrude (Glenn Close) for Hamlet to show his softer side without malice for Claudius to hide it. This shows Hamlet’s complexity and his mixed emotions of anger and sorrow, in order to establish this Hamlet as as much of a feeling creature as Shakespeare’s.
A persistent element in Zeffirelli’s version of Hamlet is the image of the unseen onlooker who takes in the action without being noticed. Hamlet is this spy when Polonius (Ian Holm) admonishes Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) not to "give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet." (1.3.141). Polonius is the secret watcher as Hamlet first appears to be mad before Ophelia. Once again Hamlet looks on secretly as Polonius conspires with Claudius and Gertrude to use Ophelia against him. And again Polonius and Claudius watch as Hamlet denies his love for Ophelia. This variable spectator serves not only to further the action (i.e. it plants the seeds in Hamlet’s mind that Ophelia is treacherous , or in Polonius’ mind that Hamlet is mad because of Ophelia), but also to give the audience a silent spectator to identify with. As the action is furthered along the spectator gains new knowledge about what he has seen, if not by actual cognizance, then by a skewed form of the truth (as is so frequently seen in Polonius’ case) which can be every bit as telling to a watchful audience as the real truth can.
Hamlet’s line "Get thee to a nunnery." (3.1.147) and its like have long been seen as an eruption of Hamlet’s anger surrounded by similar lines of outrage aimed at Ophelia, whom he believes to be a conspirator against him. In Zeffirelli’s version of this play the line and its like have been cut and re-inserted at a later time. Hamlet does indeed erupt at Ophelia a barrage of anger containing much of the love-damning words used in Shakespeare’s original play, but these particular lines are missing. Rather, nearly the entire section falling between lines 131 and 139 has been placed in the middle of the next scene during the segment featuring the dumb show and the play within the play. On top of this the lines are not said in anger, but are instead said calmly, and free of malice as if being said as a warning amid a jovial scene. This warning comes while Hamlet hides his sanity in plain sight. Were the lines to be placed in the original line up (with the secret onlookers present) then this would be no warning at all, as it would have to fit into his raving feign of insanity (as it does in Shakespeare’s version). Here the lines are said quietly during a break from one of Hamlet’s wild ravings so that it could be ignored enough to alert Ophelia to get to a safer place, one that she can trust. The negative denotations of "nunnery" (those pointing toward "brothel") are absent here, and Hamlet seems sincere in his desire for Ophelia’s safety. Zeffirelli does this in order to show that Hamlet is not devoid of love for Ophelia, and in fact is concerned for her well-being. This replacement and retonement of these key lines also serves to display to today’s audience that Hamlet is not mad, but is actually acting in order to achieve his goals. Zeffirelli’s Hamlet’s concern for Ophelia reaffirms his spoudaity in the eyes of the audience.
The final scene (act five, scene two) contains the fruition of the effect of the omission of the Norwegian subplot. In both the script and the screenplay Hamlet and Laertes die due to the treachery of the king, along with Gertrude, and King Claudius himself. This leaves Denmark headless and the audience, who has become sympathetic to the Dane, as young Hamlet has become, in despair. In the Shakespearean script, young Fortenbras, who is similar to the protagonist in many ways, claims the Danish throne, promising a new social contract. However, Zeffirelli’s version has eliminated Fortenbras from the script, and thus has eliminated the "happy" ending. Zeffirelli, as he has done previously with his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet has left the audience in despair by choice. With this absence of any outside threat, as well as any force of resolution, the audience is forced to concentrate on Hamlet, the protagonist, rather than on the seemingly brighter future. Zeffirelli employs this tool in order to ensure that his Hamlet is remembered.
Zeffirelli gives today’s audience a version of Hamlet which was not seen in Shakespeare’s day. Primacy and recency would dictate that Shakespeare’s audience would, in some way, concentrate on Fortenbras, whose presence begins and ends this play. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a man with friends who is much more secretive, and conniving than one might think today. His Hamlet is tactful in his plans, but without tact interpersonally. Zeffirelli’s audience is forced to concentrate on the plight, and character of Hamlet, who is direct, and hostile, but a tactful loner when the time is right. Zeffirelli accomplishes this diversity while remaining loyal to his source by maintaining a solid screenplay with a continuous flow supporting his own take on the story. In short, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is both a loose and a loyal interpretation of its source, which is, for today’s audiences, a Hamlet in its own right.
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