The purpose of playing,
whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to
hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue
her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and
body of the time his form and pressure.
Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet addresses the self-reflexivity of the Shakespearean text in an innovative way. As the play comments on theater’s function in society, the film is equally aware of itself as cinema. Hamlet‘s self-awareness allows Shakespeare to comment on art’s reflection of life. Almereyda’s version homes in on Hamlet’s character and underlines Hamlet’s self-reflexivity applying it to film.
Hawke’s Hamlet is a filmmaker instead of an actor, a creator, who wants to control his own destiny and the performance of others. He seeks their honesty and truth while continuing to dissemble and manipulate them. He does not want others to “play upon” him yet he feigns madness and uses double meanings to assert his intelligence. The camera’s proximity and intimacy allow performance to mirror life as Hamlet desires.
Almeredya transforms Hamlet’s preoccupation with theater and “seeming” into an obsession with film. Hamlet watches himself philosophize about the nature of man and the world, entranced by his image. Hamlet’s soliloquies work as pieces of autobiographical playback on his camera. Hamlet’s self-reflection takes the place of action. Almeredya shows him mainly alone with his camera and television. The films he makes incite his anger and hatred for Claudius and Gertrude. Furthermore, as he rages about “incestuous sheets” it is not Gertrude who appears in his film but Ophelia, conflating the two in his mind’s eye as an example of the frailty of women. Hamlet accepts his reading of Gertrude as the oversexed woman. She clings to Claudius and they are shown in bed together, though not in the act. The Ghost’s corporeality confirms him as real, not merely Hamlet’s hallucination. He touches and even embraces his son, though in the presence of others he seems less substantial. Almeredya privileges Hamlet’s perspective and we see events through his eyes.
Seeking a “motive and cue for passion,” Hamlet turns to Blockbuster for answers. As he stands in Blockbuster confronted with rows of ACTION! films, he remains immobilized by inner conflict. Viewing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause as a model for action, Hamlet passively watches gun shots, comparing his own behavior with Dean who “in a fiction, in a dream of passion” takes action while Hamlet can’t. His camera becomes a gun visually. Hamlet speaks of “guilty creatures” caught by a play as Laurence Oliver’s Hamlet appears on his television. He learns from Olivier’s Hamlet how to discover Claudius’ guilt. The close up of his eyes as he works demonstrates the power of his gaze. He is seeking out truth with his look using film as his weapon.
Hamlet presents images of childhood, poisoning, lust, and crowning taken from other films. The scene of lust is taken from Deep Throat, equating Gertrude’s appetite with pornography. A reaction shot reveals her aversion to Hamlet’s representation. “The Mousetrap” visually translates the text. “The natural” is the happy nuclear family. Nature motifs describe the time before King Hamlet’s death with a blooming rose. After the poisoning comes a stream of death images, culminating in a dying rose. The film presents King Hamlet’s murder as the death of nature, beauty, and health in Denmark. Likewise in Ophelia’s insanity, she gives away roses.
Almeredya delivers a visual punch through representation of suicide. Hamlet speaks the words “to be, or not to be” holding a gun to his head, then in his mouth. He continually watches a video of this, giving us a window to his state of mind. Almeredya lets us glimpse Ophelia’s consciousness in her fantasy of drowning. Without a cue to distinguish between the narrative and her fantasy, we believe she is drowning until the film cuts back to her standing on the edge of the pool. The film suggests the definition of madness is crossing the line between thought and action. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are constrained by roles they do not want to play: Hamlet the revenger, Ophelia the submissive woman. Neither can escape their role, but Hamlet chooses to embrace it, while Ophelia chooses to die. Her action makes her madness real while Hamlet’s remains only in thought.
A meta-filmic instance replaces a Shakespearean aside. When Polonius discovers Hamlet’s madness, his observations about Hamlet’s behavior are relayed to the viewer through a security camera. Whose point of view the shot portrays is unclear. It achieves the same effect as the Shakespearean aside; making the audience aware of their role as spectators. Almeredya, while Hamlet is dying, replays black and white images from earlier in the film, as if filmed by Hamlet. It both expresses Hamlet’s desire for Horatio to tell his story, and his own subjectivity (his subconscious is a film). His life flashes before his eyes and the eyes of the viewer as he dies. We are invited to share his perspective in this final instant as we have throughout the film.
Beyond the meta-filmic aspects of Hamlet, there is an intriguing use of photography and mirrors. Ophelia’s preferred mode of representation is photography, as Hamlet’s is film. Reflecting her character, photography is more passive and still. It is about capturing the image instead of creating it. Photographs capture a fleeting instance, while film is movement in time. Film is able to convey more with its progression of images and their juxtaposition than photography can with one image (though one image can be powerful and poignant). Each character’s choice of representation reveals the difference between them. Hamlet wants the power to make a statement and express himself, while Ophelia seeks beauty and truth in life and crumbles when she can no longer find it. In her madness she gives out photographs of flowers; their “seeming” instead of the reality. She can no longer distinguish between representation and reality, or perhaps prefers representation since reality has failed her. When Hamlet fails her, she burns his image. She destroys the “seeming” that has deceived her, but what she truly destroys is her conception of him that has proved false.
Hamlet destroys and confronts his own image, and only after this can he finally act. In the first confrontation with his image, he destroys it. He shoots Polonius through a mirror, that reflects his own face, shattering his “seeming.” His intent in this film is to destroy himself, or at least the part of himself that restrains him from action. Yet in this hit he misses, killing “the unseen good old man” professing it madness. He denies responsibility for his action, negating its value. His defining moment is when he confronts his own reflection. It marks a change in his character from fighting his fate, to acceptance. As he travels to England he realizes there is no reason to hold back, he has cause, means, will, and strength to achieve his revenge, and he must. He faces his reflection with the camera behind him, so the viewer sees his face only in the mirror, and incites himself to action. He will find greatness in the path he has been given and not stand frozen by “thinking too precisely on th’ event.” From this point on Hamlet is fatalistic, accepting that “a man’s life’s no more than to say ‘one’” and that “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” He must end the conflict within him, uniting all his “seeming” to one purpose: to act. The destruction of his image in the broken mirror, and his fractured state as his image incites him to action, resolve this division resulting in acceptance.