Friday, January 21, 2011

HAMLET (1948)

CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*

Compilers of fantasy-film archives have sometimes been divided as to whether or not to include HAMLET adaptations. In contrast to RICHARD III, where only one guilt-ridden character beholds what he thinks is a ghost, the ghost of Hamlet's father is seen by four other characters who, while perhaps disturbed by their king's passing, lack any real reason to have projected the spectre of that king out of their imagination.

So is the King real or not? One of the key metaphysical problems of the original play is whether or not the melancholy Dane- who is, actual history aside, the picture of the educated Renaissance man- should believe the words of a ghost, as seen in this speech, one of many pruned from the 1948 Laurence Olivier-directed film-adaptation:

The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil; and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps(595)
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds
More relative than this

I've always thought this was a point of Hamlet's depiction ruthlessly paved over by Olivier's conception of the character, cited at the opening play in words that are not Shakespeare's, as "a man who could not make up his mind." Whether this view was original with Olivier or not, it ignores the valid point the tormented Dane makes above. If you're going to toss reason and education out the window, and believe that ghosts are real, why stop there? Why couldn't the ghost be a devil, deceiving Hamlet to gull him into an unjustified act? And while the guilt of Claudius seems to indicate that the king's ghost was the real deal, HAMLET the play is not quite a "ghost story" in the "marvelous" sense of the word.

It does fit better in my re-conception of Todorov's category "the uncanny." Todorov's original category encompasses works in which phenomena that seem fantastic are proven to be either delusions or a mortal-made hoax, his most dominant examples being the fake horrors of Radcliffean Gothics. In my conception, Radcliffean Gothics still evoke the affectivity of the metaphenomenal in spite of the fact that it's proven that the ghost is actually Uncle Ephraim in disguise. Further, my "uncanny" also takes in many works Todorov placed in his transitional category "the fantastic," in which the reader/audience cannot be entirely sure whether or not to take the fantasy-material at face value. What the "ghost of Uncle Ephraim" of some imaginary Gothic and "the ghost-or-maybe-devil" of HAMLET have in common is a similar affectivity; of something that seems wondrous but which does not, in the end, have the same boundary-altering effect on the mortal realm that "the marvelous" does.

Of course one of the main reasons that Olivier feels comfortable in passing over Hamlet's metaphysical dilemma is that he heavily invested in the Freudian psychological interpretation, first put forth in 1900's THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS. Thus the reason Hamlet cannot make up his mind to avenge his father is because he had an "Oedipal desire for his mother and the subsequent guilt [is] preventing him from murdering the man [Claudius] who has done what he [Hamlet] unconsciously wanted to do."

Were I rating Olivier's HAMLET purely as a faithful translation of all of the Bard's implicit themes, its mythicity would be rated higher. However, there's a sense in which the Freudian reading of Shakespeare has taken on its own life, and in terms of evoking Freud, the 1948 succeeds quite well. The early scene in which Hamlet's mother Gertrude kisses her son on the mouth-- he, seated in a chair and seemingly distant-- while her new husband Claudius and the whole court look on is an apt summation of Freud's "family romance." On a side-note, perhaps to keep away the "ghost story" vibe, Olivier never lets us see the ghost of the late king, but resorts to cloudy mummeries to keep things in the psychological realm.

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