I do not agree with the comment of Hazlitt: ‘There is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage’ Based on performances I have seen and other plays by Shakespeare, I think this is one of his better plays as it does not stick to guidelines. Although a long play, it has a depth to it, that, if transferred to the stage well, is transformed from a long and winding script to a fascinating play filled with suspense and the emotions of the characters run high.
Hamlet’, nonetheless is a challenging script and Hamlet himself can either create the play or destroy it, he is the key element. To fascinate the audience from the outset you need to examine the setting that Shakespeare describes throughout the script. For in order to create the atmosphere that is in the book you have to overcome the challenges set out, for example, the many different sets in the play, the castle, the battlements, Ophelia’s bedroom, and the grounds. The sky is important in ‘Hamlet’ for the stars and Greek Gods were the interest of the time.
This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire- why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. The difficulty of including all the settings for each scene on stage can be solved by a backdrop or sky cloth painting which has perspective, drawing the audience in. The sky can be painted high on a separate curtain which can roll up or down in order to be able to change the time of day, for example, one of sunrise and another of the stars and a night sky.
Awake the God of a day’. In an open theatre, it would be more difficult to change the appearance of the sky for usually there is no backdrop, bar the screen. The problem of changing weathers or moods can be solved or enhanced by using modern technology, such as a motor and a projector in order to use moving gobo cut-outs to suggest rain, stars, snow or a storm for angry or sinister, happy or calm moods. ‘What may this mean that thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel, revisits thus the glimpse of the moon, making night hideous’.
In Zeffirelli’s film of Hamlet, there is mud and rain and mist which could be transported onto the stage simply as mud, water, and smoke machines or the gobo lights mentioned earlier could be used for a similar effect. Though, in using real mud and water, Zeffirelli creates a real place, like the stages of Shakespeare’s time and creates a physical presence, increased by the fact that Zeffirelli uses many extras; which generates a feeling that Claudius rules over real subjects, instead just a character created by Shakespeare.
In lyubimov’s ‘Hamlet’, a comparatively modern production, for cinematic effect a stenographic image was used. A constantly moving curtain (designed by David Bornovskv), was, in itself, another character which took sides or separated the actors and was an attention-grabbing piece of the set. It dictated the action and something which Shakespeare, I am sure, would have liked to have used in his productions of Hamlet. ‘ like a giant monster . . . setting the pace, and holding within its folds the symbols and tools of power – black armbands, swords, goblet, thrones edged with knives.
It envelops Ophelia, intimidates Polonius, protects Gertrude, supports Claudius and threatens Hamlet. Finally, it sweeps the stage clean and moves toward the audience as though to destroy it too. (M. Croyden) In Kosinstev’s version of Hamlet as a film, from the first scenes, we are aware that Denmark is a prison. In the film we see serrated rocks and the grave darkness of a castle in the background which illustrates the foreboding mood of the play, for example, in the script a clock strikes twelve, suggesting imminence of disaster.
Francisco’s line of ‘Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart. ‘ Creates an ambiance of apprehension and of fear which would be difficult to transfer on to the stage for it needs some backing like the films opening shots of mystery and darkness. For the pictures of the film of armed guards, a drawbridge and long, dark passages set the tone of constriction and oppression which is followed up with lines such as the King’s line to Hamlet ‘We beseech you, bend you to remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye’.
The stage is another major concern for a producer or stage director of Hamlet for it must consist, if following the script, of many different parts. In order to stage Hamlet for a modern audience, and be following the script, The Castle would be dominant on the set. It would be open to the audience and quite plain, dark and dingy, like in the film versions of Hamlet. In front of the castle, and a step-down, there would be a platform across the width of the stage as this is mentioned in the play. A step lower down and to one side I would have a platform for Polonius’ house, which is featured in Scene 3 Act 1.
Platforms would also be used to create different levels in the castle in order to produce the effect of movement and of separate rooms, designed so that Hamlet’s soliloquy, for example, could be seen to be spoken in an enclosed room. ‘Or that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. ‘ There is also the problem of what to do when one reaches the play within the play. Perhaps this could be done on a central disc that raises from the castle to emphasize that the ideas behind the play and its theme is actually the play, ‘Hamlet’ itself!
I’ll have these players play something like the murder of my father before my uncle’. In front of a modern audience, one could use a projector to intensify thoughts and speeches by projecting the face of the actor on the sky cloth, for example, Claudius’ face after seeing the play saying ‘Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense isn’t? More abstract illustrations of ‘Hamlet’ have used more simple sets and have let the actors do all the work, which works well for those who know Shakespeare’s work and understand the language but bodes badly if the audience does not know the story or the acting is not brilliant.
Abstract productions sometimes work well, such as Kozintsev’s, which began on a bare stage, and, backed by a white wall and a heavy wooden cross, two silhouetted gravediggers drank vodka and threw dirt and skulls out of an open grave which remained throughout. This was definitely effective for his audiences for it set Hamlet, not in Denmark, but in Russia and had the political depth to the play. As many critics have said, ‘Hamlet’ is a timeless play, for it can be relevant to any issues at any time.
Kozintsev’s aim was to “emphasize man’s essential dignity in a world representing his indignity: and to “‘make visible’ the poetic atmosphere of the play. ” He did not think the castle was needed “because the ultimate prison for Hamlet was not made up of stone or iron, but of people,” which is a valid point, is the set needed, described in Shakespeare’s work, for the play to be effective for a modern audience? Kozintsev’s play obviously defies those who say ‘yes’. On the other hand, the set, for a modern audience could also be set not only in a different place but also at a different time.
For example Michael Almereyda’s somber and darkly sinister ‘Hamlet’, set in New York in the early 21st century. The film is modern but mindful of tradition, which is probably the most difficult thing to accomplish, a balance of old ‘Hamlet’ with a new edge so that ‘it seems to exist in two worlds at once’. There is no feeling that the text had to be changed for a modern audience because it was already relevant to the times. Hamlet himself is the most played character by actors today, but the real puzzle of ‘Hamlet’ is whether to make him moody or happy, a lost youth yet sad, or wise and confused?
It is not just how to say Hamlet’s lines that is the problem; it is also important to balance the dialogue with silence and Hamlet’s mad yet witty repertoire with his slow and purposeful actions and pauses. The challenge of staging ‘Hamlet’ is that T. S Eliot informs us, ‘it represents the efforts of a series of men and is a combination of many emotions. ‘ George Santayana, a critic, said that, to the public, ‘Hamlet’ is a ‘famous piece by a famous poet, with crime, a ghost, battle, and carnage; and that is sufficient.
Meaning there is not much to have to add to Hamlet in order to please a modern audience because it is crammed full of action. I do not agree with this for I have seen many a Shakespearean play and in order to interest a group of Schoolchildren it needs to have a good set, whether abstract or an intricate castle and to be acted well. Hamlet, the Prince, has been played by a variety of people, one being a woman, Madame Bernhardt.
Elizabeth Robins described her as a ‘juvenile Hamlet’ and pointed out that the ‘cracking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s heads together… d the cocking up of her feet on the bench to prevent Polonius from sitting beside her, was the actions of a scampish schoolboy’. This characterization of Hamlet may be different from the ‘gentle Prince, the melancholy Dane’ but it was a comic character that brought laughs to the audience and was perhaps more like the intended Hamlet. For in Shakespearean times Hamlet women were played by men, so why not now have men played by women? It gives it a twist and a comic turn and would otherwise be the longest and perhaps least funny of Shakespeare’s plays!
Though giving Hamlet a comic edge could ruin the thoughts and morals behind the play for, as Elizabeth Robins said, ‘Most of us can recall… a Hamlet who is something of a thinker in his own right, rather than a precocious lad reciting scraps of borrowed philosophy’. Perhaps one of the best played ‘Hamlet’s’ was Mel Gibson’s performance in a Hamlet well suited for a modern audience. I think it overcame the problems that arise when you try to put Shakespeare’s work of ‘Hamlet’ to a modern audience.
He does not fall into the trap of taking the role too solemnly nor, as in many of his films, make it a comic role, for he has based his character on the young Hamlet in the first few scenes and gradually increased the tension levels from those scenes. Which I believe was one of the better ways of creating the character, Hamlet, instead of letting every sentence be a prediction of what is to come. Another challenge brought about by staging Hamlet is clothing, whether to use dress of the time or a more modern selection of outfits?
Most productions of Hamlet have been produced in Shakespearean attire but Gielgud’s production intriguingly used modern dress, which, at that time, was an entirely original idea. Gielgud did not care about the costumes or the set but was more interested in the lines themselves and whether a modern audience would understand their meaning. It meant the audience could concentrate on the acting and the words rather than fancy costumes and set construction. One of the most effective scenes in his production involved Ophelia. Dressing for Polonius’s funeral, she is strapped into a strict iron corset, suggesting prison bars.
Ophelia is first seen dancing stiffly in a lesson by an old woman to sweet music. In her madness, she dances again to the same tune but she is discordant. The use of music can influence an audience such as on the first entrance of a character, for example, eerie music for the entrance of the ghost. In Almereyda’s production of Hamlet, he concentrates on the ghost as a more central character and important role in the film and gives it a gothic edge. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ the spirit is often portrayed in a similar light.
Hamlet’s ghost is a challenge for all who stage ‘Hamlet’, the best ghost I have seen is Almereyda’s because he does not make him a ‘stereotypical’ ghost, dressed all in white, but a gaunt and miserable-looking old man in a long coat who ‘stops time’ when he appears on set. Miserably, he walks down an empty corridor, dissolving into a Pepsi machine! But the moment is not a visual joke but a creepy reminder of him being omniscient in the play. This would be an effective way of playing him on stage, walking from room to room in the castle to show his restless soul.
Hamlet’ is a challenging play which has been produced many times in many different ways. The ideal ‘Hamlet’ would be one which combines the old with the new and illustrates the depth and feelings of hamlet through the set whilst creating the characters as the reader sees them whilst reading the script. Everyone sees the ideal ‘Hamlet’ differently and it would probably be impossible to create one which everyone would love, but to satisfy most I would create all that I have mentioned and create my ‘Hamlet’ from modern productions and ideas from the text.