Hamlet vs. Ophelia [Video]

Over in the “He Made Good End” thread we’re discussing the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship and I thought it’d be fun to see if I could take a peek through some of the various interpretations throughout the years. I went hunting for a very specific scene – when Ophelia tries to give back Hamlet’s gifts, and he has to decide on the spot how to react. The big question, in my mind, is to what degree Ophelia deserves the treatment she gets from Hamlet.  Is she just a pawn, moved one way by her father and another by her boyfriend?  Does Hamlet agonize over his decision to crush her, or is he so far removed from that relationship that he doesn’t think twice about it? [Note that most of these clips are in fact the To be or not to be soliloquoy, so you’ll have to wait to near the end for Ophelia’s entrance.] Here we have an old “Great Performances” clip, but I do not know the actors.  At best I can say that it portrays something of a traditional, conservative take on the classic.  Hamlet here clearly looks like someone who is pretending to be something he is not.

  Speaking of traditional, here’s the Laurence Olivier .  As mentioned in the other post, it can take years to get this Ophelia out of your head.  She is…mindless.  It’s sad, really, to see just how patronizing he is toward her.  Perhaps Laertes earlier speech about how Hamlet’s no good for his little sister had some merit?  I think that Hamlet *wants* Ophelia to be a stronger person, but knows full well that she is not.  I’m sure he’s disappointed by this, but really, did he ever have reason to expect anything else? Surely he knows her character, or lack thereof.

  Ooooo….the Richard Burton version.  Cool.  I’ve never seen this before, and heard that his is one of the best.  Since it is a stage interpretation it’s hard to get the same comparison as modern film versions. 

  Kevin Kline .  People who know Kline only from his comedic roles may not appreciate just how fine a Shakespearean actor he is.  In this scene I particularly note the joy with which he first sees and approaches Ophelia, like “here is the only person who has not turned against me…” and then the sheer denial and physically backing away as he realizes that she, too, is lost to him.

  Derek Jacobi ?  Wow, I tripped over this one just as I was ready to post the rest.  Cool!  His Hamlet, to me, looks like he’s already gone over the edge.  He doesn’t so much as blink at Ophelia, and he’s practically attacking her (verbally) from the minute she says Hello.  He’s nuts.

  Mel Gibson .  The strongest part of this clip is actually Ophelia, one of the few I’ve seen that is strong enough to storm right up to him and hold her own.  She’s clearly one of those Ophelia’s who is doing her father’s bidding because she has no choice – but she most certainly has feelings on the subject.  Hamlet, for his part, looks a bit paranoid, like he’s afraid she’s going to see right through him. 

  Ethan Hawke .  I had trouble finding this clip, there’s plenty of him wandering around the video store doing To Be, and later of him breaking up with Ophelia (“no more marriages”) over voice mail, but nothing in the middle.  This clip is actually a collection of Ophelia moments, and Ethan Hawke / Julia Stiles is in there at about 45 seconds.  It’s pretty bad, and I include it only for completeness.  It’s not worthy of comparison to Kline or Brannagh or the others.

  Lastly we have modern perfection, Kenneth Brannagh .  I did not necessarily love his version on first viewing, I thought he made some unusual choices particularly near the end.  But when you pick out individual scenes and look only at the acting, and the delivery of the lines, it’s quite genius.  Look at Brannagh’s eyes when Ophelia returns his gifts.  Look at the mix of rage and anguish as he tries to keep it together and not blow his cover.  Wow.

5 thoughts on “Hamlet vs. Ophelia [Video]

  1. Awesome collection Duane – thanks! It was great to see all those interpretations like that. There are some very important things that an actor has to decide in that scene, from when he knows Ophelia is "in on it" to when he knows they are watching at that moment, and whether or not he really did love her, or if he still does.

    I think I liked Kevin Kline the best. I found myself thinking how I would portray it as I watched, and see still more differences. Ethan Hawke's was awful – glad i haven't seen that….


  2. I wrote on a different post that I think I like Kline's Hamlet because I think I like Kline, if that makes sense. Maybe it's because I see him as a comic actor and I'm silently hoping that he can pull it off. Who knows, maybe it is his portrayal. When I went through the clips I looked for the emotional response that jumped out at me from each, and the way he backs away from her really made me feel for him.

  3. I may be wrong, but that looks like Michael Pennington in the first clip. His performance is one that I always wish had been preserved, although this clip is not a particularly great rendition of it (largely due to the poor quality Ophelia and the costumes). (You can see other samples of him doing Hamlet in the Playing Shakespeare series.)

  4. After looking at it another couple of times, I have to say the Jacobi clip is stunning. –Of course, the level he reaches from ground zero could only be judged properly in relation to what has come before and after the scene. But it certainly shows the angst brought about by the circumstances; the fact that he has indeed reached a level of true insanity when it comes to his "Ophelia Problem".
    "It HATH made me mad" What a wonderful moment, when he realizes he's not faking it here. He can't. Only two people have the power to render him truly "insane"–Ophelia and his mother–because of the strength of feeling he has for both–and has lost, pretty much, he truly feels, at their hands.

    Duane, note the "…I never gave you/aught" and "I did love you/once".(did Ben Crystal mention this in "Toast"?) Simple, "proper" articulation, known in the "Form" as "separations". But look at what beautiful sculpting they can inspire in an actor who knows they're there and chooses to use them. Shakespeare's work is full of them.

    Ophelia's woe is felt for what she has seen, ( both good and bad of Hamlet) but it reminds her of what she KNOWS as well, and quickly shifts to outline her knowledge of her share of the responsibility, with her even slower observation (more Form stuff) finishing the all single syllable line: " …;see what I see" –the shot of her admission with Claudius and Polonius appearing exactly at that moment, almost superimposed behind her face, confirming her woe at her being an instrument, is nothing less than brilliant.

    What a great clip. These actors–both of them–are playing so many facets, pro or con, of their characters. I've never seen this version all the way through– I'm now going in search of a full copy of this production. Glad you tripped over it–Thanks.

  5. Jacobi is awesome in the role. It's definitely in my top 3 versions of the play's film versions, along with Branagh's and Tennant's.

    While I am NOT a fan of Kline's Hamlet, this is one of the scenes where he really nails it. Agreed.

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