The Shrug Heard Round The World

If you haven’t seen the Tennant/Stewart Hamlet yet, read no more!  Spoilers follow about “the thing”.

Here, while you’re waiting, have a look at this completely unrelated clip of the “best death scene ever”…

Ok, let’s talk about this.  Claudius, holding a cup of poison and with Hamlet’s sword to his throat, *shrugs* before voluntarily drinking the poisoned wine.   I called it the biggest WTF moment in a movie full of them. I fast forwarded to that part just so I could show it to my wife, just so I could complain about it to a live person.

Can anybody come up with a logical interpretation for why he’d do that?  For that matter, the final scene is a real character switch for the man.  When Laertes is about to spill his guts (possibly literally), Claudius leaps up and begins frantically waving to have him taken away before he talks.  When Hamlet draws on him. Claudius *grabs the point of the sword*, which is rather unusual, but then at the ensuing booboo on his hand he shows the crowd and says “Help me, I am hurt!” 

I can even live with those, at least a little bit.  I can live with the idea that, once cornered, Claudius is basically a coward.  He has others do his dirty work for him, or he gets you in the ear while you’re sleeping.  But when he personally is called to the carpet?  He panics.  I can accept that.

It’s the shrug where I lose it.  Two seconds ago he was panicking that he’d been caught.  He makes a play to save himself (Help me, friends!), but no one comes to his aid.  So now he goes all stoic and with a “What the hell,” suicides?  No fight at all?  No *flight* at all? If you just declared him a coward, at least have him run for it and get it in the back or something.

Anybody got a justification for this one?

13 thoughts on “The Shrug Heard Round The World

  1. This moment was a bit bizarre to me, as well, and I can't really come up with a good reason for it. I mean, 1) Claudius knows the rapier was poisoned, so yeah, he's dead anyhow, and 2) so is Gertrude, whom he apparently killed for (he tries to grasp her hand as he falls to the ground). But is it really just a "Meh, what the hell" resignation? It seems sort of abrupt given his character. Stewart said in an interview that he knows why Claudius did it, but he's keeping it a secret.

    What really interested me was the wound on the palm — it recalled very clearly Hamlet slicing his own hand during his earlier meeting with the ghost. Maybe we can get something out of that? Hamlet is eager to see things get done, cuts his own palm, swears, accepts his terrible duty, and so on, and despite his prevaricating, in the end he more or less takes it like a man. Claudius, by contrast, has to be forced into a situation (that is, someone else has to score his palm) where he must take action and make a choice, not to mention face the consequences of his actions, but really doesn't comprehend the existential significance. Or something.

  2. "Stewart said in an interview that he knows why Claudius did it, but he's keeping it a secret."

    Really? See, that annoys me. He's supposedly too good of an actor to resort to stupid tricks like that, and it disappoints me greatly. Maybe he can be like Carly Simon and be running around radio stations 20 years from now offering to auction off the secret of "why Claudius did it" to the highest bidder.

  3. Too many "program notes" for me. I came to watch and hear a play, not read about it. Insufferable directorial indulgence!

  4. As I go through other sites that are talking about the shrug, and how apparently Stewart even makes a big deal out of it, referring to it as his favorite bit, I find that I have to come up with some sort of rationale or it'll drive me mad.

    The best I can come up with, thus far, is that Claudius just saw the whole darned sequence like a big game. He wanted his brother's crown, he got it. Wanted his wife and got her, too. That's why he's so smug about everything. This little pissant Hamlet is getting in the way and Claudius has a move for him, too – off to England with him. So in the end when it's clear that the game is over, so to speak, he readily acknowledges it. In other words, it's not so much that this was out of character for him, it's that we simply never had a chance to see that side of the character. We don't see Claudius having to deal with defeat, except right now. And this is how he coldly and rationally deals with it – he accepts it.

    I'm only half convinced of that, but I could start to build something around it. If he's so quick to accept his defeat, then why was he so panicked a minute ago when Laertes spilled the beans?

    And for that matter let's talk about the sword. He grabs the *poisoned* sword. Did he realize this, and it was his version of falling on a Roman sword? If so, then why the rest of the scene, why the Help me, friends? If he'd deliberately poisoned himself then the rest of the scene would be resignation to his fate. That's not what we got.

    So perhaps when he's handed the potion is when he realizes "I'm poisoned already anyway." And that's what causes him to decide that the game is over, and there's no point in running for it.

    We're giving Stewart and awful lot of credit here. If I saw that shrug at the end of some local production I would walk away cussing to the rafters that they simply had no understanding of the material. Here we're wracking our brains trying to figure out what Stewart had in mind.

  5. The "secret" is more than likely an inside joke, or there may be some sort of "Inside the Actor's Studio" nonsense surrounding it, but I suspect that the answer is that it's no more "clever" than it looked. And unless we've redefined what "outrageously stupid" means, "clever" it wasn't.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In April of 2001, when Elsinore resided closer to the banks of the mighty Charles River, I witnessed a truly spectacular production of Hamlet with Simon Russell Beale, touring with the Royal National Theatre, performing the role of an older and pudgy Hamlet than we're accustomed to seeing. During one of Hamlet's soliloquies, Beale looked into the audience and gave an exaggerated shrug of his shoulder indicating he had no idea what Shakespeare was trying to say. I remember chuckling thinking "How refreshing to see an actor of Beale's esteem and erudition honestly express his ignorance" — it was an act of communing with the audience, giving us bardolators a free pass on our own ignorance with Will's plays. 

    I'm older now (I'd like to think wiser) and more closely resemble Falstaff than young Prince Hal, and I've come to hate "the shrug." First, it's a distraction: it causes the listener to expend too much thought about its meaning to the detriment of corresponding dialogue. Second, it's arrogant to intimate any line of Shakespeare's can be so casually *shrugged* away. And third, shouldn't every Shakespearean actor –especially an actor performing Hamlet — familiarize himself with the advice Hamlet gives the Players:

    "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature."        

  7. I saw this and thought it as a stroke of genius. Hamlet doesn't pour the liquid done his throat. He doesn't stab him with the sword giving him would that on its own could kill him. he scratches his hand and tells him to drink up. faced with the logic that he is going to die, that his crimes have been found out, that the woman that he obviously loves in this version is dead and that everything he has worked for is ruined, how else could you respond. This is not an overly emotional Claudius. He is calculating and logical, and he realizes that he's lost. and while that shrug may not come across as a 'realistic' movement for someone in that situation, it encompasses all of those things. And that is what I think they were trying to convey.

  8. I know what you're saying Monica. And I agree that it is a legitimate interpretation. But it didn't have to be executed with the grace and style of a community theatre actor. A "take two", at least, might have been in order. 🙂

  9. Anonymous says:

    To be honest, I was even more interested in the choice to end the play with Horatio's sappy speech and cut Fortenbras taking over.

    I really liked the excision of all the pirate stuff–all that really matters is that Hamlet got home and R&G got 'offed.' But without Fortenbas closing the play the extended scene with the soldier (which is one of my favorites in the play) becomes an appendage.

  10. To the last anonymous poster: I'm not really sure why they kept the Fortinbras references throughout the play, actually, if they cut the payoff at the end. So though I too like the scene with the captain, I would rather they had cut it entirely than keep it is a misleading piece of an abortive subplot.

    To the earlier anonymous poster (perhaps the same person, I don't know): I'd agree to a certain extent with your position, but I don't see Stewart's shrug as an example of "the shrug" you speak of. He's shrugging in character, expressing a flippant fatalism that he sees in Claudius. He's not shrugging as Patrick Stewart telling the audience 'I have no idea what's going on here." For one thing, that would make no sense, given there's no textual obscurity to be shrugged off here anyway. The line "follow my mother," is pretty clear in meaning.

    Regarding the shrug: I liked it in theory, though Stewart's shrug itself came off as a little corny. It interesting that, though the text has no stage direction saying "Forces poison down his throat" that bit of stage business has become so embedded in the play. Having Hamlet merely order Claudius to drink the potion is immensely interesting, because it 1) removes some vindictiveness from Hamlet's Act Five persona, letting him be more in keeping with his "fall of a sparrow" speech, and 2) Allows Claudius to follow through on his wrestling with conscience before by having him accept his just desserts once his latest crimes have been revealed.

  11. Alexi wrote:"So though I too like the scene with the captain, I would rather they had cut it entirely than keep it is a misleading piece of an abortive subplot."

    So much out of balance; as was a lot left out of balance and unfinished or incompletely thought through in this production. Fortinbras brings closure, balance, and dignity to the play, Hamlet as a Prince, and to the rest of the victims of the tragedy. I especially missed his summation of what Hamlet might have been had things been otherwise: "Beare Hamlet like a Soldier to the Stage…" Olivier, with all his messing about, had Horatio say it, at least.
    But, it seems, the idea of Hamlet being at all a "princely" figure was eschewed throughout the proceedings anyway, so, I guess, what the hay?

    As far as the forcing of poison…Modern textual editors have supplanted the original colon with a period. The line, being a caesura, indicates action–a shift, especially punctuated with the colon–on someone's part. Since the line is Hamlet's, maybe the "tradition" you speak of has its roots there.
    Speaking of stage direction, interesting the way they chose to have Claudius "hurt" by the envenomed sword. In the Folio there is an explicit direction for Hamlet: "Then venome to thy worke."–the half line "finished" with: "Hurts the King." I don't suppose it means hurt him with harsh language.:)
    In my opinion, as the rule they made more of what was little and less of what was important. Hence, I guess, the excision of Fortinbras and invention of the "shrug". Not invalid, but not "genius" either.

  12. I also thought the shrug was jarring and, surprisingly, poorly executed. I enjoyed Alexi's and Monica's responses as they seem to get close to what might have been in the director's notes. First, let me say that I thought that letting Hamlet force the king to drink the poison was a brave and thoughtful addition to the scene. The shrug, however, was a mistake. First, here’s why I liked watching Hamlet force Claudius to drink from the poisoned cup:

    1. Hamlet knows that God “has set his canon 'gainst self-slaughter“, and Hamlet seems overwhelmed by the act of killing the king, face to face. (Polonius died behind a curtain).
    2. When Hamlet forces Claudius to drink from the poisoned cup, he gets Claudius to take his own life and damn his soul. It also removes Hamlet from the act.

    Now on to the shrug:

    Claudius shrugs because he knows that his crown, his queen, his ambition, and his soul are all lost as so he embraces death because it seems that all is lost. “Why not?” might sum up this gesture.

    Unfortunately, this gesture seems inconsistent with his character. For Claudius's motivations in this scene, I think the production would have benefitted from a steady stare while he drinks poison rather than Stewart's distracting shrug. It seems odd for him to abandon his calculating and steadfast nature in the final moments of his life.

    I think Claudius would not leave life with a shrug, and if he simply stared back at Hamlet while he drank, his sense of strength and resolve in this moment would not be lost on Hamlet. Few would leave life with a shrug so I don't think it’s appropriate for an ambitious king. Macbeth didn’t shrug. Claudius wouldn’t either.

    PS. While I'm at it, I'd also tell this Claudius not to reach out to Gertrude as he died. That was as distracting as the shrug. Indirectly, he just poisoned her, and she was aware of his treachery as she died. Under those circumstances, you die alone.

  13. Chelsea Richards says:

    Thanks, Duane, for directing me to this thread! I read your review post before I finished the film (I stumbled upon it while Googling, "why the heck is he barefoot in formal wear?" +/- a few words). That was probably my first mistake because through the rest of the film I was on the look out for a big WTF moment.
    After finishing, I guessed that it might be the shrug because I did find that a little troublesome. I would've preferred your suggestion of Claudius' running and being stabbed in the back as a show of cowardice. The only support for it that comes to mind is from 1.5.50-51: "…decline upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor to those of mine." We know King Hamlet was a victorious fighter, so we can deduce that his brother, lacking those gifts, is a coward. He has already been "but hurt" by the "envenomed" sword, so maybe he simply has the good sense to speed his death along than try to run and prolong it.
    That being said… WTF.

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