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“Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh” Hamlet’s trust is betrayed by the people who are dearest to his heart (III.i.87). The theme of betrayal takes root before Shakespeare’s tragedy begins, when Hamlet’s uncle murders his father and marries his mother. These enormous betrayals, along with other pointed deceptions, justify many of Hamlet’s words and actions. A striking example of the deceit Hamlet endures can be seen in act three, scene one of Hamlet: the nunnery scene. When Hamlet steps through the entryway he walks into a web of secrets, deception, and dishonesty. Determined to discover the nature of Hamlet’s madness, the king and Polonius have summoned Hamlet to a place where they know he will “run into” Ophelia under their observation; the scene is a set-up. Hamlet is spied on by his stepfather and lied to by his love in this moment of cruel deceit.
In Olivier’s 1948 film version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the nunnery scene allows Hamlet to articulate his frustration without confronting his enemies. Hamlet enters the scene fully aware of its contrived nature, like an actor taking his place on the stage. The ensuing performance is that of a narcissistic child winning just to hear the sound of his own voice; Olivier’s Hamlet has no real interaction with any of the other characters in the scene. Olivier’s choice to focus on Hamlet and his feelings, rather than the action going on around him, is highlighted in the nunnery scene and evident in the entire play Branagh, on the other hand sees Hamlet as an exciting tale of courtly intrigue and deception. Branagh’s Hamlet’s truly affected by the action unfolding
Olivier’s open and abstract nunnery scene set looks more like a stage than a room in a castle. This choice of setting suggests to the reader that Hamlet’s words are purely expressive ramblings (like the words of an actor) rather than pointed dialogue (like the words of a man betrayed). The simplicity of the chamber does not provide any corner for secrets to lurk in or any shadows to cloak deception. This staging reminds the reader that nothing in the scene is hidden form Hamlet. The effect of this set is to shift focus from the scene’s action to Hamlet’s unaffected performance.
In sharp contrast, the large black and white checked floor of the Nunnery Scene in Branagh’s Hamlet is the giant chessboard (C5) on which a complex and intricate game is played. Dozens of hidden doors, two-way mirrors, and secret rooms set up a scene where the truth is elusive and twisted. Branagh’s Nunnery Scene is a maze of lies through which Hamlet must struggle to find the truth. The court setting could not be more appropriate to Branagh’s idea that this scene is a game of strategies in the peculiar court.
One step away from scenery, Olivier’s Ophelia is a pale-skinned, white-gowned, blond haired, and soft-spoken one-dimensional virgin figure. All of Ophelia’s feelings and intentions are manifest in her actions; her lies are obvious, her motivations are clear, and she seems extremely unintelligent, as she has no understanding of Hamlets purpose. Since Hamlet already knows that Ophelia has planned to deceive him she has no information to convey to Hamlet during the scene. Most of what Hamlet says seems to be beyond her comprehension, even when Hamlet is shouting and pointing at the spot where Polonius and the king are hidden, Ophelia does not realize that he is aware of them. Since Ophelia never recognizes the deeper meaning in Hamlet’s words it seems as though he is speaking for himself and his hidden audience rather than Ophelia. In fact, the uninteresting nature of Ophelia’s character, in Olivier’s interpretation, makes much of the Hamlet’s dialogue seem like a monologue. In this way, Olivier uses his concept of Ophelia to shift the scene’s focus away from the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Once again, Olivier draws attention to Hamlets bantering as an unaffected performance.
Red lipped and rosy cheeked, Branagh’s Ophelia however, is a dubious and interesting character. Early in the film Branagh uses flashbacks to show the audience that Hamlet and Ophelia are lovers. Ophelia has given herself to Hamlet, but later she acts like an obedient daughter following her father’s wishes. Ophelia seems to mislead both Hamlet and her father in this interpretation; the incongruity in her character makes Ophelia’s interaction with Hamlet in the Nunnery Scene dubious. When Hamlet enters the court Ophelia is waiting behind the staircase, presumably because she knows that there her father and the king won’t see them. The dialogue between Hamlet and Ophelia reads like the beginning of a fight scene, but Branagh has them skirmishing as they passionately embrace. When Hamlet hears movement in the court and asks Ophelia where her father is he’s horrified by her fallacious reply. Ophelia’s quick shift from great affection to casual lies clearly affects Hamlet; their interaction brings the theme of betrayal into the spotlight. Branagh clearly highlights the moment where Hamlet goes from trusting Ophelia to feeling that she has betrayed him. The interaction between Hamlet and Ophelia is vital to the scene, and the entire play. Branagh uses this relationship to draw focus from Hamlet’s internal struggles, to the larger themes of the relational give and take of the scene.
They are hidden from Hamlet’s sight, but Polonius and the king are germane to Olivier’s interpretation of the nunnery scene. Thought they do not interact with Hamlet at all during the scene, but their presence is the motivation for most of Hamlet’s dialogue in this scene. Hamlet’s anger toward Polonius and the king drive him to speak, but his fear of repercussions keeps him form confronting them. For example, Hamlet threatens the king’s life, “. . .all but one, shall live.” (III.i.144), verbally, but he does not pull away the (very accessible) curtain and act on his threat. Instead, Hamlet acts like a grade school bully who, frustrated with his teachers, picks on the students who are smaller than him.
Hamlet is yelling at Ophelia because, he is frustrated by his anger at and Polonius and the king. Olivier uses this idea to explain Hamlet’s self-centered performance in the nunnery scene.
Polonius and the king are much more active participants in Branagh’s Nunnery Scene. When the camera pans behind the one-way glass the audience can see Polonius and the king react to the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia. But Claudius and Polonius are much more than passive observers to what’s going on in front of them. A noise from behind the one-way glass gives away the location of the spies. This moment changes the momentum of the scene, and the entire play. Once Hamlet realizes that his father and Polonius are watching him he knows that he has been betrayed. In addition to bringing out the betrayal theme, Polonius and the king provide the motive for Hamlet’s harsh dialogue in the second half of the Nunnery Scene. Hamlet harshly chastises Ophelia while he is searching for the men he knows are watching him, clearly illustrating that Hamlet’s anger toward Ophelia stems from her participation in this scene’s set up. The active role assumed by Polonius and Claudius fits perfectly with Branagh’s choice to make character interaction pivotal to the play.
But it should not be said that Olivier’s dialogue lacks emotion because it is a performance. In fact, there is an overabundance of passion in the words of Olivier’s Hamlet. There seems to be a roller-coaster ride of feeling as Hamlet speaks to Ophelia. He moves with lightning speed from gentle words directed at his love to anguished screams at the sky. This transition occurs at several points in the scene, creating a sense of staged rhythm in the delivery of the dialogue. This pattern of speech seems to mirror the internal battle raging in Hamlet’s mind he loves Ophelia, but hates her betrayal.
Hamlet hears Polonius and the king in their hiding place behind the walls of the court during the nunnery scene. He can not bear the thought that Ophelia has betrayed him by aiding in his set up, so he gives her a chance to admit the truth. He looks straight into her eyes and asks her where her father is. Her simple reply, “At home, my lord” (III.i.128), totally changes Hamlet’s emotions for the rest of the scene. Branagh builds the Nunnery Scene around Ophelia’s lie; before she speaks it Hamlet is driven by his love for her, after he is flooded by anger and pain. Branagh clearly reflects these changes in his delivery. He effectively uses this opportunity to show the audience that Hamlet is profoundly affected by what is going on around him.
Olivier’s nunnery scene is centered on the performance of a self-centered thespian. In fact, Olivier’s presentation of Hamlet as a whole focuses on the title character’s thoughts and emotions as he deals with the deceit of those around him. Branagh’s attempt to widen the scope of his Hamlet, beyond Olivier’s interpretation of the play as a look into the main character’s mind, allows him to generate a Nunnery scene far more engaging than Olivier’s. Though it offers interesting insight into Hamlet’s mind, Olivier’s Nunnery Scene offers the audience no plot advancement and little action. By sharp contrast, Branagh’s rendering unfolds to reveal exciting twists in the story and riveting conflict among the characters as they actively betray Hamlet’s trust.
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