To be or not to be? (Scene Comparison)

 Kenneth Branagh (1996) vs. Franco Zeffirelli (1990)

Even the movie posters look to tell a different story.

Even the movie posters look to tell a different story.

Here are two massive Hollywood productions, competing for Oscar nominations in their respective years. Branagh in all his Shakespeare enthusiasm made one of the longest movies ever (3hr58min). Zeffirelli was completing his Shakespeare works with a more accepted film length. (Which also ended up being better received, at 2hr15min.)

When making Hamlet come to life, Act 3, Scene 1 has particular importance. People who don’t know Shakespeare have usually heard the line “To be or not to be”. It has been delivered every which way since the time it was written. While both the directors refrained from editing the original prose, the two deliveries could not be more different than Branagh’s performance in his self directed movie and Mel Gibson’s for Zeffirelli’s film.


That’s a hard look to pull off, even for Mr. Branagh.

To start, both directors took very different looks to the title character. Branagh is rocking some 90’s Eminem bleach blonde hair with a sharp mustache and goatee. To be fair, no one could really pull of this look. In comparison, Mel Gibson looks like, well, Mel Gibson. Not braided hair Braveheart Mel Gibson, just a short haircut and a light beard. Both are maybe not quite invoking of a student returning home from school but that’s creative freedom.


Classic emotional Mel Gibson looking sad.

Looks aside, the set choice for this famous soliloquy are also very different. Branagh is in a massive brightly lit ballroom, surrounded by double way mirrors. This is key, as Branagh’s Hamlet seems to know that Claudius and Polonius are watching him from the other side. The verse becomes less self-reflective and more of an act for his hidden audience. Zeffirelli places Hamlet alone in a tomb where he reflects life and death. In a somber space and almost asking the dead who surround him, Gibson’s Hamlet is truly considering if this life is worth living. Simply by the surroundings, the two directors take a very different tone to Hamlet’s words.

Whose house has two way mirrors?

Whose house has two way mirrors?

Branagh uses the mirrors to also deliver the soliloquy in one continuous shot. The only editing coming at the beginning before any words are spoken to establish that Polonius and Claudius are present for the speech. Having the camera look over his shoulder and slowly zooming in on the reflection as he walks closer to the mirror and his hidden listeners. At one point he even draws a knife and points it towards himself in the mirror. Or perhaps seen as foreshadowing he is in fact pointing the knife at those who are standing behind it. One could also consider the mirror as an illusion to the veil of death as Hamlet speaks of the travel no one returns from (LL80-81).

Zeffirelli in his tomb with low lighting had no problem taking multiple shots and editing them together. The scene is mostly close ups but it is clearly shown that Hamlet is pacing around the tomb in his self-contemplation. The audience is forced to revel in Gibson’s facial expressions and follow him closely throughout the scene. The only breaks are short glimpses of bones and the crypt as answers to Hamlet’s questions of death.

Well that's a gloomy setting.

Well that’s a gloomy setting.

Finally Branagh delivers his lines with a slow methodology that he is not simply saying them to himself. His pauses come as if he knows what he wants to say. The feel comes less naturalistic and more like a rehearsed performance. There is less inflection within the words and he maintains a steady almost whispering volume for most the phrases. There is a gradual build of volume as the camera moves closer to the reflection but it is accentuated by an introduction of a low lying score.

Zeffirelli lets Gibson have accentuated speech that comes when thoughts are spoken aloud. There is clear emphasis on Shakespeare’s repetition of words. The word sleep being used 5 times within 7 lines are given noted pauses (LL.61-67). Gibson puts lots of emotion into his performance and is not tied to a score. The only other sounds come from his pacing and throwing himself to the floor in his sorrow.

While both performances deliver the opening line quite quickly, Branagh chooses to pause and gives final focus on “action”. This again accentuates the feeling that he knows what he wants to say. Gibson delivers the last line fluidly in a final thought and ends the scene with a saddened hang of the head.


While both directors took very different approaches to Shakespeare’s work, they should both be appreciated for their artistic approaches. While you may not want to submit yourself to the 4 hours required for Branagh’s epic, you can catch both scenes here in these YouTube links:

Branagh (1996)

Zeffirelli (1990)


So what do you think? Is one far superior then the other? Are either of them really what Shakespeare meant when he wrote the ever famous soliloquy?

One thought on “To be or not to be? (Scene Comparison)

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