Is Hamlet Mad, Possessed or Guided by His Fathers Spirit? Clues in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet(1996)

King Claudius remarks on Hamlets mental state that “what he spake, though it lacked form a little, Was not like Madness. There is something in his soul, O’er which melancholy sits to brood”(Act 3, Scene 1, 162-165). Claudius’s observation may be astute but it also could we woefully unaware considering that he has no knowledge of the supernatural experiences Hamlet has had. The true nature of Hamlets mental state remains a mystery, and wether Claudius is correct, partially correct or wrong is subject to interpretation.Kenneth Branaghs adaptation of Hamlet argues the partial view, Hamlet was a grieving young man who’s supernatural experiences eventually drove him mad.

Branagh sets the tone of the relationship between Cladius, Gerturde and Hamlet in the second scene of the first act.  Branagh shows the scene where Cladius and Getrude are hosting Laertes and Polonius at a vast public gathering. The whole palace hall is filled with adoring patrons and loyal military men. When Polonius asks for leave, King Cladius gives it most graciously, Polonius bows and the whole crowd claps. When the scene comes to address the grieving Hamlet, Cladius and Getrude kneel down and plead to him in private. Branagh also makes the decision to play heart-warming music in the background while the new couple gently plead with Hamlet. Only once Cladius makes an oath of loyalty to Hamlet “You are most immediate to our throne”( Act 1, Scene 2, 110) does Cladius project the conversation towards the crowd. In other film adaptations, King Cladius is shown as far less sympathetic. In Laurence Oliviers version, King Cladius delivers the speech mockingly,at a distance and in front of his guests, as if to weaken Hamlet.  In Branaghs version, Cladius’s in the first scene comes across as reasonable, concerned and a just king. There is also no overt kissing between Cladius and Getrude, and the physical distance between them shows the marriage as almost a formality. It is possible that their marriage is a Levirate marriage and perhaps Caldius was merely fulfilling a royal duty to marry his brothers widow. Hamlets persona in his subsequent soliloquy makes him come across as neurotic, bitter and isolated rather than someone confounded by a great crime.

Hamlet expressed an ominous possibility in Act Two Scene Two when he said “May be the devil, and the devil hath power T’assume a pleasing shape” (Act Two, Scene Two, 561-562). In this speech Hamlet is expressing the possibility that the apparition of his father that he saw previously was in fact the devil and not his father.  I believe Branagh builds on this and suggests it was the devil, not King Hamlet that visited Hamlet in Act one Scene 5. In the scene, Branagh depicts the apparition of Hamlets father as a terrifying figure. The figure comes across not as a compassionate father figure but like a sinister being. Branagh makes constant visual references to Hell, as the ground opens to provide glimpses of fire while the father speaks. The Father also has frightening, cold, lifeless eyes and is floating above him in a domineering posture, as if to control rather than to talk to and comfort a sad and worried son. The focus of the camera on the father’s mouth lifelessly giving orders also adds to the suspicion that the father’s ghost is some other entity that the one it purports to be.

The idea that the devil “abuses me to damn me”(Act 2 Scene 2,164) can be supported by Hamlets gradual descent into madness after his first encounter with the apparition. Branagh plays on the fact that Hamlet is indeed being driven mad. The next time the film audience sees Hamlet after his meditation on the devil is in the “To Be Or Not To Be” speech. As we know, To Be or Not to Be is a meditation about suicide. Branagh’s Hamlet performs this soliloquy in a very odd manner. Unlike Olivier’s Hamlet, who performs it in despair alone sitting on a rock by the sea, Branagh’s Hamlet performs it confidently, staring menacingly at himself in the mirror. Towards the end of the speech he pulls out his dagger and points it at his reflection. The scene is also poignant as it shows the reflection talking to Hamlet rather than vice versa. My interpretation of what Branagh does with this scene is that the speech is delivered by the devil who has possessed Hamlet.  The speech itself represents a split personality,entirely divided by one part of the man who wants to end his life and one part of him who is afraid to so do. The mirror reflects the double-faced nature of the speech, as one dark part of Hamlet wants to end his life and the resilient part of Hamlet resists this part of himself by   argument “The undiscovered country from whos bourn no traveler ever returns,puzzles the will”(Act Three Scene 1,80-82)” and physically by drawing his sword at his reflection. The very metaphor of reflection is also important, as a reflection is ultimately an illusion, a distortion and unreal second self. The impression of diabolical possession also seems to take the form of a second self, an evil false self that clouds and distorts ones thoughts and actions. This false Hamlet, driven mad by illusion is the real guilty party according to Branagh, with Getrude, Ophelia and Cladius as unfortunate victims of a tormented prince in the throes of psychosis brought upon by possession.

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