While the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Act 3 Scene 1 was undoubtedly of paramount importance to the immortalizing of Hamlet as a play, I would argue that in film, Act 2 Scene 2 warrants just as much, if not more, scrutiny and discussion. In particular, there is much to be said about the differences in creative decisions made by directors Zeffirelli and Doran in terms of text splicing, angles, character direction, and choice of visuals, particularly in Hamlet’s short interrogation of his friends but also in the ending soliloquy.
Perhaps the most readily apparent difference between these versions is that Zeffirelli chooses on more than one occasion to change the original order of events or, in some cases, omit lines entirely. With reference to the text, Zeffirelli places the “to be or not to be” soliloquy directly before Hamlet’s friendly encounter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then skips forward from the players’ arrival into just after the First Player’s speech. He then moves backwards to the “Flourish of trumpets within” before jumping forward again into halfway through the closing soliloquy. In my opinion, Zeffirelli’s new sequence of events does an admirable job of simplifying the plot without detracting too much from the meaning, as we still have Hamlet’s brooding, his interactions with other characters, and his resulting rage. However, that isn’t to say that Zeffirelli’s is necessarily better; in fact, his decisions almost give us a shallower Hamlet whose motivations and thoughtsare more generic and easy to understand. By contrast, Doran’s Hamlet follows the text exactly, sacrificing simplicity in favor of preserving the complexity of Hamlet’s character and motivations.
The same effect of showing two different Hamlets can be seen in each director’s choice of how to direct Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern during Hamlet’s short interrogation of them. When he first asks if they were sent for, Zeffirelli alternates between head-on shots of Rosencrantz/Guildenstern sitting and lower angle shots of Hamlet’s face, right up until Hamlet reveals that “[He] knows the good king and queen have sent” them, when all three are visible.
Zeffirelli uses these shots to perpetuate the idea of a two-against-one scenario until Hamlet (Whose power is accentuated by low-angle shots) intrudes upon their space and angrily reveals their secret, toppling Rosencrantz’s chair before Guildenstern confesses. Hamlet then steps out from under the shelter into the light and comments upon its poor quality.
Through clever use of angles and character direction in this scene, Zeffirelli parallels exactly what Hamlet intends to do with Claudius and Gertrude: get close to them, accuse them, topple the “throne” and step happily out into the sunlight alone while cursing the place from whence he came.
(Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, 55:00)
Doran achieves the same two-versus-one effect by showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern facing Hamlet, but leaves a perfect space between the two for Hamlet as though waiting for him to join them. When Hamlet, again, reveals that “[He] knows the good king and queen have sent” them, Doran does have Hamlet join them, but with an intimidating expectant glare rather than friendly acquiescence or violence. Doran’s Hamlet even goes so far as to declare that “If you love me, hold not off” where Zeffirelli’s does not. The difference, then, in how each director uses directs characters and angles to show a different take on the text is clear. Where Zeffirelli’s muscular, manly, low-angle Hamlet uses brute force to get an answer, Doran’s cunning, thoughtful, straight-angle Hamlet employs guilt and emotional blackmail.
Finally, both directors’ portrayal of the soliloquy primarily combine elements of lighting, angles, and character direction to create a Hamlet who goes from angry to defeated to cunning within seconds of each other. “Am I a coward?” and also “Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” are both included with similar tones in each version, however, Zeffirelli uses exposure to light to emphasize Hamlet’s weakness whereas Doran uses the contrast between low-angle (Before “O, vengeance!”) and high-angle (Afterwards) shots. When conceiving of the idea to use the players as a means to expose Claudius, Doran’s Hamlet differs from Zeffirelli’s again in that the slowly accelerating camera is used instead of intentionally angled shots of the players and light/dark contrast to show an ominous, cunning Hamlet and a scheming, vengeful Hamlet respectively.
Clearly, both versions of Act 2 Scene 2 have their merits and demerits, Zeffirelli’s interpretation being easier to understand but less profound and Doran’s showing respect to the text at the expense of general comprehensibility.