Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet

It’s hard for me to be objective about this film. I watched it when I was 16, and it started my lifelong love affair with Shakespeare. For the vast majority of people, I feel this movie will not appeal- it’s Shakespeare, it’s set in the past, and it’s FOUR HOURS LONG! That said, I ADORE this movie, and I probably always will.

The Concept

There is a long tradition of actors directing and starring in Hamlet from Irving to Garrick to Olivier and Guilgud. It’s very much an actor’s play and since the lead part also orchestrates much of the action, it’s understandable that he or she would also want to direct.

Once Kenneth Branaugh started filming this film, he had already played the part onstage and as a radio play. Branaugh’s director, Derek Jacobi, was himself a celebrated and acclaimed Hamlet of the 1970s, and Branaugh would later cast him as Claudius in the film. So, once he approached making the film, Branaugh had lots of experience behind him.

Clip from the documentary “Discovering Hamlet” which shows the whole process of Branaugh’s 1990 production, directed by Derek Jacobi.

Much like Antony Sher, Branaugh was aware that any film he made, would probably be compared to Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film. Sir Laurence’s film was dark, gothic, focused on dark, Freudian psychological disorders, and was mostly a star vehicle for Olivier himself.

Short review of Olivier’s Hamlet, (1948).

Branaugh’s concept was to do an inverse of Olivier- his castle Elsinore is bright, more modern, set in a sort of Napoleonic era, with cannons, muskets, and soldiers with mutton chops. While Oliver’s film was a contemplative look at the protagonist’s mind, Branaugh’s film focuses on intrigue and court drama. One of my favorite features of the film is Branaugh’s use of a hall of doors that contain two-way mirrors. In this castle, you never know who’s watching you.

Original theatrical trailer

The setting

While most of the castle was shot at Shepperdon Studious in England, Branaugh filmed most of the exterior shots at Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough, and Sir Winston Churchill:

https://virtual.blenheimpalace.com/

The Plot Of the Play

https://study.com/academy/lesson/shakespeares-hamlet-character-analysis-description.html

The Controversy- the longest Hamlet ever filmed

Unlike every other Shakespeare movie, Branaugh chose not to cut a single line of Hamlet, which is why his version is four hours long. He chose to use the text of the second Quarto of 1603, the longest edition of the play.

https://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/playhamlet.html

I am deeply conflicted about this choice. On the one hand, the long run time makes it nearly impossible to show the whole movie in a classroom or a theater. On the other time, like Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, what Branaugh has done is created an epic full of lush settings, gorgeous music, and incredible performances that will at least always be remembered as an incredible artistic achievement.

The Cast

Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest part and has 40% of the dialogue, which means Branaugh has the majority of the screen time. Yet, Branaugh isn’t the biggest star in the film. His casting choices emphasize the notion that, since anyone can enjoy Shakespeare, anyone can perform it too. With only two exceptions, I love every performance in the film. Here are some of my favorites:

Nicholas Farrell as Horatio

Nicholas Farell as Horatio

Horatio is a rather thankless part, since mostly what he does is give Hamlet someone to talk to. In one production I saw, they did away with the part entirely and made the audience Horatio. That said, Farell does a beautiful job portraying Horatio’s patience, boundless empathy, and his slow discovery of these “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.” Just watch how heartbroken he is as he watches Hamlet slowly die:

Clip of Nick Farell as Horatio from Act V, Scene iii of Hamlet.
Brian Blessed as “The Ghost”

Brian Blessed As “The Ghost”

As I said in my review of “Henry V,” Branaugh usually assigns the core of his cast to his Renaissance Acting Troupe. Accordingly, Branagh cast Brian Blessed as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Brian already is a physically imposing man (he’s actually climbed Mount Everest), and we see through flashbacks that when he was alive, the former king was a powerful, warlike ruler, yet tender to his wife and son.

As the ghost, however, Blessed seems shaken to his core, which might be due to the pain he suffered as a result of the murder, or (as I mentioned in my Shakespeare On Ghosts Post), he might also suffer in the afterlife because Claudius killed him while he was sleeping. Seeing such a powerful man worn to a whisper and full of pain and fear, is a great way to spur Hamlet to his revenge.

Charlton HEston as the player king

When the company of players arrive in the middle of Act II, Scene ii, Hamlet is filled with joy and treats the Player KIng like an old friend and surrogate father. I’ve seen productions where the same actor plays the Ghost and the Player King, which helps drive this point home.

In the play, the Player King inspires Hamlet with a passionate speech. Hamlet at first muses how, while the Player is able to conjure emotion and tears when talking about the fictional Queen Hecuba, Hamlet has done nothing yet to revenge the Ghost. Then, thinking about the Player’s performance gives Hamlet the idea to stage a play-within-a-play, to test whether or not Claudius is guilty:

About, my brain! Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene1665
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ, I'll have these Players
Play something like the murther of my father1670
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick. If he but blench,
I know my course. Act II, Scene ii, lines 1663-1674

With all this in mind, The Player King is very important to Hamlet’s journey and Heston’s mighty delivery is inspiring and full of passion.

Robin Williams as osric

Robin Williams as Osric

It seems like an insane idea; cast a stand-up comedian in a Shakespeare movie? Yet, in fact, the late Robin Williams was a classically-trained actor and studied at New York’s Julliard academy, so he must have done Shakespeare in the past.

Branaugh clearly loved working with Williams. Not only did he keep all of Osric’s lines (like all the other lines in the play), Branaugh gave Williams more to do, making him basically a second Horatio who cares for Laertes in the final act of the play.

Usually Osric is played as a classist-joke. He’s a sychophant, a social climber who, because he wasn’t born a noble, the nobles treat him as a suck-up and a fool. Williams gives Osric much more warmth and depth, in addition to his manic charm. Branaugh even gives him a tragic death, to make him stand out even more!

Kate Winslet as Ophelia

Five film versions of Ophelia compilation.

I summarize Ms. Winslet’s performance in one word: Heartbreaking. In Oliver’s version, she seems like an airhead, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the part as sort of a rebellious teenager. Winslet’s performance is just as if not even more tragic than Branaugh’s and it is truly heartbreaking to see her journey.

In the 1990 stage production of Hamlet, Jacobi decided to turn “To Be Or Not To Be” from a soliloquy into a speech that Hamlet says to Ophelia, which then plants into her mind the ideas of madness and suicide that she herself follows to their tragic conclusion. In Branaugh’s film, it seems very clear that he gave Winslet that same direction, (even though the speech is filmed like a soliloquy). Before “To Be” and the subsequent “Get Thee to A Nunnery” scene, Winslet’s Ophelia is happy, sweet, obedient to the men in her life, but still her own person. We see in flashbacks her sneaking off to be with Hamlet and she seems to enjoy her secret romance (probably Branaugh pulled some ideas from her role in Titanic too). But Polonius and Laertes shut her down at every turn and keep her from being with Hamlet. Winslet shows beautifully Ophelia’s struggle to be an obedient daughter and Hamlet’s girlfriend.

In the “Get Thee To a Nunnery Scene,” it’s not clear whether Hamlet knows he’s being watched (at first), so when he speaks to her gently, he might be trying to get her to leave to protect her. But once Polonius audibly closes a door, Hamlet is full of mysogynistic fury. Again, he might be playing mad in order to deceive Claudius and Polonius, or he might be genuinely mad at Ophelia for going along with this attempt to spy on him, but in any case, It certainly breaks her heart, and Winslet plays that heartbreak with a great deal of skill and passion.

Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger

Billy Crystal as the Gravedigger

Again, it seems bizarre to cast an American comedian as a Shakespearean character, but Crystal did a great job making this 400 year old comic bit seem like he wrote it himself! Plus, Crystal listens very quietly and attentively during the “Alas Poor Yorrick” speech, and doesn’t pull focus.

Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet

Even though this was a four-hour Shakespeare movie of a play I had not yet read, at 16 I was hooked by Branaugh’s performance. Like Olivier before him, Branaugh knows Shakespeare’s reputation as being boring and out-of-touch, so his film is full of violence, sex, and manic energy. This also comes across in his own performance. Branaugh lost weight and dyed his hair to appear younger and attractive (since he knows Hamlet is supposed to be just out of college). He fills the mad scenes with a dark and silly sense of humor, and he plays the angst of Hamlet in Act One very much like a grieving teenager, lashing out at his stepfather and his mother.

That said, Branaugh is also capable of great depth and gravitas in the soliloquies. I particularly love his delivery of “How All Occasions Do Inform Against Me…” soliloquy in Act IV.

The long tracking shot makes it look like Hamlet is expanding his worldview as he contemplates his role in the play, after failing to avenge his father’s death. It’s almost like this young man is growing up in the course of the movie; from a confused and angsty little rich kid, to a man who would make a good king if his life wasn’t tragically cut short.

For a more sober audience, Branaugh’s energy could probably be seen as annoying and lacking subtlety, but for 16 year old me- I ate it right up.

Notable Moments

  1. Branaugh’s interpretation of “To Be Or Not To Be.” Every actor who takes on Hamlet frets over the problem of how to make this speech engaging and fresh. Fortunately, Branaugh did a great job of staging and delivering this speech for the screen. He uses the two-way mirrors brilliantly creating an atmosphere of suspense where Claudius and Polonius are watching this speech, but it’s not quite clear whether Hamlet knows they’re there. His delivery is hushed but intense. It seems like he’s trying to unnerve Claudius without letting him know Hamlet plans to murder him. Everything from the performance, to the filming, to the setting is iconic, and no matter what people think of the film, this version of the speech should be remembered as an achievement in and of itself.

2. Kate Winslet In “The Mad Scene” Just as “To Be Or Not To Be” is the test for any Hamlet, Ophelia’s greatest challenge is the Mad Scene, Act IV, Scene v. After her brother leaves, and her boyfriend is banished for murdering her father, Ophelia has nothing left to lose, except her mind. Many actresses play the mad scene as a chance for Ophelia to let loose, and explode with all the pent-up emotions she’s been repressing- rage, sexual desire, grief, etc. Winslet plays all of them and is very distinct when and why they hit. She refuses to let the men in the court touch her, except for Laertes, and seems disgusted by Claudius. With her brother, she seems to regress into a childlike state, pretending to hold flowers to give to him. The only lucid moment she has is when she quotes songs (simmilar to the Fool in King Lear), where she expresses sorrow that Hamlet abandoned her, grief for her father, and a nihilistic sadness that her life no longer matters, much like the frustration Hamlet expresses in “To Be Or Not to Be.”

Kate Winslet in the mad scene, (Act IV, v)

3. All of Act II, Scene ii. I found myself rewatching this scene, the longest scene in the play. It’s the scene where Polonius claims Hamlet is mad for Ophelia’s love, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy on Hamlet, the Player King delivers his aforementioned speech, and Hamlet has his “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy.

Every performance is fast-paced and entertaining. Even Don Warrington, as the often-cut character of Voltimand, who only gives one long speech about how Fortinbras is totally NOT GOING TO INVADE DENMARK, captivated my ear with his beautiful voice. The drama keeps coming as new characters keep coming in and interacting with Hamlet, and his mood changes drastically throughout the scene; he’s silly and condescending to Polonius, jovial to the players, guarded and brooding to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and tortured and full of grief and remorse once he’s finally alone.

Branaugh actually starts the soliloquy with Hamlet taking a series of huge, heaving breaths as if performing for all of these people is truly exhausting. It’s almost like a movie within a movie, and everyone is wonderful in it.

4. The Duel As I detailed in my post on the duel at the end of Hamlet, there are three separate bouts which each have a different feeling- ranging from a sporting fencing match to a deadly blood combat. Branaugh shows the character shift of the duel incredibly well, with his use of music, choreography, and costume. First, the combatants meet before the king, dressed in their white fencing uniforms. Their fight is quick and agressive, but not yet tense or lethal. Then, once Gertrude takes the poisoned cup, the action stops. Claudius is frozen and his voice is only a whisper. Laertes starts to ramp up the tension as he prepares to really attack Hamlet, which he does by slashing his uncovered shoulder!

The climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Hamlet, finally taking revenge on Claudius (Derek Jacobi).

From this moment in the duel, all Hell brakes loose. Branaugh chases Michael Maloney all around the castle, not stopping until he grabs Laertes’ sword. Meanwhile, Osric shouts for help as Gertrude is dying near the throne. A string quartet ramps the music up up to a wild, whilrling low-pitched tremulo, with the violins playing pizzicato on top. Plucking their strings like the lethal poison that plucks all the characters’ lives.

My Reaction

Even though this film is long, I adore every scene. Branaugh’s boundless energy and endless love of Shakespeare translate through his direction and performance. At the same time, he lets the other actors shine and takes to heart the lessons of Olivier, Gielgud, Jakobi, and others to create a Hamlet that is epic in scale, beautiful to the eye, and timeless in its handling of the material. Clearly, Branaugh wanted this film to be his masterpiece, and whether you like it or not, it certainly is that.

My advice is If you choose to watch it yourself, read a summary of the play first, then watch the film. Also, take some breaks in between the scenes and watch it in chunks. I actually taped it off of live TV so I could watch it in segments.

If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for my Outschool Course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I also have a class on Shakespeare’s writing where I analyze “To Be Or Not to Be:”

Duels in Hamlet

Hamlet Duel (1996)

Though Shakespeare’s Hamlet is very much the story of a renaissance prince, it’s important to remember that the play’s sources date back to the Dark Ages. The anonymous “UR-Hamlet,” (later published in the early 1590s ), is based on an ancient legend about a prince who fights to the death to revenge his father’s murder. Shakespeare’s adaptation still contains a nod to this ancient culture that praised and highly ritualized the concept of judicial combat.


Back in Anglo-Saxon times, private disputes, (such as the murder of one’s father) could be settled through means of a duel. In this period, England was occupied by the Danes, (which we would now call Vikings), and several Viking practices of judicial combat survive. For example, the Hólmgangan, an elaborate duel between two people who fight within the perimeter of a cloak.

At the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the revenge cycle between Hamlet, Leartes, and Fortinbras, comes to a close using a duel. Hamlet has murdered Leartes’ father but Hamlet did not intentionally kill him. This kind of legal dispute would certainly have been settled with a duel in Saxon times. This is one reason why Leartes scorns Hamlet’s offer of forgiveness at the beginning of the scene, and instead trusts in the outcome of the fight to prove his cause. Hamlet and Leartes begin fighting officially under the terms of a friendly fencing match, but it becomes clear early on that at least in the mind of Leartes, this is actually a blood-combat. He is demanding blood for the death of his father, as the Danes would have done during the Anglo Saxon times when Shakespeare’s source play of Hamlet was written.

What happens in the fight

Olivier’s Sword Fight in Act V, Scene iii (1948).

The sword fight at the end of Hamlet is surprising in many ways. First of all, it is much more choreographed than many of Shakespeare’s other fights which are usually dramatized on the page very simply with two words: “They fight.” In Hamlet by contrast, Shakespeare has a series of important and descriptive stage directions. Furthermore, the fight is divided into three distinct bouts or phrases, or if you like “mini fights.” Below is the full text of the fight. I shall then explain what happens in each phrase.

PHrase One


Shakespeare it very clear that Hamlet gets a normal fencing rapier, while Leartes gets a sharp one, they fight one fencing bout where Hamlet scores a point. This is the most “sportsman like” part of the fight:

Enter King, Queen, Laertes, Osric, and Lords, with other

Attendants with foils and gauntlets.

A table and flagons of wine on it.

Claudius. Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me.
[The King puts Laertes' hand into Hamlet's.]

Hamlet. Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong;
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.
Laertes. I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive in this case should stir me most
To my revenge. But till that time
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.3890
Hamlet. I embrace it freely,
And will this brother's wager frankly play.
Give us the foils. Come on.
Laertes. Come, one for me.
Hamlet. I'll be your foil, Laertes. In mine ignorance3895
Your skill shall, like a star i' th' darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.
Laertes. You mock me, sir.
Hamlet. No, by this hand.
Claudius. Give them the foils, young Osric. Cousin Hamlet,3900
You know the wager?
Hamlet. Very well, my lord.
Your Grace has laid the odds o' th' weaker side.
Claudius. I do not fear it, I have seen you both;
But since he is better'd, we have therefore odds.3905
Laertes. This is too heavy; let me see another.
Hamlet. This likes me well. These foils have all a length?
They Prepare to play.

Osric. Ay, my good lord.
Claudius. Set me the stoups of wine upon that table.3910
If Hamlet give the first or second hit,
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire;
The King shall drink to Hamlet's better breath,
And in the cup an union shall he throw3915
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark's crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heaven to earth,3920
'Now the King drinks to Hamlet.' Come, begin.
And you the judges, bear a wary eye.
Hamlet. Come on, sir.
Laertes. Come, my lord. They play.
Hamlet. One.3925
Laertes. No.
Hamlet. Judgment!
Osric. A hit, a very palpable hit.
Laertes. Well, again!
Claudius. Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;3930
Here's to thy health.
[Drum; trumpets sound; a piece goes off [within].]
Give him the cup.
Hamlet. I'll play this bout first; set it by awhile.

Phrase Two

Mel Gibson in “Hamlet” (1990)
  • Claudius. Come. [They play.] Another hit. What say you?3935
  • LaertesA touch, a touch; I do confess’t.
  • ClaudiusOur son shall win.
  • GertrudeHe’s fat, and scant of breath.
    Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows.
    The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.3940
  • HamletGood madam!
  • ClaudiusGertrude, do not drink.
  • GertrudeI will, my lord; I pray you pardon me. Drinks.
  • Claudius[aside] It is the poison’d cup; it is too late.
  • HamletI dare not drink yet, madam; by-and-by.3945
  • GertrudeCome, let me wipe thy face.
  • LaertesMy lord, I’ll hit him now.
  • ClaudiusI do not think’t.
  • Laertes[aside] And yet it is almost against my conscience.

Again, Hamlet gets the upper hand and scores a point. While his mother is celebrating his victory, she accidently drinks the poisoned cup that Claudius meant for Hamlet. Now Claudius is enraged, Laertes is angry because of losing the first two bouts, and Hamlet is blissfully unaware that he is in mortal danger.

Phrase Three

When Hamlet isn’t expecting it, Leartes wounds him with the poisoned sword. From there, the fight degenerates into a violent, bloody mess where Hamlet disarms Laertes, then stabs Leartes. After this, the Queen dies, and Hamlet kills Claudius:

  • HamletCome for the third, Laertes! You but dally.3950
    Pray you pass with your best violence;
    I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
  • LaertesSay you so? Come on. Play.
  • OsricNothing neither way.
  • LaertesHave at you now!3955

[Laertes wounds Hamlet; then] in scuffling, they change rapiers, [and Hamlet wounds Laertes].

  • ClaudiusPart them! They are incens’d.
  • HamletNay come! again! The Queen falls.
  • OsricLook to the Queen there, ho!
  • HoratioThey bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?3960
  • OsricHow is’t, Laertes?
  • LaertesWhy, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric.I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.
  • HamletHow does the Queen?
  • ClaudiusShe sounds to see them bleed.
  • GertrudeNo, no! the drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet!3965
    The drink, the drink! I am poison’d. [Dies.]
  • HamletO villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d.
    Treachery! Seek it out.

[Laertes falls.]

  • LaertesIt is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou art slain;3970
    No medicine in the world can do thee good.
    In thee there is not half an hour of life.
    The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
    Unbated and envenom’d. The foul practice
    Hath turn’d itself on me. Lo, here I lie,3975
    Never to rise again. Thy mother’s poison’d.
    I can no more. The King, the King’s to blame.
  • HamletThe point envenom’d too?
    Then, venom, to thy work. Hurts the King.
  • AllTreason! treason!3980
  • ClaudiusO, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.
  • HamletHere, thou incestuous, murd’rous, damned Dane,
    Drink off this potion! Is thy union here?
    Follow my mother. King dies.

God’s providence in Hamlet (or lack therEof)

It is telling that everyone dies in this scene, which indicates that the concept of providence seems somewhat ambiguous in this scene- yes, Claudius dies but so does Hamlet. In addition, Leartes dies justly for his own treachery as he claims, but he also tries to avoid damnation. Leartes is guilty of treason for killing Hamlet, but Hamlet is guilty of killing an old man and a young maid, so Leartes asks God to forgive Hamlet for two murders, while he has only committed one. Providence doesn’t seem clear which crimes are worse. Further, Providence fails to reveal the guilt or innocence of Queen Gertrude- did she know her second husband murdered her first? Did she support Hamlet’s banishment? Did she know the cup was poisoned, and is therefore guilty of suicide, or was she ignorant and punished by fate for her adultery and incest? Knowing the conventions of judicial combat help the reader understand the compex world of Hamlet, a world devoid of easy answers.

How Would I Stage the Fight?

Phrase 1
I want the two combatants to start en guarde, their blades touching, then there will be a series of attacks on the blade.
Hamlet will advance and attack the low line of Leartes’ sword
Hamlet will advance and attack the high line of Leartes’ sword
Leartes will advance and beat attack the high line of Hamlet’s sword
Leartes will advance and attack the low line of Hamlet’s sword

Hamlet performs a bind on Leartes’ sword, sending it off on a diagonal high line.
Hamlet attacks Leartes leg and Leartes will react in mild pain.

Phrase 2
Leartes is no longer fighting in polite manner, so this will be the real fight where he’s actually going for targets
Hamlet and Leartes come together and bow,
Both go into en guarde and Osric signals the start of the fight.
Hamlet attacks Leartes’ blade high
Leartes attacks Hamlet’s blade low
Leartes suddenly does a moulinet and attacks Hamlet’s right arm. Hamlet does a pass back and parries 3
Leartes attacks Hamlet’s Left Arm. Hamlet does another pass back and parries 4
Leartes cuts for Hamlet’s head. Hamlet passes back and does a hanging parry 6, which causes the sword to slide off.
Hamlet ripostes, slips around Leartes’ ________side, and thrusts offline in suppination. He then flicks the sword, hiting the back of Leartes’ knee.
Phrase 3
Concern- you need to have enough space for Hamlet to chase Leartes DS, and for Leartes to slice Hamlet with the forte of his sword.
Before the bout is supposed to start, Hamlet walks toward the sword, point down to Leartes US L or USR
“I am afeard you make a wanton of me”
Leartes: “You mock me sir!”
Hamlet: “No, by this hand”
Hamlet presents his hand. Leartes places his sword on it, and slices it
Leartes gives Hamlet a stomach punch
Hamlet falls to his knees dropping the sword. If necessary, Hamlet can pull out a blood pack to put on his hand.

Leartes points his blade above Hamlet’s head, then brings it back, preparing to strike off Hamlet’s head.
Leartes: “Have at you now”
Hamlet ducks to the right, with his leg extended.
Leartes Passes forward, trips on Hamlet’s leg. Hamlet does a slip and goes behind Leartes’ back.
Hamlet rabbit punches Leartes on the back, picks up Leartes’ sword, noticing the blood on it
Leartes slowly rises, then notices Hamlet with his sword, he quickly grabs Hamlet’s weapon
Hamlet shoves Leartes DS into a corp a corp, then traps Leartes’ blade
The two push each other for a while

Osric: “Nothing Neither way”
Hamlet pushes Leartes downstage, then slices him across the back.
Leartes stops DS, and falls to the ground

Murder of Claudius
If Claudius is standing, we can have Horatio grab the king around the neck, Hamlet places the sword across Claudius’ stomach, and slices him.
If Claudius is seated, Hamlet picks up the goblet with one hand, slices the king’s leg, then, (after establishing a good distance), Hamlet points the blade off line, just left of Claudius’ neck. Hamlet is giving Claudius a choice- drink or be stabbed. When Claudius chooses to drink, either Hamlet or Horatio can give him the cup. If Horatio gives it to Claudius, it might give him the idea to die later.

Sources:

Sources-

  1. Ur- Hamlet
  2. Lear source- Hollinshed’s Chronicles
  3. Holm ganner
  4. JSTOR
  5. Dr. Cole
  6. Bf paper on duels
  7. Tony Robinson’s Crime and Punishment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yz9VLkNHJU&feature=youtu.be
  8. Truth Of the Swordhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFL2ghH0RLs
  9. Secrets Of the VIking Sword http://youtu.be/nXbLyVpWsVM
  10. Ancient Inventions- War and Conflict http://youtu.be/IuyztjReB6A
  11. Terry Jones- Barbarians (the Savage Celts) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSuizSkHpxI
  12.  Joe Martinez book

If you enjoyed this post, and would like to do some stage combat of your own, sign up for one of my stage combat classes on Outschool.com!

Title image for my Stage Combat Course

Mafia Tropes in “Richard III”

Last month, I took a short vacation to Las Vegas, where, as some of you know, I went to Area 15 and the Omega Mart Exhibit. I also visited the Las Vegas Mob Museum. I’ve been fascinated by the mob for years. The Mob (AKA The Outfit), has within its many threads a potent combination of corruption, seduction vice, and violence all hidden behind the veneer of honorable men who do what they feel they have to to protect their families and their communities.

Not surprisingly, while at the museum, I saw parallels between the history of organized crime and Shakespeare, specifically his most popular history play about a powerful family that takes over the crown of England in a brutal turf war, and then one of its most feared soldiers bribes, intimidates, and murders his way to the top; Richard III.

A Protection Racket: Feudalism vs. La Cosa Nostra


The structure of the mafia paralleled the feudal system. In a world where a police force didn’t offer much protection for marginalized communities, the mafia thrived by offering protection for these communities, (especially to immigrants and people of color in the 19th and early 20th century).


Much earlier than that, the feudal system of the middle ages, which started to crumble after Richard’s reign ended, was designed specifically so poor peasants could get protection from wealthy landowners after the fall of the Roman Empire. These lords offered the protection of their knights to these peasants i. Return for labor and a percentage of their income working the field. Like the mafia, these peasants paid tributes to their lords and these lords demanded loyalty. In the museum, there’s an interactive video where you can become a ‘made man,’ which means become an official member of a mafia crew. Like a king knighting a lord, this ceremony meant pledging your life to your superiors, and being at their beck and call no matter what. In addition, like medieval knights, mafiosos were not allowed to murder other made men without permission from their capo or boss.


However benevolent they might appear, In both cases the Dons and the medieval lords were extorting their underclass. Failing to pay tribute to their lords would cause the peasants to lose their lands, and any disloyalty to the mafia would be severely punished. These powerful, violent thugs used their private armies to intimidate the weak into giving them what they wanted.

Part II: The Two Families

To thoroughly explain the parallels between the Wars of the Roses and the mob, I need to make clear that Richard iii is more than just the story of one man’s rise to power, although there are also mafia stories that fit this mold such as Scarface, White Heat, and the real-life story of Al Capone.

As this hilarious “weather report” from “Horrible Histories,” makes clear, during the Wars of the Roses two powerful families, (each with a claim to the English crown) fought each other in a brutal turf war. As Shakespeare characterizes in his play Henry VI, Part III, the battles between the houses of York and Lancaster shook England like a mighty storm, and for a while it was hard to tell who would prevail:

Henry VI. This battle fares like to the morning's war,
When dying clouds contend with growing light,
What time the shepherd, blowing of his nails,1105
Can neither call it perfect day nor night.
Now sways it this way, like a mighty sea
Forced by the tide to combat with the wind;
Now sways it that way, like the selfsame sea
Forced to retire by fury of the wind:1110
Sometime the flood prevails, and then the wind;
Now one the better, then another best;
Both tugging to be victors, breast to breast,
Yet neither conqueror nor conquered:
So is the equal of this fell war.
Henry VI, Act II, Scene i

During the Wars of the Roses, it was King Henry’s incompetence and mental illness that gave the Yorkists the ability to challenge the House of Lancaster for the crown. In the 1920s, the passage of the 18th amendment, (which made alcohol illegal, and thus a profitable commodity for organized crime), that allowed the mob to rise to unheard-of power through illegally buying, distributing, and selling alcohol. As the photo and subsequent video shows, Prohibition largely led to the rise in organized crime in America, especially in Chicago. During Prohibition, the Italian Sough-side Gang fought for control of Chicago’s bootlegging trade and subsequently destroyed their competition from the Irish gangs through corruption, intimidation, and violence.

The Don rises- Richard Vs. Al Capone

Opening Scene from Ian Mckellen’s 1995 movie of Richard III.

Like the Italian and Irish gangs In Prohibition-era Chicago, the Yorkist and Lancastrian armies battled for the English throne. As Ian McKellen’s excellent movie (set in the 1930s) shows, Richard was instrumental in destroying the leading Lancastrians at the Battle of Tewkesbury, including Prince Edward and King Henry.

In Chicago, the most feared mobster soldier was Al Capone, who many scholars believe was responsible for killing off high ranking members of the Irish gang during the infamous St. Valentines Day Massacre, where the gang members were ‘arrested’ by South Side gangsters disguised as cops. As the Irish stood against the wall with their hands behind their heads, the phony cops pulled out Tommy guns from their coats and let out a hail of bullets on their unsuspecting quarry.

In Shakespeare’s play, the only Lancastrian to survive the war is Queen Margaret, wife to the murdered King Henry, and mother to the slaughtered Prince Edward. In this scene from Al Pacino’s “Looking For Richard,” she curses Richard for his cruel slaughters. It’s not surprising that Pacino was so drawn to Richard II that he starred in and directed this film. After all, Pacino is famous for playing mafia characters who slaughter their way to the top.

Once Capone killed the competition, he ruled a multimillion-dollar empire of bootleggers and maintained that empire through corruption, intimidation, and by constantly playing innocent, just like Richard himself.

Hypocrisy, Corruption and hidden violence

“Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see, but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion.”

Niccolo Machiavelli

Both Richard III and mobsters are masters of double-speak, that is, seeming to say one thing and meaning something else. Look at this passage where Richard talks about killing his nephew, then denies it:

Las Vegas: The town that bedded and abetted the mob.

After Al Capone’s demise and the repeal of Prohibition, the mafia found another vice to capitalize on: gambling. As the video below indicates, using their connections with the Teamsters Union and midwestern bookmakers, the mob in the midwest financed, built, and run almost every casino in Las Vegas, including The StarDust and the Hassienda. Once the casinos were built, the mob extorted millions of dollars from the casinos every month!

The profits from the casinos bought the mob even more power and influence, but this skim depended on making sure the bosses controlled their underlings, and defended their casinos from cheaters and snitches, which is why they defended their casinos through intimidation and violence.

Murders in The White tower and the city of sin.

A series of quotes from Las Vegas Mobsters

“Simple, plain, Clarence. I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to Heaven.”

—Richard III, Act I, Scene i

When Richard of Gloucester starts his quest to become king, he begins by convincing his brother King Edward to execute his other brother George. Richard bribes the murderers to kill George before the king can reverse the death sentence. Richard has thus eliminated another obstacle in his way, and gained two loyal followers who will do anything for his gold.

Richard hires two murderers to kill the duke of Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne).

The mafia dealt the same way with traitors, stool pigeons, and anyone who tried to challenge the bosses. Look at this tour of the Mafia museum, where the grandson of the gangster Meyer Lansky starts by reminiscing about the glamourous lifestyle of Las Vegas mobsters, but the tour quickly takes a dark turn as Lansky II talks about how his grandfather ordered brutal executions for anyone who crossed The Las Vegas Outfit.

The Mafia Museum, Las Vegas
Exterior of the Mafia Museum

It was an enormously interesting trip going to the Mafia Museum, and if you can get out to Las Vegas, be sure to visit, (don’t forget the password to visit the speakeasy bar in the basement!) It was eye-opening for me how prevalent the sort of corrupt protection racket that started in the middle ages and continued into most of the 20th century helped define The Wars of the Roses and the mafia. As long as the strong prey on the weak and the law can’t protect everyone equally, these kinds of violent thugs will be lurking in the shadows, waiting for a shot at the crown.

Shakespearean Tropes In Meow Wolf’s “Omega Mart” (Spoiler alert)

Giant Skull art as part of Area 15. Hamlet would be dazzled.

I just got back from Las Vegas where I had a simulating, terrifying, and extremely engaging trip to the Meow Wolf Area 15! If you haven’t heard of them, Meow Wolf is an arts and entertainment group which specializes in creating multimedia experiences, and their most popular and mysterious installation is their apocalyptic grocery store, Omega Mart.

Even if you’ve never been to Omega Mart, you might have seen their website, their ’employee training videos’, or the music videos that have been floating around the Internet. My journey began when I saw this video by the YouTube channel Food Theory. After seeing this video, I, like Matt Pat was compelled to go there myself and discover what Omega Mart was like.

My handwritten notes about the mysteries of Omega Mart that I wanted to explore once I got there.

“We take a lot from open world games [where] you can play the story lines or you can just mess around.  We like giving people that optionality (sic). If you’re a 5 year old kid and you aren’t into reading a bunch of material, you just want to run around and treat it like a playground, and that’s totally fine.”

Vince Cadleback, CEO of Meow Wolf
Video artwork that was projected on the wall of the Forked Earth room

A Note about the experience

Meow Wolf’s CEO has stated that the experience of Omega Mart is ultimately up to you. Similar to Sleep No More, this art installation (and it is an art installation) is much like an experiential theater experience in that there is no proscenium, and you do not sit down; it is not a passive watching experience but an active mystery. In Sleep No More, you followed various actors and watched them act out scenes in front of you. In Omega Mart, the story is more epistulary, meaning that there are no live performances, but you can unlock the story at your own pace through reading journal entries, corporate memos and websites, mini-games, and of course, actors performing in corporate videos, commercials, and even security footage. Like a modern video game, you can just walk around the open world and enjoy it, or you can unlock all the lore and piece together the mystery of Omega Mart yourself. This is story a story that is rife with greed, personal tragedy, family drama and maybe even murder. So of course my Shakespeare brain activated, and I wanted to see if I could find some Shakespearian tropes in the story of Omega Mart. I should mention that this kind of experience is often best when you let it become a surprise, so if you truly want to experience Omega Mart without spoilers, stop reading….

STOP RIGHT
NOWSTOP RIGHT
NOWSTOP RIGHT
NOWSTOP RIGHT
NOWSTOP RIGHT
NOWSTOP RIGHT
NOWSTOP RIGHT
NOW RIGHT RiGHT St0p R$GHT N00000W!

 OK well if you’ve continued reading grab your tattoo chicken, apply your whale song deodorant and let’s get going!

The Characters

The drama of Omega Mart focuses on a single family, the Dram family: Walter, Charlie, Cecilia and Marin Dram. As you go through the various exibits in the Meow Wolf installation (not just the OmegaMart store), you begin to piece together what happened to them, how this family broke apart, and what Shakespearian tropes can we see within this story.

  1. Charlie Dram: Sir John Falstaff The whole story begins with Charlie Dram; an old garage attendant who lives in the fictional town of Seven Monolith Villiage in Nevada. As you can see in the brochure I photographed above, Charlie runs a small tourist attraction where he guides tours allowing people to see The Forked Earth- a dimensional rift between our world and an alien planet, that is also the fount of a powerful and dangerous place called The Source Well. At some point, Charlie goes into business with his family, who eventually cut him out of their lives.

Henry VI know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.

  • King Henry IV, Part II, Act V, Scene 5.
Walter Dram, CEO of Dramcorp
2. Walter Dram: King Lear. This being America of course it was inevitable that somebody would try to capitalize on the Source Well, specifically Walter dram Charlie's brother Walter. Mr. Dram, the CEO of Dramcorp found a way to harness the source and use it it's not explicitly stated but it's highly implied that he took the source to a place called plenty Valley and started using it to revitalize crops out in the Las Vegas desert.
After harnessing The Source, Walter found that he was able to create produce that had unusual properties updates and creep and from there he opened his grocery store omega mart If you go to a megamart the product seem just a little off they all seem to have peculiar names seem to have peculiar properties and in some extreme cases they seem to have inhuman properties like like lemons that are alive! Charlie calls these creatures "mascots;" creatures that have that seem to be living cereal boxes. The source seems to have unpredictable and uncontrollable effects on effects on on natural products but because every Omegamart produce is doused with Additive S (which is Walter's addictive additive made from The Source), customers don't seem to care if they become addicted to any products that are laced with The Source.
Walter finds himself extremely a rich and successful and opens up his corporation Dram Corp in 1977. Decades later in 2020, Walter and promises to make his daughter Cecilia Dram his sucessor when he retires yet he retires, but at some point he must have reneged on that promise and then mysteriously promising Kaz Matzumora the position of CEO. What happened toacilitate the fallout between Walter and Cecilia, we're not sure But it's quite possible that it has something to do with Cecilia's daughter Marin.

Better that thou hast not been born, then not to have pleased me better.

King Lear

So we have a rich and successful man, who, now that he’s getting old, desires to pass his empire on to younger people, including his daughter. At the same time, he refuses to let go of power, and is willing to throw family under the bus to get his way, as he did with Charlie, and would have done with Marin, (more on that later). Let’s just say, it is very easy to spot the parallels between Walter Dram, and King Lear. Look at this video below where Walter seems to repent for his greed and abandoning his family, though it takes place in an ethereal prison.

  • LearPray, do not mock me.
    I am a very foolish fond old man,
    Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
    And, to deal plainly,
    I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
    Methinks I should know you, and know this man;
    Yet I am doubtful; for I am mainly ignorant
    What place this is; and all the skill I have
    Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
    Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me;
    For (as I am a man) I think this lady
    To be my child Cordelia.
King Lear Act IV, Scene vii.

When I watched the Film Theory about Omega Mart, I thought Walter was like King Duncan in Macbeth, and his daughter Cecelia was Lady Macbeth, killing Walter to gain his power. The truth though, is much more complicated, and it centers around Walter’s granddaughter, Marin.

2. Marin Dram: Cordelia from King Lear, Miranda from The Tempest

if you look at the videos in Charlie’s office you can see Cecilia Dram (Walter’s daughter), drinking the Source. Within a minute she starts having cramps, and convulsions; she has been literally impregnated by the Source! Her daughter Marin was conceived by Cecilia Dram and the Source. But, there’s a catch; Marin, because she was created from the Source, cannot be too far from the Source Well. So, rather than living with her her mother and grandfather at Dramcorp, she’s forced to live in a yurt in Seven Monolith Village, very close to the Source Well.

Tarot cards found in Marin’s desk.

Marin’s diary expresses a deep sense of loneliness and a desire to explore the world, not unlike Prospero’s daughter Miranda in The Tempest. She also expresses romantic feelings for Rose, a girl who lives in Seven Monolith, (who according to Charlie, is the granddaughter of a woman who successfully translated the language of the aliens who created the Source Well). The wonderful music video “Marin’s dream” playing below, shows cogent references to Marin having bisexual feelings for Rose and fear towards her mother. This is partly because, since Marin is connected to the Source and her family has been exploiting The Source for profit, she is fearful that her mother will exploit her for her Source-given powers .

We are such suff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep

Prospero- The Tempest

It is further revealed that Marin is capable of creating living creatures with her own mind because of her connection to the Source. Below is a drawing by Marin of a hampster These powers make her highly desirable to both of Cecilia and Walter. As Charlie mentions in the brochure, there are living product creatures called mascots and it seems likely that Marin is literally creating these creatures in her sleep!

At the end of the music video you can see Marin going through a portal in the wall. In Seven Monolith you can access numerous posters, emails, and phone calls that discuss and speculate about Marin’s disappearance. Some say she ran away from home, some say she was violently sucked into the portal, but the music video makes it very clear that Marin Dram chose to leave Seven Monolith Villiage, and to leave our universe as we know it. Why? It probably has to do with her mother, Cecilia Dram.

Cecilia’s letter to Charlie, May 2017

Cecelia Dram: Goneril and prosperO

Like I said before, I was expecting Cecelia to be the villain in the story- a power-hungry “thankless child,” (as King Lear puts it), who murdered her own father to take control of his empire. Now it’s possible that she did want to take the company at some point, but what also seems clear is that Cecelia is also seeking redemption for herself, and a reunion for her family.

Cecelia and Walter’s Disappearance

In a highly classified video that you can only access in the Dram Corp offices, Walter and Cecilia confront each other about Marin, and Walter seems to be intent on exploiting her gifts for profit. At this point, the video cuts out, but the audio tells us that Walter has fallen into the Source Well. It’s unclear whether he fell or if Cecilia or Marin pushed him, but what we do know is that Walter in every subsequent and email and communication with the board is referred to as “traveling.” When I first saw this, I thought that it meant that Cecilia had murdered Walter simply to gain control of the company, but it seems to be wilder than that; it seems that Cecilia might have thrown Walter into the source well to protect her daughter, but now wishes to get him back.

Once Walter falls into the Source Well, he actually absorbed so much Source that he no longer has a physical form; he seems to have ascended to a higher plane of existence and as you can see in this whiteboard, there’s a rumor that he is actually hiding somewhere in the Omega Mart facility. I won’t give away where he actually is though; you’ll have to discover it yourself.

Cecilia’s motives are the most interesting and ambiguous in the course of the Omegamart storyline. Her demeanor changes drastically after the disappearance of her father and daughter; it seems that she is trying to harness the power of the source not for profit but for but to cause her employees to “Ascend to a higher plan of existence.” Other members of the board in teleconferences seem frustrated with her, accusing her of no longer taking an interest in selling products anymore and that she seems to be coming down with strange cult-like behavior. Look at this highly confusing LED talk she gave one month after Walter’s disappearance:

So it’s ambiguous what Cecilia’s motives are- it could be that she’s attempting to create an army of Source-addicted zombies to do her bidding. It’s also possible that she is trying to figure out how to replicate the same experience as Walter and Marin. Maybe she wants to try and replicate what happened to them, so she can see them again.

Further evidence also supports that Cecelia is desperate to contact Marin and Walter by the fact that in addition to working on LAT, (her employee advancement program), Cecilia is also pushing her research team to create inter-dimensional portals. The clip above in which Cecilia talks to her DART scientists strongly implies what Cecilia really wants to do is to find her daughter in whatever dimension that she’s actually in. Notice that when the test subject mentions a teenage girl he sees in his dreams, Cecelia immediately drops everything to talk to him. Soon after that, DART starts working on DRAMNILATE, a technology that allows researchers to look inside people’s dreams, and test them on the exact same employee as before. Clearly Cecelia is hellbent on finding Marin anywhere, even in dreams!

Through the entire Omegamart storyline, it is ambiguous as to whether Cecilia is the hero or the villain. Her quest to find her family is noble, but she is hiding behind a mask of unbridled capitalism and exploiting a company that creates an addictive substance to do it. It seems almost Faustian that Cecelia has made a deal with the Devil to try and get her family back.

 Tell your piteous heart there’s no harm done. No harm.

I have done nothing but in care of thee,

Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter, who

Art ignorant of what thou art…

The Tempest , Act I, Scene ii.

So what does this have to do with Shakespeare? When I saw how Cecelia was protecting Marin I saw a king Lear trope; a greedy cruel old man who places his kingdom ahead of even his own family. Lear’s daughter Goneril lies to him and rejects him, but she does so to protect herself. Cecelia is alike a Goneril who protects Cordelia, the youngest and most innocent of Lear’s daughters, while Marin is like Cordelia herself.

Zenion creature (left), and illustration of Caliban (right).

This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou takest from me! When thou camest first,
I loved thee And show’d thee all the qualities o’ the isle,
Cursed be I that did so! All the charms
Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you!
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king!

Caliban, Act I Scene ii.

Looking at the totality of the Omegamart story, there are several connections to the Tempest Calliban the creature that lives on Prospero’s island bears striking similarities to the Zenions. He is described as being man and fish, much like the Zenions. Further, Caliban is not a native inhabitant of the island; he was brought over by the witch Sycorax and Prospero exploited him after Sycorax died, much like how the Dram family, especially Walter, exploited The Zenion’s magical Source.

In both cases, the Prospero character has both noble and ingnoble goals- Prospero wants to get himself and his daughter home, but also to revenge his exile to the island. Walter and Cecilia seem like Prospero split in two: there is a light side that wishes to defend Marin and see her safely home,and the dark side that wishes to exploit The Source and addict unwitting consumers.

I won’t give away how the story of omegamart ends but let’s just say that Walter gets across the notion that he has repented for his greed, and wishes to free the Source from the factory, much like how Prospero frees Ariel at the end of The Tempest. In both cases, YOU are the necessary person to help free Walter. Both Walter and the Meow Wolf team have hinted that there are new areas of Omega Mart that guests haven’t unlocked yet. Perhaps you will be the one to unlock the secret to free Walter, and the Source!

  • ProsperoNow my charms are all o’erthrown,
    And what strength I have’s mine own,
    Which is most faint: Let me not,
    Since I have my dukedom got
    And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
    In this bare island by your spell;
    But release me from my bands
    With the help of your good hands:
    And my ending is despair,
    Unless I be relieved by prayer,
    Which pierces so that it assaults
    Mercy itself and frees all faults.
    As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
    Let your indulgence set me free.
Prospero. Act V, Scene i

Thanks for reading this post. If you enjoyed reading it, leave a comment below. Please also relate any Omega Mart stories you had at Area 15!

Review: Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V

Since July is my month to celebrate Shakespeare’s Henry V, I’d like to talk about one of the most celebrated versions of the play, Kenneth Branaugh’s Academy Award Winning film from 1989.

The Concept

Clip from Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944)

Like many directors trying to re-adapt an old story, Branaugh began by looking at Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 movie version of Henry V, deliberately inverting a lot of Olivier’s choices.

Olivier’s version has a framing device where the audience watches the play in a movie-set recreation of the Globe Theater, (since Henry V was probably the first play ever performed when the Globe originally opened in 1599). For the first 30 minutes, you are not watching a movie but a filmed play, albeit one where your fellow audience members are dressed in costumes from 1599.

Stage Olivier
Olivier as King Henry stands on a reconstruction of The Globe Theater in his 1944 film.

While watching the play within a movie, and seeing ‘audience members’ clap and cheer for Henry, and boo and hiss the French, you get a keen sense of the theatrical illusion of the play, and its importance to English patriotism in 1599. This makes sense since the film itself was commissioned by Winston Churchill to help raise morale during the D-day invasion in 1944.

While Olivier’s film is theatrical and patriotic, Branaugh’s is cinematic and introspective. His film opens on an empty movie set with the Chorus (Derek Jacobi), giving us a tour of the set. He laments that, even with all the cinematic wizardry of modern movies, this movie cannot capture the true glory of Henry V.

Derek Jacobi as the Chrous in Henry V

Branaugh’s performance as the titular king is also quite different from Olivier’s. While Olvier is jovial and charismatic, Branaugh’s King Henry switches between cold and calculating, to intensely passionate. This isn’t to say that his acting is bad; but that Branaugh’s King Henry is a self-conscious actor. The king changes his performance to suit the scenario he’s in: diplomatic and calculating in the throne room, demented and violent on the battlefield, calm and confident with his troops, and pious and merciful in victory.

When I studied the play in college, my teacher posited whether Henry V is a Machiavellian king, and I think Branaugh’s certainly is, in that he knows kingship is a job; one that requires the king to constantly playing roles to get what he wants from people- love, awe, respect, or fear. He’s so good at acting, he even teaches his soldiers how to act like fearesome warriors in his famous “Once More Unto The Breach” speech.

Branaugh in King Henry V

What really sets Branaugh’s movie apart from Olivier’s is the way he handles battles. Again, Olivier in 1944 wanted to raise morale during WW2, when British soldiers were actually invading France to supplant a tyrant. Branaugh in 1989, had seen the world’s response to the Vietnam War, and the decades-long violence in his home country of Ireland. Therefore his version literally takes a dim view of war in general.

Branaugh’s world is not colorful or cheerful- the council scenes are full of candlelit shadows. Branaugh’s fireside chat with his soldiers is a smoky, shadowy look into the terror of men who know they must fight and die tomorrow. Look at the excellent performance of Michael Williams (Judy Dench’s late husband), who takes the king to task while looking at the campfire, almost as if he can see the fires of hell, coming for the English:

King Henry (Branaugh), talks in disguise to the soldier Williams (Michael Williams)
Comparison between Olivier’s 1944 version, and Branaugh’s 1989 movie portrayals of the Battle of Agincourt.

The most striking difference between the two films is how both directors stage The Battle of Agincourt. Olivier’s is a sun-kissed charge on white horses. Branaugh’s is a grimy, mud-stained mess, overcast with a fog of moral ambiguity. Even though the English win, they are meant to question whether or not they have been fighting for a worthy cause. Even after the King proclaims victory for God and country, and the music swells with the gorgeous notes of Non Nobis Dominine (composed and sung by Patrick Doyle), Branaugh has a long tracking shot of all the bodies slain on both sides in the battle. This is the film in a nutshell- a wonderfully acted, exciting, cleverly done thrill ride, that still pulls back and shows the inherently grim and destructive nature of war, that defiles all it touches.

Non Nobis scene from Henry V

The Plot Of the Play

  • King Henry takes the throne in 1413 after his father dies. No one thinks he will run the country effectively.
  • The Dauphin (the French Prince) provokes Henry into declaring war with France, (thus allowing him to claim the right of his predecessor, King Edward III).
  • Henry fends off the French at Harfleur, despite the fact that they are shooting at him with cannons.
  • Henry’s army starts getting sick. Henry decides to start heading back to Calais 
  • The French raise a massive army and it marches towards Agincourt. Mountjoy the French herald warns Henry he will be annihilated and urges him to pay the French a ransom if he is captured. Henry refuses and marches his troops to battle the French at Agincourt.
  • Against all odds, Henry’s army defeats the French at Agincourt, with only about 30 English deaths, and over 10,000 French.

Henry and the French King make peace, and the play ends on a joyous celebration of peace and matrimony, though the Chorus also reminds us that once King Henry dies, his son will lose France and England will be torn apart by civil war.    

Historical Context

My Favorite Moments

I love Branaugh’s performance and his take on the Battle of Agincourt, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other performances and moments of the play.

  1. Armed Ultimatum: In this wonderful scene, we first see the overconfidence of the French, especially the hot-tempered Dauphin (Michael Maloney), who admits that he deliberately goaded Henry into declaring war because he wishes to personally fight with King Henry. His father the King, (played by Paul Scoffield) is a timid, melancholic individual, (historians often called him Charles the Mad), and he seems like an easily manipulated monarch, ripe for conquest by King Henry. We then see the imposing figure of the Duke of Exeter (Brian Blessed), who comes in full plate armor to warn the French that though the French outnumber the English, the English are a hardy and powerful people, and that King Henry will not stop until all of France is his.

Supporting Cast

Branaugh mainly casts his movies out of his Renaissance Acting theater troupe, which is why in almost all his movies you see familiar faces like Brian Blessed, Derek Jakobi, Richard Clifford, Richard Easton Michael Maloney, Paul Gregory and Geraldine McEwan. As someone who’s seen all of Branaugh’s Shakespeare movies, I get the curious sensation that I know these people, trust them, and find myself rooting for them since I saw them in other roles. Maybe Branaugh hoped his longtime viewers would be concerned for the lives of his “Band of Brothers.”

Welcome additions include Micheil Williams as Williams, as well as his wife Judy Dench as Mistress Quickly. These actors are just as home playing grubby common English peasants as they are playing kings and queens.

Emma Thompson and Geraldine McEwan sparkle onscreen as the French Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. The first time I saw the film, their French was so good, I didn’t believe it was really them! Likewise, the awkward wooing scene between Thompson and Branaugh (who were married at the time) is so charming, you forget all the violence and atrocities that happened on both sides earlier, and giddily enjoy their romantic banter.

My Reaction

In short, Branaugh created, at least for now, the definitive Henry V for our times. It is a world where war is not glamorous and rarely just. Where common men die and rich men survive, though they must carry their sins on their back,( just as Branaugh carries the young boy played by Christian Bale). Yet it is also a story about the power of great leaders overcoming adversity, caring for their subjects, and doing the best they can to bring peace and stability to their people.

Bonus: Here’s an interview with Branaugh about the process of creating the film:

Branaugh in an interview with Bobbie Wygant in 1989.

Heaven and Hell through Shakespeare’s Eyes

Since Easter, and Passover are coming up, (and we are already in the middle of Rhamadan), I thought I’d examine Shakespeare’s depiction of other worlds both celestial and infernal. As the quote above says, philosophers and poets often wonder what greets us in the hereafter, so let me be your guide through Shakespeare’s poetic renderings of heaven and he’ll, accompanied by some gorgeous artwork from HC Selous, William Blake, and others.

The whitewashed images of Shakespeare’s childhood

Fisher, Thomas (1781? -1836), “Chapel of the Trinity at Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire” [1804?]. ART Vol. d58 nos.1, 3.

Shakespeare was no doubt interested in religion. He quotes from and alludes to the Bible many times in his plays. More importantly, he lived in a time when the national religion changed three times in just 4 years! When Henry VIII changed England to a protestant country, the religious identity of England completely changed:

This change was not just felt in monestaries, but in all English churches. King Henry decreed that certain Catholic traditions like Purgatory, indulgences, and praying to saints were idolatrous, and were therefore banned in the Church of England. So, when Shakespeare’s father was called to destroy the “idolatrous” images of the Last Judgement in the Guild Chapel of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, he had no choice but to comply. If you click on the link below, you can see a detailed description of the images that Shakespeare no doubt knew well in his family’s church, until his father was forced to literally whitewash them.

https://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/exhibition/exhibition/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel/object/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel-thomas-fishers-lithograph-of-the-doom-painting

Purgatory and the harrowing of hell

Like the images on the Stratford Guild chapel, the ideas of Catholic England didn’t disappear, they were merely hidden from view. Shakespeare refers to these Catholic ideas many times in his plays, especially in Hamlet, a play where a young scholar, who goes to the same school as Martin Luther, is wrestling with the idea of whether the ghost he has seen is a real ghost from purgatory, or a demon from hell, (as protestant churches preached in Shakespeare’s life).

I’ve written before that the ghost of Hamlet’s father teases us with the possibility that he might be a soul in purgatory, the Catholic afterlife realm for those not evil enough for Hell, nor good enough for Heaven. At the height of their powers, monks and bishops sold prayers called indulgences that supposedly allowed a soul’s loved ones to buy them time out of purgatory, thus making them able to ascend to Heaven quicker. The image above is an illustration from Purgatorio, part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, where he visits the soul of
Buonconte da Montefeltro, who is languishing because he doesn’t yet have the strength to get out of purgatory and enter Heaven.

Of course, the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I abolished indulgences and proclaimed that purgatory itself didn’t exist, but ideas can’t die, and I feel that Shakespeare was at least inspired by the notion of purgatory, even if he didn’t believe in it himself.

“It Harrows me with fear and wonder.”

(Horatio) Hamlet, Act I, Scene i.

Lucifer and the vice of kings

As a young boy, William Shakespeare was entertained by medieval Mystery plays; amateur theater pieces performed by local artisans that dramatized great stories from the Bible. We know this because he refers to many of the characters in these mystery plays in his own work, especially the villains. King Herod is mentioned in Hamlet and many other plays in and many of Shakespeare’s villains seem to be inspired by the biblical Lucifer, as portrayed in Medieval Mystery Plays.

In this short video of the Yorkshire Mystery play “The Rise and Fall of Lucifer,” we see God (voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart), creating Lucifer as a beautiful angel, who then, dissatisfied with his place in God’s kingdom, is transformed into an ugly devil. At first, Lucifer mourns losing his place in Paradise, but then finds comfort by becomming God’s great antagonist.

Compare this character arc with Shakespeare’s Richard of Gloucester, who also blames his unhappiness on God, (since he feels his disability and deformity are a result of God’s curse). Richard is angry with God, nature, and society, so he wages against them all to become king.

“Then since the heavens hath shaped my body so, let Hell make crook’d my mind to answer it.”

Richard of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene i.

“All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.”

Lucifer― John Milton, Paradise Lost

Journeys into Hell

ClaudioAy, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!

—Measure For Measure, Act III, Scene i

Inferno: Traitors
José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), Charon’s Boat

“Methought I crossed the meloncholy flood with that grim ferryman the poets write of, into the kingdom of perpetual night.”

— Richard III, Act I, Scene iv.
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! - Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene iii.

Sources:

https://collections.shakespeare.org.uk/exhibition/exhibition/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel/object/shakespeare-connected-discovering-the-guild-chapel-thomas-fishers-lithograph-of-the-doom-painting

https://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Idolatry:_Icons_and_Iconoclasm