Hamlet: using film versions to explore alternative interpretations

One of the most useful things I think students can do to revise Shakespeare is watching a range of different versions. Not mindlessly in the background – but with the thought in mind that these are alternative interpretations, considering the way directors and actors have portrayed the lines and the choices they have made.

It’s also a great way to learn quotes – hearing them and seeing them is a fantastic way to get them into your head, and I think it’s important to hear them spoken as often as possible.

Consider Ophelia’s argument with Hamlet, for example –I’ve put several together on a Youtube playlist. Kate Winslet’s Ophelia is quiet, young, and tragic. Branagh as Hamlet looks into the mirror before she arrives – where Polonius and Claudius are hiding to watch, implying that he’s already aware that she’s been instructed. His kiss seems almost like a goodbye, moments before she “redelivers” his remembrances – and his denial, knowing they’re watching, is because he feels betrayed by her.

Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia is walking reading, so Gibson’s Hamlet seems to come across her by chance. Whereas Winslet looks directly at Branagh, intense and close, Bonham-Carter doesn’t meet Gibson’s eyes and doesn’t move close until talking of the “sweet breath” that composed the letters, when she moves closer to him. Gibson circles her threateningly, shouting in her face while she holds her book like a shield, and he violently takes hold of her and throws her against the wall – “go to!” – which adds to his madness. Gibson’s movements are often similar to those of Lawrence Olivier, circling Ophelia and shouting at her. Olivier delivers his lines with quiet intensity that makes the audience believe he cannot be mad, whereas Gibson already teeters on the brink.

The RSC version on the playlist is different again – he’s physically above her on the stairs as she approaches, symbolising his authority here – suggesting maybe that he’s aware of the purpose behind her approach. The actor here too grabs Ophelia, pulling her painfully close then throwing her down again, before wrenching at her hair – who could help but side with Ophelia here, yet Hamlet’s misery is evident.

I’ve also published a revision guide to Hamlet! Click here to see sample pages

What do you think?

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