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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

to be or not to be: Mel Gibson as Hamlet


Yeah, he’s shouty, like he always is, but I kinda like Mel Gibson as Hamlet. I saw the 1990 Franco Zeffirelli mounting of the story of the Mad Dane years ago and I must admit that it didn’t really make much of an impression on me then, but now, having watched it after seeing a whole bunch of different interpretations of what could be the greatest play ever written… I like it. A lot.

I like how different it is from almost every other production. There’s nothing meta about it — there’s little open to interpretation. Normally, with any other story, that might be a bad thing, but most productions of Hamlet tend toward the ambiguous — is Hamlet crazy, or isn’t he? is he faking? does the faking actually make him crazy? does Gertrude really love Claudius? is she faking in order to secure her position? and so on — so there’s something kinda refreshing about a production that, punning aside, makes no bones about it. Gertrude (Glenn Close) absolutely is hot for the new king (Alan Bates). Hamlet absolutely is totally in control of his faculties, even if he is a moody, sulky bastard. We don’t even get the ghost, at first, don’t get that scene with Horatio and the guards confronting the spectre. You almost suspect, at first, that even the ghost will be dispensed with as nothing more than a fanciful story.
That doesn’t happen, of course — Hamlet eventually does talk with the ghost of his father (Paul Scofield)… but that turns out to be as grounded as a scene from a ghost story can be: I think it’s the most creepy, most horrific depiction of that moment, when the dead king explains to his son how he was murdered, precisely because it seems so real. Everything about this production is real and grounded and earthy. The medieval castle is rough and dirty. Hamlet’s scene with his mother in her chamber seethes with a nasty sexuality. The players are not rarefied artistes but down-to-earth entertainers who juggle and eat fire to amuse their audience before their play. That revelry that Hamlet says is more honored in the breach than in the observance… we actually witness that, when usually we merely hear Hamlet explain it to others.

And there’s that aspect, too: Events that we usually only learn about from one character telling another we actually witness here. Like the Ophelia-sewing-in-her-chamber bit. Shakespeare wrote that as an event that Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) merely related to her father — you could debate whether it actually really happened or whether she had some ulterior motive in inventing the story (or perhaps she imagined it, even). But the Ophelia-telling-Polonius scene is omitted here in favor of Polonius eavesdropping on the scene and learning of it for himself, which leaves no doubt as to its actuality.

And Polonius? Ian Holm makes him rather more disagreeable than the character usually is: he’s not a doddering but charming old man here, he’s a schemer. He’s angry. Hamlet barely seems upset when he realizes that he has accidentally killed the old man, and you can hardly blame the younger man for it.

Oh, and that to-be-or-not-to-be scene! Set in a crypt?

Perfect for the contemplation of suicide! And yet, this most sane of all Hamlets doesn’t appear to be actually considering suicide, as other Hamlets are. Other Hamlets seem to come to the conclusion during this speech that suicide is off the table, but Gibson’s Hamlet seems to begin it already knowing that he had no intention of offing himself — he seems more to be lamenting the fact that he already believes suicide is not an option, as if it’s his poor fortune to be so thoughtful and introspective.

To agree with that as a valid take on the play, or not to agree, isn’t so much the question for me as is the simple fact that this production made me see things, in its unusual approach to the play, that I’d never seen before. That makes it extremely valuable… and fascinating.

Two more things I love about this production:

The electric moment when you see Hamlet realize how he can use the players to try to catch out his uncle.

Nathaniel Parker as Laertes:

Just cuz he’s so cute.

Alas, poor Yorick:

Get thee to a nunnery:

So angry a Hamlet. I love it.

[part of my “summer of David Tennant and ‘Hamlet’” series]

MPAA: rated PG

viewed at home on a small screen

posted in:
talent buzz
  • I don’t recall much caring for this adaptation when I saw it a few years ago, but it does contain one of my favorite moments in any of the Hamlets I’ve seen: Horatio interceding when the guards are manhandling poor Ophelia, and tenderly lifting her up and carrying her away. I love the idea of Horatio looking after Ophelia for Hamlet’s sake, and I loved seeing it put out there so explicitly.

  • spikewriter

    I remember not caring for the production as a whole — Mel Gibson as Hamlet definitely didn’t do it for me — but I do remember liking Glenn Close as Gertrude.

  • Ann

    I enjoy pretty much all of Mel Gibson’s films. He has an intense and vivid approach to most characters (except maybe the reverend in “Signs”, which I could never buy–just laughed at him trying to convince us that he does not curse…ever). But I digress. This has always been one of my favourite plays by Shakespeare and Mel brought a fresh, youthful, and typically intense approach to the role. However, I couldn’t help but feel he had been overly directed by Zeffirelli–like Mel was trying to fit into a costume of language, manners, and approach that was not suited to him entirely. I wonder what would have happened if they had broken from the Shakespearean theatrical traditions and let Mel improvise more, shaking off the old English accent and mannerisms? I would love to see a variation of Hamlet in which he stared and directed.

  • Alan

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful, wonderful article on a often-derided interpretation that I’ve always had a soft spot for. Even in those cases when I disagree with your conclusions, you are *always* worth reading and one of the best critics on the ‘net. Keep it up!

  • Christie

    I found this version refreshing too. I haven’t actually seen an adaptation of Hamlet that I didn’t enjoy in one way or another, but this one did feel very different. Probably the movie version I liked least was Kenneth Branagh’s, which surprised me since I usually love what he does. I found the Branagh version a tad too over-dramatized and perhaps a little, I dunno, too reverential of the source material. Anyway. Mel’s version surprised me; I loved the grittiness. Thanks for revisiting this–it reminded me that I’d like to see it again.

  • dave

    I think that this version was great, of course not as complete as Kenneth Brannagh’s version, but you have to cut something to make it movie sized. The atmosphere is superb, all the actors well chosen. Mel Gibson was also great, didn’t over or under act, got the craziness just right, delivered the important speeches perfectly so the meaning was transferred to the listener. If you like Zeffirelli then you should also see Taming of the Shrew with Burton and Taylor, also very entertaining with a superb atmosphere

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