"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hamlet

I know, I KNOW!  Someone has already written about this guy.  So?  :-)

Method in the Madness ...
Some of you have probably come across that phrase and wondered where it came from (or not).

Well, it comes from Hamlet, wherein Hamlet is a young prince of Denmark whose father (the King) has recently died. Uncle Claudius has ascended to the throne and married his mother (Queen Gertrude).

As Shakespeare's play opens, some friends of Hamlet tell him that the guards of the night watch have reported seeing an apparition, a ghost "very like the late King", wandering the battlements of Elsinore Castle in the wee hours before the dawn.

Hamlet goes to see, and the specter beckons him away from his friends and tells him that his death was not natural, that it was "MURDER, most foul" and that Claudius had poisoned him.

Hamlet vows bloody vengeance. He wants it to be so complete, that when he finds Claudius alone one night (unaware of Hamlet's presence because he's in the midst of meditation and prayer) Hamlet draws back, fearing that if he struck now, Claudius would be sent straight to Heaven. He not only wants the bastard DEAD; he wants him IN HELL!!!

But, Hamlet is not a kamikaze. Regicide carries some pretty stiff penalties. They come up with some pretty awful ways of doing you in; not out of mindless brutality, but out of very thoughtful deterrence meant to make it crystal that THAT is very definitely a NO-NO!

However, even in those medieval times, there had developed the idea that a person "not in his right mind" may not be responsible for his actions.  So, Hamlet begins laying what would amount to an insanity defense by acting peculiar and going about muttering gibberish and nonsense.

(Now, I seriously doubt that, if he killed the King in that state, they would just let him go. I suspect that he would spend the rest of his days in a medieval version of an asylum, not very different from the worst cells in the dungeon, and might soon wish they had just killed him and gotten it over with. But, if he didn't think it all the way through, he wouldn't be the first.)

King Claudius has asked his adviser Polonius to keep an eye on Hamlet. He finds Hamlet buried in a book, and when he asks him what he is reading, Hamlet (who knows what Polonius is up to) tells him, "It says that old men ... (but I don't believe this) ...", openly mocking Polonius while pretending not to do so.  Now, while Polonius often appears to only be full of platitudes (to his son, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be.", "To thine own self be true."), he is not stupid.  Recognizing the mockery that Hamlet is pulling, he casts this aside to the audience, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it."

The old boy smells a rat and is not completely sold on Hamlet's madness.

Anyway, that's where the term comes from.

The "Lost" Hamlet ...  
The first time I ever saw the play performed was in the mid 1960s, when I saw Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)  broadcast on the local NET (National Education Television - precurser to PBS) station (Channel 8 in Houston).  

It was a made for BBC Television production, filmed at the actual location the play is set in (Elsinore Castle, in Denmark) on black and white film. That choice was made because a lot of the location shots depended on whatever existing light there was, and black and white film was the only type fast enough to do the job. (It was a decade later before Stanley Kubrick could do something similar with color film when shooting Barry Lyndon. By then, color film speed had greatly improved, and he rented a hideously expensive camera lens from NASA that had a HUGE aperture in order to pull that off.)

This version of Hamlet had the absolutely finest performances of the two lead characters; Christopher Plummer as Hamlet and Robert Shaw as Claudius.

Plummer played the Dane as if he was genuinely mad, and Shaw as Claudius was sexy, charming, and dangerous as Hell. You could easily imagine Gertrude falling for him, much more than you would believe that for others who had that role.

After seeing it that time, I never even heard of it again for a long time. I looked all over when videos and DVDs came out, but to no avail. The movie was shot on film and transferred to videotape (in those days (before Beta and VHS), videotape was 35mm film stock, with a magnetic recording layer in place of film emulsion). Also, in those days, the BBC had a horrid habit of re-using those tapes; recording new material over whatever was there before.

Movies meant for theatrical release usually have hundreds (more often thousands) of copies made for distribution to theaters, greatly improving the chances that people can restore an old movie later on.

As this was a production meant for a showing on television, it was all too possible that not a single copy existed and that it was gone forever. 

Found ...
After writing that, I searched on google for information and whatever images I could find, and came across this ...


I'm guessing that the original negative was available, or that a few 16mm prints may have been made (for schools). However they pulled it off, the BBC was able to remaster this movie, in time for a film festival in Sarasota, Florida, and then they issued a DVD in October 2011, which I now have. 

I've now confirmed my 47 year old memory of how great those performances were, and you can too. Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, even some Walmarts have this.

Christopher Plummer as Hamlet
from filmsworthwatching.blogspot.com

Robert Shaw as Claudius - from the DVD cover.

Enjoy! :-)
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