Hamlet, yet again…

Just as Kansas City and environs came to grips with what they needed to do in the COVID-19 time, the weather here was especially cloudy, and then, Turner Classic Movies, as if on cue, screened yet again Hamlet (1948) dir. and starring Laurence Olivier.  And so, I recorded it, and then later watched it.  The black and white cinematography done on a set that seemed only to compound all that greyness perfectly matched the grey outside, and my own grey thoughts.

I’ve seen Olivier’s Hamlet at least a dozen times over the years (which comes from my seeing it in the library and then thinking, “I’ve got to check this out,” or seeing it listed on TCM and thinking, “I’ve got to record this.”  Even when I’m not looking for Hamlet (in any version), Hamlet seems to show up, especially as embodied by Olivier.  And so, I watch it yet again.

And it’s not that I don’t recognize the problems — in this version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t dead, they are totally absent; Olivier and Norman Wooland, who plays Horatio, are far too old for the role of university students, and Eileen Herlie, who plays Gertrude, looks far too young to be Olivier’s mom.  And all the monologs are done in voice-over as if we are “hearing” Hamlet’s thoughts — I guess it’s to make it seem more natural, but the acting that goes with it is a bit over the top — I’d much rather Olivier broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience.  Still, the cinematography and set design is quite striking and affects me as much with each viewing.

This time, partly because of the cloudy world outside, and my cloudy mind within, I was especially struck with the closing of the “To be or not to be” monolog.  Here are the lines I mean:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment/ With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action… (Hamlet III i, 82-87).

Boy, that really sounded loud in my head as I heard these words — phrases like “pale cast of thought” and “sicklied o’er” jumped out at me.  I’ve heard this soliloquy probably close to a 100 times, either through my own reading of the play, or seeing productions or films of the play multiple times.  And yet, this time, in these circumstances, it was this that really jumped out.  No doubt my enforced isolation (the situation of us all) caused these to resonate so much, and how a mighty plague besets us so that many are quite ill also makes the idea of “sicklied” even more relevant.

In the play, and especially in Olivier’s staging of it, Hamlet is a figure who is beset by too reflective a mind.  In a situation that calls for action (the play is, after all, a revenge play, and like revenge movies, they are generally action pieces, full of violent scenes).  And yet, in this longest of his plays, Hamlet spends a lot of time trying to work himself up to action.

For Hamlet, there is a divide between what he feels he must do, and do quickly, and his own hesitancy to act.  For the most part, he views his inaction as a fault.  And in this case,  his inaction may bring about other consequences he hadn’t counted on (the killing of Polonius, the madness of Ophelia), where quick action would have taken care of his uncle without all the collateral damage.

But I wonder — is there not some value to inaction, and to being forced to be inactive, and simply to “be,” rather than to act?  Sometimes quick action is too rash and causes its own troubles, and there is some virtue to patience.

And so, facing at least another few weeks of enforced “inaction,” I’m thinking that, though I love the look of Hamlet, I should look rather to the Buddhist idea — “Don’t just do something — sit there!” as a mantra.

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