Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is vastly underrated. He does a good job, and he is directed by Franco Zeffereli. And the production values are very good. Gibson ain’t Laurence Olivier, but still, he does a good job.
This is the movie that first turned me on to Shakespeare. Like most people, I thought it was too hard to follow. They are speaking another language, and all you hear is “Behold my jibber jabber the Duke of Gloucester is come jibber jabber well met jibber jabber but soft jibber jabber from now until the ending of the world jibber jabber.
It’s like you are listening to a scratchy radio broadcast from the furthest moon of Saturn, one that is intermittenly interrupted by static and hiss.
Then came the age of the DVD, and those magical little subtitles. Now, you could see what the hell they were talking about. You could slow it down, pause it, and puzzle over it for a second.
For example when Hamlet comes upon his father’s murderer in a chapel, seemingly lost in prayer, Hamlet debates whether he should kill him then and there. But since the man is at prayer, Hamlet reasons, the murderer is in a state of grace, and his soul will go straight to heaven. Hamlet wants him in hell, not heaven, so he controls himself and waits for another day: He resolves that he will wait until the murderer is engaged in some sinful activity and then do him in “Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven“.
That phrase was the first thing that turned me on to the power of Shakespeare. The image of the man falling into hell, as his heels “kicked at heaven” struck me for some reason. It was well put. Since I could read the subtitles, and pause, you could absorb what was really going on in the play, rather than have most of it go right over your head.
Here is the speech when Hamlet debates killing the man:
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t.
(He pauses – thinking)
And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
(And that is definitely not what he wants)
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
(He is giving the man a benefit, not a punishment)
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
(He killed my father without a thought as to my father’s soul’s state. And so, no one knows whether his father is in heaven or hell)
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
‘Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
(If this guy is praying for forgiveness [“purging of his soul”] right now, and I kill him, he is ‘fit and season’d for passage” and will go to heaven But no, he decides to wait, and kill him when his soul is blackened, and he is sure to go to hell):
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
Here is Gibson doing this scene. It starts at about 1:49 or so.
Gibson is really good in this. Shakespeare has a bit of rage in it, and he has a bit of rage in him. There is also a top drawer cast – Paul Scofield plays the best Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost I have ever seen; Ian Holm as Polonius; Glenn Close as the creepy Queen who marries twice; and the enormous forehead of Helena Bonham Carter is on display. And Alan Bates as the Murderer – King.