The Mousetrap: Play Within A Play
When we last left Elsinore, Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) had caught onto his uncle Claudius’ (Derek Jacobi) plot to usurp the throne from his murdered brother, and conspired with a visiting troupe of actors to form a play within a play to reveal Claudius’ guilt.
In performances of Hamlet past and present, the play is usually presented as a psychological gambit, a way for the prince of Denmark to suss out his uncle’s intent in open court. Also known as a mise en abyme, the ‘play within a play’ plot is a good narrative technique to peer into character’s psychological states due to its often referential nature to the larger story’s plot.
Let’s break the frame down like we did with Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel:
What else does one do with a play but observe?
Framed on either side by the aisles and staircase, we see the audience almost blending in with the scenery, bedecked in red and white save for Hamlet and the cronies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The stage takes up the largest blank space in the shot.
When we are introduced to the set it actually proves to be a set within a set, constructed in the throne room at Elsinore. The large downwards crane shot makes our eye go directly to the center, an important aspect in a theatrical performance whose success hinges on the characters paying attention. The red curtains add a flare of drama to an already heightened scene, bringing to mind the blood that Claudius has already spilled; there is even the image of Death with its scythe in the background, a memento mori of the scene’s backdrop.
When we look horizontally at the frame, starting from the bottom up, our eye still goes to Death with its scythe, an ominous warning. The stage, particularly the downstage, is a clean slate we can fix our minds to, knowing that on it something is going to happen.
In the commentary track, Branagh mentions that they added scenes of Gertrude and Claudius’ reactions to “double up the tension”. He says that “they are reacting to how the crowd reacts to them…they themselves are the observable observers,” and, adding on to this, Hamlet has Horatio spy on his uncle, watching his reactions carefully. The scene is interspersed with quick punchy shots – the audience, Horatio, Hamlet looking to his mother, Claudius watching the play. Everyone’s attention – save for Hamlet – is on one focal point, the center of the shot, the play.
The whole point of this scene and how translate it is that we are looking psychologically inwards. We look at Claudius’ reaction because it may or may not betray his guilt; we look at Hamlet as he twitches in his seat, overcome by the drunken feeling of superiority he has at catching his uncle outright; we see Gertrude shift uncomfortably, the eyes of a questioning court on her. Everyone is being observed and subsequently judged on that observation.
After the play, we have a distraught Hamlet attempt to assassinate Claudius during confession, but he realizes that he cannot do it because it would mean eternal salvation; Claudius confesses to his sin, but because he does so, if Hamlet killed him in the moment, his soul would go to heaven, unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned as a ghost from hell due to his sudden death. This portrayal of Claudius makes him seem less an all-out evil man, but more penitent, guilt-ridden by his actions and deeply troubled; he is on shaky ground, and not wielding his power like he had assumed he would.
Hamlet, summoned to his mother’s quarters to discuss the play, has a heated argument with her before hearing a sound behind the curtain and – unleashing his impotent anger at what he presumes is Cladius – stabs Polonius, the second in command and father of Ophelia and Laertes, to death. There are two frames in particular that are telling to us as the audience. The first:
It is the first full shot of Polonius’ corpse and the evidence in full of Hamlet’s crime. When we look at this shot, our eye goes directly to the blood, then travels to the body, dressed in a rich yellow, then across to the bold blue painting; all three primary colors stand out boldly against the pastels of Gertrude’s bedroom. She has, now, been affected in full – the body is there, staining her wood floors with its blood, and she cannot deny the crime that has happened, nor can Hamlet. This frame, by putting Polonius square in the middle, bookends Gertrude’s end, sealed by her marriage bed on one side and blood on the other. What has happened here cannot be undone, and nothing will go back to how it was.
The next shot of Polonius’ body is positioned on the floor as Hamlet prepares to drag it away:
Let’s break down the frame vertically:
Now, this is a wonderful shot because not only is it visually expositional – we know what has happened even if the film were silent (Hitchcock’s method) – but it also works, like Grand Budapest, when you break it down vertically and horizontally.
Vertically split, the left side is fairly empty, save for the pool of blood, which carries through the entire shot. Notice how the couch frames the end of the section. In the middle, slightly off-center, we have Gertrude, witness to the act, looking on at the evidence, bookended by the couch frame and the room divider, just above Polonius’ head. On the right, we have the body itself in all its gory glory.
The bottom third continues the same visual flow as the vertical panels; we follow the trail of blood from left to right, but it is perfectly aligned with the floor, so our eye is kept in that realm. The middle still has Gertrude centered in the shot, but the beauty of 70mm film allows us a wider scope of her room; her luxury has been spoiled forever by this murder. We continue into the top third by following the vertical elements, the candlesticks, the curtains, the columns, which rounds off our sense of the wealth of the room.
Another shot is also interesting to note: after Ophelia is driven mad, we are treated to the throne room again, but it is vastly different from when we first saw it, during Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding. Namely, it is empty.
No one is left to cheer for them anymore, and they are left with themselves, and the hollowness of their power. The mirrors open to reveal an array of rooms, and in this scene one is shown to be Ophelia’s padded cell.
Branagh notes in the commentary: “The palace is changing shape as the Danish nation under Cladius’ rule has become a more dangerous and shifting place,”. Thanks again to 70mm, we are allowed to see the full breadth of the throne room – how vast it is, and how empty. A distinguishing feature to a wide shot is that it allows for depth, and with Claudius standing in the foreground, we can see how far away Gertrude stands from him comparatively, symbolic of her move away from her husband as she begins to suspect his guilt.
Similarly, before the disc’s intermission, we get a beautiful shot of Hamlet, standing before the plains as Fortinbras’ army amasses:
As mentioned previously, his dark costume makes him stand out from the snow, evidently clear here. The full width of the 70mm gives us the impression that Hamlet is at the will of forces much larger than himself now, on the run as a murderer, and himself small where the universe is big.
Ultimately, the film is four hours long not to be tedious, but to allow for full appreciation of Shakespeare’s work. The heart of most of his tragedies are that the characters, through their humanity and its errors, bring about their ends themselves. Tragedy is plotted by human hands. Thanks to the additional visual and psychological layers brought by 70mm film, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet adaptation plays to the true and troublesome nature of one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, beautifully marrying imagery and content.