If Othello had simply been willing to use a similar thought process to that which helps the characters in the film Get Shorty make their complex ethical decisions, the play would have been a lot shorter. Othello might still have been thoughtful in the way he went about finding whether or not Desdemona was cheating on him or not with Cassio, but he definitely would have capped Cassio when Cassio wandered into a scene, drunk as usual, instead of just moping with Iago scene after scene, letting the wily Venetian ply his drama. After all, as Hamlet (the protagonist of another Shakespeare tragedy) put it, “The play's the thing, whereby we'll catch the conscience of the king,” (II.ii.566-567). While the words that Hamlet utters here are one of the more obvious examples of foreshadowing, though, from the point of view of the audience, the choices that go into performance, beginning with casting and then moving on toward the choices that actors make when carrying out their roles, it's clear that text analysis alone cannot provide a complete interpretation of a play. Drama, after all, was meant to be performed; people do not sit down and read a script for entertainment in the same way in which they will pull down a novel or book of poems from the shelf. The stage directions are there for the actors to inhabit rather than to read aloud, and then the inflections that the actors add to the words – and the tone and gesticulations that they bring to their roles – also provide powerful fodder for interpreters to use.
The argument as to whether one should consider just the words of a play when providing criticism or whether one should also consider the choices that go into the selection and performance of the actors is one that dates back almost as far as the art of drama itself. After all, if it were not for the words that such terrific playwrights as Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Miller and the like put down on paper, the actors who stepped into those roles would not have their powerful characters to perform in the first place. The playwright has to construct the world for the characters to inhabit, as is shown by the stage directions which the playwrights must also construct. It is the imagination and creativity of the playwrights which even allow the actors to set foot into those roles in the first place. On the other hand, there is definitely a difference between what, say, even a talented comedic actor such as Will Ferrell or Bill Murray could do in the role of, say, a tragic character such as Menelaus or Willy Loman and what a talented dramatic actor such as Bryan Cox or Dustin Hoffman could do with the same character. Different actors have different emotional ranges and can fit themselves into different characters. Also, different directors take distinct takes on the same play, bringing entirely distinct worlds to bear. While James Cameron used computer animation to bring the world of 1912 back to life, would he be able to do the same thing on a stage?
Consider the three adaptations of Hamlet that were produced on the screen in 1990, 1996 and 2000, starring as Hamlet Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh and Ethan Hawke, respectively. While all three adaptations began with the Bard's original text, the decisions that all three adaptations made differed quite widely from one another, yielding three distinct takes on this story.
Let's begin with the Hamlet adaptation starring Mel Gibson. This is infused with testosterone from stem to stern, as one might expect from a movie featuring one of the co-stars of the Lethal Weapon series and numerous other action movies as the troubled prince of Denmark. The roaring from Hamlet throughout this movie is vintage Gibson, but the stored-up machismo emerges best in two places. The first is the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, as they begin with slender swords but eventually move to heavy broadswords, and as you watch the men swing under the weight of those weapons, you can feel all the sublimated sex that, if you're willing to admit it, really is at the basis of the conflicts in the tale. As the swords clang and pound against one another, it's clear that this tale is only headed toward tragedy for everyone involved. The decision to cast Alan Bates as Claudius gives Hamlet an uncle who is definitely an alpha male – and gives the audience its other heavy dose of testosterone. He has slid into his brother's throne in a more than cocksure manner, and the sensuality that is on display between this Claudius and Gertrude (played by a distinctly horny Glenn Close) tells the audience everything it needs to know about the real reasons behind the death of the elder Hamlet – and the swiftness with which Claudius swept onto the throne of Denmark.
The 1996 adaptation of Hamlet features Kenneth Branagh in the title role and Derek Jacobi, often a castmate of Branagh's, in the role of Claudius. This is a production, though, that is designed to take a more emotionally evenhanded look at the entire story. The fact that Billy Crystal shows up as one of the gravedigger, to maximize the comedy of the discovery of the skull of Yorick (a magician who had entertained the younger Hamlet as a child), is a sign that Branagh (also the director) is determined to get as many elements of Shakespeare's least manageable tragedy out for the viewer to see. After all, this is one of the rare adaptations that uses every line from the play, which is why the movie runs well over four hours. But Branagh himself is much more boyish than Gibson could be. While one could imagine Gibson turning that broadsword on everyone in the room, the anger within Branagh is held much more tightly in check by the rest of him. The conflict runs more deeply through the entire personality of Branagh's Hamlet. Gibson relies on some of the same visual comedy that he used in the Lethal Weapon series to deal with his conflicts (note the similarities between his eye rolls when he acts insane in front of Polonius and those that he shows when he is intentionally irritating the members of the South African diplomatic corps in Lethal Weapon 2). Jacobi's Claudius is much less the alpha male than Bates'. Jacobi, whether the stuttering villain who emerges as a would-be multiple murderer at the end of Dead Again or a scheming Archbishop of Canterbury in Henry V, is much more calculating and cold than Bates' Claudius. It's clear that Jacobi's Claudius was motivated more by a desire to rule than to have sex with his brother's wife. In Bates' case, it's not clear which is a stronger impulse. But Branagh's adaptation moves much more crisply from one scene to the next, as it is a classic rendition, while Gibson's performance turns the play into a horny, molten mess from start to finish – again, the choice of the director as far as the emphasis to take within the story.
While both of these adaptations are set in the antiquity of Denmark, the adaptation starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet is set in modern New York City. The language is still that of the Bard's day, but the settings are all contemporary. While Hawke, clad in black from start to finish in this adaptation, is just about as “emo” as you would expect a conflicted prince of Denmark to be” (one expects him to cry with the same degree of probability about the whole situation as one would expect him to pick up that sword and strike Claudius down), that's just a different take on the war going on within Hamlet. While this adaptation is more about sublimated emotion than the other two, the simple fact is that the words of Shakespeare's text allow these varied directions as far as emotional responses go. So if you don't like the way that Mel Gibson portrayed Hamlet, you're fine to want a more classic and sublimated response to that anger – and either of the other two adaptations under discussion is just as likely to be as pleasing to you.
All of this, of course, brings us back to the question as to whether the text of a play itself can be the subject of critical discussion. Plays that plumb the depths of the human soul end up meriting multiple adaptations – and multiple perspectives. When audiences attend those plays, no matter which takes the director has in mind as far as moving thematically, they walk away moved – and the play is a success. Almost five hundred years later, Shakespeare remains among the canon of playwrights – but only a few of his plays earn wide release as far as stage and film adaptations go. The psychological conflicts in Hamlet and Othello make them more common adaptations than such other tragedies as Julius Caesar, which moves carefully down a tightly managed path from hubris to nemesis, and Titus Andronicus, perhaps because those business managers who help make choices for theaters don't quite know how having a madman serve the son of his enemy inside a meat pie to that enemy at the dinner table will go over. Also, while Antony and Cleopatra might have made an intriguing tale at the time, you don't see it on modern playbills. Plays that have moving text appear, over and over again, because audiences will demand to see them. The true tale of a play, though, combines that text with the act of wringing the self out onto the stage that each actor performs as part of the show.
Dead Again. Dir. Kenenth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Andy Garcia. Paramount Pictures, 1991.
Get Shorty. Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld. Perf. Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1995.
Hamlet. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1996.
Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Mel Gibson, Alan Bates, Glenn Close. Carolco Pictures, 1990.
Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora. Double A Films, 2000.
Lethal Weapon 2. Dir. Richard Donner. Perf. Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci. Warner Brothers, 1989.
Shakespeare, William. No Fear Shakespeare: Hamlet. New York: SparkNotes, c2003.