Shakespeare Off the Page: Midterm Essay

Tania Allen

BLS 340 – Shakespeare Off The Page

Marc Williams

February 5, 2010

Espionage in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet

It has been said that is every play every written but for Hamlet suddenly disappeared, the theaters of the world would still be successful because of Hamlet (qtd in Neill 307).  Perhaps this is said because of the myriad themes within what is arguably the most well known of William Shakespeare’s works.  Within Hamlet we find love and betrayal, the supernatural, political scheming, dysfunctional families, psychological distress, life and death, and espionage and intrigue, among other themes. It is that last, espionage and intrigue, that we find throughout Michael Almereyda’s version of Hamlet. Almereyda uses visual cues and selects specific scenes which best highlight the use of espionage in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to emphasize those elements in his interpretation of one of the most popular works of literature.

One of the first indications we have of the focus on subterfuge and espionage is the use of video cameras and still cameras. Hamlet himself is apparently, in Almereyda’s setting, a film student, and his room is filled with equipment allowing him to manipulate film. Ophelia also is seen frequently with a still camera and in photographs as well as in the videos Hamlet has taken. Those videos play a large part of the entire film in fact, as do Ophelia’s photographs, both as reminders of the constant observation the characters exist in. The use of photography, both still and video, represents in this film the ways in which people observe one another, spying on each other.

Still other indications of the secrecy and subterfuge in the film version of Hamlet are found in the visuals of characters hiding and in Almereyda’s use of camera angles.  Whether it is behind sunglasses, which we see Hamlet wearing frequently but also his mother, Gertrude, or behind the darkened windows of the limousine, or the very vivid example of Polonius hiding in Gertrude’s closet, there are numerous examples of the characters hiding from one another. Using camera angles is another device that Almereyda employs to feature the visual of watching and being watched within the film. Frequently the characters are viewed from a low angle, a technique which makes it appear as they are unaware of being watched. Both the low angle shooting of the film, and the frequent use of the characters hiding behind windows and sunglasses are representations of the secrecy and spying found in Almereyda’s interpretation of Hamlet.

More than simply the visual cues however, the actions of the players – in this case the actors – reveal Almereyda’s focus on intrigue and espionage in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Focusing on the sneaking around and hidden behaviors of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, of Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of Polonius, and even of Hamlet himself, Almereyda almost seems to ignore other aspects of the story of Hamlet and focuses the movie almost entirely on the facets of espionage found within. Early in the play we meet Marcellus and Horatio who tell Hamlet of how they sighted Hamlet’s father’s ghost on the security cameras of the Hotel Elsinore. Several scenes later, Polonius finds Hamlet in a hallway of Denmark Corporation, peeks over his shoulder, and then has a conversation with him, the exchange captured on security cameras as well, watched by Claudius and Gertrude we assume.

Those visuals continue throughout the entirety of the film. We see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting their interactions with Hamlet to his mother and Claudius, which we find is the main reason they have returned, to spy on Hamlet for his mother and step-father, and later are shows further evidence of their complicity with the King’s machinations when they are told to encourage Hamlet in the pursuit of the film he plans to put on. His mother and uncle, along with Polonius, then convince Ophelia to wear a wire when she meets with Hamlet to return “remembrances” to him – a device that the Prince eventually finds, and it drives him into a fury. More visual indications of this spying is the way in which Hamlet, seemingly throughout the film but pointedly after he meets with his supposed friends, uses a video camera to film a movie off the television screen. I found this viewing of something already viewed to be a very telling example of the constancy of watching and being watched throughout Almereyda’s film.

The appearances of Hamlet’s father’s ghost also reinforce the image of the characters being watched throughout the film. Almereyda has the ghost appear numerous times: when Horatio and Marcellus see him the first time, when Hamlet spies him on the balcony, when the ghost appears in Gertrude’s room when Hamlet accosts her about her behavior, sitting watching Marcellus as she is sleeping. Every time the ghost appears, he is watching the characters, another visual reminder of the persistence of surveillance within Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of Almereyda’s focus on spying in his interpretation of Hamlet is the Mousetrap scene, where Hamlet has put together a film with which he intends to determine if Claudius is indeed guilty of murdering his father, believing that if he is guilty, seeing a mimicry of the deed will cause him to express his guilt in some way. He tells Horatio and Marcellus to watch for the King’s reaction, as he does as well. The entire scene is filled with people watching each other – Gertrude watching her son, Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio watching Claudius, the entire audience watching the film –  and is in that way one of the most vivid examples of Almereyda using visual indications of spying to highlight that theme in the play.

One final scene in which spying and espionage are highlighted comes late in the film, as Hamlet is explaining to Marcellus how he altered the documents ordering his own death to instead have his supposed friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed. Perhaps the most outright visual of espionage is Hamlet’s explanation of how he stole the documents – in this adaptation in the form of an electronic document kept on a disk – and made it appear that Claudius instead was ordering the death of his two friends. Then of course in the final scene where Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius are all killed, there is a betrayal of the espionage engaged in by Claudius, as Gertrude realizes the wine is poisoned and drinks from it herself, and as Laertes abandons the foils and shoots Hamlet and later reveals Claudius’ plan to him. In both of these scenes, Almereyda maintains the focus on the deceit engaged in by the major players throughout the film.

Part of the greatness of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the countless ways in which the play can be presented to an audience. Because of the many themes present, there are any number of facets the director of a stage or film based upon the play can choose to emphasize. In his version of Hamlet Michael Almereyda uses all the tools available to him to portray the story as one of deceit, of intrigue, and of espionage. From choosing scenes which highlight those actions, such as the well known Mousetrap here portrayed as a film, to revealing that subterfuge in the actions of the characters, to simple visual clues such as the use of cameras and camera angles, Almereyda’s aim is clear: to show that Hamlet is a story of espionage which ends, in a word, badly.

Works Cited

Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. Perf. Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Bill Murray, Julia Stiles and Sam Shepard. Miramax, 2000. Film.

Neill, Michael. Afterword. Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. Ed Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Westine. New York. Simon & Schuster, 1992. 307-326. Print.


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