Compare and contrast the treatment of the play Hamlet by the directors Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh

Many events have occurred in this complex play to put the main character, young Hamlet, in the position and frame of mind in which he finds himself at the beginning of the last scene of the play. Only months ago, his father died, seemingly from natural causes leaving everyone grief stricken. Yet within two months, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude had re-married – to Hamlets uncle Claudius! Then the ghost of Hamlets father appears to him and tells him that Claudius murdered him and that he wants Hamlet to avenge his death.

Hamlet also has a place in his heart for the beautiful Ophelia in whom he cannot trust. Hamlet cleverly proves Claudius’ guilt but manages to stab Ophelia’s father Polonius instead who is hiding behind a tapestry in Gertrude’s room. Hamlet is then banished by Claudius to England where he is supposed to be beheaded. Meanwhile Ophelia goes mad with grief and drowns just after her brother Laertes comes home.

Claudius receives word that Hamlet is on his way home so he and Laertes (who seeks to avenge the deaths of his father and his sister) plot to kill him upon his return.

Hamlet gets back to find it is Ophelia’s funeral and he grieves for her. The plot created by Claudius and Laertes involves a fencing match and a poisoned blade, which is where we find ourselves at the beginning of the scene. Hamlets frame of mind before the fight is also unstable. He is still grieving for his father and is now grieving for Ophelia as well.

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He is angry with Claudius for his fathers murder and is still upset with his mother over her hasty re-marriage. Combined with the guilt for the grief he has caused Laertes, Hamlet is going mad and has become almost totally unbalanced.

With everything that has happened and Hamlet being the sort of studious and contemplative person that he is it is not surprising that he’s lost his mind. In Act 3 Scene 1, Hamlet gives his famous “To be, or not to be,” speech in which he contemplates suicide but says that he is scared of dying: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,” Since then Hamlet mind set has changed and just before the fight scene (Act 5 Scene 2) Hamlet says to Horatio: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Hamlet is now prepared to meet his fate if in fact death is his fate. This is the mindset he starts the fight in. In class we watched two exceedingly diverse film adaptations of Hamlet interpreted by two different directors. I’m going to look at each of these and compare each component of them. Setting: The Zeffirelli movie stays true to Shakespeare’s 12th century setting. Elsinore is a dark medieval castle made from stone and encapsulates the feeling of the play very well. The Branagh adaptation however is set in the late 18th to early 19th century in a magnificent royal palace.

It’s very grand and has white marbled walls and a chequered black and white floor like a chessboard. This has a significant symbolism, as chess is a game that uses strategy to eliminate the opposition – an almost perfect synopsis of the play. The place in which Hamlet and Laertes fight is also significantly different. In Zeffirelli, they fight in a square, wooden floor, almost like a boxing ring where opponents circle each other looking for an opportunity to strike. In Branagh, they play on a long thin red carpet and they almost chase each other up and down it before carrying the fight on up the staircases.

Zeffirelli’s version is much more effective. You really get the feeling of the two characters sizing each other up and daring each other to make a move. Costume: In Zeffirelli’s adaptation, the character of Hamlet in particular is very scruffy with ragged brown hair, an unkempt beard and brown shabby clothes – he certainly does not look at all like the heir to the throne. This is like chalk and cheese with the Branagh portrayal. In Branagh’s version, Hamlet wears a red uniform. He has very short blonde hair in a military cut and is always clean-shaven.

The other characters in Branagh also follow this trend – the men in uniforms, the woman in luxurious dresses and the colours clean and bright. This is probably due to the occasion. In Zeffirelli however the men are, like Hamlet, in dishevelled clothes and dirty colours. The woman in simple plain dresses with little colour. But admittedly the costumes reflect the century, and the setting, very well. The part of the scene in which the fight takes place is subject to several costume changes.

In Zeffirelli, Hamlet and Laertes start off wearing chain mail and then change to much heavier armour during the part in which Claudius tries to get Hamlet to drink the poisoned wine. At the point around where Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine, Hamlet and Laertes take off all their armour and play in only their shirts – allowing for the wounds. Their clothes are very suited to the century – simple armour made of heavy metal. In Branagh, as they are actually fencing, they wear white fencing jackets and fencing helmets (meshed face protection). But they begin the scene in their normal clothes and change before they start the fight.

They take off there fencing jackets at the point before Gertrude drinks the wine and carry on the fight in vests and braces – undergarments typical of the century. Speech: The two films use the original Shakespeare script very differently; the Branagh version uses almost every single word Shakespeare wrote but goes very over the top with the interpretation of it. The Zeffirelli version is more understated and cuts out a fair bit of what Shakespeare wrote – but keeps the feel of a Shakespeare play much better. Music: Music in these films was used in varied ways. The Zeffirelli film had much more of a play feeling.

There was very little if any background music put in. All the sounds were made by the people in the scene, the props (e. g. the clanking of the swords and the armour) or by the trumpets doing the fanfare. The Branagh version was nothing like this and in my opinion lost the feeling of a play and turned it into an epic movie feature – not I’m sure how Shakespeare imagined it. Right the way through the scene there is magnificent pieces of orchestral music, softer in the moments where a speech is being delivered and building for the more dramatic bits making the scene very overdone indeed and loosing its integrity.

Props: Zeffirelli although normally keeping the play like feel, differed slightly from the script and instead of using foils (thin blades used in fencing), used heavier swords more suited to the 12th century setting. Branagh’s 18th-19th century setting however called for the foils and they were much more suitable. But the heavy clashing together of the swords in Zeffirelli’s adaptation, was much more dramatic and some how more fitting to the events enfolding in the scene. The pearl and the goblet are also props in the scene but are not really seen. The goblets suited their setting and a pearl is after all a pearl.

Acting: The acting styles of the two actors playing the part of Hamlet (Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh) are very different. Gibson does much better at getting the moody, contemplative and quintessentially mad sides of Hamlet’s character across and I feel is more like the Hamlet you read on the page. Branagh’s Hamlet is very ‘stiff upper lip’ and military. He also over accentuates the role. He is not the Hamlet written in Shakespeare’s script but he does convey the side of Hamlet we forget – the fact that he is the son of a king brought up to face war.

Branagh heavily portrays this side of him. Claudius (played by Alan Bates in the Zeffirelli movie and by Derek Jacobi in the Branagh movie), is much the same as Hamlet’s character in the Branagh, very ‘stiff upper lip’. Zeffirelli’s Claudius is much more frivolous and a bit of a wastrel – less like a king and more like a stupid young man with too much power. Gertrude (played by Glen Close in the Zeffirelli movie and by Julie Christie in the Branagh movie), is at two ends of a long scale in the different movies.

This time it is Zeffirelli who makes this character out to be much more than she is in the play and Glen Close plays up the role to a cringe worthy degree. Gertrude’s part in this movie is very over dramatised and her death is painful to watch – lots of gasping and making a spectacle of herself. This is totally different in the Branagh movie as Gertrude is very understated and in the end scene her death is hardly noticed. Laertes (played by Nathaniel Parker in the Zeffirelli movie and by Michael Maloney in the Branagh movie) is also, like Gertrude, played exceedingly differently in each movie.

He acts much more like the wounded son and brother and the spurned friend in the Branagh version but seems to be very conceited and proud. He acts much friendlier toward Hamlet in the Zeffirelli movie and the feeling conveyed is that he really doesn’t want to kill Hamlet. The Laertes portrayed in the Branagh film seems to really want revenge. In my opinion at this time in the play, Laertes is a mixture between these two versions of him. Death Scenes Claudius: Claudius’ death was always going to be dramatic – it’s the culmination of the play – Hamlet finally avenging his father’s death.

But in the Branagh version dramatic is understated. When Branagh realises his mother is dead (he’s currently fighting Laertes on the balcony/staircase) and – who is to blame (Claudius) He jumps off the balcony and swings across the hall on the chandelier, jumps onto Claudius and stabs him! Then while Claudius is still pinned to the chair by the chandelier, Hamlet savagely forces Claudius to drink the poisoned wine that killed Gertrude. The way this is done in the Branagh film is so over the top it’s ridiculous – you cannot even begin to take it seriously. The Zeffirelli version is still aggressive but to the right tone.

The way it’s done means that you can understand the feelings being portrayed and how that now Hamlets work is done he can die peacefully. Gertrude: This time the Branagh movie is the one who understates the death of one of its main characters. Something it certainly doesn’t do often. When Gertrude falls, the camera’s attention is focused almost totally on the fight and you hardly even register that she has died. Zeffirelli makes so much out of her death that you can’t stand to watch it. After a few seconds your totally sick of watching Glen Close gasp and retch.

Another difference is that Hamlet isn’t off fighting somewhere high on a balcony – he is right next to her as she dies. Laertes: Laertes isn’t a very main character in the play but is quite important in this final scene. His death isn’t wonderfully memorable in either movie. In Zeffirelli, he is much friendlier toward Hamlet and his death is less aggressive. When he dies the courtier’s surround him. In Branagh he is alone lying stretched out on the white marble floor but still uses his aggressive tones and has the same haughty attitude he’s carried throughout the scene.

Hamlet: In Zeffirelli, Hamlet delivers his final speech – partly next to his dead mother and then moving out toward the middle of the fight ring. After his final words ‘The rest is silence. ‘ The camera moves up and away from him as if the camera is his spirit going up to heaven. In Branagh he delivers the whole speech on the red carpet (also the place the fight started) and once he dies, his body is carried from the room with his arms falling in the shape of a cross, like a figure of Christ. Cameras: Branagh’s camera use is very fussy, in particular around the part of the scene where Hamlet kills Claudius.

Zeffirelli is much freer with his shots and you get much more of the feeling that you are watching a play and less of the feeling that this is the latest epic action flick. Fortinbras Scene: In the Zeffirelli movie the scene in which Prince Fortinbras comes to Elsinore is cut completely. This is probably to make a quicker, cleaner ending. But if you like to think deeply about films your left thinking – ok what happens to Denmark? The play wraps tings up nicely with a friendly neighbour (Prince |Fortinbras) dropping in on his way to invade Poland and he ends up taking the throne!

But in Branagh this is interpreted very wrongly. Branagh has a huge invasion going on. Prince Fortinbras soldiers are killing Hamlet’s soldiers, stabbing courtiers, smashing windows and generally being pain in the necks! Again – Branagh has tried to make this movie into the latest epic action flick instead of a classic Shakespearian play. Very over the top. Conclusion My opinions of each of these films have already, I’m sure, been made very obvious through the course of what I have written but I’m going to elaborate on the points I made to draw a conclusion from this essay, including which film I think was most successful.

The Branagh movie did nothing for me to put it very bluntly. It was over dressed and over done. Branagh, who is very good as an actor, lets himself down as a director. He reads too much into little things and has a habit of using his cameras very fussily. The final scene is the worst of them all and as someone who adores Shakespeare – even I find this hard to take seriously. Imagine someone who is not very into Shakespeare – they would think this was the funniest thing they’d ever seen – but then they probably wouldn’t sit through 3 and a half hours worth of film in a language they barely understand.

To get anything from this movie you have to be very committed to Shakespeare indeed. This film may have been accurate to a fault when it came to using Shakespeare’s language, but when it came to doing things the way Shakespeare intended – they’re way off the mark. Any of Shakespeare’s plays that are made into films should still hold the key essence of a play at their very heart. Zeffirelli does this very well. In the Zeffirelli movie you can really get the essence of what Shakespeare is about. Even though a lot of Shakespeare’s original words were cut out, the film still carried the story beautifully.

The film is much shorter and easier to watch. For someone not used to Shakespeare this is a good film to watch and that is essentially what makes a film successful – its audience appeal. Overall the two movies are very different and no two people would draw the same conclusions as I. They show superbly how differently the same tale can be interpreted. It gives you a better chance to look at the play through someone else’s eyes and not just how you see it and interpret it. For me however I preferred the Zeffirelli movie because it kept that play like feel to it and is more true to the way Shakespeare told this story of revenge and tragedy.

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Compare and contrast the treatment of the play Hamlet by the directors Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh. (2017, Oct 10). Retrieved from

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