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Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Visual Poetry of Filmed Shakespeare: Branagh's Hamlet and Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

Abstract

Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (his adaptation of Macbeth) take contrasting approaches to filming Shakespeare. Branagh treats the full text as a coherent artefact; Kurosawa uses Macbeth as his inspiration for a film which totally transmutes Shakespeare's original. Whereas Branagh may impose a limiting interpretation on the original, Kurosawa, because he is forced into translation through the barrier of his language, refashions the play into something novel yet in line with Shakespeare's overall vision. Which of the two approaches is the better is answered by the need to make Shakespeare accessible to different and particular target audiences.

Essay

"Film should transmute Shakespeare's 'poetic dramatic atmosphere into visual terms - not merely reproducing the action with appropriate sections of dialogue, but carefully replacing Shakespeare's poetic imagery with imagery re-conceived visually"
(Roger Manvell, Shakespeare on Film).

The theatre is marked by its ability to encompass extremes of dialogic and visual show. The mime does not require speech in order to deliver effective drama but alternatively a theatre set may be almost totally clear, with the prime focus of the audience being on dialogue. Samuel Beckett, at the forefront of modernist theatre, offers examples at both ends of this spectrum; his Act Without Words is a remarkable mime, whilst Play promotes the dialogue over the setting, with lights and urns being used, passively, as means to highlight disembodied voices. Film has less extreme options since it is a primarily visual medium. The silent film is still a film, the screen-less film is not. Shakespeare's plays are positioned towards the dialogic mode although they retain a high potential for visual elements. Physical setting is never fundamental to the structure of the drama and the absence of stage directions creates an interpretative space for producers to fill. It is language, rather than external objects, which forms atmosphere and setting. Henry V opens by inviting us to use imaginative strategies for scene building, rather than requiring a pre-constructed location. This is the result of the physical restrictions of Shakespeare's stage, the "cock-pit" which simply cannot "hold the vasty fields of France" (1.1.12). If this is a limitation of Shakespeare's stage, cinema offers an almost infinite capacity for scene creation. It is cinema's ability to achieve what Shakespeare's theatre could not, coupled with the medium's and its audience's insistence on a visual experience, which is the source of the problem of screening Shakespeare. For if a modern audience demands easy access to a vision, yet Shakespeare's audience was required to imagine such a vision, there is in filming Shakespeare going to be a move of emphasis away from the linguistic elements by which Shakespeare's initiates the imagination, and a level of passive engagement with words and screen which is different from those levels of engagement Shakespeare asked of his audience.

Simply recreating Shakespeare's poetry with the appropriate visualising of its metaphors will result in a limiting interpretation in which the director's vision is imposed such that alternative understandings by the audience of the same piece of language are not permitted. The risk of a film is that it undermines the ambiguities of the drama. It is therefore legitimate to propose that rather than reconstructing the exact language visually, the film should aim for a wider impressionist representation of the plays such that, although the original poetry is lost, the thematic and atmospheric concepts it evokes are sustained, but in a different form.

Just as theatre exists between vocal and visual extremes, so Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957) use contrasting production methods. Branagh's Hamlet, with its use of the definitive full text, would seem to perceive the play as a coherent, untouchable artefact, with his task as a recognised director being to bring this to the screen for as many people as possible. By contrast Throne of Blood recreates the effect of Macbeth rather than the means by which this effect is produced and it does so in a primarily visual rather than linguistic mode. Deciding which of the two approaches is the more legitimate is answerable by the pragmatic, social concerns of the film and the audience it invites to Shakespeare.

The monsters of the horror genre are dominant cinematic icons. The ghosts and witches of Hamlet and Macbeth therefore give Branagh and Kurosawa a potential means to tap straight into mainstream cinema and create an effect of horror to which the cinema audience will be naturally enamoured. However, the two spirits are treated differently, and Branagh's indicates the way in which Shakespeare's creation of an atmosphere, in this case of apprehension, through language can be distorted by the effects to which the modern filmmaker has access. The ghost of Hamlet warns:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres
...
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
(1.5.15-21)

The terror aroused here is that of the unknown. By focusing on the effects his tale would have, were it to be told, the ghost invites us into an active imagination of the "secrets of my prison house". However, in Branagh's film the desperately unresolved words of the ghost are patterned by definitive action as hell bursts into earth. We understand that Hamlet must be terrified because we share his emotion, though at a lower intensity, by being terrified by the scene we see; Hamlet must be catalysed to revenge because we, as he presumably does, see played the grotesque murder and Claudius's lust. The film's treatment of the ghost scene works, visually, in opposition to the textual means by which horror is enacted. The suggestive occlusion practised by the ghost here is one element of a wider thematic of the play, which hinges on unresolved questions. Hamlet asks "To be or not to be" but turns away from death since, "in that sleep of death what dreams may come...must give us pause" (3.1.68-70). Film's visual requirements mean that it cannot practise total absence because we must always see something occurring. The only alternative is to leave a blank screen which gives the audience enough mental time to fill in the provocative gaps left by the dialogue. However, in mainstream cinema this is unlikely to be accepted either by audience or publisher.

Branagh engages our primal fear responses - the chase, dark, smoke - but in doing so, he must detract from the precise details of what the ghost says. The dialogue becomes subservient to, rather than creative of, the mood.1 In theatre such an effect may also occur, given high levels of special effects. However, in theatre the audience and actors are involved by physical proximity and the actor's presence and visibility allow his emotions to be perceived acutely and affect us by empathy. In the cinema, the actors are one step further detached. This necessitates engaging the audience on a different emotional level, one of intuitive and instantaneous response. Visual effects such as smoke or dark can have the same immediate impact as music does, music being unable to drive a scene on its own but nevertheless able to create an immediate emotion without requiring our active awareness that the mood is being set. Branagh's design might be acceptable, because the end result is the same and what alters is the means by which the effect is produced. However, it does compromise our focus on the textual, which develops progressively, through active engagement of our imagination, in favour of a spontaneous, and definitive, emotional impact. The use of a 'full text' is therefore slightly incongruous because the medium in which that full text is enacted undermines the mechanics of its action.

Further, the ghost's answer to Hamlet's challenge:

I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain time to walk the night,
And for the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (1.5.9-13)

presents a specifically Catholic problem. However, the dominating atmosphere of the supernatural means we do not need to consider the ghost in any unique religious context. Rather than the ghost's predicament coming about from the fact of his Catholicism and purgatory, he is simply the embodiment of a hellish fear, not Christian but pagan. Branagh must provide visual cues throughout the play, such as having Ophelia's meeting with Polonius (Act II, Scene I) take place in a confessional, to raise our awareness of the religious context of the court such that when Hamlet hesitates killing Polonius whilst he is repenting we understand that this is, theologically, a rational hesitation. A major theme is de-intensified by the precedence of action over word

By creating a consciously filmic and general expression of the original Macbeth, Kurosawa can avoid any contradictions between text and film. Macbeth is uncertain as to the intention of the witches: "This supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good" (1.3.129-141). The ambiguity of the witches' predictions and intent is crucial for it prevents us from applying any simple motivational cause (ambition, fate, raw evil) to Macbeth's actions. They are "imperfect speakers" and, as with Old Hamlet, the ambiguities are formed through language (1.3.63-66). In Kurosawa's film, however, the spirit is made ambivalent through visuals. In contrast to the confused horror of the dark forest the spirit sits in a calm clearing, clothed in white; her apparent solidity is undermined by her disappearance after the camera pans through her tent. Kurosawa shifts the emphasis of evil of the play so that it is the natural which is malevolent and Asaji who is, almost unambiguously, the motivator for Washisu's actions. Whereas Lady Macbeth is already a mother (1.7.54), and she works by challenging Macbeth's masculinity, here Asaji recruits it, by reminding him of her pregnancy and his need for an heir. Further, by being represented in terms of the Noh dancer, she is definitely feminine; there is request to "unsex me here" (1.5.40). These are major structural shifts, but because Kurosawa does not pretend to use Shakespeare's text, there is no contradiction or imposition of meaning on the play script.

Donald Richie points out that in Japanese culture there can be no motiveless ghosts, only diviners, which the spirit with her spinning wheel is intended to represent.2 The transition across media, and then across cultures, forces a shift in the nature of those elements which comprise the drama, although not the elimination of those elements in total. It is certainly the case that the double translation makes it impossible to exactly recreate Shakespeare's dramatic atmosphere. This is because he uses specifically English qualities of language: "All our service/In every point twice done, and then done double" (1.6.15). The doubling and alliteration which occurs throughout Macbeth cannot be translated. Even through subtitling from Shakespeare's text, as happens in Kozintsev's King Lear (1971), the audible quality of alliteration is lost. Our perception that Macbeth presents a world in the balance is contributed to significantly by the language, which also leaves us a sense of spiralling claustrophobia inherent in Macbeth's predicament. Macbeth must always advance one step further in action, but is always one step removed from understanding or stability:

...for now I am bent to know
By the worst means the worst. For mine own good
All causes shall give way. I am in blood
Steeped so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (3.4.137)

Kurosawa does not have access to the articulation of Shakespeare and he therefore refashions visually what Shakespeare achieves linguistically:

"Kurosawa does not have access to the articulation of Shakespeare and he therefore refashions visually what Shakespeare achieves linguistically"
the enclosed set of the castle, fog, arrows, circular movements around the set and, with the overall framing of the film by beginning and ending at the same point.3 This latter device explicates a universal moral sentence, defines Kurosawa's interpretation of the play and strongly prompts how we should react to the film. By contrast in Shakespeare, morality emerges naturally, if we as audience are sensitive to, and critical of, the drama. Although he does not compromise the dialogue, by treating the play thematically Kurosawa generalises, suggesting one dominant, rather than many different and contrasting lines.

It may be, therefore, that foreign films can more accurately represent Shakespeare's conceptions of the drama because they must automatically seek to reform his poetry visually, rather than attempting to complement picture and words but, in the pre-fashioned nature of mise-en-scène, automatically delivering a verdict on what is being said.4 The closing couplets of many of Hamlet's speeches are important for our comprehension of his mentality. For example: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right! (1.5.190)".5 This poetic construction is the definition of determination. The two foot phrase of the first line followed by the five foot conclusion gives it a forward momentum. This illustrates the dichotomy in his character. Whilst apparently moving forwards vocally, in microcosm, he regresses physically in the next movement of the wider scheme. He transfers action into vocal velocity but it is only action which will solve the conflict. However, by making moments of speech suggest something visually as well as vocally, particularly through the suggestive thrusting of a dagger towards Claudius hidden behind a mirror in Act III, Scene I, Branagh distracts our attention from the speech and defines a singular manner in which we are to understand Hamlet's soliloquy. Although in theatre an actor's movements can suggest how we are to interpret his words, the difference in film is that we cannot choose to avoid them because of the locked nature of the camera.

This characteristic of the camera also means that the metadramatic element of Hamlet will work differently because the conditions of acting now are not those of the time at which the drama was written and upon which they reflect.6 By having an 'actor' on a stage (Act II, Scene II) whilst Hamlet paces below and speaks in an elevated declamatory markedly different from his usual style, Branagh suggests that we are a step removed from theatre. This is emphasised later by having Hamlet speak through a cardboard stage. In the play scene (Act III, Scene II), Hamlet acts as a compere, then deliberately continues, with Ophelia, to make public exclamations in a context which should be private and intimate, before returning to the stage at the end. This suggests Hamlet's ability to choose when to act theatrically. By coupling this with consciously filmic devices, such as swift cuts to the observers' reactions, the different modes of 'acting' - for film, for stage, for public effect, or because of a disturbed mental state - are demarcated. The ambiguity of whether Hamlet is acting his 'antic disposition' is greater in theatre because Hamlet the stage actor and Hamlet the character are, because of our physical proximity to him and because there is only ever one stage, implicitly one and the same. Here in the film we are aware that they can be different beings.

Film allows Branagh to use the metaphor in a novel way, through the use of flashbacks. The interposed scenes give the drama a geographical expansiveness. Unlike the self-contained court of Olivier's Hamlet (1948), Branagh's is part of an international political scene and the events within it are set within a context of historical revolutions. This has allowed critics such as Julie Sanders to see Branagh's Hamlet as a fin-de-siecle film, given its winter setting, which reminds us of Russian revolutions, the sense of liminality brought about by framing the film with the dominance and collapse of Old Hamlet's statue, and the appropriate timing of its publication at a period of crisis for the British monarchy. By showing the death of Priam, Branagh forces us to make a geographical and temporal conjunction that, in theatre, we are not required to make, the focus in theatre being on modes of acting, rather than what is acted itself. Highlighting that film is not a direct translation from one medium to another makes the theme of acting shift from its original, partially satirical, intent, but Branagh also uses the capacity of film to propose new connections of interest in their own right. Interestingly, this dialogue across media which shifts the meaning of metaphor is not confined to the new tool of the film camera. Not only does the film's use of self-conscious theatrical analogies serve an ironic purpose, but increasingly theatre productions of Shakespeare introduce audio-visual media to the audience's experience. Big screens erected above or beside the stage can offer new visual material which, because of the medium by which it is presented, reflects not only on the immediate dramatic action but also make us alert to context, reminding the viewer that Shakespeare's stage and our theatre are, technologically and socially, different arenas.

Kurosawa similarly adapts the weighting of metaphor from Macbeth. Gesture takes precedence over dialogue such that characters only speak to express something they cannot communicate in any other physical way.7 By engaging our responses on a primarily visual level, Kurosawa makes the visual metaphor expand almost to predominance over the action or dialogue. The rampant terrorism of the natural is ever-present as horses, fog, forest, birds, rats run wild and threaten. Although in Macbeth natural, nocturnal and blood imagery are current throughout, the iconic language is important not simply as a metaphor for the destruction of the human spirit. The imagery of Macbeth is potent primarily because it is he who speaks it, because in his use of imagery we get the sense that he is reducing to a bestial, malign level. The terror found within nature is recognised as the abstraction of his own state of mind and is recruited to motivate his action:

...Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale.
(3.2.47-51)

By contrast, in Throne of Blood, although we correlate what we see on screen, in terms of the unleashing of the natural, with the character of Washisu, terrified and destructive, the psychological connection between the two is less intimate.

Both Hamlet and Throne of Blood shift metaphors and language from its original intention. We must therefore question the extent to which such films can be said to be Shakespeare's creations. Roger Manvell points out the similarities between Elizabethan theatre production and modes of film production. He orientates Shakespeare as a scriptwriter creating on demand for an audience and company. However, he overlooks the natural corollary to this idea which is that if Shakespeare is a scriptwriter, creating plays to suit his audience then, applied to the cinema, he would be largely anonymous. It is directors, not scriptwriters, who draw our attentions and plaudits, a fact which again emphasises that film is a visually, not dialogically, founded medium. Just because a film may appropriate some or all of the dialogue Shakespeare provides, the fact that translating across media automatically induces a change in the nature of that dialogue in metaphoric or atmospheric terms makes it impossible to view any filmed Shakespeare as being purely Shakespeare.

In Branagh's Hamlet visualisation acts as interpretation which can eliminate the ambiguity of characters or themes. Such visualisations also suppress our recognition of the fact that any interpretation is going on at all, because we will automatically, in a standard audience response to the visual immediacy of cinema, accept them on a superficial level. We will feel terror of the ghost, rather than questioning how the ghost's very presence may act as a critique of Catholicism. By contrast, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, by being consciously a personal interpretation, allows a freedom of criticism because we can observe objectively how the broader themes relate back to the play.8 To suggest that Branagh's Hamlet imposes rather than draws out meaning is not necessarily to condemn the film's pragmatic purpose, which is to attract an audience conditioned to Hollywood blockbusters that would not otherwise consider watching Hamlet. Although film draws from, interprets and imposes upon the original text, such a inflection is going to be identified only by an viewer familiar with Shakespeare's original play. Much of the mainstream cinema audience will be naïve of the nuances of language and characterisation that occur in the original and will therefore criticise the film by the standards of its own medium, rather than that of the theatre or the textual. Paradoxically, attracting an audience from a new social or ethnic background to Shakespeare may require the suppression of those elements which we, sensitive to his capability, recognise as being fundamentally 'Shakespearean', a part of his uniqueness.

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Notes

  1. Interestingly, the most effective cinematic horror moments tend to be those which engage us visually and, though supported by music, lack any other sound or speech. Hitchcock's Psycho shower scene or the first attack scene of Spielberg's Jaws are examples of this. [Back to text]

  2. "There are, in fact, no motiveless ghosts, as in the West. But the idea of a trio of malevolent witches is far from Japanese imagination. The witch, the warlock are really priests, embodiments of a nature which is neither good, nor evil. They are diviners and fortune tellers who attempt to pierce the future but the gratuitous evil of Shakespeare's witches is impossible." (Richie, p.117)[Back to text]

  3. The opening epigraph reads:

    A proud castle stood in this desolate place
    It's destiny wedded to a mortal's lust for power
    Here lived a warrior, strong yet weakened by a woman
    Driven to add his tribute to the throne of blood
    The devil's path will always lead to doom.

    This compares to the close:

    For what once was is now yet true
    Murderous ambition will pursue
    [Back to text]
  4. Indeed, Manvell's recommendation that film should transmute Shakespeare's 'poetic dramatic atmosphere into visual terms' is one which he makes specifically in the context of producing Shakespeare in a foreign language. (Manvell, p.14) [Back to text]

  5. Other examples of closing couplets in Hamlet include:

    To hide the slain. O, from this time forth
    My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth. (4.4.57)
    More relative than this. The play's the thing
    Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king. (2.2.605)
    As hell wherto it goes. My mother stays.
    This physic but prolongs thy sickly days. (3.2.96)
    [Back to text]
  6. This has consistently provided problems, or opportunities, for directors of Shakespeare's films. In Peter Hall's Midsummer Night's Dream (1968) the show of Act V, Scene I is again consciously a play in a film, as we see the audience's reactions. It is not truly metadramatic, because it does not reflect on the cinematic conditions of its existence. The play is simply bad acting, which we would laugh at naturally were we in a theatre, because it compares so obviously with the success (hopefully) of acting throughout the rest of the play. Here, Hall is forced to resort to a false technique of empathy and make us laugh because the fictive audience laughs; we are prompted and it does not come naturally. In this case the inner play, theatrical, does not examine the standards, filmic, by which the outer drama is produced. By contrast, Olivier's Henry V (1944), and in its tradition Branagh's Henry V (1989), negotiates the difference between theatre and film with some effect, as we observe the transition from a historically accurate theatre (or walk through a film set) to the film of a history. By observing the actor of Henry V donning his costume, Olivier takes us into a space, through the ability of a camera to act as voyeur that, necessarily, is closed to us in theatre. This reflects on the nature of kingship as role-play, and reminds us that the cinema makes different demands of an audience, in which the real space is created for them, to the theatre, which is essentially an space emptied of the real, with the real being formed through a liaison of actor and audience. [Back to text]

  7. Blumenthal, p.194 [Back to text]

  8. An analogous form of criticism might be that made by Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea on Jane Eyre. The former, driven by objections to female suppression in the latter, though not a piece of criticism in its purest sense, is a fine piece of analysis of Bronte's text. It allows us to understand the themes with a detachment which, unlike conventional literary criticism, remains humane, because rather than striving for objectivity we treat the text with empathy for the character's sentiments as 'humans', not stand-alone textual creations. [Back to text]

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This page was published on 2003 | Keywords: Kurosawa, Throne of Blood, Kenneth Branagh, Hamlet

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