As a result, though, I developed a fascination for the character of Claudius (as opposed to the character of Claudius (who says context is irrelevant!?!)). It seems to me that the drama is much more effective when Claudius is portrayed as something of a tragic figure himself-- along the lines of MacBeth; if he's just "the guy who killed my father," then a lot of the potential tension between the two characters falls by the wayside.
In Olivier's film, Claudius is played by Basil Sydney. We don't like him from the moment he appears: he's moving down the road to corpulence, looking more than just a little like Henry VIII. He has a severely groomed beard that sharpens the lines of his jaw; when he's lit from below, he looks for all the world like he's just popped in from playing Mephistopheles in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. If he told us the sky was blue, we'd feel a sudden compulsion to go look out the window, just in case. And to top it all off, he's gotten exceedingly arrogant now that he's got the crown. His first on-screen act is to drain a chalice, then nonchalantly fling the cup to a startled soldier, who almost drops his spear in his attempt to keep the cup from clattering to the floor. In the face of such obvious villainy, one can only wonder why Hamlet takes so long to do anything--which is exactly the reaction Olivier wants. After all, the prologue of the play ends with "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." But this characterization of Claudius does have some drawbacks. The most obvious is that it undermines the figure of Gertrude--what in God's name could she possibly see in this windbag? But more fundamentally, it oversimplifies the external conflict of the play to the point that it is difficult to have much sympathy for Hamlet's internal conflict.
Zeffirelli, in his 1990 film, paints a decidedly different portrait of Claudius. Alan Bates is jovial, mercurial, and certainly more likable that Sydney. But perhaps the pendulum swings a bit too far. The scene that really crystallizes the manner in which Hamlet's attitude towards Claudius is forced on the audience is when Gibson looks down on the king's carouse; as Hamlet says "they clepe us drunkards," Bates is knocking back a seriously large brewski. So, QED, Claudius is a drunkard. And we likewise accept, by extension, all the other calumnies Hamlet plasters on Claudius, beginning with the "like Hyperion to a satyr" simile. (In fact, Gibson at times comes across as so judgmental that it would be very easy for this Hamlet to be as unsympathic as Olivier's, were it not for Paul Scofield's stunning turn as the Ghost (see I Am Thy Father's Spirit), a scene which establishes a much stronger emotional underpinning for Hamlet's subsequent actions than in any of the other films.) Similarly, the omission of the Fortinbras subplot removes most of Claudius' opportunities to present himself in a more favorable manner--again, leaving us with no alternative but to accept Hamlet's judgments at face value.
Patrick Stewart, on the other hand, has all of the composure that Sydney and Bates lack. I'm fairly certain that Dr. Jacobs had Patrick Stewart's Claudius in mind when we had our little, uh, discussion. Stewart radiates confidence from every fiber of his being. He has that imperious nose. He has that VOICE. He even has hair (In appearance he reminds me of Simon Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which probably demonstrates nothing other than that I spend way too much time watching movies). Hell, he defeated the Borg; surely ruling Denmark will pose no serious threat to his capabilities. Stewart radiates control in a way that Bates and Sydney daren't even dream about. But for all this confidence, we don't really trust him. For a while I was thinking that the only reason for this mistrust was--well, he IS Claudius, after all; we know what he's done. But the other day I finally realized what was setting off the alarms: Yes, Claudius makes Hamlet his heir, makes all the grand gestures--but he's doing it in open court, and he appears to saying these things for the benefit of the court; he rarely even looks at Hamlet when he says these things (Another way of putting it is that Stewart uses his bridge voice rather than his ready room voice. Yep, way too much TV . . .). We feel that we are in the presence of a consummate politician, one who always knows exactly how to make the most of any given situation.
There is more to Stewart's Claudius than just his political skills; he imbues Claudius with an emotional depth beyond that of Bates and Sydney. He may or may not care much for Hamlet, but he clearly regrets his route to the throne. His soliloquy in the chapel perfectly captures a man wracked by guilt. Stewart doesn't chew the scenery by any means, but then again, such histrionics aren't necessary. Because he has played Claudius so restrained and control up to that point, just the slightest crack in the armor serves to demonstrate the strain he's under. In fact, up until that scene I worried that another stale rendition of Claudius was in progress, but Stewart's performance in the middle acts transforms the character.
I suppose I must preface my discussion of Derek Jacobi's Claudius by admitting that I am a huge admirer of his work. That notwithstanding, I prefer his Claudius hands down over all others; it was an abject travesty that he didn't even get nominated for an Academy Award. With Jacobi it's the little things that make the difference; he can communicate more with a slight glance than others can with a soliloquy. He combines a genuine affection for Hamlet, love for Gertrude (as opposed to Alan Bate's lust), ambition, competence, guilt, regret, all into one. And to top it all off, he seems a truly personable figure as well, someone we wouldn't mind spending some time with. To be fair, a lot of our positive reaction towards this Claudius is made possible by Richard Briars' Polonius. Briers play Ophelia's father as such an domineering, hypocritical bastard that he attracts the bulk of our animosity, making it possible for us to better appreciate Claudius' finer qualities. The result is that an incredible tension develops between Hamlet and Claudius, one which comes out in the open during the play within a play, and reaches a climax during the "politic worms" scene. The entire audience gasped when Claudius slapped Hamlet, and gasped again when Hamlet kisses Claudius.
It takes more than just dislike or motive to establish an effective conflict between two characters; it also takes a conflict of personalities. And this, more than anything, is what separates the performances of Stewart and Jacobi from those of Bates and Sydney. The latter two do not display any individual personality--they display those qualities which Hamlet's grief and anger projects upon them. The former two are much more realized, much more complete, and as a consequence, much more interesting.
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