Set yourself at ease; I am not about to launch into yet another discussion of the meaning, significance, political ramifications or numerological implications of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy (III.i.56-90). What I will discuss is something that became quite the controversy upon the release of Olivier's Hamlet: the placement of that soliloquy. In the text, it appears immediately before the interview with Ophelia which culminates in "get thee to a nunnery." Olivier transposed the two scenes, a move which angered many textual purists. Zeffirelli follows Olivier's lead, while Branagh and the BBC production follow the text.
Rather than making a pointless attempt at arguing for or against the shift, I'm interested in the effect the shift has on how we interpret the soliloquy. The best analogy I can use is that of pronoun reference. I always tell my students that when they encounter a pronoun within a sentence, it should refer to the closest preceding noun that agrees with it; a corollary to the rule is that the farther the pronoun is from its antecedent, the greater the risk of confusion. Hence, beginning a sentence with "this" by itself is just begging for reference problems. ("This has the result of confusing my students." Does "This" refer to "reference problems", the pronoun rule itself, my presentation of the pronoun rule, or some arcane combination of the three?)
In the text, Hamlet enters immediately before giving his soliloquy. He has not been on stage for the preceding action between Claudius, Polonius, et. al; in fact, we haven't seen him since the end of the previous act (Act II). As a result, there is no clear "referent," if you will, for the soliloquy, no clear catalyst. So it becomes something of a vague, broad-based referent--Hamlet's reacting to all that has transpired since his father's death. He's reacting against the general hell his life as prospective revenger has become--the pressure of keeping his manic front up, the pressure of being forced to hurt Ophelia, the pressure of seeing Claudius every day and being unable to act, the pressure of seeing his mother every day--rather than reacting to a single event.
But when placed after the scene with Ophelia, the audience has little choice but to associate the soliloquy with the preceding scene: Hamlet is despondent over having to be so cruel to the woman he loves (or perhaps he is despondent because he thinks she has betrayed him, depending on how the scene is staged). Yes, it's a post hoc, propter hoc fallacy, but nevertheless, that's how an audience is going to respond.
The shift, therefore, has the potential to make the soliloquy emphasize the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, to make her more important to Hamlet. Such emphasis is clearly at work in the Zeffirelli film; after leaving poor Ophelia dazed and confused, Hamlet retreats to the family crypt and begins to speak. Actually, Gibson does a very good job with the speech itself; unlike most actors, he downplays the speech. He compares very favorably with Olivier's performance, which emphasizes each word as though it and it alone holds the key to the play. When you get right down to it, about halfway through Olivier's soliloquy I find myself saying "He's leaning pretty far over the battlements. One good shove and I won't have to listen to his godforsaken whining anymore" :) Branagh focuses more on the general duplicity his life has become, accentuated by the Wellesian reflections of him in the hall of mirrors.
It would be interesting to edit Branagh's film to swap the scenes; the exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia is absolutely harrowing, and we would hardly be surprised to see Hamlet rebelling against the revenger's role at this point.
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