How does Zeffirelli portray the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia? - Sample Essay

Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 production of Hamlet has Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter cast as Queen Gertrude and Ophelia respectively. He has the luxury over a stage production of being able to add scenery, mood and vibrant close up of character to his film. These added advantages allow us to examine the players in a closer, more intimate way and so we can look at the figures of Queen Gertrude and Ophelia with different perspective. Right from the start the audience most definitely depicts Gertrude as the queen and the primary female of the cast, however there is no malice or grim intention portrayed.

We open the film feeling sorry for her at her husband’s funeral yet the speed of her re-marriage makes us question her morality and quality. The audience is made to question her character by her physical nature both with Claudius and Hamlet, particularly with Hamlet. Their relationship is portrayed as intensely Freudian, from the very beginning with Gertrude constantly touching Hamlet. Zeffirelli dresses Gertrude in a gown with a simple pale design yet trimmed with gold and subtle jewellery and her hair is worn like a regal crown, always perfect and obviously made by attendants.

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Herein we see her position but unlike other plays her queenly status is not overbearing. Zeffirelli quite obviously dressing Gertrude in red, a colour of passion; giving further indication of her warm, sexual and vibrant nature as well as an insight into her mentality. Gertrude is almost a victim of her own appetite and she is not very logical and this is strongly portrayed throughout the film. This is particularly prominent when Gertrude agrees to using Ophelia as bate to steak out Hamlet and tolerates Ophelia being humiliated; one could argue this is Gertrude’s fatal flaw, her passivity.

Both her passivity and her innocence are illustrated when the players perform Claudius’s poisoning of Hamlet senior and Gertrude does not see the parallel between the play and her own situation. This is once again reinforced in the closet scene, “bloody deed? Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother,” this signals not only her own innocence of the deed but indicates her feeble and defenceless character to the audience. We see Gertrude’s true vulnerability and openness when Hamlet kills Polonius and confesses all to the Queen, in reference to Claudius’s treachery.

Her face is open and shocked and her look is of complete surprise telling us of her innocence in the King’s death. Also, in this scene we see her true love for her son. Zeffirelli has chosen to portray this scene between Hamlet and Gertrude as passionate and intimate, giving the scene Freudian overtones. Zeffirelli readily embraces the Freudian concept of the Oedipus complex. When Hamlet confronts Gertrude, a passionate kiss is followed by what appears to be simulated sex, Zeffirelli portraying Gertrude as intensely sexual and once again a victim of her own appetite.

By the end of the scene, a new intimacy is established between Gertrude and Hamlet, which carries them into the final stages of the tragedy. From here on, Gertrude dresses and behaves more like a nun throughout the film and is very obedient to Hamlet; establishing a new dimension to her relationship with Hamlet. She is more nervous and considerably less sexual and looks almost mad and at times unhinged. Once again we are compelled to feel remorse for her as she says goodbye to Hamlet as he departs for England. Glenn Close, like Helena Bonham-Carter, has been very well cast in her role.

Zeffirelli has her hold Queen Gertrude with ‘regality’ throughout; this is highlighted when she hears of Ophelia’s death and the look of an almost motherly loss at Ophelia’s graveside. Her entrance at the duel is most regal, trumpets play and her ladies in waiting carry a long train. Her look is of pure love and hope for her son Hamlet. However, seated on her throne in colours of grey and pale blue she almost seems like a statue against the grey stone backdrop. The duelling scene is not meant to be rich and colourful yet cast in shades of ‘dowdiness.

‘ However, Hamlets jesting brings laughter to the Queen’s face yet it is in this moment when Gertrude is at her happiest that tragedy is close on hand. Zeffirelli’s use of close up on Gertrude’s distress as the King looks knowingly on is terrible. A mistake of drinking the poison is not lost on Gertrude and we are given the look that says she realises what has happened and in that instant she realises all that Hamlet has said about Claudius is true. Gertrude has been psychologically and morally poisoned as well as physically poisoned.

Zeffirelli highlights the hopelessness of this moment more by allowing the duel to continue and so Hamlet’s loss gathers pace while he knows nothing of it. Ophelia on the other hand, is passive almost to the point of non-existence as an independent consciousness and is to some extent, amore extreme version of Gertrude. The only time she speaks to the King and Queen is when she is mad. This makes it very difficult for Zeffrelli to inject any suggestion of irony or defiance into the few words Ophelia exchanges with her Laertes, Polonius or Hamlet.

However, Helena Bonham-Carter exploits this passivity to provoke responses from other characters and the audience. Ophelia’s beauty is portrayed with no frills or fancy accoutrements. She is dressed very plainly in a simple virginal white pinafore. Her lack of jewellery and ornate trappings show a truth and honesty. She appears a helpless, almost childlike, pawn for her forceful father; she is the victim of her foolish father. She is seen as a possession by her father, “I have a daughter- have while she is mine- who in her duty and obedience, Zeffrelli mark” and is treated as simply that.

She is pushed and pulled about by Polonius and Laertes, it is her obedience to the men in her life that is her fatal flaw. Ophelia is used as bate by Gertrude, Claudius and most importantly her father. She is used to trap Hamlet and in return is mocked and forced to pretend she has no voice. Zeffrelli’s primary intention for Ophelia is to suffer and die. The scene as the play ‘within the plays’ beginning highlights the physical differences between Ophelia and Gertrude. The green is lavishly decorated whilst Ophelia, with Hamlets head in her lap, looks as plain, yet retains her simple beauty.

Zeffrelli has chosen well in casting Helena Bonham Carter as Ophelia as her large brown eyes tell more then she says. After the Kings play when Hamlet wishes her to a nunnery, “Get thee to a nunnery”, her nervous eyes tell of her shock and confusion. Ophelia is trying to make sense of it all, but finds it very difficult because Hamlet is acting towards his mother as well; Ophelia cannot keep up with all the changes. Ophelia is used again; she is taunted and mocked as happened so often. Zeffrelli portrays her as on the edge, conventional womanhood.

After her father’s death, Ophelia seems to descend into madness. Her dress and appearance are dishevelled and unkempt yet tragically she is still beautiful. We feel sorry for Ophelia and her loneliness, “divided from herself and her fair judgement. ” Ophelia’s grief is infectious and with Zeffrelli’s use of dour music her mood is shared by us the viewer. Her loss of sanity makes her seem like a helpless child and we fear her impending suicide before we know of it. During the time before her death Ophelia reveals thought, which would have been most definitely introspective, if she were not going mad.

Once she is mad she becomes free and reveals what she really thinks and feels. She behaves in an intensely sexual way towards the sentry reveals thought and feelings that would have be suppressed by her father and brother. Ophelia achieves ultimate passivity and paradoxically a new kind of power, first in her distraction, then in the brook and finally in her coffin. Her incapacity which has been a theme modulates into ‘madness’ presented as plaintive songs and pretty nonsense.

This, together with Gertrude’s stylised presentation of her death, offers decoration in place of any attempt at psychological elaboration. Her madness is less ‘real’ than Hamlet’s confused states of mind because it is so tidy, unproblematic and unthreatening. Zeffrelli does well not to dwell on the act of her suicide as a film production might but leaves the sad tragedy of it to our imagination, which only heightens our sense of loss for Ophelia. Ophelia is presented by Zeffrelli as someone with no point of view “I do not know my lord what I should think,” there is not even a gesture of struggle.

Zeffrelli chooses not to develop her character to any great extent and allows the audience to develop their own understanding. To conclude, our final image of both women is when they are lying dead. We are made to feel great sorrow and pity for them both. Zeffirelli has Ophelia laying with dignity at her graveside in white linen and flowers on an overcast, breezy day whilst Gertrude is left prone and splayed on the cold concrete steps within the castle. His portrayal of both characters leaves us feeling great sadness for them in equal measure whilst never once feeling any malice towards them.



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