Fatherly and Fearsome: the Ghost in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

I have a pure and complete love for Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. Yes, it’s unabridged and four hours long (although it absolutely breezes by), yes it’s a tad narcissistic (directed by AND adapted by AND starring…), and yes, some of the stunt casting sticks out like a sore thumb (Robin Williams as Osric springs to mind), but my goodness Branagh directs the absolute heck out of this sprawling vainglorious masterpiece. It’s exquisite to look at, the central roles are perfectly-cast (Kate Winslet is forever my Ophelia), and it features Ken Branagh bellowing verse while straddling an actual mountain. Powerful stuff.

Moreover, this film offers the most complete and nuanced take on Old Hamlet and his Ghost that I’ve ever seen. Over the course of the film Branagh presents the Ghost, played by Brian Blessed, from a range of different perspectives: we see him as a king; we fear him as a demon; we pity him as a man; we mourn him as a father. In other words, this production puts flesh on the bones of a role that most motion picture adaptations have, for various reasons, portrayed less comprehensively.


Unlike the acclaimed cinematic versions of Hamlet directed by Laurence Olivier (1948) and Tony Richardson (1969), Branagh’s does not shy away from the political world of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Instead, he presents Denmark’s political turmoil in a way that complements the deeply emotional drama that unfolds in and around the figure of prince Hamlet. Branagh’s refreshing change of direction from his predecessors is evident in film’s establishing shot, a slow pan in mid-shot from right to left across a colossal statue of Old Hamlet. Although brief, the mise-en-scène here is a powerful indicator of royalty: in the space of a single shot, Branagh gives us with the impression of a Danish kingdom rather than a castle. The monument stands in the foreground, ominously on the edge of the palace grounds, with Elsinore visible in the background, pale in the moonlight. The image thus attaches to the Ghost the designation of “monarch” in a way that several other significant filmed and televised adaptations of Hamlet have not, with the result that, when the Ghost eventually appears to the palace guards, its presence is loaded with significance even before Barnardo announces its identity. In the likeness of the statue on which the camera has lingered, the apparition is no mere spectre: it represents a king.

Branagh’s immediate emphasis on the Ghost as king does not altogether alter our understanding of the plot, but it does prepare his viewers for the ways in which the intimate tragedies unfolding within Elsinore reflect the turbulent political climate on the periphery of the plot. The war with Norway tends to get shoved to one side in cinematic Hamlets: directors Franco Zeffirelli (1990) and Richardson both omitted entirely the Norwegian invasion from their cinematic versions of the play, while Olivier went a step further and cut the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well. These edits, while influenced as much by time constraints as artistic direction, indicate that the politically-weighty elements of Hamlet have in the past been seen as extraneous to the main story. For Branagh’s adaptation of the tragedy, however, in which he conflates all of the extant texts in order to produce an super-duper-full-length play, the political content of the tragedy needs to be integrated as comfortably as the psychological and emotional drama for the film to work as a cohesive whole. By giving the Ghost a distinct political identity, Branagh ensures that, before his audience are drawn into the prince’s personal tragedy, Hamlet’s story is located in the context of a much larger political landscape. Hamlet is not merely “a man who could not make up his mind”, as Olivier’s opening credits famously claim, but a prince whose inner turmoil threatens an entire country.

As well as signifying “king”, however, the Ghost of Shakespeare’s tragedy also represents fears of the demonic, and raises the question of whether the ghost stands for good or for evil. Zeffirelli’s interpretation places the Ghost in the former category, and Olivier’s in the latter. Zeffirelli’s Ghost is better suited to the style of contemporary Hollywood action blockbuster that inspired the casting of Mel Gibson as the prince. Played by Paul Scofield, the Ghost is presented as an idealised paternal archetype rather than a terrifying spectre in order to provide Gibson’s gung-ho Hamlet with sufficient emotional motivation for vengeance. Gone is the armour and dark fog; instead we see a frail old man in robes, leaning against the wall for support, who sheds a tear as he tries and fails to hug his son.

In contrast, Olivier’s Ghost is a terrifying creature whose armoured form dissolves into dark fog. Its face, barely visible beneath a large visor, is that of a cadaver – pale, with gaping holes for eyes, and its head is never still, rolling constantly on its neck. Its voice is an eerie whisper to which its mouth moves out-of-synch. Although that particular touch was more likely the product of Olivier adding the Ghost’s lines post-production than artistic design, the discrepancy only serves to further remove any vestige of humanity from the spectre. Olivier’s Ghost lends itself towards a psychologically rich performance, as an apparition devoid of recognisable human traits symbolises and afflicts the audience with the same sense of the unheimlich that so disturbs the young prince. That Olivier, who plays the role of Hamlet, also voices the Ghost suggests that the spectre is as much a product of the prince’s tormented psyche – the rot in the state of Denmark – as a supernatural phenomenon.

Branagh’s Ghost is an amalgamation of the designs by Olivier and Zeffirelli. In appearance, it owes a clear debt to the 1948 film. As the Ghost in the first scene, Blessed appears from above wearing full battle-armour and surrounded by ethereal smoke. Later on, more of Blessed’s face is revealed: his flesh is white, his eyes are pale and dead-looking, and his ear bubbles and bleeds. Blessed’s stillness also creates a powerfully uncanny effect: although he becomes quite animated later on when he speaks with Hamlet, for the entirety of the first scene he remains perfectly still. To all intents and purposes, it appears as though the royal statue on which the camera lingered moments before has taken to hovering around the battlements.

Blessed’s performance is a vital part of the defamiliarising effect of the Ghost. When he and Hamlet speak, Blessed’s unblinking gaze does not waver. His voice, meanwhile, is a stark departure from what an audience with any prior knowledge of Blessed’s acting may expect: gone is his signature boom; in its place is a cold, hollow whisper reminiscent of Olivier’s Ghost. In a distinctly metatheatrical sense, Blessed’s deathly voice engenders in the audience a palpable sense of loss: as viewers, we are denied qualities that are familiar (and beloved!) and therefore get an impression of Hamlet’s own feelings of loss. This disconcerting sense of the unfamiliar is emphasised through Branagh’s use of flashbacks during this scene that show Old Hamlet as he was in life – playing games and roaring with laughter. The flashbacks are silent, though, and stand in stark contrast to the Ghost, whose lack of human quirks and compassion appears all the more pronounced as a result.

Old Hamlet, featured in a flashback (Credit: Bardfilm)

The possibility that the Ghost may be a creature of evil is spelled out for us in rather on-the-nose fashion during the scene in which Hamlet is first told about the apparition. The prince’s immediate reaction is to reach for a book on demonology, the cover emblazoned with an illustration of skeletons dancing in hellish fire. Hamlet’s subsequent pursuit of the Ghost seems to support the suggestion of demonic influence, and presents a step away from the corresponding scenes in the 1948 and 1990  films. While for Olivier and Gibson, the chase begins and ends on the castle turrets, Branagh’s chase takes him through an unholy wilderness in which trees burn, the ground opens up, and foul blasts issue forth from the earth. Accompanied by Branagh’s incantatory voice-over, this sequence suggests the very sort of black magic which Hamlet initially fears.

If Branagh introduces the idea of demonic influence, however, it is only to debunk it by eventually revealing the Ghost to be an affectionate father in the same mould as Zeffirelli’s interpretation. The flashbacks may highlight the differences between the living Old Hamlet and the dead one, but they also connect the two version of this character in ways that suggest that we can trust the Ghost. The same flashback sequences which intersperse the Ghost’s speeches are shown again as Claudius watches the Mousetrap play-within-a-play, suggesting that the memories are shared by both Old Hamlet and his brother. Identifying Claudius as the villain in an unambiguous fashion, the spectre does indeed seem “an honest ghost” (1.5.142). Furthermore, the apparition’s corpse-like eyes, so similar to those of Olivier’s Ghost, are shown to have been as startlingly pale in life. His voice, meanwhile, may be a deathly whisper, but Blessed also inflects it with genuine passion when he speaks of Gertrude, and of his son, and of his own death. Perhaps most tellingly, the Ghost blinks, just once, before he bids Hamlet “adieu” (1.5.91), in a moment that, while brief, is powerfully human. As the spectre dissolves into the air, he reaches out for his son, echoing Scofield’s final attempt at paternal affection. Thus in the space of a single scene Branagh alters our understanding of the Ghost. Where once we saw a demon, we now see man and father. Branagh’s careful unveiling of these different facets of the Ghost appears designed to send his audience on the same emotional journey that Hamlet himself goes on: suspicion, fear, and, ultimately, compassion.

The ghost appears one more time in the film during the ‘closet’ scene, Branagh’s interpretation of which forges a clear and affectionate connection between Hamlet and the Ghost as father and son. The manifold readings of this scene in the quarto and folio texts always make for fascinating discussion due to the fact that Gertrude, who is also present in the bedroom, cannot see the Ghost. The unprecedented exclusivity of the Ghost’s visitation, of course, gives rise to the suggestion that the Ghost may be, in this scene at least, the product of Hamlet’s imagination. This psychological approach is taken by Olivier in order to explore the troubled mind of the prince. His Ghost appears only as the merest suggestion of a shape by the bedroom door; a shadow slightly darker than those around it. The remainder of the scene is shot from the position where Olivier’s Hamlet believes the Ghost to stand. Richardson uses a similar technique, although in his interpretation the viewers do not see the Old Hamlet in any scene at all, and instead view the action from the perspective of the apparition. The apparition’s presence is only hinted at by a light shining on the faces of the actors. The effect of Olivier and Richardson’s technique is to imbue this particular scene with the air of a theatrical production in which we are the audience – in Richardson’s case, the spectral glow might as easily be read as a spotlight. In these cases, the focus is not on what Hamlet could see, but on how Hamlet might be seen. Introducing a sense of staged performance into the scene causes us to question the reality of what Hamlet tells Gertude he can see.

Blessed’s appearance during the closet scene (Credit: hyperion2satyr@blogspot.com)

Branagh, on the other hand, follows Zeffirelli’s lead by presenting the Ghost as a character visible in the room with Hamlet and Gertrude. Gertrude is unable to see the spectre in either film, but in allowing viewers to see the Ghost, Branagh and Zeffirelli give the prince’s claims an air of legitimacy. Unlike Zeffirelli’s version however, in which Gertrude and Hamlet kiss passionately before being interrupted by stern-looking Ghost, the 1996 interpretation contains no latent oedipal subtext. Instead, Branagh’s depiction of the scene is far simpler, and far more touching. His focus is not on the prince’s psychological turmoil, but instead on the importance of family and the father-son dynamic. Clad in shabby robes (and thus following the stage direction in the first, ‘bad’ quarto text), Blessed looks every inch the frail old man, smiling sadly, his eyes wet with tears. Gertrude, played by Julie Christie, also has tears in her eyes from the altercation with her son, and she stands alongside the prince, who speaks to his father in a small and child-like voice. As the Ghost turns away to depart, and looks back for the final time, one is given the impression that this is the funeral that Old Hamlet was never fully allowed, and that the young prince so longed for.

The 1996 Hamlet, then offers audiences a glimpse at the man behind the Ghost (and indeed, the actor behind the man!) in such a way as to heighten the emotional impact of the tragedy, even while locating the family drama within a wider-reaching political context. There have been many Elsinores, many Hamlets, and many Ghosts, but Branagh’s is undoubtedly one to remember.

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