TBT: Rethinking Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990)

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Hey, remember that one time a major Hollywood action movie star played Hamlet? You know the one I’m talking about, with Mel Gibson back before we hated him? Yeah! Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, came out in 1990, was a big deal and everything because MAD MAX IS PLAYING HAMLET, WHAT THE EVER-LOVING HELL?? If you’re at least as old as I am then you clearly remember that people lost their damn minds over Mel’s pretensions to Serious Acting and in the run-up to the release of the film, everyone sat around and snickered into their sleeves at the notion that Det. Martin Riggs thought he was actually worthy of uttering one tortured word of the Bard’s immortal soliloquy. In fact, it was reasoned, Hollywood had so little faith in this project that Mel had to put his own money into funding the film — so obviously, OBVIOUSLY, it was just going to be a colossal, roll-your-eyes train wreck.

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“Olivier or GTFO.” — My piano teacher, c. 1990.

“Mel Gibson’s Hamlet” is how this film stuck in my brain. For the last 25 years, it’s been Gibson’s Prince of Denmark, to the extent where I was totally convinced that not only did he produce it, but he directed it. So imagine my surprise when, literally, the first thing on the screen that pops up is an image of Dover Castle overlaid with the name of one of the most respected directors in cinema history:

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“Huh?” — Me, c. 2016.

I thought it was because I was only 13 when the movie came out, and all I could remember of the hype was “Mel Gibson Mel Gibson Mel Gibson” so the fact that Franco Zeffirelli directed it slid right past my radar. Turns out, to my relief, I’m actually not the only one who missed this small detail. I mentioned “Zeffirelli’s Hamlet” on my Facebook page the other day and people were like “OMG, WHY HAVEN’T I EVER SEEN THIS??” Only to then discover it is, in fact, “Mel Gibson’s Hamlet.” 

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“Waah-waaaah.” — Sad Trombone

Yes, the director everyone loves for giving us the definitive screen version of Romeo and Juliet (1969) also delivered unto us the first Serious Actor Mel Gibson vehicle, paving the way for Braveheart and The Patriot (which are essentially the same movie). I’m not sure if we should thank Zeffirelli or not…

Anyway, I loved this version of Hamlet as a teenager and that was pretty much Zeffirelli’s intent with this film. He wanted to create a leaner, meaner, sexier Melancholy Dane that would draw in kids like me, whose ADD attention spans might not have been totally up for the four-hour slog of Hamlet the unexpurgated, but were still smart enough to not be pandered to with a dumbed-down pap. Hell, I’m 38 and I am still hesitant to watch Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) because I don’t know if I commit to 240 minutes of anything, let alone Shakespeare.

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think Zeffirelli achieved the ideal balance between sacrificing accuracy (in terms of script and the overall aesthetic) and being faithful to both history and the overarching story. His Hamlet is set in medieval Denmark and based on the clothes it is reasonable to assume the date is roughly 12th- to 14th-century. I say “roughly” because, as you will see, there are elements in the clothing that could go either way. Costume designer Maurizio Millenotti, long-time collaborator of Franco Zeffirelli, clearly drew inspiration from other eras as well, such as the Byzantine and Burgundian, pulling together a surprisingly cohesive look.

So, let’s examine the costumes!

Gertrude – Glenn Close

The elements of many of Gertrude’s outfits could be summed up as “Byzantine by way of the 12th century.” The heavily jeweled and embroidered gowns feature pendant sleeves (12th century), a strong bliaut vibe in terms of fit (late 12th century), and long earrings/pendilia. BTW, pendilia is what you call those hangy-down bits that frequently accompany Byzantine crowns. I am always grateful when my huge network of medieval nerdists can deliver me the accurate term for some obscure thing in under five minutes. Here, it appears that the pendilia are interpreted as earrings in most of the scenes where Gertrude is shown wearing them.

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An example of the pendilia in action. Detail of Empress Theodora, Mosaic of Theodora, Basilica San Vitale. 6th century.

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The second mourning outfit she wears during Ophelia’s funeral is interesting because it is largely 13th century in overall aesthetic, but for those giant 6th-century Mervingian bow brooches clasping her cloak.

Glenn Close as Queen Gertrude in "Hamlet" (1990)

Some of her gowns, however, are more late 13th- to early 14th-century, without a lot of liberty taken in terms of design. The fillet and barbette and loose-fitting sideless gown are both elements seen in the illustrations of the Manesse Codex.

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Manesse Codex, c. 1300-1340.

My favorite of all of Gertrude’s outfits (and to be sure, I love all of them) is this very much 12th-century bliaut with the knotted sleeves. For such a simple outfit, look at the insane amount of embellishment around the neck and the different textures of the overgown and undergown. It’s simple yet stunning. Construction-wise, the overgown doesn’t line up with what we know of bliaut patterning (which is fairly limited to two Spanish examples and a bunch of sculptures and illuminations), but it achieves a nice, flowing, graceful effect.

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Costume for Glenn Close, from the Larry McQueen costume collection. Via Pinterest.

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Detail of “Rethorica” from the Hortus deliciarum, c. 1160-1180.

Another one I really like is this simple red tunic, which she wears during the scene where Ophelia goes mad and distributes “flowers” to everyone. Gertrude is mostly in the background here so the gown is never shown clearly on film, which is a shame, since its one of the more historically accurate gowns she wears.

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Annoyingly, I wasn’t able to track down the source of this illumination. I got stuck in a Pinterest-Google feedback loop instead.

Also, this red gown is intriguing. You could make the argument either way for it being a 12th-century bliaut (dig that rectangular construction) or 15th-century Burgundian (the pleating in the front lends it a strong houplande-y vibe). I’m mostly curious to know how it was constructed in order for the bias to be on the sides and with no visible seams on the sleeves.

HAMLET, Glenn Close, 1990

Then there are a few gowns that are more of a fantasy nature with some elements of a particular era incorporated. The outfit Gertrude wears for the staging of “The Mousetrap” is not seen very clearly, except from the waist up, though its design is clearly more fantasy than historical. The only really historical element is in the nod to a barbette and fillet on her head, which is a 13th-century conceit.

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Ophelia – Helena Bonham Carter

The only other female character in Hamlet is, of course, Ophelia, played by Frock Flicks favorite, Helena Bonham Carter. Upon re-watching the film in preparation for this post, I realized Ophelia has a surprising number of costume changes. I honestly only remembered two: her all white outfit and her pink and white outfit, both of which are fairly faithful to the styles seen in the early 14th-century Manesse Codex that I mentioned above. The other costumes are on screen for far less time than either of the two I just mentioned, so I guess I can’t be blamed for not remembering them.

What is notable is that, even though these gowns are simple, there’s a lot of detail packed into them. The white outfit is covered in drawn threadwork and there is a substantial amount of embroidery on the neckline and cuffs of the pink and white outfit.

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This looks as though it could be a different tabard over the pink gown. The yoke of the tabard is square, where the other tabard has a round yoke.

The other two gowns are not featured prominently enough. She wears what looks like a pretty blue gown during a dinner scene in which Gertrude salutes her with her wine, and an iridescent tabard over a rustic cream-colored tunic with what might be metal woven into it during “The Mousetrap” scene.

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Claudius – Alan Bates

I debated even really delving into the mens’ costumes, because honestly, they’re largely variations on the same theme: nondescript wool tunic, leggings, boots, and maybe a cloak to spice things up a bit. There’s not even a real definitive era that comes through … It’s generic medievaloid. Utterly inoffensive, totally forgettable.

That said, the one male character whose costumes are at least worth commenting on is King Claudius. While his outfits aren’t as spectacular as Gertrude’s, they are pretty lavish, working in all kinds of built-up embroidery and gemstones, without ever looking like he’s been attacked with a hot-glue gun and plastic gemstones.

The closest I can get to pinning down an era for Claudius’ costumes is roughly 12th century, but with elements that either derive from 7th-century Byzantium, Celtic knotwork, and/or 10th-century Danish/Norse. With a mashup like that, it’s impressive that the costumes actually looked as cohesive as they do.

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Hamlet – Mel Gibson

The same difficulty I have with analyzing Claudius’ outfits applies to Hamlet’s outfits: they’re all over the place historically. Also, they’re mostly black on black, and while quite a lot of effort appears to have gone into making them visually interesting, they’re still, at the end of the day, black tunics.

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This one has an almost Burgundian feel to it.

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Polonius – Ian Holm

Polonius’ outfits are actually fairly interesting, but again, it’s a lot of black on black. The aesthetic comes across as far more Elizabethan to my eye than early medieval, but the little touches such as the tablet woven trim on his coif are nice.

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What did you think of Zeffirelli’s Hamlet? 

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, she enjoys the solitude of a long, hot bath. You can find her costuming trails and tribulations chronicled at Mode Historique.

36 Responses

  1. Stephani

    For some reason I managed to avoid seeing it when it came out, and all these years later I’ve still never seen it. It just kind of didn’t register I guess, but seems like it might be worth a watch, despite Mel’s presence.

    Reply
  2. mmcquown

    Never saw it. There’s yet another version out there with Helen Mirren playing Gertrude (Gerutha) which is set very definitely in medieval Denmark. It’s not titled “Hamlet,” as I recall. I will research this further.

    Reply
  3. mmcquown

    Aha! Made in 1976, directed by Celestino Coronado with costumes by Mircea Marosin. A very avant-garde low budget job running 65 mins with several actors doubling characters. Mirren play Gertrude and Ophelia, Quentin Crisp is Polonius, if that gives you an idea. Bisexual, nudity, strange. Never screened in US but I recall having seen bits of it, probably on YouTube. And it was titled “Hamlet.”
    Somebody out there did a version in which Hamlet starts out more pro-active and kills off damned near everybody who crosses him.

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola

    The costumes that Ms Close wears are stunning. I am definitely in the serious stage of ‘costume lust’ *whimper*. I was lucky to see this in 1990 when it came out. As I was heavily into the Ren faire scene, all I remember singular comment going around about machine embroidery. But after seeing all the current films and TV shows with meh costume research (metal grommets, no sense of period, lack of boob control, etc), that’s a mild criticism and one I’ll give a pass on.

    Once again, Ms Close shows in these drool-worthy (*slobber and drool*) clothes why Hamlet had ‘mother issues’.

    I’ve seen the Branaugh version and I also find the costumes drool-worthy.

    Reply
  5. jandjatkinson

    I really do like the Byz feel of the first of Gertrude’s gowns you’ve featured. LOVE it, in fact, that but might have something to do with having an early Middle Byzantine (early-ish 11th C.) persona…

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  6. mmcquown

    OK, I just sat through the 76 Hamlet, which wasn’t the one I remembered. The 76 version is best described as “Hamlet on Acid,” but it does manage to cover the highlights of the play as far as it goes, The movie I remembered Was “The Prince of Jutland” or “Royal Deceit,” released in 94 and it is based on the original of the Hamlet story. After the acid trip, I think I might be up to seeing Mel Gibson.

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  7. mmcquown

    The Byzantine touches are reasonable since the Russians and the Scandinavians traded a lot. Having watched the first ten minutes, I realise that I have seen the Glenn Close Hamlet quite some time ago. They rearranged a lot of it to fit their narrative frame, but I remember it as being not too bad. I’d have been more impressed if the sword blade hadn’t bent when they placed it on the sarcophagus in the beginning…

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  8. Kathleen Norvell

    I enjoyed the film and the costumes didn’t scream “farby” at me. At least they tried and the fact that the women didn’t wear bangs (or fringes) and the men didn’t have their hair tied back was a plus with me. And frankly, Glenn Close could wear a paper bag and look fabulous. Barbettes and veils work every time. So simple, and yet so rarely done. And the remedy for a “bad hair day.”

    Helena Bonham Carter used to drive me crazy with her terrible posture (check out her early films) until someone put her in a corset. What a difference that made.

    I have seen so many versions of Hamlet that I’ve stopped comparing, although I have to give props to Kenneth Branagh for doing a practically full-text version. Nobody does that.

    Now, for a defense of Mel Gibson. As an early fan (and I mean really early), I recommend people see “Tim” or “The Year of Living Dangerously” or “Gallipoli” to see that he could act up a storm back in the day before he became a movie star.

    Reply
    • Susan Pola

      I agree that Mel before he became a star could act. I did see Gallipoli and he was excellent. I read somewhere that when he lived in Australia he performed some Shakespeare so casting him as the Oedipal Hamlet wasn’t such a stretch. And I loved both Mel’s and Ken’s Hamlets.

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  9. mishkagora

    I remember watching this at school and loving it… but I do recommend seeing Branagh’s four-hour version. The truncated version is painful and not worth it, but oddly enough the full four hours are simply wonderful. And I second Kathleen re. Gibson’s acting. Watch him in The Year of Living Dangerously or Attack Force Z and your respect for him will skyrocket. (I’m not a fan of his later stuff, though.)

    Reply
  10. Liutgard

    Sarah, I highly recommend the Branagh Hamlet. Yes, it’s four hours. But there is an intermission. The best thing, I think, it that because they used the whole text (he re-ordered a couple of lines, but all of it is there), things that are weird or don’t quite make sense in other version, become clear. Will didn’t waste words- and if you want to know what a character is thinking, you have to get all of them.

    (And not medieval, but the BBC Hamlet starring David Tennant is effing amazing! And Patrick Stewart is Claudius!)

    As to Zeffirelli’s- that first shot you show, of Glenn Close- she could be 12th c, she could be Byzantine, she could be Frankish. (Actually, I wear my hair like that fairly often at events, with the tinkly circlet.) The one on the throne fairly screams Eleanor of Aquitaine. *swoon!*

    That one you show that is a mystery- the strange blue gown/coat over the yellow gown- back in the olden days, we called it an ‘Oriental Surcoat’. As it turns out, it came from the fevered imagination of an early 20th c costume ‘expert’, and has no real basis in reality. It’s pretty though- and quite lovely done out of something sheer, like organza.

    I really don’t care much about the others, though I must say, most of Ophelia’s clothes were droopy and baggy and sloppy. Not impressive. But Claudius’ circlet *IS* impressive, and I want to reach through the screen and grab it! Gorgeous! And the one that Glenn is wearing in that first shot- yeah, I’ll take that one too!

    Reply
  11. Vlad Krylov

    Talking about 1980s action stars getting serious, have you seen Franceso by Liliana Cavani? Originally released in 1989 iirc. Mickey Rourke plays the titular Francesco, ie St Frances – and he’s actually very good at that! So is Helena Bonham Carter as St Chiara of Assisi. Based on the biography by Herman Hesse, so no hippy chicky schlock that was there in Zeffirelli’s take on the saint’s life 20 years ealier (Brother Sun, Sister Moon – still a great movie though). Would be interesting to get your opinion on costumes in both films btw.

    Reply
  12. brigitgoddess

    I was (cough, cough) 30 when this came out–and I actually was 9 when Romeo and Juliet came out–but didn’t see it until I was about 14 in my high school Shakespeare class. I remember them both very well. Especially Hamlet, because I had an English minor in college and LOVED Shakespeare. Needless to say–all of us Shakespeare freaks were a bit skeptical of this movie before it aired (Mel Gibson? As HAMLET?) and yes, I remember us discussing the fact that this was Zeffirelli at the helm–and being surprised at the choice of the lead because of it. It won me over immediately, however, with its accessibility and fresh feel. I do remember being impressed by Close’s costuming. Overall though–I watched this as a fan of Shakespeare as opposed to costuming–and it did not disappoint. Glad to hear the costuming does not disappoint those into that after all these years either. Guess I will have to re-watch it now. It’s been a while. (and yes–watch Branagh’s Hamlet–you’ll never notice that it is as long as it is…because it’s just THAT good)

    Reply
  13. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I remember seeing this in English class when in High School the year after it was released. I did not enjoyed it at the time and I haven’t rewatched it since. However, based on this review I might take a gander for the costuming alone. The scene I was upset by was when Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her room. He pushed her on the bed and it appeared that he was raping her, which I found quite distasteful. Of course I was 16 and might have been confused by what actually happened.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yeah, that scene is really hard to watch, even now. It was definitely filmed to be controversial and make people squirm, because it is SO laden with sexual aggression perpetrated by a son on his mother. Though, to be fair, even Olivier’s version had a similar staging, so this version is not unique in that. But Mel Gibson is REALLY good at portraying unhinged characters and I think that’s what makes it so uncomfortable, because his Hamlet looks like he’s fully capable of raping his mother.

      Incidentally, Gertrude wears one of my favorite gowns in that scene, but I couldn’t find a decent picture of it so I didn’t include it in this post. It’s black velvet — not really historically accurate, more of a generic medieval-oid look, but damn it is pretty.

      Reply
  14. mmcquown

    Several versions of “Hamlet” have picked up on that seemingly incestuous overtone between Gertrude and Hamlet. I’ve never been firm on it either way, wondering if it was merely that people of the time were more demonstrative, or that Hamlet was using sexual domination as a demonstration of his power or Gertrude’s salaciousness.

    Reply
    • Shirley

      The theory I developed when I almost wrote a paper about it for my English degree is that there are definitely some sexual aspects to the language that Hamlet uses in that scene with his mother. But I don’t read it as him having an Oedipus complex and literally wanting her for himself, though that’s how it ends up being staged frequently.

      I always saw it more as Hamlet is rhetorically using sexual language with her as a further means of insulting her and humiliating her. It emphasized his message of condemning her for perceived incest with his uncle and also underscores his disgust with her sexuality. Kind of a “Oh you don’t think it’s disgusting to sleep with your brother-in-law? Let’s make the incest closer to home and see how skeevy it seems to you.”

      On that note, I did think this movie laid this message on a little too thickly, but I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would when I watched it in an English class. I thought Gibson made a surprisingly good Hamlet. But Derek Jacobi will always be my favorite, even though the rest of that version is pretty boring!

      Reply
      • mmcquown

        I think you’re pretty much on the money; on the other hand, his byplay with Ophelia leading into the play within the play was pretty explicit — and very witty.

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        • Shirley

          Very true! I had trouble working my entire theory into a coherent thesis, which is why I decided to write about King Lear for that class instead. :D

          Reply
  15. mmcquown

    The text hasn’t changed in nearly 400 years, and Freud was a lot later. I suspect each generation has a slightly different take on all of the plays. As far as that goes, the play of Oedipus pre-dates Shakespeare, so who knows? Maybe earlier companies read something into it.

    Reply
  16. Elysse

    I had completely forgotten about this till I saw Glenn Close’s red costume. I live in Greece and watching it was a strange experience since it was part of a school trip back in 1994. I don’t know who was the genius behind the idea of taking approx.120 12-13 year olds to watch a foreign film of which we knew nothing about and expected us to behave, too. Of course we knew who Shakespeare was, but we never studied any of his works cause we were too busy learning Ancient Greek (we were reading the Iliad and Thucydides that year). They could have at least told us the plot beforehand to help us understand, but nope. We got nothing. As a result the giggles that started within the first half hour escalated into full-blown chaos complete with attempted balcony dives. I kind of want to watch it now since I remember bits and pieces of it and I love Glenn Close’s costumes.

    Reply
  17. Rachel Ost

    I’ll even point out the the pendilla on Glenn Close look more later Kievan Rus than Byzantine. But yeah, looks like a nice (sarcasm font needed) amalgam of locations temporal and physical.

    Reply
  18. mmcquown

    Rus and Byzantine are not mutually exclusive.It was Greek monks, Kyril and Methodius, that brought the alphabet to Russia, where they adapted it and call it Kyrillic. The House of Rurik also gave Russia the first Tsars, and Russia traded with everybody.

    Reply
  19. Larry McQueen

    I’ve added two more costumes on Pinterest from Hamlet (Alan Bates & Mel Gibson). Thought you might be interested

    Reply

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