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.
“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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What did you think of Zeffirelli’s Hamlet?