Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Ambition and Desire: Gertrude as Tragic Hero in Feng Xiaogang's the Banquet (2006)

Academic journal article The Upstart Crow

Ambition and Desire: Gertrude as Tragic Hero in Feng Xiaogang's the Banquet (2006)

Article excerpt

Hamlet contains more characters than Hamlet himself, as Margreta de Grazia has recently reminded us. We still need this reminder. While Ophelia as achieved iconic status as the tragically romantic and drowning figure of pre-Raphaelite paintings, Gertrude remains a cipher and, as J. Anthony Burton has noted, seems to be disappearing from screen adaptations of the play. (1) In The Banquet (2006), director Feng Xiaogang and writers Qiu Gangjian and Sheng Heyu do something entirely new with these two inscrutable women, jumbling their storylines and presenting us with hybrids: a Gertrude who has many elements of Ophelia, and an Ophelia who dies Gertrude's death. (2) In this version, Little Wan (Gertrude) becomes a tragic protagonist equaling and perhaps exceeding the stature and import of Wu Luan (Hamlet). The film follows Little Wan's struggle to be satisfied with her decision to marry Emperor Li (Claudius) as she pines for, punishes, and protects Wu Luan, simultaneously taunting and torturing Qing (Ophelia). (3)

In this essay, I consider the result of building a Hamlet adaptation around Gertrude and evaluate how Wan's character revises this most filmically marginalized of Shakespeare's women. I argue that Feng places Little Wan as the emotional center of his film. Consequently, he changes all the fault lines of desire in Hamlet, invoking the long critical history and representational tradition interested in the Oedipal tensions between Gertrude and Hamlet. The Banquet features the relationship between Claudius (Emperor Li) and Gertrude, which exists primarily in the wings of Shakespeare's play. Promoting their intimacy to center stage invites the audience repeatedly into Gertrude's closet, making the private spaces of Wan and Li's court more crucial than the private regions ofWu Luan's mind. Meanwhile, Wu Luan is presented as passive in the extreme, soliloquy-less, friendless, and stripped of the verbal vigor traditionally ascribed to Hamlet. In addition, Feng preserves the Ophelia character in Qing, who is rendered all the more tragic by her unending devotion to an abusive and disinterested Wu Luan. Refocusing the plot on Little Wan's story of resistance to Wu Luan's story of loneliness, exhaustion, and sorrow, the film invites us to contemplate a Hamlet centered on an active, rather than passive or pensive, protagonist. Ambition and desire are Little Wan's weapons against Wu Luan's loneliness and Qing's pathetic devotion and are the characteristics that define her as the film's true tragic hero.

The Many Faces of Gertrude

Gertrude appears in only half of the twenty scenes that comprise Hamlet and speaks less than two hundred lines in the entire play. Despite, or perhaps because of, her relative silence, she has traditionally fascinated and confused readers, audiences, and scholars. A. C. Bradley claimed Gertrude was a "very dull and very shallow" character with "a soft animal nature," while Janet Adelman reads Gertrude as "a woman more muddled than actively wicked," one who is "less powerful as an independent character than as the site for fantasies larger than she is." (4) Yoshiko Ueno asserts that Gertrude's "reticence," which "does not allow her to disclose to us what she really thinks and feels," leads scholars and readers to presume she is a weak character. (5) Akiko Kusunoki calls her "the most controversial" of Shakespeare's female characters, noting, "since the text leaves crucial aspects of her motivation undefined, critics tend to treat her not as an individual but as a mirror reflecting other characters' inner states." (6) According to Rebecca Smith, Gertrude is one of Shakespeare's female icons that we've been rewriting---or misreading--for generations. Smith argues that film productions misrepresent Gertrude as "a sensual, deceitful woman," when in the play text she is actually presented as a "soft, obedient, dependent, unimaginative woman." (7) Richard Levin notes that accounts of Gertrude's sexuality in Hamlet are unreliable, as they are filtered through the perceptions and biases of her son and late husband: "Unfortunately for her, Gertrude is the victim of a bad press, not only on the stage and screen and in the critical arena, but also within Shakespeare's text, since she and her libido are constructed for us by the two men who have grievances against her and so must be considered hostile and therefore unreliable witnesses, while she herself is given no opportunity to testify on her own behalf. …

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