HAMLET (Laurence Olivier, 1948)

“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” — Laurence Olivier, introducing his film of Hamlet, which he produced, directed and starred in

I do not see William Shakespeare’s peerless Hamlet, which was written about 1600 and whose action is set many centuries earlier, as “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Along with many others, I find Hamlet rash, impulsive, quick to lose his temper, violent. In part, this difference of opinion—and, of course, many more agree with Laurence Olivier’s synopsis of the play than agree with my own characterization of Hamlet—has something to do with the soliloquies that Hamlet is given to make. Whereas others see these solitudinous speeches as taking up time, I see them as freezing time, proceeding vertically, in an instant, that is; I do not see them as moving horizontally by filling real time. The Hamlet that I see, and know, and indeed love does not adequately test the reality and the veracity of what declares itself to be his father’s ghost—and this is what those who believe otherwise generally feel that Hamlet is taking the time to do. Perhaps those who see Hamlet as indecisive draw their conviction from a popular misreading, which they complacently repeat. I have read the play many times, have lived with it, have dreamed myself in and out of it, and I have no doubt that those who find Hamlet as indecisive could not have drawn their view from the play. It’s not there.

So I hate Olivier’s movie, right? No; it fascinates with its postwar Cold War topicality—more about which later—and rolls the viewer’s heart into a sea of thrilling, complex feelings. It is one of the three or four best films to win a best picture Oscar, and Olivier’s brilliant Hamlet is the best performance ever to be rewarded with a best acting Oscar. Olivier’s stunning film of Hamlet offers a coherent view of the play—a view that simply happens not to be mine. To my decisive mind, that doesn’t weigh against it even to the smallest degree. Now an unwieldy monstrosity like Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet (1996), which offers no interpretation of the play: that’s another matter entirely. Branagh gives us nothing with which (intellectually) either to agree or disagree. I’m happy to disagree with Olivier. It reminds me that Shakespeare’s text is inexhaustible—as inexhaustible as literary intelligence. Branagh was overwhelmed by the play; Olivier seized it, took hold of it and gave it thematic, and topical, purpose.*

First things first. Before turning to Olivier’s gorgeous film, let me use the occasion of this essay to flesh out my own view of the play.** For me, Hamlet is a play about language—language qua language. For me, the pivotal plot detail points to the issue of Claudius’s responsibility for his brother’s—the king’s—death. We have long adopted, with certain often grudging modifications, Hamlet’s view of Claudius, his paternal uncle, even as we have sometimes admitted that this view is unbalanced. This in turn has obscured one of the play’s most arresting themes: the relationship between language and guilt.

Over the character of Claudius, critical swords have notably crossed. Eighty years ago, for instance, W. W. Greg and J. Dover Wilson began a debate centering on the ambiguity of the “Play Scene” and on King Claudius’s reactions as his conscience is presumably being caught. Small wonder that the traditional Wilson congenially huffed at the bizarre notions spun by Greg, a bibliographer who found witty release in the tale he had to tell—a tale Wilson found far removed from Shakespeare’s. Yet even for this adversary Greg posed an intriguing question. Referring to Claudius’s agitated exit during the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, Greg asked: “How comes it then that [Claudius] sat unmoved through the representation of the same action in equal detail in the [preceding] dumb-show?” Wilson could reply only that the king must have missed the pantomime, having been deep in talk with the queen and Polonius on the subject of Hamlet’s erratic behavior—an unintended throwback to earlier attempts to exclude the dumb-show altogether. (Branagh’s film, purportedly a “complete” version of the play, mischievously—and dishonestly—deletes it.)

Answering his own question more vigorously, though, Greg proposed:

[I]n the dumb-show [Claudius] actually fails to recognize the representation of his own crime. This, however, on the ordinary assumptions is impossible. The manner in which the poison is administered makes even the shadow of a doubt absurd. There is but one rational conclusion: Claudius did not murder his brother by pouring poison into his ears.

“If the facts of King Hamlet’s death were not as represented in the players’ play,” Greg concluded, “then the Ghost was no honest Ghost, but a liar. In other words, the Ghost’s story was not a revelation, but a mere figment of Hamlet’s brain. (The italics are Greg’s.) Claudius, he believes, rises and leaves only because his nephew has acted outrageously in open court—like a madman who poses a clear threat to the crown.

Then again, the second-tooth theory contends that Claudius does respond to the dumb-show but controls himself so as not to give his crime away—that is, until the second play proves more than he can regally bear. Hamlet in traditional stage performances shows Claudius’s discomfort intensifying from the dumb-show onward, although the text gives no such hint of this (which is not to say that the text does not allow it). These traditionalist versions obviously demand the authoritative truthfulness of the Ghost; they assume that there is plenty of reason why Claudius should be markedly unhinged by the dumb-show. However, Eleanor Prosser argues in her Hamlet and Revenge that the nature of the Ghost itself “is thrown into question as in no other play of the Elizabethan or Jacobean period,” adding, “Shakespeare may well have intended to jolt his audience into a fresh response to what had become a hackneyed convention.” By way of extension, I would add that Shakespeare throws into question the whole presumption of Claudius’s guilt.

On one level, of course, Claudius’s guilt is a donnée, a part of the play that in fact precedes the play and helps to determine it. Shakespeare, one editor of the Complete Works reminds us, “began with one advantage. The audience knew the story. There was therefore no need to start with an explanation.” Yet this same familiarity with the story freed Shakespeare to question on another, deeper level of the play what seems self-evident on the first level. Not merely revamping an old legend, Shakespeare may have been testing it, exploring its manifold ambiguities. Certainly in Hamlet the theme of seeming virtue’s covering up immoral acts is made more mysterious and complex by an atmosphere of moral transvestism that permits, even helps define, such bewildering possibilities as Claudius’s unfailingly tender love for Gertrude—what church would believe it?—and Hamlet’s own vile treatment of Ophelia, not to mention his casual disposal of two school chums.

That one assumption nevertheless must have been secure in Shakespeare’s souce material: an actual murder, with the king the victim and his brother-successor the murderer. In Hamlet, the oracle of such authentication is the Ghost, though no such revelatory agent is necessary in earlier versions of the legend where the Claudius-character commits his crime in public. So by inventing the Ghost or by adapting its use for his own purposes, Shakespeare introduces an element of ambiguity: the crime that we might have seen with our own eyes we only hear about. And from whom or what? As it exists in Hamlet, the Ghost, Prosser convincingly shows, is almost certainly a goblin damned that has assumed the guise of Hamlet’s father’s ghost in order to drive Hamlet to murderous revenge by arousing rather than consoling him, by painting for him “a series of obscene pictures,” that is to say, by highlighting precisely those images—for example, “incestuous sheets”—which for the sake of his sanity, and possibly his soul, he ought not visualize or dwell upon. Can we believe that such a ghost is even telling Hamlet the truth about his father’s death?

This we know for certain: the Ghost only confirms what Hamlet suspects and wants to believe. When the Ghost informs him, “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life/ Now wears his crown,” Hamlet exclaims, “O my prophetic soul!”, adding unnecessarily, “My uncle?” The murder-means that the Ghost divulges (scarcely believable, in reality impossible) may make us wonder whether Hamlet’s own ear is the one that is so fatally vulnerable—to the Ghost’s poisonous promptings; and, although the exposed fratricide dependably echoes, biblically, man’s first lethal crime against man, how foolish it would be for Hamlet to base his judgment on the word of a spirit that flees like Dracula at the advent of dawn and groans from underneath the floorboards of the stage—not to mention the unlikelihood that its vengeful counsel comes from the Christian God in whose service it is presumably nightwalking.

Despite all this, no one I know of disputes Claudius’s guilt. For instance, Greg finally believes (with what contortion!) that the Ghost lies only about the murder method used but not about the murderer’s identity. Following his initial outburst of bloody determination, of course, Hamlet does put off his killing mission a bit, and, however inadequately, does try to test the validity of the Ghost’s accusation. Although he questions the validity of that test, even Greg succumbs to an orthodox view. “That the king’s conscience is uneasy is obvious, and well it may be,” Greg says in reference to the “Prayer Scene”; “Not only has the [players’] play brought the recollection of his own crime vividly before him, but he now finds himself compelled to add a second murder to his sum of guilt.” How odd, then, that the king earlier seems to have forgotten the first murder entirely. In an aside (where only himself he might try to deceive), he expresses guilt not for any murder but for the adultery that he has, as it were, legalized under the cover of a quick marriage. When in his presence Polonius says to Ophelia,

We are oft to blame in this,
’Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself,

Claudius whispers to himself:

O, ’tis too true.
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!

Surely only someone presupposing the legend behind the play rather than attending to the play itself would construe this as a confession of fratricide or regicide. Claudius’s “heavy burden” apparently refers to some deed he has “sugared over” or “painted.” “The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,” combined with “painted,” suggests the sexual nature of whatever crime burdens Claudius—at least whatever crime draws his greater guilt. This would be incestuous adultery, that is, in his case, and in Shakespeare’s time and place, bedding with his brother’s wife; the “most painted word” would then be marriage, the legal disguising of that past but perpetuated crime. Plainly the word could not instead be succession, covering up the murder of a brother-king. Claudius has not had to use that word to counter suspicions that in fact do not exist; his wearing the crown have generated no discernible rumors about his royal predecessor’s demise. On the other hand, “marriage” is a word he well might use—in his opening speech in court he in fact uses it—to dignify himself against the likeliest of rumors regarding his relationship with Gertrude prior to King Hamlet’s death. “My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral,” Horatio tells Hamlet, who answers wincingly, “I prithee do not mock me, fellow student./ I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.” “Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.”

Is it likely that adultery would be weighing most heavily on Claudius’s mind had he also killed the king and brother whom he has cuckolded, or feels he has, ex post facto? Perhaps Claudius has repressed the more troubling offense and is taunting himself with a lesser crime that in his guilty imagination incorporates them both; but short of so tortuous an explanation, we must allow that, on at least some level of the play’s import, Claudius may not have killed his brother. But how can Shakespeare even question this? If Claudius did not murder King Hamlet, why does he confess to having done so—if only problematically by his response to The Murder of Gonzago, then most assuredly in the “Prayer Scene,” where his words are plain enough? To answer this, we must return to the “Play Scene,” leaving the “Prayer Scene” for later, as indeed it follows in the text and never would have occurred had not the mousetrap play not preceded it.

“Observe my uncle,” Hamlet beseeches Horatio:

If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damnèd ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy. Give him heedful note,
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.

Horatio pledges conspiratorial assistance. The king and queen, Polonius, Ophelia and others enter, and the mute enactment of the “crime” begins. Following the Player Queen’s show of love, the Player King beds down on a bank of flowers and falls asleep, whereupon his wife exits and a man enters, “takes off [the Player King’s] crown, kisses it, pours poison in the sleeper’s ears, and leaves him,” soon after which he is wooing the widowed Player Queen and winning her love. Actors depart, others appear, and the play proper begins with still no word from Claudius. Now the Player King and Queen have tongues: he tells her he will leave her soon; she vows continued devotion. He beseeches, “[T]hink thou wilt no second husband wed,/ But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead.” The Player Queen will have none of this, however, wishing for herself nothing but calamity if ever again she be wife. Content with her protest of his protest, the Player King naps; his queen exits. Claudius now speaks at last. Do these actors have insidious intent? Are they mimicking King Hamlet and his wife, pointing to her subsequent marriage to him, Claudius? “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in’t?” he asks his nephew, who offers a few baiting replies as the play proceeds. The Player King’s nephew, Lucianus, enters and pours poison into the sleeping man’s ears. Hamlet blurts out to Ophelia within earshot of the king: “’A poisons him i’ th’ garden for his estate. His name’s Gonzago. . . . You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.” Here, Ophelia informs Hamlet, and us, “The king rises.” “Give me some light,” cries Claudius; “Away!”

Now what precisely has Claudius responded to? A theatrical portrayal of his “crime,” or his nephew’s all but accusing him in open court of fratricide and regicide, a truly dangerous prospect for his kingship? Moreover, what would he make of having just seen a king killed by a nephew? Prior to Hamlet’s outburst, Claudius’s discomfort is clearly over the crime that the play at that point suggests: not murder, which comes later, but a queen’s likely betrayal of her oath to remain faithfully unmarried after her husband’s death. Understandably concerned for his wife’s feelings and reputation, not to mention his own, he asks Hamlet, not Gertrude, “Is there no offense in’t?” But the “murder” as “revealed” by the Ghost had been acted out boldly in the dumb-show without Ophelia or anyone else remarking on so much as a twitch from Claudius. Doubtless, he did not rise.

On the other hand, while watching the play in the darkened room, who would have noticed what? It is Horatio, of course, whose eyes presumably were glued to Claudius by agreement with Hamlet—and all the more so, owing to the boisterous attentions Hamlet was paying to Ophelia, which must have distracted Hamlet from observing his uncle as he had said he would. But Horatio’s report on what he saw only returns us to the ambiguity at the heart of the play. “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound,” Hamlet exults after the aborted performance; “Didst perceive?” “Very well, my lord.” “Upon the talk of the poisoning?” Horatio: “I did very well note him.” Is Shakespeare hinting by all this that Claudius responded only upon the talk of the poisoning but not as the poisoning was acted out in the dumb-show? How odd at least, and telling at most, that Horatio does not report having noticed Claudius’s uneasiness from the start. Horatio’s restrained tone, so much at variance with Hamlet’s wildness, may even suggest his profound caution and confusion, as though all the pieces of what he saw do not quite fit together.

Nonetheless, in the “Prayer Scene” following the Gonzago play, Claudius confesses a murderer’s guilt, pitiably asking, “What if this cursèd hand/ Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,/ Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens/ To wash it white as snow?” Even without Freud, however, we all know that we sometimes feel guilty for things we have not done but have only dreamt of doing; also, we sometimes confuse the waking dream with reality, often to punish ourselves for ever having wished such harm. Desiring his brother’s wife, Claudius, we can easily imagine, at some point wished for his brother’s death. If this is the case here, his brother’s actual death would have painfully echoed back the old wish, causing guilt that Claudius would do his best to suppress, but which might erupt—in his ears!—following the second version of murder, the one in the play after the one in the dumb-show, along with his nephew’s glossing accusation. Seeking absolution, Claudius may have imaginatively required of himself the worst possible sinfulness; his craving for punishment may have sought satisfaction in the (possibly psychotic) delusion that he had actually murdered his brother. This confusion and self-inflicted punishment, then, would be reinforced by the repetition of the same dream, which this time will end in the actual murder of a Hamlet: his brother’s only son and namesake.

But, but—. But why doesn’t the dumb-show apparently recall the past hateful wish against his brother that I may seem to have dreamt up, reactivating the old guilt? One hundred and eighty years ago, Henry James Pye observed that the dumb-show “appears to contain every circumstance of the murder of Hamlet’s father. There is no apparent reason why the Usurper should be as much affected by this mute representation of his crimes as he is afterwards when the same action is accompanied by words.” Here, Pye is drawing the crucial distinction between the two plays-within-the-play: the absence or presence of words. Likewise assuming Claudius’s actual guilt, J. M. Nosworthy is nonetheless right in saying, “It is the spoken word that gets [Claudius] in the end.”

For Hamlet, Claudius’s guilt is as inevitable as Desdemona’s in Othello’s eyes, with the Ghost and Iago forming a curious instigatory parallel. In Hamlet, however, words and more words are what “make” Claudius guilty; language, that is to say, is the mechanism for provoking and inflicting the peculiar burden of civilization that we call guilt. Even before the words of the Gonzago play, which complete their task with the aid of a nephew’s verbal accompaniment, the Ghost’s words move and persuade Hamlet, who prophesies, “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” Two versions of King Hamlet’s death are given in Shakespeare’s play. Before his poison-in-ear announcement, the Ghost refers to an “official” explanation that Claudius, in fact, nowhere mentions: “Now, Hamlet, hear./ ’Tis given out that, [while I was] sleeping in my orchard,/ A serpent stung me.” Now quite a bit more talk doubtless would have arisen had Claudius actually described his predecessor’s death in so portentous a fashion. (“[T]he whole ear of Denmark,” the Ghost seems to think, “Is by a forgèd process of my death/ Rankly abused”!) Moreover, why tell Hamlet this, as though he might not already know? Dramatic convenience might have made Shakespeare have one character tell another what he already knows so that the audience would also know it; but surely Hamlet would have been sufficiently disturbed by the particulars of so freakish a death as to have mentioned these earlier, say, in his bitter soliloquy beginning, “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt.”*** What is going on here?

It is fitting that the Ghost should offer both versions of King Hamlet’s death—venemous snake and venemous man—back to back, for mythologically they are one. (Ernest Jones has argued that they are psychologically one.) With its fruit garden and wicked serpent, the first version evokes our having fallen from innocence according to Genesis, as does the second, where the serpent has become human so that Adam’s transgression can fuse with one of the horrors it produced: one of his sons killing the other—our first murder. Although Cain’s bare fists seem to have given way to Claudius’s more genteel, less primitive lethality, the poison that we are told Claudius used requires some explanation since no poison poured into the porch of any ear could kill anybody. It really is not necessary to trace, as has been done, the source of Shakespeare’s error, for the Ghost’s bizarre account encourages a symbolical, not a medical, reading. The only “poison” that when poured into human ears can kill is language. In Genesis, God commands the taboo that Adam and Eve break, their violation defined only, by extension, required by the commandment itself. Language may be seen as the mythological mirror whose double image is, in fact, God and the serpent; the verbal commandment of one is undone by the verbal temptation that the other proffers, with Eve in turn persuading Adam to taste the forbidden fruit, resulting at last in our loss of innocence and of eternal life—our double acquisition of sin and death, and along with these, guilt. We gained something else in the process: the inheritance of such ancestors as Cain and Abel, whose combined fate would forever after be circling in our minds.

Language—for which the Ghost in Hamlet is an oracular embodiment: neither flesh nor bone; just words—is both the instrument of humanity’s fall, according to one set of myths, and the state into which humanity falls. While it remains ambiguous whether language arises from what we call civilization or vice versa, the two are everywhere linked. Primitive reality centers on humanity’s confrontation with God (or many gods) whose language must be understood and obeyed, whereas civilized reality centers on the ability of humans, through language, to engage and affect their fellow humans. In the primitive world, then, language is generally, perhaps essentially, religious, but also social, and by its nature always on the verge of becoming, like ours, political as well as social. Since the language of God (which is always mimicked when humans pray) inevitably becomes humanity’s language also, humanity inevitably encroached upon God’s province, or domain, of knowledge. Thus “original sin” was inevitable from the moment that God commanded and humanity listened, Adam’s obedience ensuring his eventual disobedience, or Adam invented science by naming the creatures that he saw, thereby sharing the language of his God. Humanity moved towards what per force objectified its perception, dividing humanity from the rest of creation and finally from itself. Bodying forth both experience and abstraction, moreover, language made possible the confusion of thought and deed—as in Hamlet, where the words Claudius hears as the mousetrap snaps shut become his own as once upon a time he dreamt them, this guilty recollection indistinguishable from reality. Our minds thus become prisoners of the myths we earlier created.

Having killed his brother and yet having not, Claudius does not feel a murderer’s guilt up to a certain point, and then does. The language that kills King Hamlet may be his brother’s wish for him to die; but however much this clarifies Claudius’s feelings of guilt, it sheds little or no light on either the death itself or Prince Hamlet’s predisposition to the Ghost’s account of the crime. Actually, the play gives us no real reason for assuming that the king died anything other than a purely natural death. Although murder theories are not necessary here, and are even a bit silly, King Hamlet’s death still remains somewhat ambiguous. What with wife and brother, as he either may have suspected or known, in each other’s thoughts if not embrace, and his only offspring (though thirty years old!) always off at school beyond range of comforting him, the elder Hamlet may well have died of a broken heart—a death, despite the metaphor, having a medical basis. When people are sufficiently damaged emotionally, they may let go of the will to live, and sometimes the body follows suit.

In a way, Hamlet is about Prince Hamlet’s own guilt; in this light, the mousetrap performance emerges as his tortured attempt to transfer or project onto someone else his feelings of guilt pertaining to his father and his father’s death. Since King Hamlet, whose court he had rejected for university (itself a replaying of the fall myth), had died while he was away, Hamlet tries to know the true events that led to his father’s death, seeking horrors outside himself to keep from finding those within himself, protesting (too much!) his devotion to a parent whom he had left behind. Hamlet’s unhealthy exuberance during and after the Gonzago performance reflects not only the conscience he believes he has caught but also the one he believes has been set free: his own. In truth, King Hamlet was a ghost to his son long before that chilling confrontation between prince and prowling spirit; this lends irony to Hamlet’s earlier grief-stricken appraisal of his father, which emerges in conversation with Horatio. Hamlet says, “My father, methinks I see my father.” “Where, my lord?” “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.” Horatio: “I saw him once. ’A was a goodly king.” Hamlet: “’A was a man, take him for all in all,/ I shall not look upon his like again.” In his “mind’s eye” the absent Hamlet had been content to relegate his father; he is left now with that same image transformed by guilt and regret.

According to the good-bad father split in Hamlet’s consciousness that Ernest Jones, in his psychoanalytical Hamlet and Œdipus, aptly formulated more than fifty years ago, Claudius (along with Polonius, whom he mistakes for Claudius and murders) becomes the recipient of the prince’s filial antipathy while the idealized memory of his father becomes the object of his filial reverence and love. In his relationship with both sides of this broken paternal image, language plays a critical role. The Ghost or Good Father pours into Hamlet’s ears words that aggravate his sense of filial guilt: not only overwrought pleas, such as “If ever didst ever thy dear father love . . .” and “Remember me,” but the murder account itself, which stirs up in Hamlet apparently unresolved œdipal desires that he then, through language, tries to project onto Bad Father Claudius in order to rid himself of the burden. So interconnected are they, each aggravating the other, it is difficult to say whether language or guilt, or their consequence of violence, is the something that is rotten in Denmark. Beyond dispute, however, is the fact that language is the play’s vessel of violence. Consider those daggers that Hamlet speaks to break down his mother, or the substituted note, written by Hamlet, that takes the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Shakespeare’s theme connecting language and guilt, which surely warrants and hero plays out against the history of the Sphinx, whose riddle (a destructive verbal challenge) transferred part of the responsibility for their own consequent suffering onto the Thebans, who could not solve it. This at last Œdipus succeeded in doing, only to become a receptacle for his people’s guilt. However, he was destined to become this as a result of the patricide that he committed, which in turn was the fated consequence of his parents’ having chosen earlier to have him murdered because of an oracle’s warning: language again. Œdipus and Hamlet are both ensnared by words; but, dying, Hamlet finds himself at the apparent threshold of reprieve. His last words glimpse language’s end: “the rest is silence.”

None of this, of course, weighs in on Olivier’s film. Indeed, here there is only a “mime play,” and it is to this that Claudius responds, calling for light, to which Hamlet responds by bringing a torch, in stunning closeup, right up to the king’s frighteningly contorted face: as thrilling a shot, this, as the later leap from on up when Hamlet stabs Claudius repeatedly with his sword. Thus Olivier has removed all possibility of even touching upon the interpretation that makes such sense to me. His Hamlet—Olivier had played the role on stage in two productions in the 1930s—selects and shapes the material to pursue a different theme, although nothing that Olivier or text editor Alan Dent has deleted invalidates the integrity of Olivier’s interpretation. The black-and-white film admits a number of influences; the visual poetry attending Ophelia’s death, for instance, draws upon Pre-Raphaelite painting, while the ghostly camera that moves in upon and roams the castle recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), a film in which Olivier starred (and which also won a best picture Oscar). Olivier’s film resonates with topical interest; it provides a blast of Cold War winds at Elsinore and is, despite what partisans of Carol Reed’s film maintain, in this regard (and, in my opinion, all other regards) way superior to The Third Man, which would appear the following year. The court intrigue, the moral murkiness, at the same time the overly clearly defined oppositions and interactions, Hamlet’s paralysis, the brooding coldness, the deep, expressive shadows, that is to say, the hauntedness: all these features tap into the Cold War atmosphere, the irresolution that followed on the heels of the resolution of the Second World War. Olivier captures the tenor of the film’s time.

This political resonance, I believe, helps explain why a considerable audience even in the Shakespeare-phobic United States found the film accessible and compelling as entertainment. However, there is something else that made the film bold and electrifying. Olivier dared the censors by taking full hold of the material’s œdipal implications. (Ernest Jones, who was in the process of writing his Hamlet and Œdipus, visited the set and discussed his ideas with Olivier.) This includes a kiss that no one who loves movies has ever forgotten—a kiss that takes away the breath whenever one revisits the film. Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), with its own œdipal slant, rightly claims Hollywood’s most memorable kissing scene; but this British film of Olivier’s has the most memorable kiss! Long-lasting, it is delivered by Hamlet onto his mother’s mouth in her bed chamber.

Olivier’s film has its peculiarities; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for instance, have been cut out altogether. For me, its traditional Claudius is dull. Indeed, Olivier the director doesn’t allow much room for anyone else’s characterization. Most of the other characters are fairly thinly conceived, although Eileen Herlie, who has just passed away at 90, is excellent as Gertrude. At the time she was 30, while Olivier, playing her son, was eleven years older. Jean Simmons, whose work I generally admire, is a spotty Ophelia. One imagines that Vivien Leigh, who played Ophelia opposite Olivier on stage, was better—but, of course, too old to play the part here. Look for Anthony Quayle and Peter Cushing in small roles.

Olivier’s direction is generally crisp and intelligent, although it becomes strenuous and grandiose after Hamlet’s death. His performance, so witty with Hamlet’s sarcasms, becomes, finally, massively moving, immense. The graveyard scene possesses exquisite melancholy. Olivier leaves unresolved the question of whether Hamlet is mad, feigning madness, or feigning feigning madness—an irresolution that itself poignantly expresses Hamlet’s tangled emotional state.

After Hamlet became the first British film to win the best picture Oscar, half the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences resigned in protest. Not until fourteen years later would another British film win.****

* The greatest film of Hamlet is Grigori Kozintsev’s 1963 version using Boris Pasternak’s common-speech translation, although, regrettably, the DVD available in the U.S. substitutes Shakespeare’s text in the English subtitles. The best of the updated-contemporary Hamlet films is not, as one might suppose, Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which is fairly lame, but instead Helmut Käutner’s The Rest Is Silence (1959), strikingly acted by Hardy Krüger.

** I am drawing from the text of my article “The King’s Caught Conscience” (Ball State University Forum, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring 1978). However, I have revised some of the language and omitted the documentation.

*** Olivier uses the alternative “solid” for “sullied”—which makes little sense to me. What else could flesh be but solid?

**** David Lean’s batty Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Please, please consider mailing me a check or money order in U.S. currency—to help pay rent, food, electricity, medicine—at the following address: Dennis Grunes, 5712 N. Interstate Ave., Apt. 3, Portland, OR 97217, USA. Thank you, thank you.

One thought on “HAMLET (Laurence Olivier, 1948)

  1. Greg was right about the ghost being a hallucination, but he was unable to land the plane in terms of backing up that intuition.

    There is a coherent shadow story of Hamlet, in which the ghost is a hallucination.

    And Lehmann and Hitchcock understood some of that shadow story, by the way.

    Cheers,
    Arnie Perlstein
    Weston, Florida

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