Olivier’s Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy

The second of Laurence Olivier’s major Shakespearean films, Hamlet, although controversial, was a milestone in the presentation of William Shakespeare’s plays on film and influenced many later film versions.

Summary of Event

By the time he decided to make a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), Laurence Olivier had been acclaimed as the leading Shakespearean actor of the century on both stage and screen and had also established himself as a Shakespearean director. Since his first leading Shakespearean role, as Romeo in 1935, Olivier had appeared on stage as Macbeth, Henry V, Coriolanus, Iago, Sir Toby Belch, Hotspur, and King Lear, and had in 1937 twice played the part of Hamlet (once at London’s Old Vic Theatre and once in Elsinore, Denmark). Hamlet (Olivier)
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];William Shakespeare[Shakespeare]
[kw]Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy (May 4, 1948)[Oliviers Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy]
[kw]Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy, Olivier’s (May 4, 1948)
[kw]Acclaim and Controversy, Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to (May 4, 1948)[Acclaim and Controversy, Oliviers Hamlet Is Released to]
[kw]Controversy, Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and (May 4, 1948)[Controversy, Oliviers Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and]
Hamlet (Olivier)
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];William Shakespeare[Shakespeare]
[g]Europe;May 4, 1948: Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy[02490]
[g]United Kingdom;May 4, 1948: Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy[02490]
[c]Motion pictures and video;May 4, 1948: Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy[02490]
Olivier, Laurence
Dent, Alan
Furse, Roger K.
Walton, William
Sydney, Basil
Herlie, Eileen
Simmons, Jean
Aylmer, Felix
Morgan, Terence
Cushing, Peter

Olivier had also become the leading exponent of Shakespeare on film. This aspect of his career had not had an auspicious start. His first role was as Orlando in a 1936 film version of As You Like It
As You Like It (Czinner) directed by Paul Czinner, but the film was not a success either with critics or at the box office. At the time, Olivier himself believed that Shakespeare’s plays could not effectively be translated into the medium of film, and he confessed that he was “frightfully snobbish about films.” His attitude changed, however, after he had some successful movie roles (notably as Heathcliff in 1939’s Wuthering Heights and as Lord Nelson in 1941’s Lady Hamilton). He then took on the task of making a film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V
Henry V (Olivier)[Henry 05 (Olivier)] (1944). The film, which Olivier directed and in which he also played the title role, was a resounding critical and popular success.

In tackling the far greater challenge of making a film version of Hamlet, Olivier was at first reluctant to play the part of Hamlet himself. He later remembered that he thought his style of acting was more suited to “stronger character roles, such as Hotspur and Henry V, rather than to the lyrical, poetical role of Hamlet.” Also, Olivier did not want the audience to link his film Hamlet with his earlier portrayal of Henry V; this was one reason he dyed his hair blond for his role as Hamlet. (Another reason was to make himself conspicuous in long shots.)

The basic idea for the film came to Olivier with a visualization of the film’s final shot, of Hamlet’s funeral bier on the battlements of the castle. After that glimpse, Olivier saw how the whole film could be built up. He decided to film in black and white rather than in color, in part because that would enable him to use deep-focus photography, which ensured that figures in the background could be seen with great clarity. The technique also enabled the production team to shoot unusually long scenes.

“The core of Hamlet,” Olivier wrote in 1986, “is his loneliness and desolation after the death of his father, and his feeling of alienation from the new court.” Olivier regarded Hamlet as “a nearly great man—damned by lack of resolution.” This interpretation was made explicit at the beginning of the film, when Olivier speaks as a voice-over nine lines of Hamlet’s speech from act 1, scene 4 of the play; the lines concern how a man can be overthrown by “the stamp of one defect” in his character. The words also appear on the screen. This speech is immediately followed by Olivier’s own capsule summary of the theme of the film: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

Hamlet’s desolation, his restlessness, and his inability to find a stable point of reference in his world are conveyed by the seemingly endless movement of the camera. As it peers down passages and tracks across large empty rooms, the camera seems to become emblematic of Hamlet’s own searching consciousness. The austere and abstract settings added to this effect. “Olivier wanted a dream-like, cavernous place as the setting for a drama which is centered in shadowy regions of the hero’s mind,” wrote Roger K. Furse, the film’s designer.

The shadowy regions of Hamlet’s mind are also emphasized by Olivier’s acceptance of the Freudian theory, applied to Hamlet by the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, of the Oedipus complex. The Oedipal view postulates that Hamlet has a subconscious desire to kill his father and engage in sexual relations with his mother; he thus finds it almost impossible to kill Claudius, because his uncle embodies this buried aspect of his own personality, so Hamlet identifies with him. This interpretation is emphasized in the film by lingering close-up shots of the marriage bed and by a display of emotions between mother and son that go beyond what might be considered normal.

One major problem Olivier had to face was how to cut the text of the play, which runs for more than four hours, in order to produce a two-and-a-half-hour film. The editing principle he adopted with Alan Dent was based, Olivier wrote, on “making a new but integral pattern from the original, larger pattern of the play itself.” According to Dent, the result “must be utterly respectful to the spirit of Shakespeare and to the audience’s consciousness of Hamlet. . . . One has to choose between making the meaning clear to 20,000,000 cinemagoers and causing 2,000 Shakespearean experts to wince.”

Because of the drastic nature of the cuts (half of Shakespeare’s text was discarded), Olivier thought that the film should be regarded as an“Essay in Hamlet” rather than as a direct interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. The characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, Reynaldo, and the second gravedigger were eliminated from the film version. The omission of Fortinbras virtually eliminated the political aspects of the play (including the conflict between Denmark and Norway) and left Horatio to assume the Danish throne at the film’s end. Two of Hamlet’s soliloquies, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” and “How all occasions do inform against me,” were omitted, as was most of Shakespeare’s play-within-the-play. The omission of the second soliloquy meant that one plausible reason for Hamlet’s hesitation—he fears the ghost of his father that has appeared may have been a devil—is never mentioned.

Twenty-five words that Olivier believed would be unfamiliar to a film audience were modernized. (For example, Claudius’s line “For like the hectic in my blood he rages” was changed to “For like the fever in my blood he rages,” and Ophelia’s words to Laertes, “recks not his own rede,” became “minds not his own creed.”) Another Olivier innovation was to illustrate events that in Shakespeare’s play are merely described—such as Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s coming to her closet, a sea fight involving Hamlet and pirates, and Ophelia’s death—while retaining Shakespeare’s description as a voice-over.

The film premiered in London on May 4, 1948. It opened in the United States that fall and by the end of the year had been seen on screens in Germany, Italy, Sweden, France, Finland, Denmark, and Austria.


Hamlet was made at a time when many Shakespeare purists, in spite of the success of Olivier’s Henry V film, still doubted whether Shakespeare’s greatest plays could be adequately conveyed on the screen. Olivier’s Hamlet seemed to settle the issue once and for all, and it is probably no coincidence that the film marked the beginning of a great flowering of cinematic versions of Shakespeare. Eight films of Shakespearean plays were made in the nine years immediately following Hamlet, including Olivier’s own Richard III (1955). Moreover, for millions of filmgoers, many of whom had probably never seen a stage production of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet forever became, thanks to Olivier, “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

The influence of the film was so great that one college professor complained that he was tired of hearing his students, year after year, insist that Gertrude knowingly drank the poisoned wine in the play’s final scene. The students had all seen Olivier’s film, in which Gertrude guesses the treachery of the king in advance and drinks the wine in an act of self-sacrifice and atonement. This, however, is not even hinted at in Shakespeare’s play, and critics of Olivier’s film pointed out that such an interpretation attributes a strength of character to Gertrude that is out of keeping with her behavior in the play as a whole.

Olivier’s Hamlet was highly acclaimed in the film industry. It received five Oscars, including one for Olivier as best actor, and also won an award at the Venice Film Festival. In addition, many reviewers were enthusiastic about Olivier’s achievement. James Agee, for example, wrote in Time magazine that Hamlet was “a sternly beautiful job, densely and delicately worked,” and concluded that “a man who can do what Laurence Olivier is doing for Shakespeare is certainly among the more valuable men of his time.” In The New Yorker, John McCarten shared Agee’s positive view, praising the “fine acting, remarkable sets, superb music” as well as Olivier’s paring of Shakespeare’s text. McCarten added that “it will be a presumptuous movie director indeed who attempts to improve upon the effort Olivier has made.”

Critical reception of the film was not unanimously favorable. In the Kenyon Review, for example, Parker Tyler, though acknowledging the “superior intelligence” that went into the production, asserted that Hamlet was a “bad movie simply because it is far more conscious of being traditional cinema than of being traditional theater . . . and on the whole, it is poorly acted, especially by Olivier, whose face is revealed by the intimate camera as less expressive than one might have hoped.” Tyler also argued that by accepting the Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet, Olivier “utterly relieved himself of the obligation of a personal interpretation.” R. Herring complained that the film failed because Olivier’s “use of the medium is not, fundamentally, cinematic.” Had Olivier chosen to utilize the full resources of film, Herring argued, he would have created a film with more striking visual images.

Olivier’s film nevertheless had a marked influence on subsequent film treatments of the play. The versions directed by Franz Wirth (1960) and Tony Richardson (1970) both used abstract settings that recalled those in the Olivier film. Olivier’s use of the voice-over for Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy—which, he said, seemed to be the most natural way in the world of conveying it—was also used by the Russian director Gregori Kozinstev in his 1964 film version. The film continued to influence other filmmakers through the end of the twentieth century. As the single most widely seen realization of Shakespeare’s play, it influenced subsequent stage productions as well. Hamlet (Olivier)
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];William Shakespeare[Shakespeare]

Further Reading

  • Agee, James. Agee on Film. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969. Appreciative review by one of America’s leading film critics. Argues that the film manages to strike a balance between the screen, the stage, and literature. Olivier’s performance is one of the most beautiful ever put on film, although a few crucial passages are disappointing.
  • Barbarow, George. “Hamlet Through a Telescope.” Hudson Review 2 (Spring, 1949): 98-104. One of the more harshly critical views of the film. Argues that the cutting of the text weakens the main element of the drama, the conflict between Hamlet and Claudius, since Claudius is made too weak. Also criticizes the moving camera, which fragments the action and confuses the viewer, and the presentation of soliloquies.
  • Cross, Brenda. The Film “Hamlet”: A Record of Its Production. London: Saturn Press, 1948. Contains Olivier’s own comments on the film and articles by those involved in all aspects of its making: casting, camera and lighting, design and costumes, music, script editing. Actors Harcourt Williams (the Player King), Stanley Holloway (the gravedigger), and Jean Simmons (Ophelia) also contribute short pieces. Includes more than thirty photographs.
  • Eckert, Charles, ed. Focus on Shakespearean Films. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1972. Contains two articles about Hamlet. Mary McCarthy regrets the omission of Fortinbras and also comments that Olivier sees Hamlet as an immature boy; as a result, she argues, the drama becomes a kind of initiation ceremony. Peter Alexander sees a tension in the film caused by the differences between popular and scholarly approaches.
  • Henderson, Diana E., ed. A Concise Companion to Shakespeare on Screen. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. Compilation of scholarly essays, including two discussing the political and cultural stakes in screen adaptations of Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Jackson, Russell, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Collection of essays on cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Includes an essay on adaptations of Hamlet and one on Olivier’s films. Bibliographic references, filmography, index.
  • Jorgens, Jack J. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. The chapter on Hamlet is one of the fullest critical discussions of the film to appear. Argues, among other things, that the Freudian interpretation does not narrow the character of Hamlet as much as has sometimes been said and that the film effectively captures the inner Hamlet. Jorgens, though, criticizes the simplification of the ending, which gives a sense of fulfillment rather than the mixture of triumph and defeat that Shakespeare’s play conveys. Compares Olivier’s film to the 1964 Hamlet of Gregori Kozintsev.
  • Manvell, Roger. Shakespeare and the Film. New York: Praeger, 1971. Argues that of the three Shakespearean films directed by Olivier, Hamlet, in spite of its faults (too drastic cutting of the text, excessive camera movement), is the one that most rewards detailed examination. Cites sets, photography, acting, music.
  • Olivier, Laurence. On Acting. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986. Olivier emphasizes the importance of deep-focus photography, praises the performances of his fellow actors, and explains the principles behind the editing of the film, including his practice—criticized by some—of providing visual images to accompany passages of descriptive verse (such as the drowning of Ophelia).

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