In theatrical parlance, a tragedy is defined as “a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, esp. one concerning the downfall of the main character.” For Shakespeare, this can often be summed up as “a play in which nearly everyone dies by the end.” The most well-known examples of Shakespeare’s offerings are Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello. We shall start with one of the giants of Shakespearean tragedy …
Everyone knows the story of Hamlet, right? Danish prince may or may not be driven mad by the realization that his uncle has murdered his father the king, taken over the throne, and married the queen (an action that was considered incestuous at the time). In plotting the wrong-doers’ downfall, Hamlet racks up collateral damage in the form of Polonius and his daughter Ophelia (whom Hamlet may or may not be in love with), stages a play that informs the king of Hamlet’s ire, takes a side-trip to England, and ultimately has his revenge, although he (and his mother, Gertrude) also dies in the process.
Hamlet has the distinction, perhaps, of having had three quite well-received adaptations brought to film. I have to admit that I have not seen the Mel Gibson version yet, and I quite enjoyed the Kenneth Branagh, but the prize for best Hamlet goes, undoubtedly, to Laurence Olivier. The film was released in 1948. Olivier not only starred in the title role, but also directed and adapted the play for the screen, and it’s really a masterpiece. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Olivier.
The main thing to understand about Olivier’s Hamlet is that every aspect of it is designed to remind us of the overall feel of the piece. It’s filmed in black and white, which captures the bleak world into which Hamlet finds himself thrown. There’s a certain Dali-like quality to the castle in which all of the action takes place, all sharp angles, hard stone, and dizzying staircases, adding to the sense of uncertainty and ambiguity that hangs over Hamlet and the people he comes into contact with. The whole thing is bleak and foreboding, albeit not without a slight amount of humor.
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, and so it is often quite cut-down for performance. In this instance, numerous characters (Fortinbras, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern) do not appear at all, but I wouldn’t say that the production suffers overall. The removal of Fortinbras and the whole “invading army” subplot makes the action that much more insular and frightening. It’s as though the people on screen are the whole world, and that world is crumbling before our eyes. Without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we do lose some of the humor of the play, but this, too, I think is part of Olivier’s plan, and he does give some of their lines to other characters.
Of course, when discussing Shakespeare, the all-important thing is the acting. This is some first-rate acting, folks. Polonius and Claudius (the uncle/king) are a little cartoonish, but even that sort of works, given that this is Hamlet’s world. He doesn’t see them as truly worthy adversaries. Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and Ophelia (Jean Simmons) are both riveting in their confused hysteria, again, perhaps as echoes of how Hamlet perceives them. But of course, it is Hamlet himself that draws us in from beginning to end. Olivier was 41 when he made this movie, perhaps a bit old, but one never really notices. His Hamlet is brilliant, capricious, charismatic, and utterly dynamic. One has the sense that the other characters are being drawn into his web almost knowingly, but with no power to resist. They’re simply playing the part he has orchestrated for them, marching to their own ends. One has to wonder if the fact that Olivier also directed had anything to do with that sense, but I have to say that it seriously works in his favor.
The entire feel of the movie is really quite meta, and I think that is how Olivier (and perhaps Shakespeare) intended it. The biggest ambiguity of Hamlet is the question of whether or not Hamlet himself is really insane, or whether he is playing a part in order to achieve his revenge. In Olivier’s mind, I think, Hamlet is play-acting, and it’s sometimes even against his own will. There are scenes where it seems as though Hamlet is ready to just accept things as they are and to stop causing pain and torment for everyone involved, but he is compelled to finish what he started. It’s a comment on the larger world that we all occupy, in which perhaps we know we are doomed, but we have no choice but to continue on our paths to destruction. The interpretation, and the production as a whole, is one of which I imagine Shakespeare himself would have approved.