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Shakespeare: Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

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Sir Laurence Olivier’s version of the Hamlet is a 1948 British film adaptation, which is both praised and criticized by many film critics. Despite winning numerous awards, it has provoked controversy as many felt that Olivier had made too many cuts and changes in the play. The director removed scenes, which do not relate with the theme of his film – “a man who cold not make up his mind”.

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The entire film is centered around the tragic hero and his tragic flaw, which Aristotle calls harmatia. Olivier uses setting, camera positioning and music to reinforce his interpretation of this tragedy.

For Olivier, Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 presents a man undergoing great psychological and mental distress, and the director delivers a haunting representation of Hamlet closely related with the setting, composition and music

The setting is a simple, yet, gothic, darkened room within a castle, which seems as a more accurate setting for a 16th century Shakespearean play. It also mirrors Hamlet’s growing sense of isolation and despair. The architectural design and the furniture are equally simple, however even within such simple setting Olivier manages to transmit a strong feeling of melancholy to the audience. The simplicity of the setting in a way allows the focus to remain on Hamlet throughout his heartfelt speech.

The manner in which Olivier acted as Hamlet also contributes significantly to the gothic and dreary interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The director and actor begins and ends his soliloquy in the same chair. Nonetheless, in between, Olivier gets up from the chair, walks around aimlessly, and then slowly returns to it; this reflects his indecisive nature and the thoughtfulness of his actions. On the other hand, even though Olivier’s portray of Hamlet’s mental turmoil to a great extent, he still depicts him as someone with a great sense of dignity and high in the social hierarchy as he walks with his hands behind his back and having a great posture throughout much of the scene.

Finally, in Olivier’s version, music helps him establish the eeriness of the scene. The music begins with low strong instruments, although they are never loud enough to distract the audience from Hamlet’s speech, it still adds greatly to the darkness of the atmosphere that the director strives for. In addition, what also reflects the darkness of the atmosphere is the shadows used to a cinematic effect in the portrayal of Hamlet’s disturbed mind and emotions. Olivier’s version, through the use of technology, is performed as though the audience could hear Hamlet’s most intimate and angst-ridden thoughts without him saying them aloud. This effect successfully transmits to the audience an even more personal feeling.

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