An Essay in Hamlet

This dissertation is an exploration of William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, on film, looking into the beginnings and history of Shakespeare on film and studying three famous and very different films of Hamlet; Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet made in 1948, Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet made in 1990 starring Mel Gibson in the title role and Kenneth Branagh’s full text Hamlet made in 1996. I have decided to look at Hamlet on film because I believe film is relatively new medium and is interesting to see Shakespeare that was originally written for the stage to be brought to a mass audience in different and innovative ways.

It is also important to discuss the different interpretations of Hamlet by different directors. I have chosen my three focus films because Olivier’s was the first big cinematic work of Hamlet, Zeffirelli’s was the first all-star Hollywood Hamlet and Branagh’s was the first full text Hamlet. This therefore shows the various original ways in which Hamlet has been exposed to the film world. I also intend to illustrate why film is an appropriate medium for modern day Shakespeare fans and critics.

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My first chapter will outline and explore the dawn of cinema, the transition from theatre to cinema and the role of Shakespeare’s plays in early cinema referring specifically to Hamlet. I will look at the earliest films of Hamlet and how they were considered by contemporaries and what obstacles were encountered in early cinema. The following chapters will discuss each of the three Hamlet films in turn and explore how they differ from each other and the stage Hamlet, the representation of Hamlet himself and other main characters mainly Ophelia and Gertrude and their relationship and reactions towards Hamlet.

I will also consider location, set and casting issues; who was cast and why specific actors were chosen and why they work well in the role. My final chapters will investigate other modern Hamlets their differences and similarities to my three focus pieces and less obvious adaptations of Hamlet. My conclusion will reiterate what I have found and discussed in the essay and bring it to a close. Chapter Two Shakespeare in the Theatre The plays of the 16th century dramatist William Shakespeare have regularly been performed on the stage in various different disguises, stagings and productions since they were originally written.

For Shakespeare’s contemporaries, theatre was a largely classless form of entertainment. The differentiated style of building was evidence of the organised way various classes of person were catered for in box, pit and gallery. Although the styles of theatre building remained relatively similar over the next 200 years, the classlessness within became less obvious, with a greater range of performances which were aimed specifically at upper or lower (as referred to within Shakespeare’s time) class audiences often in the same venues.

By the end of the 19th century, theatre for the lower classes was quite different to that enjoyed by the culturally elite. Opera and ballet and the classical theatre compared with music hall, comedies and revue. The plays of Shakespeare were performed but often were unrecognisable from their original form. The plots often remained and stayed as part of a national cultural heritage for many but the text was frequently adapted in extreme. They were often vehicles for the star performer of the day and had endings which did not reflect the original intentions of the author.

The actor Richard Garrick had no qualms in cutting and changing the texts of the numerous Shakespearean plays he performed in, although he did at least, refer back to the early texts in his work. ‘Garrick frequently went back to the early text to restore certain lines and to insert original readings which had been ‘improved’. But at the same times he was quick to re-write Shakespeare as it pleased him – something he not only did with Hamlet… but with Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winters Tale, among others.

‘ (Anthony B. Dawson. 1995. pp. 33-34) Edmund Kean also liked to put an entirely new spin on Hamlet. In the 18th – 19th century Hamlet became subject to the Romantic spirit of the time. Goethe, Coleridge and Hazlitt were the influences for Edmund Kean’s innovative new Hamlet who seems to have an element of Bipolar Disorder as shown in this quotation; ‘He screamed the final ‘to a nunnery, go’ and rushed off, only to stop at the very ‘extremity of the stage’, pause and then return slowly with an ‘almost gliding step’.

A ‘pang of parting tenderness’, wrenched his vehemence from him and he bent softly with a ‘deep drawn sigh’ to ‘press his lips to Ophelia’s hand’. (Ludwig Tieck, quoted in Mills, cited by Anthony B. Dawson, 1995. pp. 47) The American actor Edwin Booth transformed Hamlet again to meet the needs of American audiences with a more responsive Hamlet and focus on the poetry that Americans love; ‘The great American actor Edwin Booth, scion of a theatrical family and brother of the notorious John Wilkes Booth, brought a deeply sensitive Hamlet to an admiring public…

His acting of Hamlet produced a “steady light which illumines the beauties of [Shakespeares] magnificent poetry. ” (New York Times 1870, quoted in Shattuck, cited in Anthony B. Dawson 1995. pp. 49) Chapter 3 The Early Days of Shakespeare on Film. The arrival at the end of the 19th century of a new medium, moving pictures, provided a stimulus to the artistic community to adapt Shakespeare’s works for a new screen audience. Film was seen as a way of reintroducing Shakespeare to a mass audience by its makers.

There was already a source of well known plots and much of the early films merely shot the current theatrical versions. Many early films also only shot one or two scenes, for example the duel scene from Hamlet as in Sarah Bernhardt’s 1900 film. Film reels were very short and audiences would often watch more than one piece during a visit to the cinema. This might include a comedy, a news reel, local views or national events. The wonder of cinema in the early days was often just being able to see the moving photographs and the novelty of such.

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