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Film / Hamlet (1948)

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Hamlet is a 1948 film directed by, and starring, Laurence Olivier.

It is—how did you know?—an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Olivier) is all bummed out because his father, King Hamlet, died two months ago. King Hamlet was succeeded by his brother, Claudius, whom his nephew Prince Hamlet strongly dislikes. Much worse, barely a month after King Hamlet was in the ground, his widow Queen Gertrude married her former brother-in-law Claudius. Prince Hamlet does not like this one little bit.

One night Hamlet's good friend Horatio reports to him that the watchmen on the walls of Elsinore Palace have seen a ghost of Hamlet's father, walking in the night. When Hamlet goes to see for himself, the ghost tells him some very disturbing news. It seems that King Hamlet did not die of natural causes as everyone assumed, but was murdered by Claudius, who poured poison in his ear and thus took his brother's life, throne, and wife. The ghost, who is not happy about all this, makes Prince Hamlet swear to avenge him.

The second of three big theatrical Shakespeare adaptations that Laurence Olivier directed and starred in, following his Henry V and succeeded by his Richard III. Contained several future stars of British and Hollywood film. Jean Simmons appeared in her Star-Making Role as Ophelia, Hamlet's girlfriend, who probably should have dumped him. Patrick Troughton, later known as the second Doctor Who, appears as the Player King. This was the first of twenty-four films that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared in together; Cushing plays Osric while Lee is an extra (one of the guards). Patrick Macnee also appears as an extra. Character actor John Laurie plays Francisco, one of the guards in the opening scene who sees the ghost.


  • Adapted Out:
    • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's two buddies who are both Generic Guys in the play, are cut from this film entirely. Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are so superfluous to the story that an entire play was written around their pointlessness, this is the only one of the major theatrical Hamlet adaptations that does not include them.
    • Fortinbras, prince of Norway who comes in at the end of the play to pick up the bodies (seriously, there was no curtain in Elizabethan theater, and Shakespeare needed a way to get the corpses off the stage) and assume the crown of Denmark, is also omitted.
  • Alas, Poor Yorick: Trope Namer. Hamlet encounters the alleged skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, prompting the prince to reflect on his mortality.
  • Black Comedy: A lot of this when Claudius is trying to find out just what the heck Hamlet did to Polonius. Hamlet remarks that if they wait a month or so, they may smell a bad stink around the stairs. When Claudius sends his guards there, Hamlet says "He will stay till ye come."
  • Camp Gay: Peter Cushing plays Osric this way, with a mincing manner, an effeminate voice, and a hat with a huge feather that he waves around constantly.
  • Catch the Conscience: Hamlet hopes the Mousetrap will catch Claudius's conscience, evoking visible guilt over his murder of the old king.
    Hamlet: The play's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
  • Chiaroscuro: The film is shot in black and white, leading to many starkly lit, high-constrast shots. The opening sequence where Hamlet goes to meet the ghost is full of shots like this.
  • Curtain Camouflage: Poor Polonius should have picked a better place to hide.
  • Dead Person Conversation: The ghost of King Hamlet shows up and insists that Prince Hamlet avenge him.
  • Dramatic Drop: Hamlet drops his dagger in surprise when he pulls back the curtain and it's Polonius, not Claudius, who tumbles out dead.
  • The Dying Walk: In this version Hamlet does not make Claudius drink the poisoned wine. Instead, after Hamlet stabs Claudius a few times, the king gets back up and picks up his crown, which fell off. He then staggers into the center of his room, and looks at his guards—all of whom then point their spears at him. Only then does Claudius keel over dead.
  • Double Standard: After Laertes tells Ophelia to stay a virgin and not let Hamlet have sex with her, she insists that he should follow the same chaste advice himself.
  • Exact Eavesdropping: In this version of the story Hamlet, listening from above, hears Polonius tell the King and Queen of his plan to "loose my daughter unto him." The idea is for Ophelia to find out why Hamlet is acting so weird. There is nothing in the text of the play to suggest that Hamlet overhears this conversation, but it would explain why he is so nasty to Ophelia later.
  • Excessive Mourning: In his first appearance everyone else is telling Hamlet to cheer up and stop mourning his dead father. Claudius calls it "unmanly grief".
  • Fire and Brimstone Hell: The Ghost of Hamlet's father reveals that as his punishment in the afterlife, he must spend the days in "sulf'rous and tormenting flames" (by night, he walks as a ghost). The Ghost's prison is not Hell, but Purgatory, as (he says) his punishment will last (only) until his earthly crimes "are burnt and purged away".
  • Flashback: The ghost's tale of his murder is accompanied by a flashback to Claudius pouring poison into the ear of King Hamlet (also Laurence Olivier).
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Brunette Jean Simmons wears a wig of long blonde hair as Ophelia. This, together with her white dress, emphasizes her sweet and gentle nature.
  • Heartbeat Soundtrack: There's a heartbeat soundtrack every time the ghost appears.
  • Held Gaze: The "long distance love-scene", where Hamlet and Ophelia hold each others' gaze from opposite ends of a corridor.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Every production or adaptation of Hamlet has to decide whether or not Gertrude knows the wine is poisoned. In this version she obviously does—she stares at it quite meaningfully—and she drinks it in order to stop Hamlet from drinking it. (Obviously it doesn't do much good as Hamlet is sliced with Laertes' poisoned blade moments later.)
  • Hurricane of Aphorisms: Polonius's parting words to his son Laertes, the famous "to thine own self be true" speech.
  • Impairment Shot: A variation on this, as the appearance of the ghost is marked by the camera going out of focus for a bit.
  • Incest Subtext: Many productions of Hamlet have emphasized this trope in regards to Hamlet and Gertrude, but maybe none more than this one, which used an actress younger than Oliver (Eileen Herlie) and has her kiss Hamlet square on the lips in the early scene where everyone's telling Hamlet to stop moping about his father's death. She kisses him on the lips again in a rather un-motherly way at the end of the scene where Polonius dies (and this right after Hamlet tells her to not have sex with Claudius anymore), and then again right before he leaves.
  • Inner Monologue: Oliver chose to stage some of the soliloquies as inner monologues, with him walking around or staring pensively as the soliloquy plays over the soundtrack. Hamlet's thoughts while standing over Claudius with a dagger are rendered this way.
  • Lap Pillow: Hamlet does this not on Ophelia's lap, but on his mother's, in the scene where Polonius is murdered that absolutely reeks of Incest Subtext.
  • Midfight Weapon Exchange: Happens in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, meaning they are both mortally wounded with the poisoned blade.
  • Milking the Giant Cow:
    • In this film Hamlet's instructions to his players are interrupted by the Player King making a silly "dramatic speech" gesture with his arm, which causes Hamlet to say "Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand."
    • Despite this instruction the Player King still milks the giant cow during his scene with the Player Queen.
  • Ominous Fog: In the opening scenes where Hamlet goes out to see the ghost, the castle is very heavily shrouded in spooky fog.
  • Paralysis by Analysis: This is often described as Hamlet's Fatal Flaw, his inability to stop dithering about Claudius's treachery and Gertrude's sluttiness and just act. It's expressly stated in this film, in a prologue where Olivier's voiceover describes the story as "the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind".
  • Slain in Their Sleep: Hamlet's father was murdered during his afternoon nap.
  • Virgin in a White Dress: Ophelia is dressed all in white, emphasizing her purity.