That Lawrence Olivier, who was 42-years-old in 1948, wanted to explore Hamlet’s incestuous desire for his mother is obvious when you consider how he cast the 30-year-old Eileen Herlie as Queen Gertrude. You lose track of how many times they kiss each other on the mouth. At some point, probably right after Hamlet kills Polonius but seems more interested in staring at his mother’s nipples, ostentatiously visible through her sheer night gown, you just want to throw your hands up in the hair and shout. “Oh for God’s sake, why don’t you two just fuck?” But neither Herlie, nipples or no nipples, or the very young Jean Simmons, who plays Ophelia, is the object of the film’s sexual desire. That would be Olivier himself, and you really don’t have to be gay to notice, who moves with the athletic grace of an Elizabethan Nijinsky, and who stages the best choreographed dual this side of the Mark of Zorro.
Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, which was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, is justly renowned, but it can be frustrating. It’s partly a result of how difficult it was to translate the culture of the Renaissance to the mid-20th Century, and how earnestly Olivier tried. 20th Century Englishmen were not Elizabethan Englishmen. In 1948, the British monarchy, and even the British Conservative Party, seemed like relics of the past. After the war, the voters had thrown out Churchill, voted in the Labor Party, a government that implemented the National Health Service in 1948, and the United Kingdom seemed well on the way to becoming a social democracy. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, therefore, is a very personal Hamlet. There’s no need for spies. Clement Atlee’s Great Britain was no police state. So Olivier can cut out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern altogether. He also gets rid of Fortinbras, giving most of his lines to Horatio. Above all, Castle Elsinore becomes less like a seat of the Danish crown, and more like the great estate of one isolated, perverse ruling-class family, closer to the Earnshaws than the Tudors. You go in expecting Shakespeare. When you come out, you realize you’ve seen Emily Bronte.
Laurence Olivier’s Elsinore is a great haunted castle, sparsely populated, hallucinatory, unstable, dreamlike. His Hamlet doesn’t so much feign madness as he does participate in the madness of the Danish Court. Olivier so dominates the film that there are times when you’re almost ready to believe that everything around him is simply a product of his imagination. His cruelty towards Ophelia and his mother, the murder of Polonius and the play he stages to trap his uncle into revealing his guilt, much of it comes off like a series of destructive gestures designed to shock him out of a nightmare, to help him break out of the isolation of his own mind. For Grigori Kozintsev, the assassination of Polonius is the consummate political act. While it may have been an accident, it was still a decisive gesture by Prince Hamlet against a scheming politician who had already betrayed him. It’s also the moment that Claudius decides to send him to England to have him killed. Olivier’s Polonius barely exists. Hamlet stabs him through the arras, then turns away just as quickly to pin his mother to the bed. She’s terrified, but not because her son just killed an old friend. She’s already forgotten the corpse on her floor. What scares her is the far off look in her son’s eyes. Is he going to kill her or rape her?
In this strange, perverse land of unreality, what exactly does Claudius govern? The film opens with him drinking a toast to his marriage. It foreshadows the famous climax where he tries to murder his nephew by persuading him to drink from a poisoned chalice, but we’re a little confused about whether he’s a head or state, or simply the head of an extended family. Indeed, there are times when Olivier’s Claudius seems more like Lord Toastmaster of Elsinore than the King of Denmark. His last act before he dies is to reach for his crown. It seems that much more pathetic when we wonder whether or not that crown is even worth anything. It also makes it clear why Hamlet is so reluctant to kill his uncle and become king himself. What will he rule over? What does he want?
The reaction of Claudius to the Murder of Gonzago, is so sudden, so decisive, so tormented, and so violent that it leaves no doubt in Hamlet’s mind, or our mind, that the ghost was real. Claudius killed the elder Hamlet. After he leaves the play, Claudius goes to his private bedchamber. Hamlet follows him. Dagger in hand, he hovers over the older man as he confesses his guilt to God. Then he pulls back. The excuse seems fantastical, contrived. Hamlet doesn’t want to kill his uncle while he’s praying because that means Claudius will go to heaven. We get a hint at the real reason a few minutes later when he sheaths his dagger then goes to his mother’s bedchamber. Inflamed with incestuous lust for Gertrude, he has no trouble stabbing Claudius, really Polonius, through the arras. He wants exactly what his uncle possesses, his mother. Therein lies the problem. Hamlet is obligated to avenge his father’s death. But he fears that once he’s King of Denmark, he’ll get what he wants, dominance over his mother. He’ll be damned to hell. Polonius’ cadaver, like a reminder of his guilty desire, lies on the floor. Who is this damned mother? Who is this damned son? Like a pair of serial killers, they momentarily forget the bloody cadaver lying on the floor while they argue, thinking only of themselves. It’s grotesquely comic, especially when Hamlet regains his wits.
“I’ll lug the guts into the next room,” he says.
It is significant, therefore that Hamlet finally murders Claudius only after Gertrude drinks from the poison cup meant for him, and dies. Hamlet can commit murder to avenge his mother, but not his father. More importantly, he can only murder the patriarch of Elsinore after his mother is dead, after the forbidden prize he really wants is safely out of his reach. The last half hour of Olivier’s Hamlet is as much a ballet as it is a play, or a film. The dreamlike, unstable Elsinore gives way to the clang of rapiers and daggers. Hamlet descends from a narcissistic, isolated consciousness into the solid reality of the physical. We finally get to see him as more than a creepy boy man who wants to crawl back into the womb. Olivier’s Hamlet is an Olympic class fencer. Laertes, poisoned rapier or no rapier, can’t touch him. The longer the dual goes on, the more base Claudius, and his treachery, seems. Laertes is no villain. Like Hamlet, he is obligated to avenge his father, and his sister. Terence Morgan is as good an athlete as Olivier, but the scratch with which he finally manages to infect his rival is small, petty, mean spirited, the act of a coward. Hamlet, by contrast, leaps gracefully up a flight of stairs, then falls on Claudius like an eagle descending from the clouds. We realize that, had it not been for the incestuous desire he felt for his mother, Hamlet would have been a hero no less noble than Prince Hal. But that is not to be. The United Kingdom in 1948, like Hamlet’s Denmark, is a prison, at least for the aristocracy, isolated and inbred on their country estates. The empire is over. The Queen is just a figurehead. There’s no more need for heroes, or kings. Hasn’t the world had enough of these decadent gentlemen and ladies? Hamlet’s level headed friend, the commoner Horatio, therefore, not King Fortinbras of Norway, gets the last word.
“Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”