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Visions and revisions of Laurence Olivier in the Hamlet films of Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh.

While the Ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet appears in only three scenes and speaks in but two of them, the figure of the former king plays a central role in the play. "Mark me," the specter commands upon first appearing before the prince, who, cowed by his fear of the supernatural and compelled by his sense of duty, returns: "Speak, I am bound to hear" (Iv.2, 7). How "bound" he feels to the past soon becomes apparent, when, after the Ghost has departed and enjoined the prince one last time to "Remember me," Hamlet delivers a rousing soliloquy, devoting himself to the service of his father's memory (I.v.92).
     Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter. (I.v.96-103)

Hamlet can sustain neither his pitch nor his single-minded focus in the scenes that follow. Yet the vision of the previous Hamlet remains constantly "[w]ithin the book and volume of [his] brain," even if sometimes compromised by "baser matter," a source at once of inspiration and anxiety, which he struggles to come to terms with until his tragic end.

Two recent film versions of Hamlet, Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" (1990) and Kenneth Branagh's "William Shakespeare's Hamlet" (1996), show how the relationship between the Ghost and the prince, Hamlets old and new, speaks to the difficulties of maintaining personal integrity while reckoning with debts to the past. (1) Zeffirelli's and Branagh's mutual preoccupation with Laurence Olivier's "Hamlet" (1948) shapes their readings of Shakespeare's play, leading them to comment on their own attempts to revise Olivier's work as they present their own interpretations of Hamlet. Although Zeffirelli tries to reclaim the play from Olivier, the Italian director remains haunted by the earlier "Hamlet" throughout his production. Unlike Zeffirelli, Branagh tries to avoid Olivier altogether, denying his role in defining "William Shakespeare's Hamlet." But while Branagh displays his ties to cinematic history far less obviously than Zeffirelli, he too is greatly indebted to Olivier' s precedent. Indeed, Branagh's overzealous ef forts to elude comparisons between himself and his most important cinematic forerunner reflect his anxiety about being judged in relation to, and possibly overshadowed by, Olivier.

An anecdote from the set of Zeffirelli' s film, which Ace G. Pilkington relays in Shakespeare and the Moving Image, suggests that the ghost of Olivier waited on the set for the cast and crew of Zeffirelli's production before filming even began. Glenn Close (Gertrude) recalls that, on the first day of shooting, one of the producers gave Mel Gibson (Hamlet) a shirt worn by Laurence Olivier in his film. Gibson remembers feeling nervous when he first tried on the shirt: "I made sure that I was in the hotel room by myself, with the lights out" (qtd. in Pilkington 166). Curiously, the setting recalls the one in which the Ghost first appears before Hamlet in the play: the prince (or the actor) stands alone, in the dark, facing potentially overwhelming inherited responsibilities. Given the great renown of Olivier and the enormous critical and commercial success of his Academy Award-winning film, Gibson's nervousness seems natural enough. (2) But unlike the character he was soon to play, Gibson appears to have easily mastered any fears he had about living up to the standard of a former great Hamlet. "Gradually," he recollects, "I got the courage to turn the lights on, and I found that it was probably a little too small, but it fit well enough" (qtd. in Pilkington 166).

Unlike Gibson, Zeffirelli could not so easily shake his concerns about having to fill Olivier' s shirt (or shoes). This is not surprising, given Olivier' s great personal significance for Zeffirelli. On several occasions he has made it plain that Olivier looms large in his creative imagination, even appearing as a kind of father-figure to him. Olivier's "Henry V' (1944), Zeffirelli confessed in his autobiography, helped to determine his vocation, prompting him to abandon a career in architecture for work on the stage (61). In his own words, the highpoint of Zeffirelli' s 1965 stage production of "Much Ado About Nothing" was the point at which it introduced him "to Larry Olivier, who has been my hero since I was a boy" (201). Moreover, Zeffirelli employed Olivier and imitated his directorial style in his debut Shakespearean film, "Romeo and Juliet" (1968). Olivier acts as chorus in this movie, a role that positions him as benevolent observer over the action of the film, and, as Jack Jorgens observes, the consp icuous similarities between the cinematography of the opening scenes of "Romeo and Juliet" and Olivier's "Henry V" (1944) are clearly intended as a tribute to Olivier's genius (201).

Yet when creating his "Hamlet" many years later, Zeffirelli was less willing to accommodate Olivier in his vision. Zeffirelli insisted upon his artistic autonomy as well as his commitment to the contemporary age.

Every generation likes to look at the classics with different eyes and make them a mirror to themselves, in which they can reflect their image; it's their classic. Every generation has done Hamlet in a different way; at least twenty different approaches through the centuries. We say, "Let's try to do this because our generation has not done it yet -- let's do it for ourselves." (Qtd. in Loney 257)

Certainly Zeffirelli's casting of a popular, young action-movie star like Mel Gibson as the prince, which earned his film in some circles the dubious title of the "Mad Max Hamlet," attests to his desire to reach modern audiences. But Zeffirelli' s supposed commitment to zeitgeist was at least partially motivated by his awareness of Olivier. Right before the release of his "Hamlet," Zeffirelli himself implied that his production would define itself against Olivier's: "I wanted a new kind of Hamlet. We haven't had one on the screen since Larry Olivier played him in 1948" (qtd. in Darrach 38).

Although fully cognizant of the contributions Olivier made to the tradition of Shakespearean film, Kenneth Branagh has never been eager to accept Olivier as a forebear. While several distinguished scholars of Shakespearean film like Peter Donaldson and Samuel Growl, along with numerous journalists, have stressed the parallels between the careers of the two performer/directors, Branagh has repeatedly resisted being defined in relation to Olivier. When dubbed the "next Olivier" around the time his "Henry V" (1989) was released, Branagh chafed at the comparison: "That dubious title doesn't mean anything, except, perhaps, to the already-larger-than-life reputation of Laurence Olivier. There'll never be a next 'Olivier.' It's a sport in England, passing on the mythical mantle" (qtd. in Hagen C1). When asked in another interview if he was trying to challenge Olivier with his "Henry V," Branagh claimed: "The only competition I'm in is with myself. And that's what I want to address myself to, rather than the complete ly futile -- utterly futile! -- chasing of glittering prizes or this so-called 'mantle' that's hanging about" (qtd. in Joffee 10).

In the introduction to the source book for "William Shakespeare's Hamlet," which features the film's screenplay and stage directions, Branagh further distances himself from Olivier. When accounting for his sense of the play's title role, he mentions an early awareness of Olivier' s association with the part, but in a dismissive manner, cautioning us against looking for an Olivierian imprint on his work:

Over the years, "Hamlet" took on different shapes. One was a picture of Laurence Olivier on the cover of an old L.P. record, lying (unused) in a corner of the English Department Stock Room. Later still, the record itself was played in class, the master's sepulchral reading of "To Be Or Not To Be" set against Walton's eerie score. I knew nothing of "fardels" or "bodkins," but I knew that here was "something." By the age of fifteen, though, Shakespeare had still taken no special hold of my imagination. I was interested in soccer and girls. Shakespeare was for swots. (xi)

Branagh's rhetoric is revealing, for his efforts to downplay Olivier' s importance for him as a role model prefigure the strategy of aggressive displacement he adopts in trying to manage Olivier in his film. Though he acknowledges "the master," Branagh quickly moves to consign Olivier to the outmoded past. That Olivier is linked to the archaic medium of the phonograph (and an "unused" phonograph record at that) not only dates him, and by extension his interpretation of the play, but also dissociates him from Branagh' s currently preferred medium, film. Branagh casts Olivier as moribund ("sepulchral") and academic ("played in class"), a performer whose method sharply contrasts with his own, which in the following pages he presents as highly personal, "emotional," and "working class" (xv). And like the one advocated by Zeffirelli, Branagh' s method concentrates on ensuring that the play's characters "can be understood in direct, accessible relation to modern life" (xv). As Branagh continues to explain his inte rpretation of the part of Hamlet, in a forced effort to make the leading character his own, he again alludes to Olivier' s Hamlet. "At twenty," Branagh reflects, "having 'collected' as an audience member the performances of a dozen other Hamlets (including the films by Olivier and Kozintsev) I gave my first performance of the role" (xiii). Branagh thus lumps Olivier with numerous other Hamlets of old who stand behind his rendition yet presumably do not "relate to modern life."

Given Branagh's and Zeffirelli's distinctive creative temperaments and attitudes toward the imposing figure of Olivier, it should not be surprising that his presence manifests itself differently in each of their films. Yet the results of these manifestations, testaments to the difficulties of adapting Hamlet in the wake of Olivier' s landmark motion picture, are nonetheless strikingly similar, showing that, like the prince, Zeffirelli and Branagh both found themselves "bound" to heed the "commandment" of the dead.


Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" invokes Olivier's film from its very beginning. Zeffirelli rolls his opening credits over an image of Elsinore being battered by ocean waves, much as Olivier's film starts with the castle being wracked by the sea. In both films the fury of the ocean thus conveys the disruption of nature's order that has resulted from the misconduct of Claudius and Gertrude. The next scene in Zeffirelli's picture starts with a low angle shot approaching the bottom of Elsinore. This establishes the ending of Olivier's film, which presents the prince being born down upon a funeral pyre toward the bottom of the castle, as the starting point of Zeffirelli's production. Then, in an innovative departure from both the play and the Olivier film, the camera takes us past the ranks of the castle guard, respectfully arrayed in a mourning procession, down into the catacombs beneath Elsinore, where, in the company of Denmark's court, we witness the burial of King Hamlet.

The funeral scene invented by Zeffirelli helps make the prince's grief, and subsequent outrage, more palpable, as a mutual exchange of licentious gazes between Claudius and Gertrude over the corpse of King Hamlet accentuates the "o'erhasty" nature of their incestuous union (II.ii.7). But more importantly, the burial of King Hamlet also emphasizes Zeffirelli's desire for a "new kind of Hamlet." For in the funeral rites the Italian director attempts to confront Olivier and to discharge his creative debt to the older director by symbolically interring him.

Zeffirelli plays upon the fact that at the close of Olivier' s film, after the prince kills Claudius, he briefly becomes, like the dead body in the opening scene of Zeffirelli's film, King Hamlet. The funeral rites in Zeffirelli's film pick up right where Olivier's film leaves off, showing the burial of Olivier' s King Hamlet. Set upon a cold, hard slab of rock, Paul Scofield, who plays the departed monarch and the Ghost, acts as Olivier' s proxy, not for the first time in the history of Shakespearean film. Peter Donaldson notes that Scofield is associated with Olivier in Branagh's "Henry V," which was released one year earlier and which Zeffirelli probably saw. Although "Olivier himself does not appear in the film," Donaldson contends, "Paul Scofield, in a magisterial performance as the French King, stands in for him, registering metaphorically the sorrow of an older generation or Shakespearean actors faced with the imperious claims of youth" ("Taking" 61). In Zeffirelli's "Hamlet," Scofield is once again ma nipulated in the context of an intergenerational and intertextual rivalry. (3) Yet here Olivier is incarnated not merely as an impotent old man but as a corpse, so that while the funeral rites for King Hamlet function as a minor homage to the past, they primarily stress its lack of life and work to limit its influence over the present.

As Zeffirelli strategically strips the figure of the former Hamlet of power, he suggests that while Olivier may be mixed into the foundations of his Elsinore, he is to remain relegated to the cellarage. Gone is the traditionally imposing entrance of the King as the Ghost, in the first scene of the play. That Hamlet senior in burial, and later when appearing as a shade, wears neither plate nor helm, as he does according to the text of the play and in Olivier' s film, further diminishes the power of the dead King's presence. And his civilian habit makes clear that Zeffirelli' s film will not strictly follow its antecedents, cinematic or textual: the guiding force of this production is to be the present Hamlet, not dead ones. Andrew and Gina Macdonald support such a reading of Zeffirelli's s "Hamlet" when noting how it insistently focuses on the perspective of the prince.

He is the central figure; he dominates and even when the camera's eye moves to look on others, the script repeatedly calls for Hamlet's point of view, as he looks down from the dark and gloomy castle ramparts at the noisy, colorful revelry below, as he peeks over a balcony and hears Polonius chiding his daughter, as shadow-like he comes upon whispered voices conspiring. (46)

To privilege his Hamlet at the close of the burial scene, Zeffirelli has his prince return alone to the sunlit world above, while the other characters remain below, in the darkened sepulcher. Hamlet's movement toward the sun symbolizes his desire for a divinely sanctioned monarchy and remind us that he is the "son" who should, by laws of primogenitor, be upon the throne. In this way, Zeffirelli not only establishes Hamlet's alienation from and moral superiority to the court of Claudius but also implies that his version of the character Hamlet (and by extension his film, "Hamlet") is moving away from the dead and onto his own ground, becoming "a new kind of Hamlet."

Yet while Zeffirelli asserts the autonomy of his vision by burying Olivier in effigy, he highlights his concern over his forerunner's influence in doing so. And, not surprisingly, Zeffirelli never does manage to rid himself of the specter of his predecessor. As his film continues, Zeffirelli arguably has some success in creating a version of Hamlet that speaks to the values of his age. His movie's quick pacing, amplified cynicism about politics, and focus on the central protagonist's tumultuous inner states could all be said to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. But at the same time, Zeffirelli cannot seem to resist looking back to Olivier's film as a model.

The many well-documented parallels between the two films confirm Olivier' s grip upon Zeffirelli. Most notable among these parallels is the fact that both films promote Ernest Jones's Oedipal reading of the play. Recalling a 1937 meeting with Jones in his autobiography, Olivier reveals the impact that the psychoanalyst's view of the play had upon him.

I have never ceased to think about Hamlet at odd moments, and ever since that meeting I have believed that Hamlet was a prime sufferer from the Oedipal complex -- quite unconsciously, of course, as the professor was anxious to stress. He offered an impressive array of symptoms: spectacular mood-swings, cruel treatment of his love, and above all a hopeless inability to pursue the course required of him. The Oedipal complex can, therefore, claim responsibility for a formidable share of all that is wrong with him. (103)

Like Olivier, Zeffirelli advocates Jones's reading of the prince's character. Both his film and Olivier' s present Elsinore as a dark, medieval fortress, using its shadowy, labyrinthine interiors to symbolize the complexity of the Hamlet's psyche. Both films have their cameras fixate on the royal bed and direct their princes to gravitate toward it to confront the transgressions of others as well as their own hidden desires. And both films feature Hamlets who repeatedly hint at their illicit passions through a marked predilection for phallic props, such as daggers and swords.

The extent of Zeffirelli's debt to Olivier becomes plain in the closet scene, during the climactic confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude before the royal bed, a moment that Olivier indicates is central to his production by making his camera linger purposefully on the royal bed in his film's opening scene. (4) In Zeffirelli's version of the closet scene, he not only appropriates numerous elements from Olivier' s picture, like the prominence of the royal bed, but also augments them in an effort to outdo Olivier. Throughout the scene as Zeffirelli imagines it, Hamlet and Gertrude display an exaggerated sexuality. Indeed, Murray Biggs complains that Zeffirelli transforms "the Oedipal theme into a full-blown, vulgarized, traditional screen romance between coevals" (61). As many commentators have remarked, the sexual charge between Gibson and Close was surely enhanced by the reputation of the two performers as sex symbols during the late 1980's and early 1990's. Gibson's popularity as a leading man was establis hed by several eighties action-movies, perhaps most notably the "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon" series. As for Close, Neil Taylor remarks that "the casting of Glenn Close encourages the reading into her performance of both an unusual importance and a sexual authority derived, at least for early audiences of the film, from her roles in Adrian Lyne's 'Fatal Attraction' (1987) and Stephen Frear's 'Dangerous Liaisons' (1988)" (193).

In their rendition of the closet scene, Gibson and Close stress the attraction between mother and son. Even before Hamlet arrives in Gertrude's chamber, she preens before her mirror, as though she were preparing to entertain a suitor rather than to speak to her only son about his recent inappropriate conduct. As she arms herself with her looks for the upcoming confrontation, the mirror that she uses to inspect her external beauty foreshadows the one that Hamlet will hold up to her soul to expose her corrupted "inmost part" (III.iv.21). When Hamlet approaches, his unruly cries of "Mother, mother, mother!" (III.iv.6) are those of a petulant child, and they not only underscore his obsession with her but amplify the murmurings of "Mother" that Olivier' s Hamlet utters under his breath as he advances upon the closet in the earlier film. Upon Gibson's entrance, the physical attraction between the prince and queen is, as in the Olivier film, almost immediately apparent. But whereas Olivier' s Hamlet menaces Gertrude with his dagger to suggest his repressed desires, Zeffirelli' s prince wields the enhanced phallic prop of his sword, first toying with it absentmindedly, then holding it over Gertrude, and finally using it to drive her backwards onto her bed. Once Polonius is dispatched, Zeffirelli' s Hamlet climbs into the bed with his mother, assuming the place of his father as well as his father's murderer, affirming the Oedipal reading of the play advanced by Olivier. The prince mounts Gertrude, pressing his face close to hers, assaulting her verbally with sexually charged language as his ire rises. Growing increasingly vehement, he flips her over, simulating the sex act upon her, punctuating his complaints against her "enseamed bed stewed in corruption" with violent pelvic thrusts (III.iv.94). Gertrude cries out passionately with each thrust, and weeps and begs her son to stop, before halting his complaints with a passionate kiss which far surpasses in intensity the onetime scandalous kiss that ends the closet scene in Olivier' s film.

The Ghost then reappears, intruding into the bedchamber, insisting that young Hamlet "not forget" his purpose (III.iv.111). Given the conflation of Scofield and Olivier in the opening scene, it is tempting to view the Ghost in its second manifestation not only as Hamlet's father reclaiming his wife but also as Olivier reclaiming the play. It is as if Olivier has returned to demonstrate that Zeffirelli's attempts to surpass him with such spectacular theatrics have proven unsuccessful. For the bedroom scene establishes the Italian director's debt to celluloid history rather than his artistic independence, showing that his efforts to bury and contain Olivier at the outset of his production were a failure. Whether Zeffirelli at some point resigned himself to Olivier' s pervasive and powerful influence upon his film remains a mystery, but his prince capitulates to the vision of the dead, becoming subdued after the second appearance of the Ghost, resigned to the will of a force greater than himself that shapes his ends, "Rough-hew them how [he] will" (V.ii.10).


The closet scene makes a useful point of comparison as we turn to consider how Olivier' s influence is registered in Kenneth Branagh' s "William Shakespeare's Hamlet." Although the confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude as performed by Branagh and Julie Christie is powerful, sometimes even poignant, it is devoid of sexual charge. Unlike Gibson and Close, neither actor in Branagh' s film was popularly associated with "sexiness" through recent, earlier roles. Nor do the actors appear as close in age as either Gibson and Close or Olivier and Herlie. For in contrast with the earlier Hamlet films of Olivier and Zeffirelli, Branagh' s production strives to resist the Oedipal interpretations of the play pioneered and promulgated by Jones. Branagh' s directorial notes on the scene in his film's source book even suggest that the prince's fervor is moral rather than sexual: he describes Hamlet acting "as if he were a priest" when lecturing his mother on her vices (105). Before the scene, moreover, Branagh establishe s that the prince has been possessed by natural sexual desires with the introduction of flashbacks featuring Hamlet and Ophelia embracing as lovers. In his film diary of the shoot, Russell Jackson explains that "yes, they [Hamlet and Ophelia] have been to bed together, because we want this relationship to be as serious as possible" (177). These added love scenes have been criticized by some for squelching the ambiguity of the play. (5) However, as Stephen M. Buhler observes, the love scenes undercut the possibility that the prince is attracted to his mother, "transferr[ing] all indications of incestuous desire, besides that of Claudius for Gertrude, to Laertes's intense attachment to his sister" (50), thereby helping Branagh to dissociate his rendition of the play from Oedipally driven ones, like those of Zeffirelli and Olivier.

Nor is the bedroom scene the only one in which Branagh deliberately avoids relating his work to that of his cinematic forerunners. Indeed, it is at first difficult to discern correspondences between Branagh's film and earlier adaptations of Hamlet, since Branagh is in many respects more successful than Zeffirelli in escaping the past and in minimizing the common ground between himself and his artistic ancestors. Perhaps most notably, his decision to realize the whole of Hamlet, drawing upon both the Folio and Quarto editions, which Burnett notes is "an undertaking unique in the theatrical record," sets Branagh apart from his predecessors (81). By taking on the entire play (what he jokingly calls "the 'eternity' version"), Branagh not only tries to authenticate himself as a Shakespearean, but also tackles material not featured in earlier versions of Hamlet that he can claim as his own when bringing the play to life on film (xiv). (6)

Branagh again moves into territory uncharted by other screen adaptations of the play by creating a new kind of Elsinore. Whereas both Zeffirelli and Olivier set their productions in the middle ages and present Elsinore as a dark, gloomy fortress, Branagh constructs an Edwardian Elsinore out of Blenheim Palace, which is brightly illuminated and colorful. "Its wedding cake busyness, its eighteenth-century classical balance, and its grandiose Edwardian interiors," remark Andrew and Gina MacDonald, "speak eloquently to a modern audience," while doing little to evoke the tradition of Olivier, Zeffirelli, and the numerous others who have filmed Hamlet against a medieval backdrop (48). (7)

By trying so hard to displace the past, however, Branagh inadvertently allows it to affect his vision. When discussing his directorial strategy on National Public Radio, he reveals how earlier films determined several of his key production choices:

I suppose, in the film we, in terms of the setting and the way the characters were played, tried to get away from other brilliant versions of the piece which had chosen to present it perhaps in a gothic way and very atmospheric way which can sometimes lead one to believe that the entire Danish nation is peopled by manic depressives. The fact is, there seems to me to be little in the text to substantiate [that]. The Hamlet that we never see, the Hamlet that is free of the grief of his father's death: there's nothing to suggest that that's a man who is prone to melancholy. (Qtd. in Gross)

Branagh's comments expose the competitive spirit that motivated his attempts to turn away from previous films of Hamlet. While not mentioned by name, Olivier figures prominently among those filmmakers, including Zeffirelli, who created "gothic," out-dated interpretations of the play, distinct from what Branagh presents as his own more innovative yet at the same time more accurate version of it.

That Branagh claims for himself a more immediate relation with the original Shakespearean text than those before him should not come as a surprise in view of his film's title. Along the same lines, the enormous, gravestone-like slab of rock inscribed all in upper-case letters with "HAMLET" that his first shot shows, described in the source book as "a huge screen-filling legend," serves not only as a metonym for his noble prince but also as a monument to all the "brilliant versions of the piece" of the same name (1). Branagh's notes indicate that this slab collapses into a pile of rubble at his film's close, paralleling the end of the prince himself, in order to "obliterate the name HAMLET. For ever. As we fade to black" (173). Such heavy-handed directions hint at Branagh's wish to create a definitive version of the play, one that transcends all previous cinematic interpretations of it: nothing remains of older adaptations of Hamlet at the close of this one. But as Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" illustrates, the ghosts of the past often refuse to be so easily put to rest.

While not immediately apparent in the picture itself, according to Buhler, "a specter [was] haunting" Branagh's imagination while he planned "William Shakespeare's Hamlet," "the specter of Olivier" (43). Buhler provides as evidence the myriad allusions to Olivier in Branagh's comedy "In the Bleak Midwinter" (1996) a movie he directed right before "William Shakespeare's Hamlet" about a small-time theater troupe trying to stage Hamlet. The characters in the former film continually define their individual performances and their production in relation to Olivier's work. Buhler suggests that Branagh effects a kind of catharsis with "In the Bleak Midwinter," "getting things out of his system," purging himself of anxieties about Olivier, so that he might proceed in an uninhibited manner with his film version of Hamlet (49). It seems probable, too, that, in pursuing this self-enabling project, Branagh might also have been trying to contain Olivier within a comedic structure.

Yet despite Branagh's efforts to keep Olivier out of "William Shakespeare's Hamlet," he makes himself felt in Branagh's picture in a number of ways. Indeed, Branagh even invites comparisons between himself and Olivier in a few telling scenes. In Branagh's first on-screen appearance, for instance, he not only makes himself resemble Olivier by bleaching his hair blond but also signals an interest in competing with the earlier actor/director through his cinematography. The camera shows a shot of the court of Denmark at revel, then pans away from center stage and Claudius and Gertrude upon their thrones to take us past the court, then behind a wall, before finally resting upon the isolated figure of Hamlet. In the context of the play, the marginal position of the prince conveys his studied distance from the court. At the same time, Branagh's placement reminds us that as director he stands behind the scenes, watching with a critical eye the performances of everyone else on screen. As he lifts his down-turned eyes to gaze directly at the camera, we cannot help but recall that, in a sense, he has been with us off camera since the beginning of the film. By underscoring his dual role as both actor and director in this way, Branagh pits himself against Olivier, who delivers a similar double performance in his "Hamlet."

When the prince first meets the traveling players, Branagh again challenges Olivier by simultaneously showcasing his talents as both actor and director. Branagh exploits the fact that while interacting with the company, the prince gets to be both a performer and an impresario. During his initial encounter with the theatrical troupe, Hamlet recalls that "One speech in't I chiefly loved: 'twas Aeneas' tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam' s slaughter" (II.ii.445-8). As he then recites the beginning of the speech about "'The rugged Pyrrhus,"' the prince momentarily becomes an actor, reminding us that he himself is a character in a play, brought to life here by Branagh the actor (II.ii.452). According to Branagh's comments on the recitation in his film's source book, the moment displays the prince's/Branagh's s acting abilities nicely. The prince/Branagh "is quietly possessed, the delivery assured. He loves the language, savours the sounds" (68). And, consequently, the performanc e elicits a favorable response: "This was good. Spontaneous applause" (68). But as the prince then tells the First Player what to do and provides cues as to how he should perform, he also serves, as Branagh does off-camera, as director of the scene. The stage directions again indicate the prince's/Branagh's success, now in his second role. Following the lead of the prince/Branagh, the First Player narrates with such "tremendous form" that he manages to "enthrall" his whole audience, presumably including those of us watching the performance onscreen (69).

The Pyrrhus speech is also important to understanding Branagh's attempts to compete with Olivier, since Branagh uses it to tap the authority of a classical revenge drama that promises to distance his film from Olivier's. Moreover, the speech establishes a link between Branagh and an older, prestigious stage Hamlet that occludes his ties to Olivier. As the First Player completes the speech begun by the prince, Branagh splices in images of Troy's fall as accompaniment. These martial scenes unfold in flash-cuts, never showing Pyrrhus, focusing instead on "Old Priam, battling in blood and gore to stay alive" (68). Since we never see Pyrrhus, except from Priam's (John Gielgud' s) perspective, we are invited to imagine Branagh in the part of the mythological revenger. It is the king-killer Pyrrhus, after all, with whom the vengeful prince identifies. By projecting himself into these Trojan scenes, Branagh links his production to the classical tradition that Shakespeare himself drew upon when composing his play. The drama of Achilles' son is claimed as a source for Branagh's version of Shakespeare's revenge tragedy, a source to which Olivier's film has at best an indirect connection.

Branagh also strives to displace Olivier by casting legendary stage Hamlet John Gielgud as Priam. Several commentators have argued that the choice of Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Branagh's/Hamlet's surrogate father in the context of the play, is related to the mentor-student relationship between the actors/directors in real life. Jacobi himself was a successful Hamlet on stage at the Old Vic in 1979, and Branagh acknowledges having been inspired by his performance. "I saw Derek Jacobi do [the role] when I was 16," Branagh remembers, "and as Joe says in Bleak Midwinter, 'It changed my head and my heart'" (qtd. in Johnstone). On screen, moreover, Jacobi starred in the 1980 BBC version of the play. Off stage, Jacobi directed Branagh as the prince in a 1988 Renaissance Theater production of Hamlet. Yet during the First Player's speech, as we are asked to bear witness to Branagh's skill as actor and director, and reminded of his classicism while envisioning him in the part of Pyrrhus, Gielgud/Priam assumes the role p reviously played of Jacobi/Claudius, becoming a surrogate father for Branagh.

Branagh's autobiography, Beginning, suggests that in his mind Gielgud has as much of a claim to the role as Jacobi. When recalling his formative experiences as an aspiring young actor, Branagh attempts to situate himself in relation to earlier generations of performers. He indicates that while he felt little affinity for Olivier, the preeminent actor of the previous generation, he was drawn to Gielgud, chief player of the generation before Olivier's. Branagh presents Gielgud as both a general role model, who, unlike Olivier, proved seminal to his career development, and as a paradigmatic Hamlet.

Before documenting his ties to Gielgud, Branagh recalls writing to Olivier for advice on how to play the part of Chebutykin in Chekov's "Three Sisters." It is worth noting that Branagh does not appeal to Olivier for assistance on playing Shakespeare, or even refer to Olivier as a Shakespearean. According to Branagh, Olivier replied with a brief note, saying: "I am afraid I really cannot guide you in a purely literary way in a matter which is entirely at the disposal of your own thoughts and workings out. I don't think you can go very wrong, basically, as the author has it all there for you" (65). Although Branagh grants that "the thought that the great man had given my request a moment's consideration was enough to send me roaring into the next rehearsal," he also remarks that "I don't know that the advice helped me one jot" (65). Olivier is worthy of respect, implies Branagh, but proved neither particularly helpful nor appealing to him as a mentor. Not until "contact with the theatrical gods intensified" and Branagh met Gielgud did he find someone with whom he could identify (65).

Whereas Branagh's response to Olivier was largely indifferent, his reaction to Gielgud approached awe. (8) He describes Gielgud with reverence as "the Hamlet of the century," thus dissociating Olivier from the role of the prince, despite his viable claim to the same title (66). Upon learning that he would read the "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy from Hamlet before Gielgud, Branagh felt elated: "my feet left the ground. Gielgud had been one of my heroes since I had first begun to read about the theatre" (66). Even though Branagh botched his lines terribly in his attempt to impress his "hero," he remembers thinking that Gielgud was touched by his efforts: "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was moved by seeing a young actor struggling in utter desperation with a part that he had made his own" (66). Much as the Ghost does in the play, the great, older Hamlet saw fit to offer the aspiring, young Hamlet some direction: "He spoke to me not as a teacher but as one professional to another. He left as quickly as he'd arrived and I sat down half depressed at my failure to impress a god of English theatre, and half exhilarated by his presence and kindness" (67). When Branagh relates how he later improved his performance by following Gielgud's suggestions, he casts himself as following in the footsteps of the older Hamlet. And as Branagh continues to chronicle his early acting experiences, he intimates that his meetings with Gielgud, unlike his brief epistolary encounter with Olivier, were crucial to his development. Soon after, he decided that he too "wanted one day to be a great Hamlet" (69).

By casting Gielgud in the role of Priam in the Trojan scenes, Branagh employs the older "great Hamlet," who is so central to his professional identity, to bolster his authority as a Shakespearean and to validate his production of Hamlet. Branagh fabricates a theatrical lineage for himself that overleaps the generation immediately preceding his own, the generation whose central player was Olivier. As Priam, Gielgud stands in for the senior generation that must be cut down by the younger generation (Pyrrhus/Hamlet/Branagh) as it realizes its identity. Gielgud thus dispossesses Olivier of his place as Branagh's forebear in the history of Shakespearean film. And, while Gielgud lends Branagh his impeccable credentials as an actor, his lack of credits as a director mitigates whatever threat he might pose to Branagh's originality as a filmmaker. Yet Branagh's attempts to assert his independence and to avoid accounting for his relation to Olivier not only belie what he elsewhere unintentionally reveals as his desire to challenge his major cinematic precursor but also attest to the enduring power of Olivier. Branagh's forced efforts to distance himself from Olivier guide his production choices -- his screenplay, his sets, his casting -- and intimate that behind the ghosts of other Hamlet-figures like Jacobi and Gielgud, in the margins of Branagh's picture, lurks the same ghost that figures so prominently in Zeffirelli's film.

One of the fundamental challenges of adapting a literary masterpiece like Hamlet to the screen is justifying the reinvention of the original work, persuading audiences that they need a new version of it. Zeffirelli's and Branagh's attempts to come to terms with Olivier in their films of Hamlet suggest that the pressure on an adaptation to validate itself becomes particularly intense when other powerful adaptations already exist. Despite Zeffirelli's purported wish for "a new kind of Hamlet," he cannot resist envisioning his production in relation to Olivier's. And, as Branagh's Hamlet film reveals in its repeated attempts to avoid Olivier, even to deny the past can allow it sway over present.

Yet even though Zeffirelli's and Branagh's preoccupations with Olivier inform their productions, this does not diminish the value or validity of their attempts to realize Hamlet on film. Indeed, the influence Olivier exerts over these two nineteen-nineties versions of Hamlet, even if unacknowledged by Zeffirelli and Branagh themselves, served to spur their creativity. As Michael Almereyda's recently released "Hamlet 2000" demonstrates, moreover, Shakespeare's most famous play can generate (and withstand) any number of interpretations. And much as the prince must confront alternative versions of what he might become throughout the play, every adaptation of Hamlet must, like Zeffirelli's and Branagh's, reckon with previous ones it as it struggles to find its own vision, trusting that it will prove "most royal" when "put on" (V.ii.392).


(1.) The relationship between the prince and the Ghost might well bear on Shakespeare's relationship with an earlier artist and an earlier Hamlet as well. We know that in composing Hamlet Shakespeare revised an earlier, inferior work by the same name, the Ur-Hamlet, which was probably penned by Thomas Kyd. In view of the lineage of Shakespeare's play, the Ghost can be seen as an incarnation of the earlier play of the same name, or even as a personification of what Harold Bloom would dub a strong precursor, a literary antecedent who can be buried by his belated descendants but not put permanently to rest. By focusing on the Ghost at the beginning of the play, Shakespeare perhaps strove unconsciously to engage in a literary agon with his forebear. The possibility that Shakespeare played the Ghost on stage becomes fascinating in this light, for it means that he literally embodied the past, possessing Hamlet to possess Hamlet, as it were. Then again, he might have been trying to pay homage to the earlier artist, suggesting that he was indebted to his precedent. Since no known text of the Ur-Hamlet remains extant, we will likely never fully understand its importance for Shakespeare or the relationship between it and Hamlet.

(2.) Olivier's "Hamlet" was the first English-language film to play in the same New York theater for over a year as well as the first foreign film to win the Academy Award for best picture.

(3.) Interestingly, Scofield played Hamlet on stage in 1948, the year Olivier's "Hamlet" was released.

(4.) In Olivier's production, not only is "the royal bed, always looking slept in [and]... a repeated motif," Donaldson notes, but the opening of the bed's canopy when we first see it is suggestively framed by soft, folded draperies that look labial, further accenting the sexual themes that preoccupy Olivier (Shakespearean 34).

(5.) Burnett says of the flashbacks that "although the urge to fill in the spaces that the text leaves open makes for a clear storyline, it also reduces the 'heart' of the play's 'mystery' (II.ii.357) substituting a one-dimensional reading for irresolution and elusive uncertainty" (80).

(6.) Of playing the full text version on stage, Branagh says in his film's source book that he found it far superior to truncated versions: "the full text offered a much more comfortable playing experience for the actor. It was more imaginatively paced ... and the cumulative weight of the longer evening made for an immensely powerful finale" (xiv).

(7.) It is worth noting that Branagh also devotes considerable attention to the character of Fortinbras, who is absent from the films of Olivier and Zeffirelli, highlighting the similarities between young Norway and Hamlet, and emphasizing the political dimensions of the play neglected by earlier Hamlet films.

(8.) Interestingly, Gielgud's use of the royal bed in his 1936 stage production of Hamlet helped to inspire Olivier's use of the bed in his film, and, indirectly, Zeffirelli's use of it in his film.


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Noel Sloboda is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis. His dissertation is a comparative study of the autobiographical writings of Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. He is also working on film and stage adaptations of Wharton's fiction.
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Author:Sloboda, Noel
Publication:Studies in the Humanities
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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