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Hamlet’s Madness on Screen: From Olivier to Almereyda

Teodora is a published author with a passion for literature and cinematography.

Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier

Hamlet Then and Now

With the advent of psychoanalysis, cinematography also embraced the dark side of the human subconscious. The first movie adaptations of Hamlet include numerous references to Freudian concepts. After the Second World War, movie directors, obviously influenced by the human tragedies, were far more concerned with social and political issues. The 20th and 21st centuries brought significant technological development worldwide. Mentalities changed, including the spectators’ way of relating to the Shakespearean plays. The modern Hamlet wears jeans and lives in Manhattan. The romantic boy of the thirties is gone, but his troubles remain.

Hamlet (1948)

Thou Shall Love Thy Mother As…

Before starting to work on his successful project, Laurence Olivier consulted analyst author Ernest Jones, who wrote massively about Hamlet’s Oedipus complex. Namely, in Freudian terms, Hamlet (also played by Olivier) unconsciously feels sexually attracted to his mother and wishes to repossess her as an object of incestuous desire. Killing Claudius (Basil Sydney) corresponds to suppressing the abnormal sexual drive. Olivier made use of some of Freud’s interpretations, and chose Eileen Herlie to play Gertrude. She was thirteen years younger than Hamlet, which enhanced the sexuality gravitating around the closet scene. As he pushes Gertrude on the bed, we see a close-up of Hamlet, pressing his dagger to her throat, across her voluptuous bosom. While comparing Claudius with his father, he flings the queen backwards over the bed. The young man’s violence underlies the eroticism which appears to characterize the mother-son relationship. When they embrace passionately, the circling movement of the camera is a typical cinematic trick employed in romantic scenes.

Stairs, Corridors and Windows

Olivier’s obsession with stairs may be regarded as psychologically marking Hamlet’s oscillation between passivity and activity, his journey from arrogance to depression. The stairs become a world in themselves, a projection of Hamlet’s intricate dance through life. The up and down movements correspond to the man’s own rise and fall on the stairs of life. The stairs may seem infinite, but at the same time, they are rigid and repetitive, possessing a sort of regularity that impedes the man from acting freely. Hamlet is torn between acting and waiting, between madness and sanity, to the extent to which these almost overlap.

Olivier’s Ophelia (Jean Simmons) is fair, feeble, and sensitive. In her mad ravings, she twists her hands and appears to be sweating, as if shaken by a feverish dream. As in the 1930s horror movies, Ophelia is not a stranger to gloomy corridors. This enforces a narrative continuity and hints at the intricacy of the human mind. Ophelia runs through such a corridor, which can be regarded as a symbolic passage from sanity to insanity. As for the windows, they provide an even more profound insight into human psyche. On the one hand, they offer the characters a chance to escape, and on the other hand, they trigger a claustrophobic feeling of entrapment. Whenever Hamlet approaches Ophelia, we see an open window allowing a view of the outside world. If Hamlet realized that Ophelia is not part of the “rotten’ conspiracy," she “might offer him escape from the suffocating enclosure the castle has become for him,” (Brode 121) but the window remains a vain hope of spiritual redemption.

Ophelia is not a stranger to gloomy corridors. This enforces a narrative continuity and hints at the intricacy of the human mind.

Ophelia is not a stranger to gloomy corridors. This enforces a narrative continuity and hints at the intricacy of the human mind.

Hamlet (1964)

Hamlet the Warrior

Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet depicts madness as an accessory to the fight for freedom, in a hostile world. With the Cold War going on, Russian writers and directors were very circumspect when it came to the things that were unacceptable in their scripts. Surprisingly, the movie escaped censorship. Kozintsev himself admitted to having wanted to focus more upon the political side of Hamlet, so he presented him in relation to an austere society, where authority dehumanizes. He abandoned the tradition of the pale, melancholic Hamlet. A new, determined, courageous Hamlet (Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy) is tormented by what happens “in the prison state around him," as Kozintsev claims.

An Iron World

The walls and the humongous spiked portcullis of Elsinore are, indeed, those of a prison. Iron is a prevailing element in the movie, suggesting the rigidity of authority and the moral incarceration of the common man, who lives in a tyrannical society. The ghost takes on the look of a soldier, armored from head to toe, with a mask that resembles a human face – war crushes humanity. Ophelia (Anastasia Vertinskaya) is imprisoned in a farthingale, a symbol of the loss of personal freedom. It is mostly this, and not Hamlet’s rejection that drives her mad. Iron weapons are repeatedly shown, reminding of the oppression of war – a danger still lurking in the vicinity of Elsinore. In a rather sinister scene, the gravedigger’s hammer resounds powerfully over the coffin, to enforce the idea of an untimely and unjust death. Helmets cover the soldier’s faces, and implicitly, their humanity. The iron world makes Hamlet mad, because it smothers freedom and beauty.

Pale and thin, the girl obeys everyone around. She has to learn rigid dance moves and how to sew. As she listens to her father’s advice, she sits on her knees, a gesture that expresses her modest position in the world of men and war. After the brief conversation, she immediately returns to her dancing lessons, like a trained animal. Significantly, as she complains to Polonius (Yuri Tolubeyev) about Hamlet’s behavior, the camera shows a caged bird in the left corner. Just like the farthingale, the thin bars prevent the frail bird from knowing the taste of freedom. In her moments of madness, she dances with the same mechanical moves that have imprisoned her, and is eventually surrounded by dozens of soldiers who witness her ravings. The oppression of war and men singularizes Ophelia’s anguish, but does not grant too much importance to it. As a woman, her voice sinks in the clamor of armors, in the rigidity of the Elsinore walls, and in men’s indifference.

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Hamlet (1990)

There’s Something Rotten in the Bed of Denmark

What Olivier merely suggested, Franco Zeffirelli made graphic in his 1990 adaptation. Hamlet (Mel Gibson) speaks to Gertrude (Glenn Close), while literally mounting her. He may be ready to sexually interfere with his mother, when his “orgasmic shrieks” (as Brode calls them) are followed by screams of horror from Polonius. Hamlet seizes his sword, and, assuming that the man hiding is Claudius (Alan Bates), redirects his anger, using violence as a means to avoid raping Gertrude. The sword bears a double significance, as a sexual and a killing tool. When he leaves for England, Hamlet says goodbye to his mother not as a son, but more as a lover. It’s quite understandable that Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter) should suffer a breakdown after the man she loves rejects her for his own mother. (Brode 137) In the “get thee to a nunnery “scene, Hamlet’s anger is actually meant for Gertrude, because his idea of femininity is distorted. Because he cannot possess the object of desire, Hamlet projects his inner demons onto the girl.

Franco Zeffirreli

Franco Zeffirreli

Editing Makes Elsinore Better

Zeffirelli’s editing eliminates the confrontation between Horatio (Stephen Dillane) and the guards. The scene would have placed the existence of the ghost outside of Hamlet’s imagination. “The bitter-cold mood of physical and psychological chill is absent” (Brode 138). Unlike the gloomy setting from Olivier’s movie, the action of this Hamlet takes place during springtime. In this context, spring marks an indefinite mixture of coldness and warmth. Thus, death and renewal are intertwined, just like Hamlet’s reason alternates with insanity.

There is a visible contrast between Hamlet’s vision of Elsinore and the actual one. The melancholic Hamlet regards Denmark as a prison, but Elsinore appears quite appealing. However, Zeffirelli knows when to use the setting in order to convey Hamlet’s feelings: at the moment Hamlet catches Polonius spying, an encroaching arch creates a claustrophobic sensation. The characters are brought into the castle’s crypt, as we see the sealed coffin where the king lies. The use of the camera alludes to Hamlet’s relentlessness; its often quick, agitated movements remind the spectator of a schizophrenic mind, as the camera and character seem to be one.

Hamlet (2000)

To Record or not to Record…

Towards the 21st century, movie directors began to leave the war theme behind, while showing interest in problems that concerned the younger generations. Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) is a recent adaptation starring Ethan Hawke as a rebellious teenager trapped in a sterile universe, dominated by corporatism and the “unseen monster” of technology. Throughout the movie, face-to-face communication is made impossible, leading to psychological torments and even violence.

The action takes place in Manhattan, a city which brings together beauty and poverty. The movie is centered on a paranoid interest in video cameras and listening devices. Hamlet is often seen in front of a camera, confessing his thoughts or contemplating his own recorded image, like a mirror. Movie critic Elvis Mitchell likens Hamlet’s melancholy to a state of grace that gives him a sense of purpose. (Mitchell, “A Simpler Melancholy in a Different Denmark”) Hamlet’s calm pondering makes him look almost detached from the sad reality. It looks as though he is half-mad, yet in his madness, he finds the strength to seek retribution.

Hamlet’s soliloquies are all translated into interior monologues, with the exception of the famous “To be or not to be," where the young man considers suicide out loud and looks at a recording of himself pointing a gun to his temple. Urban isolation, suggested by the crammed buildings, leads to communication gaps. Words are filtered through other sources (like phones, videos). Hamlet has to play a tape that shows memories of his father in order to remember him. Cameras and other gadgets are the only elements that enable people to get access to their subconscious.

Frailty, Thy Name in Photographs

Ophelia’s breakdown is marked by a terrible scream, which could be a clue of the still gendered interpretation of female madness. Almereyda’s Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is a more complex character than Olivier’s naïve girl or Kozintsev’s imprisoned victim. She is awarded more importance, appearing in more scenes than in other movies. She has an inner world where she occasionally retreats as in a shell where she can consummate her sufferance. In her private space, she develops and sorts pictures, drenched in the red light of the darkroom. Just as Hamlet captures fragments of his life on camera, Ophelia devises her existence in small photographic images. Her memories are stringed and kept carefully like a treasure that escapes others’ understanding. The red light is symbolic of Ophelia’s passionate heart, it invades the room. Unfortunately, the room is limited and the passion cannot spread, so the girl is doomed to live her desires secretly, in the corridors of her imagination. All through the movie, she is dressed in red. The white feminine dress has been replaced by intense red, a faint echo of the passions identified by Feminine critics. During her spying mission, she is wearing a red blouse that hides both the recording device and her guilt. When she sees her dreams shattered by Hamlet’s disappointment at her betrayal, Ophelia burns the picture that reminds her of her love and shame, while looking at herself in the mirror – a gesture of self-punishment.

Works Cited:

  • Brode, Douglas. Shakespeare in the Movies: from the Silent Era to Today. New York: Berkley Boulevard, 2001.
  • Mitchell, Elvis. "`Hamlet': A Simpler Melancholy in a Different Denmark." 12 May 2000. Web. 27 May 2010.
  • Suchianu, D. I., and Constantin Popescu. Shakespeare on Screen. Bucharest: Meridiane, 1976.

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