"To Be or Not to Be" in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet

I once asked readers of this blog to vote for the best of four movie performances of Hamlet's fourth soliloquy (3.1.58-90). (If you'd like to compare them, they're posted here.) I now regret not asking about more than the acting since other elements contribute so much to these interpretations. For instance, each rendition is reinforced with a different setting. Franco Zeffirelli puts Mel Gibson's melancholy musings in a crypt, while Kenneth Branagh, who won the poll, has his Hamlet rage at a one-way mirror behind which Claudius and Polonius are hiding. Michael Almereyda—like many of you, I'm eager to see his Cymbeline—has Ethan Hawke meditate in voiceover while walking past the "ACTION" shelves in a Blockbuster, a contemporary setting in 2000 that now looks as dated as rotary phones and typewriters.

Laurence Olivier sets the soliloquy on the castle tower that he first shows us at the beginning of his 1948 film. As I described in my post on the film's Freudianism, our first sight of the tower is followed by a title with a bit of Hamlet's "mole of nature" speech, which Olivier uses to point to Hamlet's "particular fault." When he then tells us in a voiceover that this fault is indecisiveness—"This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind"—we see the tower again, only now it's topped with Hamlet's corpse. By associating the tower with the flaw that brings about Hamlet's downfall Olivier makes it an apt setting for the fourth soliloquy.

He couldn't use this setting without rearranging the play's timeline. In the play, the fourth soliloquy comes after Polonius and Claudius set up a seemingly chance encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet. Claudius and Polonius exit to hide and spy on the encounter, while Ophelia remains on stage. Hamlet enters and speaks the soliloquy. When he's finished, he and Ophelia meet and have their horrifying "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation. Because Olivier's tower lacks hiding places for Claudius and Polonius and isn't a likely place for Hamlet to run into Ophelia, Olivier needed to rearrange the story if he wanted to set the soliloquy there. So in his film, the soliloquy comes after the "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation (Zeffirelli makes the same choice). This change also fits Olivier's handling of the Hamlet-Ophelia story, which makes Hamlet less cruel and more obviously in love with Ophelia than he is in the play. When Olivier's Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, we know he's trying to help her, to get her out of the castle so she'll be safe. Hiding the truth and behaving cruelly hurts Olivier's Hamlet so much that it drives him to the fourth soliloquy's suicidal thoughts, just as his disgust with his mother drives him to the first's.

Last glimpse of Ophelia.
In Olivier's transition between the confrontation with Ophelia and the fourth soliloquy, the camera serves as Hamlet's stand-in, as it does in much of the film. We see Ophelia from Hamlet's perspective. Sobbing on the floor, she lifts her hand toward us and then disappears as we spiral up the tower steps. We catch a last glimpse of her as we make the first turn, and then we wind faster and faster until we reach the tower's top and fly into the clouds. The soaring camera movement is matched by William Walton's music; together, they give us a momentary sense of escape. We descend with them slowly until the camera shows us the sea, a sight that may remind us of the lie Claudius told Polonius, that he's sending Hamlet to England because "Haply the seas and countries different / . . . shall expel / This something-settled matter in his heart" (3.1.170-72). The lines are fresh in our minds because the rearranged narrative has placed them immediately before our last looks at Ophelia.

Hamlet looks at the sea before
beginning his fourth soliloquy.
As we hear the whoosh of waves, the camera continues to move down until the sea is directly below us. That we're seeing from Hamlet's vertiginous perspective becomes obvious when we see the back of his head, a shot I believe was inspired by one in Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 Rebecca. Hamlet looks down at the rocks as if ready to throw himself from the tower, a moment which might remind us of Horatio's warning, that the Ghost could "tempt [Hamlet] toward the flood . . . / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff / That beetles o'er his base into the sea" (1.4.50-52). Horatio said that it wasn't just the Ghost that might draw Hamlet into madness or suicide—

     The very place puts toys of desperation,
     Without more motive, into every brain
     That looks so many fathoms to the sea
     And hears it roar beneath.

"To be or not to be . . ."
In the film, the sea roars beneath increasingly dramatic music as the camera moves closer to Hamlet's head and then seems to go through it, revealing a blurry view of waves swirling around rocks. This view dissolves into a double exposure of waves on Hamlet's forehead, as he begins the soliloquy's famous first line: "To be or not to be . . ." (3.1.58). When he says, "that is . . .," the shot dissolves back into blurry rocks and sea, which come into focus when he reaches "the question." Olivier then cuts to a shot of Hamlet looking down, making it plain that "the question" is whether he should cease "to be" by throwing himself from the tower.

". . . perchance to dream."
As the sea continues crashing on the rocks, Hamlet asks himself if he should "take arms against a sea of troubles" (61); when he wonders if fighting against these troubles would "end them" (62), he takes out a dagger. He shuts his eyes, the look on his face telling us how much he craves death's oblivion. The camera moves closer as in voiceover he says, "To die, to sleep" (66). For a moment the music plays sweetly but then suddenly blasts as Hamlet opens his eyes, which now glisten with tears. He has remembered that death might not be a dreamless sleep—there may be an afterlife (67). Beneath the horns' blaring and the strings' frantic tremolo, we can hear the thumping that accompanies the Ghost throughout the film; the thumping tells us that Hamlet remembers what the Ghost told him about the tortures of its afterlife.

Hamlet's determination to kill himself has evaporated. He leans on his elbow and meditates on life's setbacks—unrequited love, scorn, the law's delay (74-75). As he lists these aggravations, we hear the monotonous sound of the waves. Once again, Hamlet thinks of a way out, of making his quietus with bare bodkin (78). He looks at his dagger, reflecting that we would all make our own final exits if not for the fear of death, which "puzzles the will" (82). Puzzled, lost in his meditation, he accidentally drops the dagger, a gesture that illustrates his point. 

He turns away from the sea and looks into a fog that is like the "pale cast of thought" (87). Then he stands and walks to the tower's edge. Gazing out, he thinks of how "enterprises of great pith and moment" (88) are affected by these considerations. Turning, he says that such enterprises "turn awry" (89), and walking toward the steps, he says that they "lose the name of action" (90). Mournful cellos play as he descends into the fog and the screen goes black. 

Walton's music and Olivier's setting, editing, camera movements, voice, facial expressions, and gestures have illustrated the soliloquy's every twist.


Other posts on Olivier's Hamlet: Freudianism, acting and cinematography, Hitchcock's influence.