Hamlet’s soliloquy in act 2, scene 2 presents a man undergoing great psychological and mental distress. In his solitude, Hamlet discusses his desire to die, his father’s death, and his mother’s subsequent remarriage to his uncle all of which are subjects of great pain for him. It is for this reason that Laurence Olivier’s interpretation of Hamlet resonates more with Shakespeare’s writing than Kenneth Branagh’s. Oliver’s haunting delivery in conjunction with the setting, composition, and music provide a reading of Hamlet that is at once contemplative and sorrowful, as Shakespeare intended to convey him.
The setting, a simple, darkened room within the castle, mirrors Hamlet’s growing isolation and a sense of foreboding. Olivier notes “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world” (134-135), and proceeds to stand up and look about him. The viewer is provided a panorama of the scene, in which, gray columns dominate the eye. Beyond such architectural structures, a table and a few chairs are placed in the room. However, there is a feeling of melancholy and gloom even within the setting of the scene. Olivier comments, “things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely” (136-137) and as he does so, he walks by one of the aforementioned columns. The zoom on the column reveals its rough, uneven texture. Later in the scene, Hamlet walks over to a table overflowing with papers, near a few chairs. As the camera zooms out to reveal the entirety of the surroundings, Hamlet himself appears small among such elements of setting. Rather than being the focal point, he seems to blend into the background further conveying a sense of isolation and solitude. Further, Olivier begins and ends his soliloquy in what appears to be a red chair. The fact that Olivier got up from the chair, paced, and then returned to it, reflects the same cyclical nature of his thoughts, which came full circle, while also cementing the thoughtfulness of his actions. The simplicity of the setting however allows the focus to remain on Hamlet.
Unlike Branagh’s interpretation of Hamlet, Oliver’s use of music lends itself to the eeriness of the scene. Although never loud enough to drown out the measured whisper of Olivier, the music remains in the background of his thoughts, providing a musical undercurrent to the words. The music begins with low string instruments, perhaps a bass or a cello. The darkness of the notes and instruments reflects the darkness of the atmosphere. The use of music creates a juxtaposition between the darkness of the music and Olivier’s impassioned whispers.
What really offset Olivier’s performance from Branagh’s however, was the delivery of the lines themselves, which reflects a man undergoing psychological turmoil. Rather than speaking the lines, Olivier read the script off stage and later dubbed the sounds in. The soliloquy suggested Hamlet’s thoughts, rather than reading the lines aloud and speaking to himself. In simply reading the lines as Hamlet’s thoughts rather than his speech, Olivier conveys the introspective nature of the scene. Olivier’s whisper, full of desolation and despair, accurately depicts the content of the soliloquy. There is a clear hopelessness in his discussion of suicide; he croaks out the interjections, “O God, God” (132), as if he does not even possess the will to speak, let alone live. As the soliloquy shifts from a personal self-reflection of suicide to a disgust at his mother, Olivier speaks his only line aloud, “Within a month,” (153) noting that it was only within a month that his mother remarried his uncle. The use of spoken word for this line, rather than the presentation of thoughts as before, suggests that Hamlet is speaking to himself, answering his own thoughts. The shift in his thoughts towards his mother is reflects a growing disgust, rather than simply a moroseness. As the scene continues and Olivier becomes more and more enmeshed in thoughts about his mother, the speech becomes faster as if his thoughts were running wild. “O God,” Olivier spits out, “a beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourn’d longer” (150-151). The quick pacing of this line is juxtaposed with the slow drawn-out manner in which Olivier says, “married with my uncle,” (151) in the very same line. The statement, unlike the ones that precede it, is so full of venom and disgust at the mere suggestion of his mother and uncle being married. Olivier later says the statement, “Within a month” (153) again, and chooses to say it in the same manner as originally, the same inflection and emphasis. In doing so, Olivier conveys Hamlet’s fixation to his mother, by noting his attachment to the small time frame between his father’s death and his mother’s remarrying.
The manner in which Olivier acted as Hamlet also contributed significantly to a growing feeling of dread. His desolation is clear from the onset of the scene as the camera is pulled in quite close to his face, presenting eyes downcast, and creases of worry in the brow. As Olivier utters the line, “Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d” (131), he looks up to the heavens, almost imploring God to retract his law against suicide. “O God, God,” (132) Olivier goes on and he is presented closing his eyes and pulling his head down almost in shame. As he paces around the room, his footsteps appear heavy and slow; the walking aimless, just to fill time as Olivier attempts to sort his thoughts. At the concession, “Heaven and earth/Must I remember?” (142-143), Olivier allows himself to fall forward onto chairs, suggesting that the memories of such trying times are truly too much to bear. Similarly, as he states, “Let me not think on’t!” (146), he whips around as if trying to use the force of the movement to remove his thoughts and while he says “O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason/Would have mourn’d longer” (150-151) he falls against a column as if resigned. By the conclusion of the scene, Olivier returns to the red chair and places his head in his hand, exuding hopelessness. However, Olivier’s depiction of Hamlet, regardless of undergoing mental turmoil, reflects someone of dignity and high station, as he walks with his hands clasped behind his back throughout much of the scene.
Laurence Olivier’s depiction of Hamlet is particularly strong for its subtlety and ability to suggest Hamlet’s psychological and mental disturbances. Rather than being taken by fits of anger, Olivier presented his Hamlet as full of misery and despair. The scene further reflected the foreboding aura of the book, the eeriness and gloominess that was missing in the scene by Branagh. The quieter, more nuanced more performance of Olivier was effectively able to convey Hamlet’s growing isolation and despair.