Visions and Revisions of Laurence Olivier in the Hamlet Films of Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh

By Sloboda, Noel | Studies in the Humanities, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Visions and Revisions of Laurence Olivier in the Hamlet Films of Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh


Sloboda, Noel, Studies in the Humanities


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. …

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