A new look at Olivier’s Hamlet

Day before yesterday, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) showed Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet from 1948. I still think it’s the best film version of it ever done, maybe the best film version of any Shakespeare play. It was the first Shakespeare I ever saw, in fact, it was my introduction (I was eleven years old), and I was gobsmacked! I’d already seen a lot of movies by then, parents tended to take their kids to the movies when I was a kid, so some of the movies from the early 40s were familiar to me, but with this one I realized what a movie could be, so far beyond anything I’d seen up to then.

I rushed home and read the play in the little collection of Shakespeare’s plays among my parents’ books, and was thrilled to see that there was a lot more to it than could be shown in the movie. Thus began the lifelong love of Shakespeare that would take me to to where I am now after thirty years of researching the history of the Tudor period, partly to convince myself that Ogburn and Looney were right about his identity, then to find out if I could why the Academy so adamantly continues to reject the truth. I realized that the answer is right there, in Hamlet. Not the specifics, but certainly the background.

If the villainy has been assigned to the wrong character, well, isn’t that what he does again and again? He gives the truth, but in a form that demands that we put it together for ourselves. Hamlet holds a dark, ugly truth, and he was not about to suffer for it any more than he had to. A restless spirit, Oxford was a great problem for his community (and himself) until he returned from Italy and put all his energies into creating the London Stage, which is, of course, when he disappears from the record, leaving only the youthful reputation for bad behavior that is all that history has allowed him ever since.

With any film that’s so good you never tire of seeing it again, each time reveals new things about it that you didn’t notice before. This time it was the amazing camerawork and the perfect soundtrack. The camera acts as a ghostly observer, Old Hamlet perhaps, invisible to the actors, but there, watching, glancing from face to face, taking in the reactions and expressions that say as much as the words they speak, while the soundtrack, compounded of music and effects, reflects this ghostly observer’s responses, the anxious heartbeat, the sense of impending doom.

Always impressed with the actress who plays Gertrude, as she goes from angry unwillingness to face the truth that her son has determined she will understand to a state of numb endurance as the inevitable tragedy continues to unfold. She begins by refusing to believe that her new husband was responsible for the death of her first husband, she is angry with her son for his obvious attitude towards the man who now calls him his son. Like the characters in the play within the play, Claudius had been her comforting supporter following the murder of his brother, and her gratitude for his support has overwhelmed her common sense. She is a marvelous depiction of the situation of a Queen in Shakespeare’s time. Once Hamlet has awakened her to the truth, she moves dully, like a sleepwalker, through scene after scene, until, suspecting that her husband is about to oversee her son’s murder, her eye lights on the poisoned cup, and she can think of nothing but that until the moment when she can demonstrate to her murderous mate that she knows what he has done. It’s masterful, her acting, the film’s direction, the sound, the camerawork.

The scenes between Hamlet and his mother are, to me, who loathes and detests what our sexually sick culture has done to our perceptions of love, ever seeking the sexual aspect to the sweetest and purest of all loves, here demonstrated as the bond between a mother and her child, as she holds and kisses her unhappy son in memory of the baby she once held to her breast, the little boy she once held on her lap. There is not the slightest hint of sexuality in their embrace! What courage it must have taken to film this in the face of the endemic British nervousness over any form of physical contact! Truly the spirit of the great soul that wrote this play has invested the actors with what John Vyvyan has rightly explained is Shakepeare’s central belief in what Socrates describes to Plato as his ruling belief in two of his greatest dialogues, The Phaedrus and The Symposium, the fact that it is the highest form of love that has created and maintains the universe, and that once a man is awakened to this reality he can no longer hurt or take advantage of others, but is forever wedded, even to his personal damage, to defending the common good.

Wisely Ophelia’s part was trimmed. As we have her mad scene in the play one must suspect that it had to be revised for publication. There was a theory then that madness or drunkeness allowed a character to speak an unpleasant truth––in vino veritas––so that originally Ophelia may have said things that could not be repeated in print. Certainly as it’s written it makes no sense at all. Oxfordians see in this situation Oxford’s relationship with Burghley’s daughter Anne, the wife that he, like Bertram in All’s Well, was forced to marry against his will.

It seems taken for granted that Oxford didn’t want to marry Anne because he didn’t love her. This is an absurdly naive view of the nature of the dynastic marriages that once (and not so long ago) haunted the aristocracy. The more likely truth is that Oxford loved Anne as the little sister she had been to him since, when as a lonely twelve-year-old, she was the only  genuinely loving and caring person in the community at Cecil House, and that having sex with his (beloved) little sister was utterly abhorrent to the noblest side of his nature. There seems to have been some contest between himself and Rutland for her hand. He would probably have greatly preferred that she marry his beloved friend. He only yielded to the sexual aspect of their enforced marriage when he was ordered to do so by the Queen during his banishment or continue to forfeit his place at Court.

Anne’s humiliation by the role she was forced to play in this war between her beloved husband and her cruel father (Egeus, Polonius, Leontes, Antiochus), may have been acknowledged by Oxford when he named her Hero in Much Ado. Cecil was cruel to his sons; that he should be any less cruel to his daughter is unlikely. She was the key to his family’s rising to the peerage. Ophelia’s madness and death may be a reflection of the truth about Anne Cecil, Ophelia’s mad scene similar to what happened to Oxford’s wife. If so, her madness was not brought about by the death of her father, as the play has it, it was about the death of her little son in 1581, shortly before the first version of the play.  That the only male born to her while having Oxford’s children, the all-important male heir that would raise her father and their family to the peerage died shortly after birth caused her to go  off the rails is shown by the wild nature of the poems she wrote about the baby’s death. That Oxford had them published is testimony to his anguish, less over the baby’s death perhaps (the Cecils were tormented by the scoliosis they inherited from the Cookes that caused the loss of so many of their unborn babies) than he was over Anne’s breakdown.

That the film is in black and white is fortunate, for it suits not only the tragic nature of the story, but the gray walls of the castle as we sweep up and up the never-ending stairs to the sky above and down into the cold rooms below, only slightly softened by the arras, the hangings behind which Polonius and the King spy on the poor lovers. The costumes are magnificent, designed so that the loss of color is more than made up for by the contrasts between areas of black, white and gray in their elaborate designs. The decision to give Hamlet the blonde hair that would suit a Danish prince not only makes literal sense but it gives him an air of separateness from the others, of spirituality, almost like a halo, that would not be nearly so powerful were the film in color.

When was it written?

In examining the history of the Elizabethan Court and Oxford’s life for the most likely moment when the first version was performed, my choice would be 1584, shortly after he returned to Court from his two years of banishment; the stage the little rehearsal room at the First Blackfriars Theater, the one close to Westminster that  he created for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel shortly after arriving back from Italy; the audience a few chosen members of Court  and Westminster society; the reason, his disgust at the Court for treating him so badly, the Queen for her politics, Burghley for using his daughter for political ends .

The original style would have been nothing like the play as we know it now, but more like The Spanish Tragedy (absurdly assigned by 20th century idiots to the scrivener Thomas Kyd) in many ways a forerunner of Hamlet in theme if not in plot. The actual writing would have taken place a few months earlier, following the death of Oxford’s first supporter at Elizabeth’s Court, the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Sussex, plus the return to power just then of Oxford’s arch-enemy, the Earl of Leicester, plus the death of Anne’s newborn son in May 1583. Threatened with the loss of all that had come his way with Sussex, furious with the Queen for her return to business as usual following Sussex’s death (who in fact she found it very difficult to replace as Lord Chamberlain), the play became a Court secret, in later years revised a number of times as events demanded until it reached its final form not long before Oxford’s own death.

Hamlet in any of its evolving forms was never shown to the public until both Anne and Burghley were dead. Still alive however by 1589, when Nashe mentions it in his prologue to Robert Greene’s Menaphon, were her brother, Robert Cecil, and her daughters. The youngest, Susan, only a baby when her mother died, would eventually, under King James, marry the Earl of Montgomery, who, together with his more powerful brother, the Earl of Pembroke, Oxford’s last and greatest patron, oversaw the publication of the First Folio and the saving of Oxford’s writing for posterity.

The publication of two of the various versions of Hamlet  in quarto in 1603 and 1604 added fuel to the fire of Robert Cecil’s hatred of his father’s most favored ward and his sister’s cruel husband.  As the primary agent in the elimination of all connection between Oxford and his creation of the London Stage during his fifteen years as James’s all-powerful Secretary of State, and as the underlying reason for Oxford’s loss of reputation ever since, Robert and his Salisbury successors have had certainly had their revenge. Hopefully the time has arrived for the truth to emerge, not only to save Oxford’s reputation, but to establish with his creation of the London Stage  the true origins of what today we call the Media.



9 thoughts on “A new look at Olivier’s Hamlet

  1. This is brilliant Stephanie (and it was so good to meet you briefly at Hartford!)….
    I want to add something, which you may already have thought of. As I tried to argue there in my own talk

    Click to access Should-Oxfordians-be-Postmodernists.pdf

    and following Stephen Booth’s essay ‘On the Value of Hamlet’ in ‘Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama’, and Eddi Jolly’s work, it seems clear that Q2 of Hamlet, in comparison with Q1, is deliberately and systematically ambiguous and deconstructive, culminating in the speech I cite, ‘How all occasions do inform against me….’
    If so, then he himself was actively and very vigorously throwing sand into the camel’s eyes, not just the Salisburys……
    Oxfordians have focused exclusively on the ‘wounded name’ speech, too literally, in my thinking…….
    I suspect he launched a time capsule, quite deliberately (and very successfully of course)……
    That alters the narrative somewhat…..

  2. A suggestion inferred from the then current oral tradition and its faith in the revelatory power of the word and in sounds creating the word. Your estimate of 1584 for a preliminary text/ performance is very close to mine. At the graveyard Hamlet is reminded that “Yorick” died twenty-three years before. In the Shakespeare canon number and geographical locale are not fiction, but manifestations of truth. Will Sommer died twenty-three years before the proposed year, 1583, in 1560, when Vere was a ten year old prodigy. Sommer was his e(Y)o-rick, the later earl of Oxford’s Rick, EO’s Rick, in that Richard Tarleton, greatest comic of the age, in Oxford’s plays at court, making him the archetypal model for King’s Jester, which Sommer had been for Earl John. His son Edward was then, long past now, Sommer’s favorite and student in theater art. “He hath borne me on his back a thousand times…”

    1. Bill hi! It is 23 years in the 2nd Quarto and Folio, but it is 12 years in the 1st Quarto, which is very suggestive, but in the opposite direction you are offering us! That would not point to Yorick as Sommers (1560) in 1604. But 23 minus 12 gives us (if it was radically rewritten in 1603) 1592, which takes it into the late eighties for its germination, as supported by Nashe and Bronson Feldman’s speculations. Tarleton died in 1588. I do not know where exactly this leaves us, the dates are so definite in each edition that something is going on, but I do not know quite what.

      1. We have no way of knowing how many versions of the play were created over the years or when each was created. Evidently the version published in 1603 was created at some point between 1584 and 1603, but when, and what comedian is referred to, is not something that can be extracted from what little we know. What seems evident to me is that 1603 was a road version, stripped down to six actors (as someone has reported, forgotten who), which came into the printer’s handsand which, everything up in the air with the coming of a new monarch, the printer felt was okay to use to make himself some money.

    2. Considering that Oxford was still in control of the texts of his plays in 1604 (his supposed death that year simply another maneuver in his long campaign to remain hidden, not only from the public, but also from his personal enemies) and for a few years after that, who was meant by Yorick, or other of his characters, may well have changed over the years, the point by 1604 simply that the skull is the eventual legacy of all great comedians, as of all “ladies.” Even so, your point is well taken. Earl John had an acting company, and while Oxford’s childhood was spent with Sir Thomas Smith, it’s more than likely that Smith and his little charge were included along with Smith’s patrons, Oxford’s parents, in the standard Christmas Revels held at Mary’s Court.

  3. Provocative ideas about the derangement and death of Anne Cecil De Vere, poor woman; it may be time to put to rest ideas such as John Soowthern having written the verses on the death of the baby Count Bulbeck. Stephanie, you and Charlton Ogburn seem right on the notion that Oxford could have seen Anne as a sweet-natured little sister (and, as he says, as her father’s daughter more than as his wife: Ophelia to the letter). Small wonder his animus was directed more at Lord Burghley at having made Anne the fable of the world. I must see the Olivier movie, something I’ve not yet managed to do. Heward Wilkinson: what an arresting accusation of smiling villains, made vivid in the report by Burghley’s keen-eared man. But then, how consonant with verses all through Oxford’s career (“I am not as I seem to be”).

    And that great soliloquy Hamlet rarely gets to deliver intact, which excited me greatly when the Branagh movie first came out, underscored by Patrick Doyle’s music, words and notes in one grand crescendo…

  4. Stephanie, it speaks volumes to learn that you found a lifetime’s study at eleven. What followed is as consequential as your childhood discovery was precocious. Bless your parents for bringing you to the film theater. Mine left me to my own devices, and I did not realize how both Shakespeare and the cinema were to play a part in my life until I was in high school. Once my footing found, I entered Columbia in 1962 when the Thalia on 95th Street made repertory of this Hamlet in perfect combination with Citizen Kane and the recent Bergman masterpieces, all of which were of a single piece to my eye.

    It was not lost on me that Olivier had taken liberties with play, having been cast as Hamlet in an unabridged version played on a replica of the Globe stage some years earlier. Today I long to return it to the stage taking advantage of what my career in cinema has added to my arsenal of special effects. My goal is to leave as many goosebumps and tears as must have swept across audiences centuries ago. I will use 21st century holography techniques to blast the Ghost right at the onset from what I call a “Ghost Gun” seemingly into the laps of frightened audience members.

    The tears are a different matter. “I loved Ophelia,” has never ringed true when the default is to portray that relationship as being manipulated from two sides with the tragic heroine as merely a pawn in an Oxford/Burghley chess match. We have discussed this before, and you took my approach as out of keeping with 16th century matrimonial politics. You argue that wee Anne Cecil had little agency in her marriage. Historically the weight of the see saw is on your side, but like so much that comes from our unique status in Shakespearean scholarship, there are some factors that could be expressed in the original.

    We know, of course, that both Edward and Anne were looking at different arranged marriages than their own. We have Romeo and Juliet to teach us that Shakespeare was willing to entertain tragedy born of teenage defiance of preordained alliances. While admittedly I am reading between the lines to make my case it is not taking any more liberty than Olivier has taken with his Hamlet by placing “To be or not to be” after “Get thee to a nunnery.”

    Imagine Act III Scene I so that it takes advantage of a well accepted trope. Polonius is a spy behind an arras who is hidden well enough to enjoy intelligence beyond his quarry’s. However, his deception is known to Ophelia, and even Olivier cannot resist that Hamlet suspects it from the start. The difference between his interpretation and mine is that Olivier throws Ophelia to the ground weeping piteously so graphically that we do not need to hear her only soliloquy. Such is the power of cinema.

    But wait. Having achieved a kind of telepathy with my mate where actions are taken without words needed to strategize, I personally can attest that the kind of love that is greater than the sum of 40,000 brothers’. It derives from a complicity that can be staged. Take the same lines as are always used to put Hamlet into a rage but now deliver them so that the lovers are literally pulling the tapestry wool over their elders’ eyes, and the audience is let in on how Anne and Edward outwitted their fathers.

    In my defense, I point to how Jacobi, far from reordering the scene as Olivier does, used “To be or not to be” to elevate the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship. He delivered the soliloquy right to Ophelia’s face, ostensibly to bring home how Hamlet must let his future bride understand the inner workings of his soul. I am not going there, but the sentiment that these two are outwitting their elders can be expressed here and in other ways so that by Act V the audience weeps with Hamlet.

  5. Tom, Hamlet was exaggerating when he claimed that “40 thousand brothers” could not outdo his love for Ophelia, but he was making an important point to the Court and the Cecils who were blaming him for her death. If she had been the first female to show tenderness to a lonely 12-year-old, that would of course remain in his heart ever after. Having spent several years under the same roof, his relationship with her would have been as an older brother to his little sister. His life with Smith would have left him with a strongly puritan moral code, which would have made it a profanity to have sex with his own sister.

    That she loved him and desired from childhood to be his life partner I do not doubt. That it took the “bed trick” described in All’s Well to consummate their marriage seems to me to simply be a statement of a reality that the Court was aware of, the play obviously being written for the Court, only later revised for the public.

    Oxford’s love for his sister/wife is, I believe, revealed in his later obsession with the resurrection of a dead wife in The Winter’s Tale and Much Ado, as noted by Earl Showerman. Relationships that last beyond the sexual stage with lovers or husbands and wives tend to turn into something closer to brother/sister relationships than anything else.

    During the early period of their marriage, his dream was of a mate willing to undergo exhausting physical effort to prove her love, as he portrays in Helen in All’s Well, Imogen in Cymbeline, and Julia in Two Gents. The girls/women who did attract him, the Countess of Southampton, Ann Vavasor, Emilia Bassano, were such women, bold, independent, and outspoken. Anne, as portrayed in Ophelia in Hamlet and Hero in Much Ado, as the daughter of William Cecil and his wife, the daughter of the rigid puritan Anthony Cooke, simply could not be that kind of woman. Which did not mean he didn’t love her any less, just that he was not attracted to her sexually as he was to the women he portrays as Juliet or Beatrice or Cleopatra, but she continued to haunt him, and his plays, for the final twenty years of his life.

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