Olivier starts the film by having a narrated prologue, and then inserts a description of the play as the “tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” This is a common critical conception of Hamlet, but is it really true? If you look at the uncut version of the play, not Olivier’s, There are only one or two places where Hamlet actually indicates irresolution. One place occurs in Act IV after Hamlet encounters the Norwegian troops led by Fortinbras. Olivier’s version, in the interest of time, omits Fortinbras entirely, though I think one of his speeches is transferred to Horatio. I suppose that the famous “To be or not to be” speech might be construed as hesitation, but it’s not hesitation about the action as much as it is about suicide. I think that here Olivier misinterprets the line “conscience doth make cowards of us all,” as meaning conscience (knowledge of right and wrong) rather than consciousness, the correct meaning. Consciousness makes cowards of us all because we have an ingrained fear of the loss of that consciousness, that awareness of the Cartesian cogito.
Olivier implies that there is an incestuous undercurrent between Gertrude and Hamlet. Her initial kiss is a lingering kiss on the mouth. This should be seen I think, not in the context of Renaissance practice, whatever it was with regards to kissing, but in the context of the 1940s and the film code. The kiss would imply a passion that, at least on Gertrude’s part, would appear to go beyond the merely maternal. I don’t recall if Freud wrote a paper on Hamlet, or if I read it, but Freudian interpretation would focus on the unresolved Oedipal issues between Gertrude, Hamlet, and Claudius.
This is a minor complaint, but Ophelia wears her hair down in her first appearance. Her hair should be more tightly constrained. A common trope in Shakespeare is that when a woman goes mad she lets her hair down. The stage directions, such as they are, usually indicate that she has unbound her hair.
Olivier also reduces the play-within-a-play to a mime. I think the dumbshow is less convincing, and would be less disturbing to Claudius, than the full play. I suppose that Olivier cut it so drastically due to the time constraints.
Olivier doesn’t address the religious/spiritual issue that’s implicit in Hamlet. When a person who believes in the supernatural sees an apparition there are three possibilities. The apparition is a psychological phenomenon. The apparition is an evil spiritual phenomenon. The apparition is a good spiritual phenomenon. Hamlet tests the Ghost, in a limited fashion, by asking where he comes from. The Ghost’s reply is in essence that he is in purgatory, which is a transitional state. (It should be noted, however, that purgatory is not a place for indeterminate spirits, the spirits are destined for salvation, not damnation.) The Ghost’s reply seems more popular and less philosophical than Mephistopheles’ reply to Faustus’s query as to why he is out of hell, “Why this is hell nor am I out of it.” Mephistopheles says that hell is an existential situation, not merely a chance of location. The damned soul or demon carries his damnation within him.
Hamlet’s test of the spirit doesn’t really seem adequate. He makes a determination that the spirit is not damned, one which we are free to disagree with, and then proceeds to succumb to the urgings of the Ghost to seek revenge. I suppose that one could make an argument that because there was no way in which Claudius could be brought to justice that Hamlet was justified in acting outside the regular course of the law, but the Ghost’s promptings to revenge are outside the norms of the moral law. In acting on the Ghost’s promptings is Hamlet in fact damning himself?
George Bernard Shaw contended that Hamlet was torn between revenge, and the possibility of transcending it. The truth of the matter is that Hamlet, once he has established that the Ghost is his father, proceeds to verify the claim, and then plots revenge upon his uncle. His hesitation when he sees Claudius at prayer is his fear that he will send the praying Claudius to heaven. Claudius, however, though he wishes to escape punishment, is not willing to give up the results of his crime, i.e., the crown. In this he stands in sharp contrast to a character such as Zaccheus, who makes fourfold restitution.