“To Be or Not To Be” in Oliver’s Hamlet Film (1948)

William Shakespeare is arguably one of the best playwrights to ever grace literary circles and is still remembered for his life-long contribution in literature. This was a breath of fresh air in a niche genre that had, for a long time, not produced masterpieces akin to Greek Classics. The turn of the 17th century, therefore, saw him delve deep into the art of crafting tragedies, which he soon made his forte. By 1602, he had produced Hamlet, a tragedy set in Denmark with a member of the royal family as the protagonist. This iconic masterpiece enthralled many, focusing on Prince Hamlet’s confrontation with an apparition of his dead father subsequently murdered by his usurper brother, Claudius.  The powerful nature of this particular play was the reason why there have been numerous adaptations, with different actors and production houses seeking to present their unique take on the subject matter (Shakespeare and Hibbard 60). One of the most moving productions features Laurence Oliver’s version produced in 1948. Here, he single-handedly stars as a titular character, playing the protagonist’s role with exceptional prowess. In this essay, I will provide an in-depth analysis of Oliver’s 1948 version of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, the question being asked and whether this question is answered ultimately.

In crafting this particular soliloquy, Shakespeare wanted to present the conflict that was raging inside Prince Hamlet conscience. He is in an apparent quandary on whether or not he should follow through with his plans to commit suicide owing to his emotional pain. It’s clear that the events surrounding his father’s death and his uncle subsequently ascending to the throne have left him disillusioned, not knowing who to trust. Moreover, he feels utterly betrayed by his mother who went to marry his uncle Claudius, who was thought to be the main culprit in the brutal murder of the King. All this became clear to the young prince when his father’s ghost appeared to him, revealing all that transpired and how he was utterly betrayed by his brother. Hamlet opines that suicide might be his only option in escaping the troubles of the world and the pain that has now become the bane of his existence (MacDonell). Nonetheless, he is still unsure of what lies in store for him, should he commit suicide which further exacerbates his agony. Will he find peace and serenity in death or will he linger in oblivion, suffering a fate similar to that of his father? Oliver’s depiction of Hamlet paints a clear picture of a young prince concerned with the future that awaits him, coupled with being unsure about his mortality while grappling with the information provided by his father’s ghost.

In performing this particular soliloquy, Oliver does a superb job at expressing the pain that his character feels while facing insurmountable odds. All this is expressed in his manner of delivery though out the soliloquy which is fitting of the pain that he might be experiencing through his speech. A performance of this caliber expresses his woes to those he is communicating the message to, allowing them to sympathize with this tragic figure and the precarious position that he finds himself in  (“Olivier’s Hamlet film (1948): To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy”). Furthermore, his causal nature while handling the knife is a depiction of his state of mind at this penultimate moment. He seems to be threatening no other but himself, a clear indication of the internal struggle that he might be going through at this particular moment in time. All this is then abruptly interrupted when he begins to think about what will happen to him after death. Oliver’s adaptation, therefore, has a psychological disposition to it; a man overcome by grief and emotion.  The question in this particular instance centered on whether or not Hamlet should commit suicide. However, by the end of the soliloquy he chooses life over suicide as opposed to choosing death to an “undiscovered country”.

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