Theatrical release poster
Directed byLaurence Olivier
Screenplay byLaurence Olivier
Based onHamlet
by William Shakespeare
Produced byLaurence Olivier
StarringLaurence Olivier
CinematographyDesmond Dickinson
Edited byHelga Cranston
Music byWilliam Walton
Distributed byRank Film Distributors Ltd.
Release date
  • 4 May 1948 (1948-05-04)
Running time
155 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$3,250,000 (US rentals)[4][5] or £1,352,200[3]

Hamlet is a 1948 British film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play of the same name, adapted and directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. Hamlet was Olivier's second film as director and the second of the three Shakespeare films that he directed (the 1936 As You Like It had starred Olivier, but had been directed by Paul Czinner). Hamlet was the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.[6] It is the first sound film of the play in English.

Olivier's Hamlet is the Shakespeare film that has received the most prestigious accolades, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. However, it proved controversial among Shakespearean purists, who felt that Olivier had made too many alterations and excisions to the four-hour play by cutting one-and-a-half-hours' worth of content. Milton Shulman wrote in The Evening Standard: "To some it will be one of the greatest films ever made, to others a deep disappointment. Laurence Olivier leaves no doubt that he is one of our greatest living actors... his liberties with the text, however, are sure to disturb many."[7]


On the battlements of Elsinore, in a flash-forward, the dead body of Hamlet is borne in state upon the shoulders of noble lords with Horatio in attendance mourning the dead Hamlet. The flash-forward dissolves and in the same location at a separate time, Francisco, a sentry, is relieved of his watch by another sentry, Bernardo, who, with yet another sentry, Marcellus, has twice previously seen the Ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus then arrives with the sceptical Horatio, Prince Hamlet's friend. Suddenly, all three see the Ghost, and Horatio demands that the Ghost speak. The Ghost vanishes then, without a word.

Inside the Great Hall of the castle, the court is celebrating the marriage of Gertrude and King Claudius; old King Hamlet has died apparently of an accidental snakebite, and his wife, Gertrude, has, within a month of the tragedy, married the late King's brother. Prince Hamlet sits alone, refusing to join in the celebration, despite the protests of the new King. When the court has left the Great Hall, Hamlet fumes over the hasty marriage, muttering to himself the words "and yet, within a month!"

Soon, Horatio and the sentries enter telling Hamlet of the ghostly apparition of his father. Hamlet proceeds to investigate, and upon arriving on the battlements, sees the Ghost. Noting that the Ghost beckons him forward, Hamlet follows it up onto a tower, wherein it reveals its identity as the Ghost of Hamlet's father. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it, and how it was done. Claudius poured poison into the late King Hamlet's ear, thereby killing him. Hamlet does not at first accept this as the truth, and then prepares to feign madness, so as to test Claudius' conscience, without jumping to conclusions.

This feigned insanity attracts the attention of Polonius who is completely convinced that Hamlet has gone mad. Polonius pushes this point with the King, claiming that it is derived from Hamlet's love for Ophelia, Polonius's daughter. Claudius, however, is not fully convinced, and has Polonius set up a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet's "madness" is constant even in this exchange, and Claudius is convinced.

Hamlet then hires a group of wandering stage performers, requesting that they enact the play The Murder of Gonzago for the king. However, Hamlet makes a few alterations to the play, so as to make it mirror the circumstances of the late King's murder. Claudius, unable to endure the play, calls out for light, and retires to his room. Hamlet is now convinced of Claudius' treachery. He finds Claudius alone, and has ample opportunity to kill the villain. However, at this time, Claudius is praying, and Hamlet does not seek to send him to heaven, so, he waits, and bides his time.

He instead confronts Gertrude about the matter of his father's death and Claudius' treachery. During this confrontation, he hears a voice from the arras, and, believing that it was Claudius eavesdropping, plunges his dagger into the curtains. On discovering that he has in fact, killed the eavesdropping Polonius instead, Hamlet is only mildly upset, and he continues to confront his mother. He then sees the ghostly apparition of his father, and proceeds to converse with it. Gertrude, who cannot see the Ghost, becomes convinced that Hamlet is mad.

Hamlet is deported to England by Claudius, who has given orders for him to be killed once he reaches there. Fortunately, Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, and he is returned to Denmark. In his absence, however, Ophelia goes mad over Hamlet's rejection and the idea that her own sweetheart has killed her father, and she drowns, supposedly committing suicide. Laertes, Ophelia's brother, is driven to avenge her death, as well as his father's.

Claudius and Laertes learn of Hamlet's return and prepare to have him killed. However, they plan to make it look like an accident. Claudius orders Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel, wherein Laertes will be given a poisoned blade that will kill with a bare touch. In case Laertes is unable to hit Hamlet, Claudius also prepares a poisoned drink.

Hamlet meets Laertes' challenge and engages him in a duel. Hamlet wins the first two rounds, and Gertrude drinks from the cup, suspecting that it is poisoned. Whilst in-between bouts, Laertes rushes Hamlet and strikes him on the arm, fatally poisoning him. Hamlet, not knowing this, continues to duel. Hamlet eventually disarms Laertes and switches blades with him. Hamlet then strikes Laertes in the wrist, fatally wounding him. Gertrude then submits to the poison and dies, warning Hamlet not to drink from the cup.

Laertes, dying, confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who flies at Claudius in a fit of rage, killing him, then dies. Horatio, horrified by all this, orders that Hamlet be given a decent funeral, and the young prince's body is taken away while the Danish court kneels and the cannons of Elsinore fire off a peal of ordnance in respect.


The Royal Court of Denmark

Men at Arms

[All of the above characters reappear at the end of the film, where they are three of the 'four captains' who 'bear Hamlet's body, like a soldier, to the stage'. They are accompanied by a fourth, unidentified, soldier and by Horatio.]

The Play within the Play

Servants to the Court


Casting and filming

Eileen Herlie, who plays Hamlet's mother, was 29 years old when the movie was filmed in 1947. Olivier, who plays her son, was 40.

Olivier played the voice of the Ghost by recording the dialogue as an amplified whisper and playing it back at a reduced speed, giving it a deep, haunting other-worldly quality. However, for many years it was falsely assumed, even in film reference books, that John Gielgud had recorded the voice of the Ghost. (Gielgud played the role of the Ghost in three later productions – the 1964 stage, Electronovision and LP Album versions of Richard Burton's Hamlet, the 1970 telecast of the Hallmark Hall of Fame production starring Richard Chamberlain, and a 1992 BBC radio production starring Kenneth Branagh.)[10]

Felix Barker, Olivier's first biographer, described how the actor-director created the sound effects for the three appearances of the Ghost:

To produce the eerie noise which preceded the appearance of the Ghost Olivier...went to enormous trouble. He made as many as fourteen separate sound tracks. On one he had recorded fifty women shrieking; on another the groans of as many men; a third consisted of a dozen violinists scraping their bows across the strings on a single screeching note. These various tracks had then to be blended in different volumes and intensity until they produced a noise which seemed to him to resemble - on what authority is uncertain - 'the lid of hell being opened'. Supernatural horror was further increased by the pulsing heart-beat which heralded its every entrance. This sound, Olivier remembered, had been used by Jean-Louis Barrault in a stage production in Paris; he made it doubly effective on the screen by bringing the camera in and out of focus to synchronize with the pulsing. Before he would use it, however, he wrote to ask Barrault's permission and insisted on paying for the idea. Because no copyright is possible Olivier is particularly scrupulous about borrowing other people's production tricks or another actor's ideas.[11]


The cinematography by Desmond Dickinson makes use of the deep focus photography previously popularised in films directed by William Wyler and Orson Welles.


The music was composed by William Walton and, alongside his score for Olivier's 1944 film Henry V, has become his most celebrated film work.[12]

Box office

The film was popular at the British box office.[13]

Producer's receipts were £187,900 in the UK and £1,164,400 overseas.[3] It made a reported profit of £779,700.[2]

Critical reception

The film's opening with Olivier's voiceover of his own interpretation of the play, was criticised as reductive: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."[14]

Olivier excised the "political" elements of the play (entirely cutting Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) in favour of an intensely psychological performance, partly to save time. Olivier stated that "one great whacking cut had to be made", and the cut he chose to make was the omission of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.[15] This was not much criticised at first, but later critics did take more notice of it, especially after shorter productions of Hamlet that did not leave out these characters were presented on television. John Gielgud took much the same approach years later by leaving out Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras from his 1951 radio production of the play, broadcast on the program Theatre Guild on the Air. Gielgud also followed the lead of Olivier's film version by giving the final lines of the play to Horatio instead of Fortinbras.[16]

Olivier heightened the Oedipal overtones of the play by having Hamlet kiss his mother lovingly on the lips several times during the film. Film scholar Jack Jorgens has commented that "Hamlet's scenes with the Queen in her low-cut gowns are virtually love scenes."[17] In contrast, Jean Simmons' Ophelia is destroyed by Hamlet's treatment of her in the nunnery scene.

According to J. Lawrence Guntner, the style of the film owes much to German Expressionism and to film noir: The cavernous sets featuring narrow winding stairwells correspond to the labyrinths of Hamlet's psyche.[18]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a score of 96% based on 49 reviews, with an average rating of 8.6/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "A well-executed labor of love from star and director Laurence Olivier, Hamlet not only proved that Shakespeare could be successfully adapted to the big screen, it paved the way for further cinematic interpretations."[19]

Awards and honours

The film version of Hamlet was the only film in which the leading actor had directed himself to an Oscar-winning performance, until 1998, when Roberto Benigni directed himself to an Oscar win in Life Is Beautiful. Olivier is also the only actor to win an Oscar for a Shakespearean role. Hamlet was the only film to have won both the Golden Lion and the Academy Award for Best Picture until The Shape of Water in 2017, which was followed by Nomadland three years later. It is also the first non-American film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

Award Category Recipient Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Picture J. Arthur Rank-Two Cities Films Won [20]
Best Director Laurence Olivier Nominated
Best Actor Won
Best Supporting Actress Jean Simmons Nominated
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – Black-and-White Roger K. Furse and Carmen Dillon Won
Best Costume Design – Black-and-White Roger K. Furse Won
Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture William Walton Nominated
Bambi Awards Best Actress – International Jean Simmons (also for The Woman in the Hall) Won
Bodil Awards Best European Film Won
British Academy Film Awards Best British Picture Nominated [22]
Best Film from any Source Won
Cinema Writers Circle Awards Best Foreign Film Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Foreign Film – English-Language Won [23]
Best Actor in a Leading Role Laurence Olivier Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 6th Place [24]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Nominated [25]
Best Director Laurence Olivier Nominated
Best Actor Won
Picturegoer Awards Best Actor Won
Venice International Film Festival Grand International Prize of Venice Won
Best Actress Jean Simmons Won
Best Cinematography Desmond Dickinson Won


In the past, the 1948 film was considered the definitive cinematic rendition of Hamlet. Over the years, however, it has lost some of its status, especially in competition with the unabridged 1996 adaptation, which many critics now consider superior, as well as the 1994 animated film The Lion King which was also based on Hamlet. The film has also been compared to Olivier's other Shakespearean adaptations, Henry V and Richard III.[26] Some critics argue that Olivier overemphasised Hamlet's Oedipal fixation on his mother, and that due to the omission of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the more important supporting characters in the play, the film lacks some of the play's best comedic moments. The duo's inclusion in later adaptations, such as the 1969 Nicol WilliamsonTony Richardson Hamlet and the 1990 Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli version, both of which are shorter than Olivier's, counters Olivier's rationale that the play needed such drastic cuts to work on screen. Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version of the complete Hamlet included everything that Olivier had omitted. It is worth noting, however, that the parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and Osric) are reduced in the Richardson and Zeffirelli versions, and that Branagh's version is almost 90 minutes longer than Olivier's.

Noted film critic Pauline Kael asserted that

even if you feel that certain scenes should be done differently, when has the rest of the play been done so well? Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen. It's never dull, and if characters such as Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sacrificed, it's remarkable how little they are missed.[27]

James Agee in Time wrote in 1948: "A man who can do what Laurence Olivier is doing for Shakespeare is certainly among the more valuable men of his time."[28]

Television debut

Hamlet was the second of Olivier's Shakespeare films to be telecast on American television – the first was Richard III, which was given an afternoon rather than a prime-time showing by NBC on 11 March 1956, the same day that it premiered in cinemas in the U.S. ABC gave the Olivier Hamlet a prime time showing in December 1956, but like many theatrical films shown on television during that era, it was split into two 90-minute halves and telecast over a period of two weeks rather than being shown on one evening.

Home media

In North America, Olivier's Hamlet has been released on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection, which has released his film versions of Henry V and Richard III on DVD. The film has been released on Blu-ray Disc in the UK; however this disc is Region B locked and will not work in most American players. The Criterion Collection later rereleased Henry V and Richard III on Blu-ray with more special features beyond the trailer and essay that the original DVDs featured, while The Criterion Collection has not regained the rights to release Hamlet on Blu-ray with better picture and audio quality along with any new special features that could accompany such a release.

See also


  1. ^ Street, Sarah. (2002) Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the USA, Continuum. p.110
  2. ^ a b Harper, Sue; Porter, Vincent (2003). British Cinema of The 1950s The Decline of Deference. Oxford University Press USA. p. 275.
  3. ^ a b c Chapman, J. (2022). The Money Behind the Screen: A History of British Film Finance, 1945-1985. Edinburgh University Press p 354. Income is in terms of producer's share of receipts.
  4. ^ Street, Sarah. (2002) Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the USA, Continuum. p.107
  5. ^ "Top Grossers of 1948", Variety 5 January 1949 p 46
  6. ^ Robertson, Patrick. The Guinness Book of Almost Everything You Didn't Need to Know About the Movies. Great Britain: Guinness Superlatives Ltd., Enfield, Middlesex, 1986. ISBN 978-0-85112-481-0, p. 40
  7. ^ Tanitch, Robert. (1985) Olivier. Abbeville Press.
  8. ^ Barker, Felix (1953) The Oliviers ("...the actor playing the ghost [was] Olivier himself..." p259)
  9. ^ Trewin, J.C. (1987) Five & Eighty Hamlets ("Collectors noted that the voice of the Ghost was Olivier's own.")
  10. ^ Morley, Sheridan (2002) John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography Simon & Schuster. p.463
  11. ^ Barker, Felix (1953) The Oliviers pp259-260
  12. ^ Henry V (1944), retrieved 29 September 2017
  13. ^ Thumim, Janet. "The popular cash and culture in the postwar British cinema industry". Screen. Vol. 32, no. 3. p. 258.
  14. ^ Brode, Douglas. (2001) Shakespeare in the Movies Berkley Boulevard. p.120
  15. ^ Guntner, J. Lawrence: "Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear on film" in Jackson, Russell (ed.) (2000) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film Cambridge University Press. p.118
  16. ^ Theatre Guild on the Air (March 4, 1951) Hamlet starring John Gielgud (audio recording)
  17. ^ Jorgens, Jack. (1997) Shakespeare on Film Bloomington. p.217; cited by Davies, Anthony in The Shakespeare films of Laurence Olivier in Jackson, Russell (ed.) (2000) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film Cambridge University Press. p.171
  18. ^ Guntner, J. Lawrence: "Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear on film" in Jackson, Russell (ed.) (2000) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film Cambridge University Press. p.119
  19. ^ "Hamlet". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 13 August 2023.
  20. ^ "The 21st Academy Awards (1949) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  21. ^ "Hamlet". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2012. Archived from the original on 10 February 2012. Retrieved 20 December 2008.
  22. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1949". BAFTA. 1949. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  23. ^ "Hamlet – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  24. ^ "1948 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 5 July 2021.
  25. ^ "1948 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 3 June 2021.
  26. ^ "dOc DVD Review: Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948)". Digitallyobsessed.com. 6 May 2008. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  27. ^ Kael, Pauline (1991) 5001 Nights at the Movies Henry Holt. ISBN 0805013679.
  28. ^ "Cinema: Olivier's Hamlet". Time. 28 June 1948. Archived from the original on 2 April 2010. Retrieved 4 May 2010.