This ‘Hamlet’ study guide forms the fourth part of Film Education s ‘Screening Shakespeares’ series. It is aimed at
students of A’ level English. All references are taken from ‘Hamlet’ the Arden edition of the works of William
Shakespeare (edited by Harold Jenkins) published by Routledge (1994).
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Running Time: 4 hours
"I do believe that Shakespeare is
more understandable when it is
performed. His plays were not
written as plays which had an
immediate life as a published
document. They were written
very quickly and put on stage
very quickly. If they weren’t
popular then they were taken off
very quickly. Shakespeare’s
company had a very commercial
intent and purpose. They were all
business partners in this venture.
If a play didn’t work, it was off.”
Actor, director Kenneth Branagh talking about Shakespeare highlights an important point about
Shakespeare’s plays that are now studied in classrooms across the country - that they were
written to be performed. One could also say the playscripts that we study are, in fact, living
In making a complete version of ‘Hamlet’ the play into a film, Branagh and his script adviser
Russell Jackson have taken two different texts of the play and merged them together.
When Shakespeare was writing ‘Hamlet’, he undoubtedly had certain actors in mind for each
part - being the playwright for a theatre company which was based in one theatre meant that he
was well aware of the strengths and limitations of his troupe. One should also bear in mind the
fact that someone will have directed the play and thus there are a number of additions to the
text that could have been made by the director, or any actor.
In the same way, any actor or director who has since been involved in a stage production will
also have added or taken away things from the play. Any production of ‘Hamlet’ is simply one
possible interpretation of one particular text.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays have been adapted for the screen. In fact, filmmakers have
always looked to popular plays and books to influence their films. Why do you think this is?
What is the attraction of say, a Shakespeare play? Can you think of any drawbacks to this
approach of filmmaking?
“Some pundit no doubt will hold that Shakespeare has suffered enormous torment over the
treatment of his plays by picture people. To this one might capriciously say that millions of film
patrons have suffered as much, but this would not be the full truth. I contend that “Old Will” has
the movies to thank for an appreciable segment of’ new Shakespearean followers. Even the
Bard himself’ would at least concede that among his new fans are many who, irritated by film
versions, decided to look into the original Shakespeare to see if his plays are really as bad as
the movies made out, and then found themselves implacably drawn into a new world.”
Albert E Smith (cofounder of the Vitagraph Company of America, who produced numerous
silent Shakespeare films between 1908 and 1912). 'Reframing Culture' published by Princeton University
It is odd to think that much is made of the language of Shakespeare. Some of his plays
appeared in silent film format, only with the odd intertitle, so it is worth bearing in mind that when
someone like Kenneth Branagh spends time key moments in the narrative to constructing a
complete four hour version of ‘Hamlet’, that at the birth of cinema much effort was made to
make 30 minute (or even shorter) versions of Shakespeare’s works. As Albert E. Smith also
points out: “It was, to put it mildly, literary sabotage to boil Shakespeare down to thirty minutes.”
You are a silent film producer in 1911. You have been asked to make a very short (25
scenes maximum) version of ‘Hamlet’ What are you going to leave in and what will
you leave out? How can one scene (lasting probably only a minute)
might take over ten minutes to produce on stage? You are really looking for key moments in the
narrative to keep your film story moving. What are those key moments?
Dr Robert Smallwood, Deputy Director of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, makes the point
that the role of Hamlet is the one that actors want to play. What is this fascination with both the
character and the play?
Tony Howard outlines some possible reasons why the play still attracts so much interest:
“Part of ‘Hamlet’s’ lasting attraction comes from its four dimensions. It deals with the individual;
with intimate relationships involving love and the family; with politics; and with deeper, spiritual
experiences and problems. Hamlet himself never loses touch with any of these levels. He is a
philosopher and a national leader, a son obsessed with his parents and a man alone. Around
him eight other characters experience their own tragedies. Around them others work, watch and
Should a film try to capture all of these elements? Does Branagh's full version of the text
encapsulate all of them?
Using Howard’s four dimensions, analyse Branagh’s version and see if he has
managed to capture these four strands. Try to create a chart and list the scenes from
the play which illustrate each of these elements.
Adapting a Playscript to Film
When we talk about an adaptation of’ Shakespeare’s playscript ‘Hamlet’, we are faced with a
number of problems. Which is the definitive ‘Hamlet’?
A There was a ‘Hamlet’ before Shakespeare, possibly by Thomas Kyd, the inventor of
Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy. This is now lost.
B In 1603, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ was published in an unauthorised ‘pirate’ edition.
(This was known as the First Quarto or the Bad Quarto.)
C In 1604, Shakespeare’s company, ‘The King’s Men’, published their own version of
‘Hamlet’”... enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and
perfect copy.” (The Second Quarto)
D In 1623, after Shakespeare’s death, his friends included ‘Hamlet’ in the Complete
Works of Shakespeare. (The First Folio) This version misses out some passages from
the Second Quarto and adds new ones. Hamlet loses his last soliloquy: “How all
occasions do inform against me.
E Eighteenth century editors merged the Second Quarto and First Folio ‘Hamlet’s’
together, making sure not a single word was missing. Where the texts disagreed in detail,
they decided one version was better or that both were wrong and that scholars must
deduce what Shakespeare wrote. So they created yet another ‘Hamlet’ - the one we know
- which could take over four hours to act and can never have been seen on stage at the
original Globe Theatre. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ tells us performances ran for about two hours.
The Folio and the Quartos derive from alternative playscripts put together by Shakespeare and
his actors as conditions changed. Probably Shakespeare rethought these too.
Look at various versions available. Ask yourself these questions. Is there a definitive text from
which to produce a stage production or a film of ‘Hamlet’? Who put together the final Folio
version? Given that one editor of the play describes ‘Hamlet’ as a play in motion, who can we
say is responsible for the version that you read or see - Shakespeare or the editor of the text?
We can consider ‘Hamlet’ in three ways - as a written text, as a theatrical production and as a
film. Also in existence are radio productions, records and audio tapes of studio productions of
the play, comic books of ‘Hamlet’ and also complete rewritings of’ the story. What is ‘Hamlet’? Is
it one of the texts outlined above, or is it any production? Is it simply the point of view of the
director? Is any one better than the other?
In Appendix I and II, both of which begin “To be or not to be - One is from the first Quarto
version of the playscript, the other from the Folio version of the playscript, probably with
additions from the Second Quarto. (Russell Jackson comments in the programme that this is the
method that he and Branagh used to create their extended film version of ‘Hamlet’.)
Find out where in the play the “To be or not to be speech takes place. What happens
just before Hamlet starts speaking and what happens just after? Create, in your own words.
Hamlet’s character as presented to us at this stage of the play.
Assume that Shakespeare wrote both versions of the two texts, just because one was published
earlier than the other does not mean that one was written before the other.
Now read both versions so that you become familiar with them. Once you have done this, you
should then start to note the differences between the two. What has been added or omitted?
How have the words and phrases changed?
Having completed this first task, think about the idea of the soliloquy and how it reveals
character. In reading the two texts, does the same sense of Hamlet’s state of mind emerge from
both? Is it the same character speaking?
Divide into groups of four. Two of you must defend version A (Appendix I) of the
speech, the other two must defend version B (Appendix II). Try to explain why your
version is better than the other, both in dramatic and poetic terms, and also how it
illustrates Hamlet’s state of mind at that point in the play.
What you may well feel is that these are not just simply different versions of’ the same text but
two different texts. The changes that have been made are quite radical.
“In the filming of ‘Hamlet’, we tried with most of the soliloquies, not necessarily consciously, but
it worked out that way, to let the soliloquy probably play in one take, in one shot, in one
sustained shot. It was, I thought, to make it a little easier for the audience to understand if’ the
actor, from line to line, was, in the theatre. You know, following one thought into the other.
Sometimes, these are quite complicated thoughts, quite complicated sentences. Sometimes I
was concerned that cutting also cuts the sense of it as well. Also, and particularly in ‘Hamlet’,
these soliloquies are difficult to bring off and even if people aren’t that familiar with the play,
there’s something about the soliloquies that seems familiar. In any case you’re expecting
‘Hamlet’ to talk on his own. So there’s an expectation brought to it that means you have to give
the actor the best chance you can of explaining it. I often find that it’s through having a run at it
rather than doing it in bits that you can really maintain the overall sense of what Hamlet’s
saying.” Kenneth Branagh
Branagh explains the way that he chose to shoot each soliloquy. Suppose that instead of filming
each speech in one shot, he had decided to edit together various shots to form the soliloquy.
Where, within a soliloquy, would he have introduced the various cuts?
Take Hamlet’s first soliloquy “Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt,” (Act I Scene
II: Page 187). Read the speech carefully and then decide where any natural breaks
occur. Is this where you would edit to another shot? Are there any other moments where
you feel that you could edit and still retain the overall meaning of the soliloquy?
What would you actually show in each shot? When would you use a close-up shot? When
would you use a long shot? Bear in mind that closeups are usually used at a crucial moment in
the action so you need to consider carefully which are the key moments of the soliloquy. You
may wish to actually construct a storyboard for the soliloquy.
Hamlet on Film
Firstly, think about the possibilities of the film. What can be done in the cinema which cannot be
done on a stage? Secondly, what possibilities does a playscript allow you which a novel would
When deciding to make a film of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ there is the question of which text to
use and how long you think that the film should be. Kenneth Branagh has chosen to use the
complete text of the play which lasts four hours long.
Why do you think that he has done this? What do you think will be the expectations of an
audience for a four hour ‘Hamlet’?
Branagh has filmed other Shakespeare plays - ‘Henry V and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. In both
of these he cut the playscripts that he was going to film. So why choose to use the complete text
Imagine that you are Kenneth Branagh. Compose a letter which outlines why you
should wish to film a complete version of ‘Hamlet’. You should explain why you do not
want to cut certain characters who have been omitted in previous versions, such as Reynaldo,
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras.
In two previous film versions of the play, the character of Fortinbras has been left out. What
effect does this have on the play? Does it mean that certain interpretations of the play are
no longer valid.
In your opinion, what does Fortinbras stand for? In leaving him out, are the ideas and
themes associated with his character shown by any other characters, thus retaining the
play’s themes intact?
As a director, the main point for you to consider is what you think the play is about:
• Is the play about political power?
• Is the play about the love of a son for his mother?
• Is the play about treachery and intrigue?
• Is the play solely about the character of one person?
• Is the play about a reasonable, reliable, responsible central character?
• Is it all of these, or is it none of these?
Once you have decided what the play is about, you can then decide which parts are
relevant to your vision of the play, and which are not. This would be the starting point for
your adaptation of the playscript.
Another point to bear in mind is the character of’ Hamlet himself. Do you need to include
every speech that he makes in order to convey his character?
Looking at the character of Hamlet in the film, what would you say Branagh’s view of
Hamlet’s character is? Which version of ‘Hamlet’ is he presenting? How has he
communicated this idea to the audience? Is it through the costumes or the setting? If you
were the actor playing Hamlet, how would this affect you?
“Soliloquy. An actor’s address to the audience, a prolonged ‘aside’; the soliloquy reveals
character;... The tragic soliloquy is generally confined to the introspective characters: to Brutus,
Hamlet, Macbeth; Antony and Coriolanus think outwards and do not confide in the audience.”
'A Shakespeare Companion' by F.E. Halliday by Penguin Shakespeare Library (1964)
There are moments when characters, in theory, tell us the truth. When they confide in the
audience or allow the audience to know their innermost thoughts. There’s always a challenge
particularly on film about whether you talk directly to the audience or whether they overhear, or,
you allow them to overhear. Essentially it’s for yourself’ but there are moments of revelation and
of real truth as opposed to what a character might have been dissembling in a scene up to that
point.” Kenneth Branagh
One of the key points about the soliloquies in any Shakespeare play, as Branagh indicates, is
that we, the audience, are being presented with information from one viewpoint. Whilst they
seem to be a monologue, they are, in fact, a dialogue between the character and the audience.
The audience, in the case of’ the play itself is the character himself. However, in a film we, the
audience, take that part of the audience.
If they are character revealing then we should look very carefully at all of’ Hamlet’s soliloquies,
as of all of Shakespeare’s characters he soliloquises the most. What do they reveal about
Hamlet? Do they show a change in character as the play progresses?
1. You will be given a sheet which has the opening lines and closing lines of each
soliloquy (Appendix III, page 13). Can you match the opening lines with the closing
lines of each soliloquy? It may be very difficult to link the lines of the soliloquies because there
may not be an obvious progression within each of the seven soliloquies within ‘Hamlef However,
to take this exercise further, you should now look at each of the soliloquies in turn. Start with the
first soliloquy and complete the following tasks. 1 Take the first of Hamlet’s soliloquies (Act I
Scene II: Page 187) and then the last (Act 4 Scene IV: Page 345). Look very carefully for key
words which give us an indication of his train of thought and mood. Are there any images that
Shakespeare uses which might help us understand Hamlet’s feelings? Write a summary of what
Hamlet is talking about within the soliloquy, his train of thought.
2 When you have completed task 1 you should then examine each of the other soliloquies.
Write an outline for each soliloquy. Look and see if there is a progression of both thought and
decision from one to another. One thing to note is that Hamlet is not the only person to
soliloquise within the play. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the King of Denmark, whilst praying also
‘talks to the audience’.
3 Look carefully at what Claudius says in (Act 3 Scene III: line 35: Page 313) “Thanks, dear my
lord.” How does his view of events compare to Hamlet’s view of events? How do we gain a
greater understanding of Hamlet from this soliloquy?
A Powerful Text
Many stage productions of’ ‘Hamlet’ tend to present the play as an examination of the central
character’s continual brooding over events, a sort of psychological examination and dissection
of Hamlet himself. As has been said before, the character of Fortinbras is often completely
omitted from the play. However, in restoring the full text, Branagh has been able to reintroduce
an important theme of the play - power and rebellion.
The first image we see in the film is the statue of old Hamlet, Hamlet’s father. This is also the
final image of’ the film, but at the end we see the statue being toppled from its plinth. The
dynasty has fallen. Fortinbras and the Norwegians have taken control.
It is possible to identifly three additional instances of rebellion in the play - Claudius rebelling
(and killing) old Hamlet to seize power, Laertes rebelling against Claudius and Hamlet rebelling
Obviously Claudius is the pivotal point in all three of these rebellions. Fortinbras’s final words
give some sense of’ the unrest that has been caused by Claudius’s arrival on the throne of’
Denmark: “Such a sight as this Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Fortinbras stakes his claim to the throne, as all other claimants are now dead. But how does this
more political idea of the play affect the ways in which we understand the characters’?
Divide into groups. Each group should take the part of one of the rebellious camps -
Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes or Fortinbras. Each group should attempt to show why they
should take control of Denmark and what their claim to the throne is. You should use
evidence from the play itself to back up your arguments.
At the end of other Shakespeare tragedies there is a real sense of’ sadness and loss. Is this the
case with ‘Hamlet’? Is, in fact, the atmosphere different here?
Millions of words have been written as to why Hamlet delays in taking revenge on Claudius for
murdering his father. To be very basic we can say that he has to delay otherwise we would not
have a play to watch. If’ he killed Claudius at the end of Act I it would be a very short play
In other Jacobean Revenge Tragedies there is often a delay in executing the revenge but in
‘The Revenger’s Tragedy’ by Tournieur and ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ by Thomas Kyd, there are
concrete reasons why there is a delay, such as, thwarted opportunity and political problems.
So, what are the causes for Hamlet’s delay in carrying out the revenge for his father’s death?
Look back at the work that you have completed on soliloquies. Is there a logic to Hamlet’s delay
from what he says in these speeches? Why does he ignore his father’s exhortations?
Is the reason for the delay psychological or is it to do with something else? What is the
atmosphere at Elsinore during the play/film? Why are Claudius and Polonius suspicious of
Hamlet and also of Laertes? What threat do they pose? Why does Polonius, for example, send
Reynaldo to spy on his son? Why do Claudius and Polonius want to spy on Hamlet at the time
of the “To be or not to be soliloquy? Does the fact that we know that they are spying on Hamlet
add anything to the way that we understand this soliloquy?
What are the problems that we face when we come to make judgements on any Shakespeare
text? How do we decide what is good and what has no merit? When considering a film that is
based on a play, we are faced with a double problem, namely, what is the merit of the original
playscript and what is the merit of the film adaptation? Are there two sets of values here or only
When you come to make a judgement on a playscript, how do you decide its merit? Is ‘Hamlet’
a work of art? What makes a good film? Is there any point of contact between the two sets of
values? And where does the theatrical production of a play fit into this scheme’?
Write down two lists of criteria that you would use in judging the merit of a play and a film. You
could also add to this the criteria that you use when judging a novel. In what areas do the
similarities and the differences lie?