The interior versus the exterior in Orson Welles’s “Macbeth” and Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in comparison

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

19 Pages, Grade: 2,7



1. Introduction

2. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet
2.1 The concept of the film
2.2 The text adaptations
2.3 The psychological idea of the film
2.4 The use of the camera
2.5 The importance of other visual effects

3. Orson Welles’s adaptation of Macbeth
3.1 The concept of the film
3.2 The text adaptations
3.3 The psychological idea behind Macbeth
3.4 The camera work
3.5 Visual effects

4. Summery

5. Literature

1. Introduction

Shakespeare was, arguably, the most interesting author of the Renaissance and still is one of the most taught and influential writers today. That is also the reason for so many films being based on Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. The most successful period of making movies on Shakespearean dramas in history was the twentieth century. Very well-known and talented directors of the time challenged each other in making Shakespearean movies. Most successful for example were Sven Gade with his silent movie of Hamlet, Franco Zefferelli using Mel Gibson’s talent also in Hamlet, as well as Kenneth Brannagh and many others. However the most famous films are the Shakespeare adaptations of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Both had a lot of talent in being director, main actor and producer in one person in most of their productions. Because of their very interesting version and vision of Shakespeare, the Hamlet adaptation by Laurence Oliver and the Macbeth adaptation by Orson Welles will be the subject of this paper.

The first topic in the first chapter of this assignment will be Laurence Olivier with his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There will be a discussion on the concept of his film in general, which includes Olivier’s vision of the setting, the time the film takes place in and the cutting of original scenes in Shakespeare. The centre of this paper will be the discussion of the interior and exterior elements of the film, influencing each other contrastively. The third chapter will discuss Orson Welles’s adaptation of Macbeth. Similar to the previous chapter, the concept and the background of the film will be examined and hence the special methods of Welles to express the interior and exterior elements of his movie will be discussed. According to this research of both films a summery will show, that the two diverse versions of two different Shakespearean plays are in many ways similar to each other, besides being released in the same year.

2. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet

2.1 The concept of the film

Laurence Olivier was an extraordinary actor whose rootage of acting was in the theatre. During his stage career he developed to the “British role as guardian of its national poet”[1] because of his impressive successes on acting Shakespeare, Marlow and other well-known English authors. This led to the accolade by Queen Elisabeth II. From producing and directing his own performances he discovered his talent of making movies, after playing some main character roles in Shakespeare adaptations, like Orlando in Paul Czinner´s “As you like it” in 1936. With that in mind, he produced his first own Shakespeare adaptation Henry V in 1944.

Two years later he got the chance to direct a Hamlet adaptation of the producer of Henry V, Fillippo del Guidice. His decision to be the director was based on his age (by then he was forty years old) which he considered to be too old[2] for the role of the protagonist. But soon he realized that the actors in the first place did not fit into his vision of the movie and decided that it would be best, if he himself would play Hamlet. Sonja Schunert suggests: “[...]dass kein anderer Schauspieler bereit gewesen wäre sich seinen genauen Vorstellungen von dem Film gänzlich zu unterwerfen[...].”[3] Others, like Anthony Davies, call that decision of Olivier an auteur reaction..[4] It means “[…]choosing a personal factor in artistic creation as a standard reference and then of assuming that it continues and even progresses from one film to the next[…]”[5] So a movie is produced by one author and is a statement of one individual. In the case of Olivier, his films are made in his own style, which means that every single detail in his movies is made exactly as he wishes. Therefore he performed Hamlet or Richard III or Henry V by himself. What progresses from one of his Shakespeare adaptation to the next is the linking of theatrical and filmic elements, as Anthony Davies confirms: “[…] All Olivier’s films are remarkable of his constant oscillation between the cinematic and the theatrical[…]”[6]. This means that Olivier made a movie that just looks like a theatre staging in some parts. For example he makes very long shots, which implicate theatre-like static pictures especially in the presentation of rooms, which seem to be connected. Mostly the light comes from above concentrating on important characters. With a play of shadow and light he often has a completely dark room which fads out the background, so that the only light in that room is the person itself, illuminated from above, which is often used in theatre. A very important issue is an opening speech (see 1st scene in the film of Hamlet, written text of the speech can be read on screen), which functions as an instruction for the actors.

With plenty of room to direct the film and a budget of ₤ 475,000 Olivier shaped the film according to his imagination. Similarly important for the concept of the film was the historical and political background of the time Olivier lived and worked in. In 1947 Britain was in her post-war and post-imperial era and tried to find a new identity. She was struggled by the new socialistic position of its former confederate Soviet Union, which now became an enemy. People in Britain were depressed, the country suffered from starvation and was in ruins after the war. Britain had to rebuild the destroyed cities on the south, east and west coast of the island. It was not easy for the citizens to live in such an environment, when everything was short, especially food and accommodations. Olivier lived in that environment in Britain, too and shared these feelings. This inspired him to make his Hamlet “[…] dark, depressing and brooding […]”[7]

What influenced this dark and depressing look of the film, too, was the tradition the film was conceived of, the film noire and the German expressionism. Film noir was invented in France and Hollywood in the 1930´s and 40´s. Films shaped in that style or genre had pessimistic, dark pictures produced with a black-white camera and were famous for their alienating effects. Mostly, the stories were about crime, corruption, jealousy and greed. The heroes of these stories, which used to be detectives in a rude world were namely anti-heroes, because of their evil attitudes, their malice and corruptness. At their side were mostly the so called femme fatal, who did really everything to achieve their target. As their characters, the settings of the film noir were marked by urban city parts that look like a labyrinth where the actors seem to be trapped in. They have been filmed mostly at night in order to provide a darker perspective. Filmmakers worked mostly with anticipations, flashbacks, voice-over, light- and shadow contrasts and low or wide camera angles in order to show absurdity and depression. Furthermore the film noir integrated the feelings of people in the Second World War with the depressing scenery.[8]

Also influential to the film noir was the German expressionist film. It developed in Germany during and especially after the First Wold War. Two famous films were Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dadaism affected this genre very much. There were non-realistic set designs with geometrical absurd forms. Walls and floors were painted in designs to represent light, shadow and objects. The stories mostly dealt with madness, insanity and betrayal. Even though the genre did not survive a long time, the filmmakers of Germany who emigrated to the USA due to Hitler and the Second World War, brought along the elements of this genre. In this way many films throughout the 1940´s have been inspired by them. The material of German Expressionism was mostly used in horror films and film noir.[9]

Some elements of these genres were used in Olivier’s Hamlet, so that Olivier had a vision of his Hamlet as a self-centred person on the edge of insanity and crime. Olivier reflected the feelings of people in the post-war era with its harshness and despair located in only one person’s mind that finally was driven into madness.

2.2 The text adaptations

Olivier’s Hamlet is a film not a theatre production, which means that it is shorter than a performance on stage, where also nearly every line of an original text is performed. So Olivier had to cut the original text radically to a 155 minute film version. He deleted whole scenes and characters and had to change the order of the original plot. Olivier’s aim was to make the film more appropriate to a bigger audience, i.e. better understandable due to a more logical order. But most of all he wanted Hamlet to be in the centre: “[…] the object of Olivier’s interest: Hamlet’s individual personality and mental state”[10] All monologues, but two (II, ii and IV, iv), were cited in full length. The monologue II,ii was cut, because Hamlet’s knowledge of other plays in the encounter with the actors was not that interesting to the audience. Scene IV,iv was cut out because it takes place outside the castle on the trip with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are also absent from the movie. Olivier wanted the Hamlet-centred film to take place only in the castle, so everything outside was dismissed. There were only flashbacks or shots literally into the mind, for example when Hamlet was away and sent a letter to Horatio who read the letter while a voice-over could be heard and a vision of Hamlet travelling could be seen. To simplify the film, Olivier replaced archaic words with more modern ones: “wandering and uneasy spirit” by “extravagant and erring spirit”[11]. He ignored some characters like Fortinbras, Captain, one of the Gravediggers, Voltemand; he limited some characters, like Osric, who was reduced to a clown-like figure. Besides that Olivier modified the original order by changing scenes, e.g. in III,i the quarrel with Ophelia (“go to a nunnery” and so forth[12] ) anticipated Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” monologue, whereas in the play it is visa versa.


[1] Rothwell, Kenneth S. A History of Shakespeare on Screen : A Century of Film and Television. 2nd ed. Cambridge et al.: CUP, 2004. p. 47.

[2] Schunert, Sonja. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet“ im Film. Alfeld/Leine: Coppi-Verlag, 1999, p. 33.

[3] ibid, p.34.

[4] Monaco, James. How to read a film. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000. 3rd edition. p. 410.

[5] ibid. p. 410

[6] Davies, Anthony. “The Shakespeare Films of Laurence Olivier”. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. Cambridge et al.: CUP, 2005. 163.

[7] ibid.164.

[8] (28.03.08)

[9] Monaco, James. How to read a film. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000. 3rd edition. p. 291f

[10] Taylor, Neil. “The Films of ‘Hamlet’”. Shakespeare and the Moving Image: The Plays on Film and Television. Anthony Davis (ed.). Cambridge et al.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997. 180.

[11] Schunert, Sonja. Shakespeares “Hamlet“ im Film. Alfeld/Leine: Coppi-Verlag, 1999.p.52.

[12] scene in original text is not subdivided into the dialogue and the monologue

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The interior versus the exterior in Orson Welles’s “Macbeth” and Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in comparison
College  (Anglistisch/Amerikanistisches Institut)
Hauptseminar: Shakespeare in the movies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
468 KB
Orson, Welles’s, Laurence, Olivier’s
Quote paper
Doreen Bärwolf (Author), 2008, The interior versus the exterior in Orson Welles’s “Macbeth” and Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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