March 12, 2011
Hamlet Act III Scene I: The Banality of Existence
“To be, or not to be, that is the question” (Line 55) - that one is rather likely to hear time and time again while exploring the world of literature. Arguably the most influential sentence in the literary universe, it naturally deserves a real life performance of equal magnitude. The 1948 rendition of Hamlet does just that. Sir Laurence Olivier delivers a stellar recital of the infamous speech, which is only enhanced by various subtle nuances occurring in the background. The sounds, sights, setting, and choreographed additions in the acting enliven Shakespeare’s original text into something that further emphasizes the concept of whether life and all its associated troubles are worth dealing with – and why, if not, people can’t just simply put themselves out of their own misery.
The scene begins with a rather typical ominous bit of music. Although - it is quite fitting considering how the following speech concerns the contemplation of suicide, a dreaded sin in the Christian mindset. Being made in 1948, the movie is presented in greyscale. Uncannily, this array of colors adds to the melancholic atmosphere that this movie is gunning for. The first few seconds prove to quickly make clear that Hamlet is about to speak on a heavy subject of matter. Hamlet speaks. “To be…” (Line 55), he begins the question as his face fraught with uncertainty flashes on the screen. Once those two words leave his mouth, his face fades and the grey wavy ocean appears again. “Or not to be…” (Line 55) he continues as the grey waves rage audibly.
With the scene set outdoors, and Hamlet giving his speech atop a cliff along the shore, a few meaningful implications can be drawn. Firstly, the sea and sky are both metaphorical objects – the former is death while the latter is life. Hamlet sitting on a piece of land, is therefore in between both. While pouring his soul into the soliloquy, his mind has retreated into a difficult position where he cannot truly grasp whether it is better to be alive or to be dead. Considering that he felt the need to bring up this type of discussion in the first place, he is leaning toward death being a more advantageous state of being – or lack of being – as evidenced by his constantly staring down towards the raging seas while speaking. With the sky above and the sea below both crushing him with the burden of existence, Hamlet is forced to relieve the pressure from his mind in the form of a soliloquy, in the form of words.
Twenty seconds in, the meat of the speech begins. Sir Laurence Oliver does well to convey the uncertainty present in the first few lines, where Hamlet questions whether it is better to deal with life or to just commit suicide. As he contemplates whether it is better to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (Lines 56 – 57), his eyes shift away from the ocean and upwards toward the sky, indicating a spark of hope he holds for living and his internal argument leaning toward the side of life. But as this is an argument, his conscious quickly turns on itself, and Sir Laurence portrays this well as he contemplates taking “arms against a sea of troubles” (Line 58), while, coincidentally, looking back down into the sea. The complexity of the argument lies in how there is no true answer to be had, and Sir Laurence portrays this uncertainty aptly through the subtle actions of switching between looking up or down.
Hamlet begins to try and convince himself that the best course of action against a sea of troubles is only but this – “end them” (line 59). Just as Sir Laurence says so in the movie, he slowly begins to pull out a knife and bring it towards a position pointing at his own body. The most intriguing part is that nowhere in Shakespeare’s original script was this action called for. But its presence adds further weight to Hamlet’s words. They prove that he is being dead serious in trying to convince himself that perhaps life after all is not worth living, that it is perhaps better “to die, to sleep” (Line 59), than it is to deal with the trepidations of life. Once again, ominous music begins to play as the camera zooms into Hamlet’s face. His mouth stops moving, even though his words continue, and the implication is made that his mind and his inner conscience have been entered. This would in turn imply that his internal argument is coming to an end, and the repetition of “to die, to sleep” (line 63) would belie the outcome of that argument. A conclusion that he is about to kill himself would not be forgone.
As the camera is about to smash into his face, Sir Laurence awakens and the music comes to an abrupt and loud ending while he frantically states “perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub” (line 64). Hamlet’s internal argument continues. Suicide is not as simple an option as it may seem – the afterlife that awaits after men have “shuffled off the mortal coil” (line 66) is perhaps the absolute most uncertain aspect of life. Sir Laurence acts out the proceeding lines skillfully, feigning a convincing performance of realization. For it is this realization that makes him stay his dagger and lay in an awkward pose while entertaining a more pressing matter. Hamlet comes to realize that the only thing holding men back from erasing their sorrows by erasing their life is “the dread of something after death” (line 77), be it hell or something even worse. As he speaks that line and the ones following, Sir Laurence slowly tilts his head toward the camera in an almost creepy way. This shows a blatant disregard for the way he currently looks, understandable based on how he thinks he is alone, and it also shows that as he is rationalizing with himself that suicide is scarier than dealing with life, he is coming to acceptance with a newfound decision to stay alive.
Once Hamlet’s reasoning and rationalization of life and death sets in, he declares that “thus conscience does make cowards [of us all]” (line 82). The word ‘thus’ implies a heavy finality and firmness to his thoughts. Sir Laurence conveys Hamlet’s acceptance of his own reasoning by beginning to stand up and walk away, indicating that his internal argument is coming to a true end this time, as it requires not the added concentration by sitting still and relinquishing the need for any type of strenuous physical activity, to which the unused energy can be poured additionally toward thought and argument. Sir Laurence walks away from the crushing presence of sea and sky while coming to terms with the fact that suicide is a poor alternative to enduring life. The thoughts of what comes after life, which was already bad enough, is enough to make any man “turn awry” (line 86) from the decision, and as Sir Laurence says this he appropriately turns away from the sea and walks away. Declaring that the fright of the afterlife makes men “lose the name of action” (line 87) and dispels the thought of suicide, Hamlet succumbs to these fears himself, and as portrayed by Sir Laurence, reluctantly walks away. Although he was able to come to a conclusion, it was by no means one very satisfying as he realizes that some form of misery will have to be waded through either way, and the world’s smallest violin playing a small tune to conclude the scene indicates that. A lose-lose situation, so to speak, is one that Hamlet finds himself in. To live would mean to endure pain, to die would mean to endure the potentially damning mysteries of post-death activities. Damned if you do, Damned if you don't. Hamlet is visibly displeased as he shambles himself off the scene. Sir Laurence Olivier’s rendition of Hamlet’s soliloquy does justice to the original work of Shakespeare by invoking stronger reaction from the audience using sound, setting, and additional set pieces to tremendous effect – as if the original text wasn't profound enough. So - to be, or not to be? That is the question. And the answer is neither.