Hamlet’s dynamic potential: an Act III Scene 1 comparison

Act III Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy followed by dialogue between Hamlet and Ophelia. The scene portrays Hamlet’s mental state as well as the status of his relationship with Ophelia. Film adaptations of Hamlet directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier (1948), Franco Zeffirelli (1990), and Kenneth Branagh (1996) take unique liberties with interpretation of the scene. The resulting effect is three versions of the same scene that feel quite different.

The most noticeable difference between the different film adaptations is the arrangement of the scene. Both Olivier and Zeffirelli reorder the scene so that Hamlet first speaks to Ophelia and then enters his soliloquy. This effectively allows the soliloquy to function as a reaction to his interaction with Ophelia. Additionally this rearrangement stresses Hamlet’s isolation by showing his physical retreat to solitude. On the other hand, Branagh follows the original order of the text. Ophelia is an interruption of Hamlet’s deep contemplation rather the initiation of it.

Hamlet’s speaks to Ophelia with cruel and biting words. However, Oliver, Zeffirelli, and Branagh repurpose the words to add complexity and ulterior motives to the scene. Likewise, the treatment of each soliloquy creates unique meaning.

Olivier interprets Hamlet’s cruelty towards Ophelia as an act of protection. He speaks “I did love you once” in an honest and remorseful tone. It comes across as a confession before he deliberately shifts to his “get thee to a nunnery” speech. This speech full of cruel words is neutralized by a simple gesture; Hamlet stops and gently takes a piece of Ophelia’s hair in his hand as he passes her crying on the stairs. This single tender moment breaks the façade of cruelty that Hamlet erects when he steps forward and shifts into his “get thee to a nunnery” speech. The simple performance choice suggests Hamlet is trying to protect an innocent Ophelia from the evil of men rather than curse her.

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Hamlet then secludes himself to the top of a tower for his soliloquy. The camera movement connects Ophelia’s crying form to Hamlet’s soliloquy by panning over the staircase connecting the settings. This suggests that Hamlet’s deliberate cruelty to Ophelia has spurred on his suicidal contemplation of life. Background music is used by Olivier to set the mood and for emphasis. The music speeds up as the camera climbs the stairs building anticipation for the coming speech and then slows as the speech begins. The music rises again at “perchance to dream” marking a shift in Hamlet. He shortly after drops the dagger coming out of his daze and returning to his indecisive nature.


Zeffirelli’s Hamlet is less loving towards Ophelia. The dark, grey setting creates a cold and harsh atmosphere for the scene. Hamlet initially intends to pass by ignoring Ophelia’s presence before she calls out to him. His displeasure with her is evident by this creative choice. He speaks the line “I did love you once” as though he cannot believe it for her finally sees her for what she is. The harsh and loud tones emphasize anger that matches the cruelty of his words.

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During the soliloquy Zeffirelli creates a dark mood by placing Hamlet inside a crypt with low lighting where he is literally surrounded by death. The absolute silence in the crypt stresses Hamlet’s physical isolation. Similar to Olivier, Zeffirelli creates a shift in tone at the line “perchance to dream.” Uniquely however, Zeffirelli’s Hamlet does not have a weapon. This suggests Hamlet’s fault of indecision and lack of action because he does not even have a means of execution.

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Branagh’s portrayal of Hamlet and Ophelia is the most dynamic. Branagh captures Hamlet’s movement through an array of raw emotion as he takes in Ophelia’s words. When Hamlet and Ophelia first see each other, happy music and warm light create a light, triumphant mood that showcases their deep love. The warmth and colour of this moment drastically contrast Olivier’s black and white and Zeffirelli’s dark scenes. The statement “I did love you once” is spoken with tears in his eyes that capture Hamlet’s love. When Ophelia’s returns the tokens Hamlet shows his feelings of betrayal and all of his emotions shift as he grapples at understanding. As Hamlet’s anger rises, the music shifts to match it. This interpretation suggests that with deep love comes the ability to hurt each other deeply.

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Branagh’s Hamlet speaks his soliloquy steadily into a mirror. Mirrors are often used to suggest self-reflection and clarity. It is ironic Branagh’s emotionally susceptible Hamlet is associated with an item of reflection and clarity. In contrast to Olivier’s and Zeffirelli’s films, Branagh Hamlet does not shift from suicidal to contemplative at the line “perchance to dream.” Instead he draws his dagger after this line giving the end of the speech a more dangerous meaning than the other versions. Hamlet’s voice also is more even in Branagh’s interpretation. This suggests that his musings run in circles keeping him in the same spot.


Act III scene 1 of Hamlet is given different meanings by Olivier, Zeffirelli, and Branagh. Each interpretation has key elements separating it from the other two. These elements include text arrangement, camera movement, gestures, speaking tone, setting, music, and props. The result is characterization of Hamlet. Olivier’s Hamlet is depressing and loving, Zeffirelli’s is angry and hopeless, and Branagh’s is emotional and expressive. No one version of Hamlet is more correct or better than the others. That said I find the emotion in Branagh’s portrayal undeniably enticing. His Hamlet is as unpredictable and emotional messy as I personally imagined from the text.

Aspen Kozak

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