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How does Olivier present the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia?

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Introduction

How does Olivier present the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia? Laurence Olivier directed, and starred in, a film version of William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', which was made in 1948. This epic production is very stage-like, with huge entrances, theatrical blocking, canons, trumpets and beautiful period costumes. The actors annunciate their words perfectly in a very grand manner, and some of the characters are rather stereotypical and exaggerated. This film version concentrates specifically on Hamlet's state of mind and his growing madness. It also concerns some of Freud's ideas, particularly the Oedipus complex. As this production revolves almost entirely around the lead, Hamlet, the other characters are used principally to offer reasons for Hamlet's anger and confusion, and to demonstrate his insanity, and the effects of it, to the audience. Laurence Olivier's very first image related to Gertrude is her bed, helping the audience to establish an understanding of how Gertrude is going to be portrayed instantly. At first appearances Gertrude looks drugged and sensually abandoned. She is portrayed in a very sexual way, doting on Claudius. There is a catastrophic relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude, kissing, fondling and devouring. Olivier confirms the sexual nature of Gertrude, focusing on the lighted arches at the end of the tunnel representing female genital architecture with Gertrude's bed at the centre. So instantly the audience is presented with a very sexually abandoned portrayal of Gertrude. ...read more.

Middle

She is now presented as a more maternal figure; this is first shown by her warm, mother type nature towards Ophelia. This idea is established further in the final scene. During Gertrude's final scene, she is quite unsure and deeply suspicious of the situation. Olivier focuses on Gertrude during this scene in order for the audience to establish an understanding of the situation. Gertrude then makes, what is depicted as, a conscious decision to take the poison thinking she is saving her son. This adds to depth to Gertrude's character and presents her a maternal figure, almost contradicting the Freudian interpretation. Ophelia on the other hand the icon of femininity in the seventeenth century in both appearance and personality. Her physical appearance is very striking and gives the viewer an immediate impression. She is conventionally blonde with golden locks and dressed in white; almost doll like in her overall appearance. Ophelia is the victim from the beginning; she is told by her brother not to lose her virginity to Hamlet and she response in a very passive and slightly half-witted manner. Of course this is intentional, Olivier has created a traditionally beautiful yet air-headed Ophelia, played by a very young Jean Simmons. From the very beginning the audience depicts Ophelia as the victim; she is given very little freedom and treated very much like a doll by the men in her life. ...read more.

Conclusion

Olivier is recreating the image that John Everett Millais created 'Ophelia drowning'; by referring to great art it depicts the high-class nature of the production. Running throughout this production are strong motifs, Ophelia's portrayal is no different, the audience is shown the place where we first saw Ophelia reading her love letters from Hamlet. Ophelia is grudgingly given a burial, which makes one think, what hope has such a young girl got against such an established society. Even on her deathbed, Ophelia cannot be given a quiet funeral; she is hauled around by the men in her life. Olivier goes so far so to portray Hamlet as having so sorrow whatsoever, he is obsessed with himself, Laertes and revenge. This reinforces the fact that the production concentrates specifically on Hamlet's state of mind, and even at Ophelia's burial the focus still remains on the lead character. Finally, Olivier approaches both Gertrude and Ophelia in a very stereotypical manner. Very little attention is given to either character unless it adds depth to the main focus, Hamlet. Very much like Zeffirelli's production we are made to feel great sadness towards Ophelia. However, Gertrude's portrayal is slightly different in this production compared to Zeffirelli's, we are made to realise the maternal nature of Gertrude only at the very end making the audience see her less as a sexual character and more as a mother. It is because of her final actions at the end of the play that we feel great sorrow and a certain amount of respect towards her for her bravery. ...read more.

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