- William Shakespeare
- The Works of William Shakespeare [The Cambridge Shakespeare]. London: Macmillan and Co., 1893-1895
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Olivier's Hamlet remains the most successful Shakespeare film ever made, winning four Academy Awards (including for both Best Picture and Best Actor), the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and several BAFTAs and Golden Globes.
As director, producer and star, Larry knew that the original play would need to be cut substantially in order to run anywhere close to within the two and a half hours agreed with the studio. It was with this copy, selected from their set of the Cambridge Shakespeare, that he began. As Coleman notes in his biography, the text remained Larry's remit throughout: "These changes were entirely Olivier's. He never let anyone else touch the text" (Coleman, Olivier: The Authorised Biography (2005)).
Lines, speeches and entire scenes are struck through in pencil. These include the entire parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who do not appear in the film, and several of Hamlet's soliloquies. Larry would later receive much criticism for the omission of both "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" (2.2) and "How all occasions do inform against me" (4.4). Here, the first is struck through, as if much of the surrounding dialogue. The other is not, since, much to Larry's disappointment, it was cut later in the production when the running time was shortened again to two hours. Other changes, including to the order of lines, wordings, and occasional production notes, appear throughout.
In addition, next to each of the characters listed in the 'Dramatis Personæ', Olivier has recorded his initial suggestions for casting. Of course, "L.O." will play Hamlet. As Larry intended, Felix Aylmer took on Polonius. F.J. McCormick is suggested for the gravedigger, and was planned to play the part had he not died shortly before filming began. "Truman" (presumably Ralph Truman who had starred alongside Olivier in Henry V) was considered for both Marcellus and Claudius, but it was the other of Olivier's suggestions, Basil Sydney, who ended up playing the King.
The casting of the female roles was more difficult. Olivier's notes do not give much away about his thoughts on Ophelia: next to her part is written only "Swedish". Vivien had expected to resume the part she had played a decade before, and felt slighted when she was passed over in favour of the seventeen-year-old Jean Simmons. For the part of Gertrude, Olivier suggested both Mercia Swinburne, the wife of his old friend George Relph, and Diana Wynyard, who played the Queen in an RSC production which opened at the end of May 1948, the same month the film was released. She later played Gertrude in Olivier's 1963 National Theatre production at the Old Vic.
King Lear provides a similarly fascinating record Olivier at work. The list of actors added by him in pencil matches exactly the casting for the production at the Old Vic, where Olivier himself took on the role of Lear at the age of only 39. In the front of the book are preserved five sheets of blocking plans for the key scenes, and on a blank leaf, Oliver has written a summary of the play's "Plot and Motivation", beginning "King Lear has a ticklish design to accomplish..."
Loosely inserted into the first volume of the set is a letter from Frederick MacMillan, presenting this set to bookseller Frederick Evans in 1893 ("...We are indeed delighted at your success with the large paper Cambridge Shakespeare...I shall take the liberty of sending you a presentation copy for yourself, which I hope you will do us the honour to accept..."). A pencil note at the top of this letter suggests that Evans had successfully sold ten sets of the limited edition at his shop in Queen Street, Cheapside, which in the late nineteenth century was "the rendezvous of the artists, writers and editors and publishers of the day" (Introduction to his sale catalogue, 1919).