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Hamlet (1913)


Main image of Hamlet (1913)
35mm, black and white, silent, 5800 feet
DirectorHay Plumb
Production CompanyHepworth Manufacturing Company

Cast: Johnston Forbes-Robertson (Hamlet); Alexander Scott-Gatty (Laertes); Gertrude Elliot (Ophelia); Walter Ringham (Claudius); Adeleine Bourne (Gertrude)

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Prince Hamlet of Denmark is told by his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius has murdered him and married his widow. Hamlet vows revenge and feigns madness, but this has disastrous consequences for his relationship with Ophelia, while his preference for talk and thought over action leads to fatal errors.

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Hay Plumb's Hamlet (1913) made for the Cecil Hepworth company, marks a definite step forward for British Shakespeare films in that it attempts not only to present an entire play but also has cinematic ambitions over and above just pointing the camera at a reconstituted stage production, the method adopted by most of its predecessors. Sourced from a 1913 Drury Lane stage production, it was partly shot on location in Dorset, with interiors created in Hepworth's Walton-on-Thames studio.

Running approximately an hour (depending on projection speed), it gives a rather more extensive overview of the play than that offered by previous British Shakespeare films, with most key scenes present and correct, supplemented with intertitles conveying brief two or three-line excerpts from the original text.

As with virtually all other British Shakespeare silents (with the exception of Percy Stow's admirably lucid The Tempest of 1908), there is little context-setting or indeed much indication of who is actually speaking when the intertitles appear on screen. These are somewhat sketchy, glossing over many key themes of the play and virtually demanding at least some degree of prior familiarity from the audience.

For instance, when he picks up the skull by the graveside, while we are given the opening lines of the speech, we are not told who Yorick is, and Gertrude's relationship with Claudius, Hamlet and the ghost is not disclosed until halfway through the closet scene, and that only in passing.

That aside, it's a competent production, helped by Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson's charismatic performance in the title role (he was pushing sixty at the time, but he looks a fair bit younger) - his facial expressions and lively body language help overcome the limitation of the lack of a soundtrack, though this is still keenly felt as there is little overall attempt at reinventing the play for the cinema.

That said, although still fairly primitive - most scenes are still presented as single-shot tableaux - Hamlet does at least make some use of the cinema's grammar. The camera occasionally moves, several scenes are shot on location, the ghost is conveyed through double exposure and there's even a brief instance of cross-cutting, as Ophelia's corpse is discovered while Laertes talks to Claudius.

Michael Brooke

*Two short extracts from this film can be downloaded from the BFI's Creative Archive. Note that this material is not limited to users in registered UK libraries and educational establishments: it can be accessed by anyone within the UK under the terms of the Creative Archive Licence.

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Video Clips
1. Ghost scene (2:32)
2. Nunnery scene (2:50)
3. Closet scene (3:58)
4. Ophelia's death (5:22)
Production stills
Hamlet (1948)
Oh'phelia (1919)
Tempest, The (1908)
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)
Hepworth, Cecil (1874-1953)
Silent Shakespeare
Hamlet On Screen