Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
BBC, tx. 19/4/1964, black and white, 170 mins
DirectorPhilip Saville
Production CompaniesBBC TV, Danmarks Radio
ProducerPeter Luke
Original PlayWilliam Shakespeare
Production DesignPaul Arnt Thompsen
MusicRichard Rodney Bennett

Cast: Christopher Plummer (Hamlet); Robert Shaw (Claudius); Alec Clunes (Polonius); Michael Caine (Horatio); June Tobin (Gertrude); Jo Maxwell Muller (Ophelia)

Show full cast and credits

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.

Show full synopsis

Broadcast a few days before Shakespeare's 400th birthday, Hamlet at Elsinore was the BBC's major contribution to the quartercentenary celebrations, as well as being a technical milestone. Up to then, television Shakespeare broadcasts were exclusively studio reconstructions or relays of live theatre productions, but this was the first time that a full-length play had been taped on location, in this case at Denmark's Kronborg Castle in Elsinore.

Originally the brainchild of the under-resourced Danish Television, it eventually became a co-production with the Danes providing equipment, locations and extras and the BBC the principal cast and crew. It was a huge logistical challenge, not least because of the lighting and sound requirements and some appalling weather. Although a genuine thunderstorm enhanced the ghost scene, there was an unexpected side-effect in that a warning foghorn sounded out at regular intervals over Elsinore's harbour, forcing director Philip Saville to time the takes between blasts.

Producer Peter Luke had decided against casting the production with major stars, believing that they would be too distracting, so it is ironic that his final line-up included Christopher Plummer, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland. However, this is a tribute to Luke's talent-spotting abilities, since none of them would have merited the description at the time of the September 1963 shoot (From Russia with Love, Shaw's big-screen breakthrough, opened the following month). Plummer had been cast because of his distinguished track record at the renowned Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, where he had first played Hamlet seven years earlier.

He more than rises to the occasion with a highly charismatic and passionate prince, savouring the wit and verbal dexterity (this is one of the better television Hamlets for bringing out the play's comedy - Roy Kinnear contributes a brief cameo as the gravedigger) as well as the more anguished personal soliloquies during which he comes close to suggesting that Hamlet's feigned madness may be driving him genuinely insane.

Robert Shaw, unsurprisingly, is one of the more menacing Claudiuses on record, and Gertrude Tobin a younger-than-usual Gertrude, which adds an extra charge to the already incestuous closet scene, while the 18-year-old Jo Maxwell Muller (cast at Plummer's insistence) contributed a memorably deranged rendition of Ophelia's breakdown. The play within the play was staged entirely as a mime, with the dancer (and future Derek Jarman associate) Lindsay Kemp as the Player Queen.

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. To be or not to be (4:10)
2. The Murder of Gonzago (5:23)
3. Alas poor Yorick (2:33)
Hamlet (1913)
Hamlet (1948)
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)
Caine, Michael (1933-)
Kinnear, Roy (1934-1988)
Plummer, Christopher (1929-)
Saville, Philip (1930-)
Shaw, Robert (1927-1978)
Hamlet On Screen
Shakespeare on Television