A Hamlet timeline – chronicle of events
Setting the Timeline – considerations
Claudius – planning my foul murder
King Hamlet's funeral – where was Hamlet?
Gertrude & Claudius – adultery or not?
Horatio – Hamlet's friend?
Horatio – is he passion's slave?
Polonius – the evil that men do
Ophelia's love? – did she love Hamlet?
Ophelia closetted – Polonius on love
O help xxx ....... – Olivier's version
Ophelia's change – is Hamlet suspicious?
Hamlet feigns madness – protective "cover"
Is Hamlet mad? – Polonius's opinion
Hamlet kills Polonius – stabs the "Voice"
Laertes on Ophelia – madness & death
Ophelia's death – a recipe
Hamlet's age – digging up the past
Yorick – something rotting in Denmark
Betting on Hamlet – the fencing match
Hamlet's fencing skill – better than Laertes
Nunnery scene prayer
Ophelia: O, help xxx, you sweet heavens!
On May 5th 1949, I saw Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 movie Hamlet when the high school I attended went to a screening. I saw the movie a few more times and noticed a difference between the film script and the true text of the play. It was only a tiny alteration and I wondered why it was made. Movies often differed from the books that inspired them so it was nothing unusual, nevertheless, I would liked to have asked Sir Laurence, who had directed the movie, why he made the change.
In 1956-7, I was in England. In May '57, I went to a performance of The Summer of the
Seventeenth Doll. Sir Laurence had brought the play to London from Australia.
During the interval between acts of The Doll I went to the bar for refreshment. I was alone, but everyone else in the room seemed engrossed in the usual kind of theatre chit-chat. I happened to be looking toward the door and saw Sir Laurence about to enter the room. As quick as a flash, I moved toward the door and met him as he entered the room. I probably spoke to him before anyone else realised he was there.
I commented on the play and thanked him for bringing it to London. He obviously recognised my accent because he said "You're an Australian." I replied "Yes, from Hobart, where I have seen you at the Theatre Royal." He was friendly and we talked for a moment about The Doll. I then said something like this, "I have always wanted to ask you about a tiny point in your film Hamlet. May I put my question to you sometime?" I was amazed when he said, "Telephone me tomorrow." He then gave me his number which I wrote on my programme.
The next day, I phoned him and asked my question: "You know Hamlet better than anyone. Why, then, in the nunnery scene did you change Ophelia's words from 'O, help HIM, you sweet heavens!' to 'O, help ME, you sweet heavens!'?"
I cannot recall precisely what he said but this was its substance: "You are the first person ever to ask that question. I did it because it was a film and I wanted it to be a love story because love stories were what the public wanted to see. I couldn't do it with the words of the play. I solved it by changing just one word. By changing "him" to "me" the mood of the play and the plot changed to give the public what it wanted."
I thanked him, and added, "My interest was purely curiosity, nothing more."
Here is the Nunnery scene - Hamlet & Ophelia on YouTube. Ophelia's changed line occurs about 2 min 40 secs.
Thousands have seen the film and made a 'close reading' of the play. There have been countless essays and analyses of Olivier's Hamlet but none has ever mentioned the deliberate change to Ophelia's words.
I never intended commenting on it, thinking it could die with me, but having survived 50 years since meeting Sir Laurence, and the movie now 60 years old, it's about time to tell my story.