September 2017 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Sir Laurence Olivier's Working Copy of "Hamlet" Heads to Auction

Later this month, the grand Vivien Leigh collection will be offered at Sotheby's London, and it seems Leigh was quite the book hound. Not only did she hold dear a presentation copy of Gone With the Wind, given to her by author Margaret Mitchell, she owned many inscribed books from her literary acquaintances, e.g., Truman Capote and Evelyn Waugh, among others. As the auction house noted, "Vivien's library gives a tantalizing glimpse into the circles she moved in, and the many friends she accumulated during her lifetime."

Olivier-Hamlet.jpgIt is, however, a book (or rather, a set of books) that belonged to her husband and fellow actor and director/producer, Sir Laurence Olivier, that provides a fascinating glimpse of film and theater history. The 40-volume Cambridge Shakespeare (of which 38 are present), published by Macmillan in London in 1893-95, was Olivier's go-to source while plotting his 1947 production of King Lear at the Old Vic and his 1948 film of Hamlet, which went on to win four Academy Awards. Olivier's extensive annotations and edits can be seen throughout; he even recorded a casting "wish list" in the "Dramatis Personae" that precedes Hamlet. He would, of course, play Hamlet. And though Leigh expected she might portray Ophelia, as she had on stage a decade earlier, Olivier is cagey, writing only the word "Swedish" in that slot. In the end, he cast Jean Simmons, who was not Swedish.     

The auction estimate for Olivier's Shakespeare is £5,000-7,000 ($6,600-9,250).

Image courtesy of Sotheby's.