Hamlet is one of the greatest roles in theater history and so it is unsurprising that women as well as men would dream of playing the prince. What may be surprising to some, however, is how longstanding the tradition of women playing Hamlet is and how much the casting of a woman can bring to both the play and the audience.
Shakespeare, of course, was entirely familiar with cross-gender casting since all of his female parts were played by boys. And in several places, most notably As You Like It and Twelfth Night, he created at least the idea of the opposite, as the heroines in each case spend most of the play “disguised” as boys. In the comedies, at least, Shakespeare seems to have encouraged his audience to play with and blur gender.
The tragedies do not often offer the same kind of blurring that the comedies do—although in plays like Macbeth and Othello the tragedy seems to grow out of the protagonist’s inability to escape from “being a man.” Hamlet, however, is different, and scholars from the early 19th century on have noted that the character of Hamlet crosses many boundaries—medieval/modern, hero/coward, and male/female. In fact, in 1881, Edward P. Vining wrote The Mystery of Hamlet, in which he argued that Shakespeare had meant Hamlet to be a woman, stating “The charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine in their nature.” Delacriox painted Hamlet with feminine characteristics and Asta Nielson produced and starred in a silent film that provided backstory to explain why a princess would have been raised as a boy. Each time there have been political struggles for women’s rights, female Hamlets have taken the stage—in England, in America, in Asia and Eastern Europe, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.
When a director casts a female actor as Hamlet, there are two choices for that actor—to play the character as male or to reimagine the role as “Princess Hamlet.” Neither is the better choice but they each offer actors and audiences a different experience. The former brings into sharp focus questions of Hamlet’s universality, as well as the play’s treatment of grief, love and revenge, without drastically changing the relationships within the play. The latter choice forces a more overt and feminist reconsideration of gender roles in terms of politics and violence, as well as a necessary change in many of the relationships (Ophelia and Hamlet, for example). In Nielson’s movie, for example, Ophelia clearly goes mad because her love is (to her, inexplicably) unrequited, while the disguised Hamlet pines for Horatio. Only on her deathbed is she able to reveal both her gender and her love to her friend.