Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hamlet a woman?!

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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hmm. Trying again.

    (part 1)

    It's an interesting challenge. I was wrestling with something like this on a piece I worked on recently, in which all of the male characters were played by women--part of the idea I was exploring was a kind of trans-realistic style, in which elements on stage were obviously not what they were supposed to be.

    I'm curious about how this would develop onstage; Hamlet, obviously, has a long precedent of being played by women; but it seems to me that Vining's idea--that the charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine--says more about his and his culture's expectations of masculinity than it does about any depth in the story.

    On the other hand, Hamlet, in moder days, is often understood (and here by "often" I mean: anecdotally, informally, wholly unscientifically in my personal experience) by the same terms with which we deride a person for being insufficiently "masculine." Whiny, emo, "dramatic." I'd worry that switching the gender of the character would only read as a kind of excuse for Hamlet's behavior: "oh, of course he can't act like a man...he's really a woman!" And that consequently the gender choice would obscure the deeper motivating elements of the play.

  3. (part 2)

    Consider, for instance, Nielson's movie. By switching Hamlet's gender (but retaining a cis-sexuality--since obviously there were no lesbians before 1970), Nielson has also reversed the relationships between Hamlet/Horatio/Ophelia. Hamlet's rejection of Ophelia becomes natural; there's no moral decision in rejecting someone if it's just that he doesn't love her--and his rejection of Horatio is now the one that has the moral grounding.

    Only it's Ophelia that goes insane and kills herself, and Horatio that comports himself with quiet resignation--thus, Hamlet's moral decision is absorbed easily and without malice, while his natural decision is the one that results in deadly consequence. This seems to be a striking break from the nature of the play, whose over-riding idea appears to be that no moral choice doesn't yield catastrophic consequences: that everything that Hamlet does just seems to make the situation worse.

    If Hamlet is a straight woman, then she's absolved of responsibility for Ophelia's death, and Horatio--as a character of loyalty and intense emotional fortitude--is wasted, since there's no particular reason he and Hamlet couldn't just become secret lovers or something.

    So, in my opinion, if Hamlet is a woman, she should also be a lesbian. We can do that these days, now that lesbians have been invented. Alternately, I guess you could just have Hamlet as a man being played by a woman, but, as I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure what the transreal contradiction buys you, in this case.

    (Ugh. Blogspot.)

  4. This is interesting, at least. It makes me want to reread when Hamlet spurns Ophelia. If she is a woman impersonating a boy for all her life, "Get thee to a nunnery" has a whole different aspect to it, with the implication that escaping to a nunnery would be the simplest and easiest solution to Hamlet's troubled and confused mind. Many lines would be tossed open to interpretation; you could change the entire idea of the play. Everything that Hamlet does simply makes the situation worse, but everthing that Hamlet doesn't do keeps the situation horrible as it is.


  5. I think it especially adds an interesting context to Laertes' "Hamlet is never going to marry you" speech if Hamlet is actually a woman (who is also a lesbian). The implication, I think, is stronger for a society where class barriers for marriage are kind of quaint. Nowadays, we look at Hamlet and Ophelia and it's all, "Well, why CAN'T he marry her? Even if he's king, so what?" But if Hamlet is a woman, Ophelia's persistent belief that eventually Hamlet will marry her is underscored by this painful certainty on behalf of the's one thing for the King to marry below his status; it's a whole other thing for the Queen to marry another woman.

  6. But there's no concept of a queen with royal power anywhere in this, which would reason out the need to cross dressing. Then you have to wonder, just who knows, and how does it affect their words? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wouldn't know "Man pleases me not. No nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so." Horatio might, Laertes probably does, but Ophelia wouldn't? If Hamlet is a lesbian she should, but if he's just in drag and pretends to be a man then she wouldn't. Laertes would know because he's in his father's confidence, and the fishmonger would know because he's in the King's confidence. And arguably part of the reason the brother would become king instead of the "son" would be because a few of the nobles would know Hamlet's not male.

    It's just a whole nother level of reading the play and you'd have to take everything there if you were to do it.

  7. Yeah, I think if you're going to do it, there's not much of a point in making Hamlet a secret woman. In the first place, you'd have just the trouble of making it clear that that's what was going on; in the second place I don't really think it adds anything.

  8. (This is from Maureen, who couldn't get blogspot commenting to roll right) Part One:

    To the 21st century observer, there’s also the precedent of King (yes, that’s the proper Swedish title for a reigning monarch of any sex/gender) Christina.

    The “Princess Hamlet” (Amleth? It’s the original name of the character in the first tellings of the story, and a name that ingenuous audiences could accept as female) staging would have to dispense with the “Ophelia openly wishing to marry Hamlet” bit, unless we’re staging it in a culture where lesbian marriages are tolerated. But it could be replaced with an overt “Polonius wants his daughter to be the princess’s chief confidante and his son to marry the princess” tendency with few changes to the script, with Ophelia’s feelings being explained by
    a) seeing her girlhood friend reject their old friendship in favor of the company of Horatio, that minor noble who shared tutors with her at Heidelberg and is incidentally ridiculously hot, or

  9. (still from Maureen) Part two:

    b) plain romantic rejection–Amleth and Ophelia had enjoyed some non-platonic closeness in addition to their friendship, but now Amleth is distancing herself from her old friend for some reason. (Maybe Ophelia talked about Amleth marrying Laertes as a way for them to be together. But Amleth, who used to consider Polonius as a tolerable old fool and thought that he’d long be dead before she ascended to the throne, now sees him as a man who would try to control her reign, either through his son or his daughter. Fuck that noise.)

    As far as the political situation goes: The Danelaw probably expected that Amleth would be married by the time old King Hamlet died, and that her king consort would be able to act as Denmark’s main general. But with the threat of Norwegian invasion and the unmarried princess in Heidelberg when the king died, the Danelaw took the opportunity to avoid having ew, a woman as king, and just gave Claudius the throne–instead of acting upon old Hamlet’s wishes and instating his daughter as king but with Claudius as leader of the armed forces until she married. Amleth realizes upon arriving back in Denmark that Claudius has no intention of surrendering the throne to her, with or without a husband, and further realizes (when Dad calls from beyond the grave) that he wishes to monitor her movements to prevent her from assembling an army or marrying. Oh, and he’s married to Mom, so it’s not like Amleth can get Gertrude’s help in any of this.

    (Yes, I have pondered doing a Hamlet-as-female version of the play on occasion. Feel free to use with attribution – this comment and the ideas herein are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. End law dorkery.)

  10. (and back to me again)

    There are two things that I think about this:

    1) Does Ophelia really talk that much about marrying Hamlet? I know Laertes tells her that it’s never going to happen, but isn’t Ophelia’s response all, “yeah, yeah, whatever, I don’t even WANT to marry him”?

    2) I think it’d be a mistake to get bogged down in the history or technical accuracy of it; is it implausible for the 14th century Danes to have a lesbian Queen instead of a king? Yes. Is Hamlet a unit on 14th century Danish history? I don’t think so.

    My feeling would just be, “Make Hamlet a lesbian woman, keep the relationships basically all the same, but with a kind of added ironic undercurrent, now, and if anyone says, anything about it, just tell them it’s Expressionism.”

    EXPRESSIONISM! The style in which anything is possible!