Why you should care
Because casting a woman as Hamlet is still, somehow, controversial.
Tights at the ready. Lines rehearsed. Who’s the fair lady playing Shakespeare’s leading Dane?
Hamlet is acting’s most-coveted role, so it’s only natural that both men and women clamor to play the grieving prince. Or is it? History has turned Shakespearean cross-dressing on its head. Men in frocks were once the only candidates to bring the Bard’s fictive ladies to life. Now that the curtains have opened for women, females take on the Danish prince with memorable flair. But when they dull the lines between genders on stage, hackles get raised and controversy still swirls.
One of the first women to play the tragic hero, Fanny Furnival, stepped onto the Dublin stage more than 250 years ago. But that precedent was somehow lost on critics of Maxine Peake, who played a “delicately ferocious Prince of Denmark” this fall at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Reviewers spent nearly as much time arguing about the director’s “gender-bending binge” as they did on Peake’s performance.
“Hamlet is not merely the most famous character in all of drama, and an archetype for masculinity, but an entire acting tradition.”
Dr. Sophie Duncan, Oxford University
Gender aside, playing Hamlet isn’t for the weak-willed. Sir Derek Jacobi, an English actor well-regarded for his rendering of the prince, has referred to the role as the greatest theatrical tradition of all time. “Hamlet is not merely the most famous character in all of drama, and an archetype for masculinity, but an entire acting tradition,” Dr. Sophie Duncan of Oxford University explains.
Adding femininity just complicates matters. “For a woman to intervene in that history is an incredibly radical and complicated act, taking up the ultimate men’s space in drama,” Duncan adds.
How radical can a female Hamlet be? Look no further than French actress Sarah Bernhardt, the first woman to play the Prince of Denmark on film. The self-proclaimed atheist, culturally Jewish and possibly bisexual Bernhardt faced discrimination on a number of fronts, but she still managed to draw positive reviews for her late-1800s performances as Hamlet.
“It’s especially complicated because [it’s] so scathing about women,” Duncan points out. Lines like “Frailty, thy name is woman!” and “Get thee to a nunnery” change completely when delivered by a female. Hamlet’s outrage at his mother’s apparent infidelity and his abusive treatment of Ophelia ring oddly when spoken by a woman.Since then, actresses ranging from Frances de la Tour to Angela Winkler have had a go playing the Dane. But a female Hamlet isn’t just about breaking the glass ceiling. “Sarah Bernhardt can certainly act Hamlet well enough to justify her attempt,” wrote one bemused critic from the New York Times.
There’s also a question of sexuality. One reviewer of Peake’s recent performance was uneasy when her Hamlet kissed Rosencrantz and Ophelia — both played by women — and complained: “Why make these added distinctions?” A female Hamlet is one thing, apparently, but a bisexual or lesbian one verges on the political.
Must every female Hamlet still be a statement? Peake’s production was billed as a “radical re-imagining” of the play — despite being part of a centuries-old acting tradition.
From madness to humor, grief to introspection, Hamlet speaks to us all — no matter what gender delivers his lines.
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