‘I wanted to speak those words.’ Many actresses have said this to me – experienced and brilliant actresses who have appeared on stage in Hamlet but were confined inside the roles of Gertrude or Ophelia – just two female parts in a cast of thirty. They had listened as a young man went through a professional rite of passage. Following in the footsteps of Burbage, Barrymore, Benedick Cumberbatch – you can pick a name – he had declaimed the speeches and quarried the emotions of Hamlet. ‘To be or not to be… ‘,’There’s a divinity that shapes our ends…’ While the women listened.
Hamlet is the greatest character in the greatest play in world drama. Yet in this tragedy Queen Gertrude never asserts her own thoughts and Ophelia is almost silent until men drive her insane. This doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was a misogynist – he wrote for a theatre where women were legally banned from the stage, and so if men and boys played the female roles it was unsurprising that in play after play Shakespeare concentrated on patriarchal stories. But this historical imbalance certainly created a troubling legacy, especially for English theatres, where women’s voices are still heard too rarely. In 1900 the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt expressed her frustration: ‘Ophelia brought nothing to me.’
And so she played Hamlet.
There is a great Hamlet counter-tradition. After over a century listening politely to ‘those words’, women demanded the right to speak them.
In 1741 Fanny Furnival (with ‘an elegant figure, an uncommon share of beauty, a perfect knowledge of every part she undertook’) found her career blocked in London. She moved to Ireland and became the first actress on record to play Hamlet. Her lead was followed by a string of resourceful women seizing whatever opportunities they could find to break the mould.
The great actress Sarah Siddons, who brought new dignity and respectability to the profession, played Hamlet from the 1770s into the early nineteenth century – despite a scandal that threatened her career, and never in front of London’s cultural Establishment. Her friend Elizabeth Inchbald, played Hamlet as the first step toward breaking free from the limitations imposed on female performers: she became a leading playwright.
They were followed in Britain and America by women who became theatre managers, novelists, suffragettes, campaigners against slavery, social reformers – and, for them all, seizing the right to play Hamlet was a symbolic blow for liberation. So audiences saw women playing Hamlet, a student at Wittenberg, before Englishwomen could graduate from university; they heard a female Hamlet choose Fortinbras as the next ruler of Denmark long before women in the ‘real’ world could vote.
So the history of women as Hamlet is a story of empowerment. The Romantic critic William Hazlett wrote ‘It is we who are Hamlet,’ but he assumed that ‘we’, his readers, were men. Look around you at the audience tonight. Who does Hamlet speak for? Sarah Bernhardt claimed that that only an actress could do justice to Hamlet – to the range of emotions, to the philosophical depth – and prompted star actresses all over the world to accept the challenge, to speak ‘those words’ in Italian, German, Russian, Finnish, Spanish, Yiddish, Turkish… The list goes on and on.
Was Bernhardt right to claim that women not only had the right to play Hamlet, but that they did it better?
Shakespeare’s other great tragic figures – Macbeth, Lear, Othello – are driven by belligerence and rage, even homicidal fury; in contrast, commentators since Goethe have stressed Hamlet’s ‘sensitivity’, which the Victorians categorised as ‘femininity’. Eugene Delacroix’s Romantic paintings defined Hamlet’s image as slender and delicate, and in fact when Delacroix drew the ‘sweet Prince’ his favourite model was his friend Marguerite Pierret. In all this they were following a strand in the play.
The Queen, who loves Hamlet, compares him to a ‘female dove’; King Claudius, who hates him, calls him ‘unmanly’. Hamlet senses a femininity within himself, but condemns it: the very qualities that generations have admired in him – eloquence, compassion, intuition – he condemns as the characteristics of ‘a whore’, ‘a woman’. Sarah Bernhardt commented, ‘The things Hamlet says, his impulses, his actions, all indicate to me that he was a woman,’ and though she meant this metaphorically one critic, Edward Vining (1881), argued that Hamlet is actually a woman in disguise. Vining’s day-job was as a railroad engineer, but he was taken very seriously by Freudians and by James Joyce.
Vining’s greatest disciple, though, was the silent film star Asta Nielsen. In 1920 she played Hamlet onscreen as a girl raised as a boy by parents who were determined to hold onto the throne of Denmark. Nielsen’s version added to Hamlet’s complex tragedy the fact that she was living a lie, unable to reveal her true feelings. Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet was an international sensation and, ever since, female Hamlets have been dismantling gender and questioning society.
In 1931 Zinaida Raikh and her husband the great Russian director Meyerhold showed a dissident female Hamlet challenging Stalinism. Raikh and Meyerhold were both killed. In the 1960s Maria Espert’s Hamlet heralded the slow death of Franco’s regime in Spain. Turkey 1976: Fatma Girik made Hamlet a trouser-suited, Western-educated avenger, terrorising her uncle with satirical dances and songs, determined to wipe out corruption (later Girik became a mayor of Istanbul). Poland 1989: Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska showed an actress straining to turn herself into Hamlet just as Hamlet is a thinker trying to learn how to kill. Desperately compassionate, s/he tried to save even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: ‘I’ve always thought the scene is about true friendship. Hamlet should try everything to protect them’. And last year in Philadelphia USA Zainab Jah, born in Sierra Leone, made history yet again. ‘I try to represent Hamlet the person,’ she said, ‘not Hamlet the gender.’
William Hazlett wrote that ‘This play has a prophetic truth.’ Today, on the stages of gender, nationality, religion and race, Hamlet shows us still trying to understand ourselves.
Tony Howard teaches at Warwick University and is the author of Women as Hamlet (Cambridge University Press)