Hamlet, Gender, AND SO FORTH

Posted: October 14, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , , ,

Today on Threat Quality:  everyone go to the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s blog.  I want to have a conversation about what it means to cast Hamlet as 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.

  1. John Jackson says:

    Posting on that site is a fucking pain, and now I’m logged in as wordpress so you won’t know who I am.


  2. braak says:

    Yeah, it ate, like, five of my comments before I figured it out.

    Blogspot, jesus.

  3. John Jackson says:

    Great, now I feel like I’m trolling someone else’s blog.

  4. Maureen says:

    Okay, either I’ve just spammed you a half-dozen times with the same comment or Blogger hates me. Blerg. Anyways, here’s the comment below; feel free to delete if it actually shows up in the proper spot:

    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
    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.)

  5. braak says:

    I’s because Blogspot rejects your comment if its too long. Because fucking Blogspot, jesus christ.

    Anyway. 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!

  6. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I prefer the conflict between Femme-Hamlet and Ophelia to be a confusion about Ophelia’s vulnerability, how emotionally indepenent women can sometimes feel a sense of disconnect from those women still struggling with constricting social and familial expectation, whatever the dynamic of the womens’ relationship. This makes their interactions be about Femme-Hamlet’s struggle to relate to and feel a sense of empathy toward the more fragile woman. I like the idea of a female Hamlet unconcerned with traditional femininity, to the point where the audience forgets that she’s particularily “female”, where her femaleness doesn’t even register as provocative. And why does the conflict necessarily need to be one between women over a man? Why must it remain necessarily romantic? Couldn’t Femme-Hamlet simply be confused or disturbed by Ophelia’s overwhelming emotional dependency on her, in the same way Male Hamlet recoiled from Ophelia’s snatched-virginity neediness?

    I think it would be more interesting to focus on how Hamlet’s challenges, neuroses and reflections belong to everyone–male or female. I don’t believe the human experience is so very different between the sexes (all three of them). Hamlet is the perfect play to showcase this. I’ve often thought about how great a female could be in this role.

  7. braak says:

    Couldn’t Femme-Hamlet simply be confused or disturbed by Ophelia’s overwhelming emotional dependency on her, in the same way Male Hamlet recoiled from Ophelia’s snatched-virginity neediness?

    No; Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is what makes his rejection of her so intensely painful. I think the relationship is wasted otherwise.

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I think Hamlet would see it that way, too: Ophelia’s value in terms of his measurement of it. She exists when he sees her. When he’s busy contemplating justice, from the point of view of a privileged man obsessed with familial drama and tragedy, she’s “in the way”–a distraction. He’s not self-absorbed in a demented way, just to the point where he puts the fragile Ophelia’s needs on hold and as she’s someone teetering on the edge of sanity, the audience should assume that anything he said in frustration could’ve been the final nail in her coffin. Not that Hamlet never loved her deeply, he’s simply an angsty, tortured guy: Hamlet against The World, emotionally distant or headily intimate and warm, depending upon how it serves him best. Maybe he’s waited too long to communicate exactly how he feels about her and her emotional dependency and mental illness doesn’t leave much room for his failure in their relationship (fair to him or not). But he’s bi-polar cycling all over the place and Ophelia is the lady-forever-in-waiting, while he makes up his mind.

    If Hamlet were a woman, I think it would be interesting to focus on similar qualities in her–that kind of unintentional narcissim, resulting from being in a position of privilege and celebrity–and how she’s emotionally initimate with and understanding of Ophelia when it suits her, but confused by Ophelia’s vulnerability, her weakness, when Ophelia is the one in need.

    Ophelia is collateral damage in Hamlet’s existential and familial struggles. He doesn’t understand how anything she could need from him could be more deserving of attention than his plot for justice, so it irritates him when she doesn’t understand this; insufferable female, why can’t she just hold herself together and wait patiently, while he gets this whole revenge thing settled? Ophelia’s a victim of her own mental illness, but also society’s expectations of the female role; she plays her part, tending to Hamlet at the expense of her own security and strength, but Hamlet neglected his part of the social bargain by not acknowledging his responsibility to protect her fragility, even during the hardest of times. The world fails all humans and they both failed eachother.

  9. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Another thing-

    Maureen mentioned King Christina. In the film “Queen Christina”, a loose Hollywood interpretation of the Monarch’s life, starring Greta Garbo, there’s an interesting dynamic between Christina and her primary lady’s servant. Both women are heterosexual, but walk through life in a different way, depending upon personality and power in society. Although the lady servant is not emotionally dependent upon Christina, there’s a distinct tension between the two and Christina is clearly the “alpha” in their relationship and likely still would’ve been, even without her future as soverign allowing her liberties and a sense of legitimacy in her dominance. If the lady servant were replaced as “Ophelia, the delicate and emotionally dependent friend” and Christina replaced with “Hamlet”, I could see that being a good example of how such characters should be played. Both have their own struggles, both are vulnerable in some way, but one is the power player in the relationship and receives the lion’s share of the focus, while the other waits for crumbs of attention and affection.

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