To be or not to be Hamlet: Women and one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles

To be or not to be Hamlet: Women and one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles

Tarah Flanagan & Eileen Moeller | Great River Shakespeare Festival

If theater is all about the suspension of disbelief why, when it comes to an actor identified with one gender playing a character of another gender, do some people have such strong negative reactions? After all, we don’t believe we are actually in Scotland when Macbeth falls prey to his own ambition, and we don’t believe we are actually in the forest when Rosalind becomes Ganymede or when Helena and Hermia have their great falling out. Why then, do some insist that Hamlet (or Prospero or Richard II) must be played by a man in order to be believable, compelling, or good?

To answer this question requires a lot more time and a deep dive into a lot of VERY big questions. It would probably involve a few heated discussions. But that role of Hamlet – that quintessential Shakespearean role, has always been at the top of many actors’ bucket lists.

In this article, we’ll use the terms “cross-gender” and “re-gender” or “re-gendering”. In casting, “cross-gender” casting means casting a woman to play a man (like Hamlet) as a man. This may mean the actor takes on traditionally “masculine” qualities in the way they walk, speak, or interact with other male characters. “Regendering” a role means changing the gender of the character, either by slightly altering their name or pronouns (changing “he” to “she” in the text) or using other gender signifiers such as clothing.

Steven Berkoff, author of I am Hamlet, described the appeal of this iconic role: “In every actor is a Hamlet struggling to get out. For whatever reason, and there are many, Hamlet is the accumulation of all our values and beliefs. In him are set out the rules for the perfect human, the perfect rationalist, plus the adventurer, all rolled into one. No other play gives an actor such words of compassion, charm, wisdom, wit, moral force, insight, and philosophy.” What artist wouldn’t want to tackle that?

In order to better understand the “new” (sort of) convention of casting actors across gender, we asked GRSF Acting Company member and Associate Artistic Director Tarah Flanagan about why we are seeing this practice more, and what it means specifically for the titular role in Hamlet.

To investigate the recent seasons offered at the RSC, The Globe, the Royal Exchange Theatre, not to mention Shakespeare festivals across North America, one could be forgiven for assuming that “cross-gender” and “re-gendered” casting is a recent innovation. However, there is nothing new about the concept of casting a woman in the role of Hamlet. It has been happening for over 200 years (beginning with Charlotte Clarke in the 1700s). Even re-gendering the role itself was explored 100 years ago by the Danish film star Asta Nielsen. What is new is a mainstream acceptance, and even an insistence on the practice.

Twenty-five years ago, you would occasionally see women performing men’s roles; primarily in productions where budget restraints deemed double-casting necessary. These opportunities tended to be limited to supporting roles with exceptions reserved for actors with real star power (Fiona Shaw as Richard II) . At the time I saw nothing wrong with this, though I longed for the chance to play some of those great men’s roles myself. I talked an undergrad professor into letting me tackle Henry V in the classroom with no expectation I would ever play such a role professionally. We are all products of our time.

The resonance and resilience of Shakespeare’s work lies in his unparalleled ability to articulate what is universal and human. There are several multifaceted and deeply interesting women in Shakespeare’s canon. Yet none of them comes close to the range and scope of humanity found in the character of Hamlet.

Hamlet cannot be contained in a single interpretation. Rather, the depth and brilliance of the play and the character are revealed through multiple interpretations. Of course it “changes” Hamlet to cast a female actor. Over the past 400 years Hamlet has been “changed” by: performing it outside the city of London, performing indoors, performing at night, performing with artificial light, legalizing female actors on stage, utilizing costumes and sets, rehearsing the play with a director, performing in America, with American accents, setting productions in non-Renaissance contexts, casting actors of diverse cultural and ethnic heritage, incorporating recorded music and sound, and cutting the script (which almost every company – including GRSF – does)

Expanding our diversity of storytellers to include more women, non-binary actors, actors of color, and artists with disabilities will only enrich our appreciation. Modern innovations and customs will always be lamented by some as detrimental. I believe the opposite is true. -Tarah Flangan

Sarah Bernhardt was 55 when she starred as Hamlet, to wide acclaim. The following year, Bernhardt revived the role of Hamlet in a silent movie. She was the first woman to play the part on film.

By Lafayette Photo, London – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g06529.

While Sarah Bernhardt’s performance may have been considered revolutionary at the time, she was not the first (nor the last) woman to take on the role.

Over the past few years, several actresses have earned accolades for their Hamlets. Maxine Peake garnered tons of praise for her take on the tormented prince in 2014 at the Royal Exchange. Her performance was lauded by The Guardian, whose reviewer Susannah Clapp noted Peak “knock[ed] on the head one of the paradoxes of Hamlet. The speeches that come out of the prince’s mouth are about dissolving, yet the person who delivers them has to be the most distinct, intense character on stage.” On the cross-gender casting of the production, Clapp remarked, “[The] gender switches may unsettle for a moment but they do not distort the play. At least, not unless you think that ‘to be, or not to be’ can only refer to people with penises.”

More recently, in 2018, the newly minted Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, Michelle Terry, took on the role of the choleric princeling. Terry said of her company’s gender-crossed casting, “We have at our disposal a canon and a body of work that is essentially about the human being. There are no character descriptions in Shakespeare. There is nothing prescriptive about who can and should play what. Our job as actors is to offer up the impression of a person’s character in all its complexities and ambiguities.”

And, as many artists note, what is appealing about Shakespeare’s characters – or any role, is the opportunity to find something new in the character and new in yourself. While the old adage “there are no small parts, just small actors” is true, it is also true that there is more to explore in a character who has over 4,000 lines (Hamlet) versus a character who has less than 100 lines (Ophelia and Gertrude). For women who have dedicated years or even decades to the study of iambic pentameter, scansion, the quartos, the folios – would we not expect them to yearn to take on characters with some of the most compelling speeches?

In our discussion of women and Hamlet, Tarah concluded, “We shouldn’t do Hamlet with any particular kind of person because it is en vogue. New productions of classic plays are not made relevant by slapping a gimmick on top of a work of art. Conversely, if new productions of classic plays do not seek to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’ that is our contemporary society, they will become obsolete – and rightly so. If we believe Hamlet to be a great work of art that speaks to the human condition in a way that is universal (and I do), then it is our responsibility to investigate the text fully, understand its connection to our world, and make room for more universal representation of that humanity to interpret the role. Sometimes, the right person to provide that representation is a woman.”