Turning Hamlet Into A Feminist Parable

We have the Texas State University theatre department to thank for this week’s installation. A little (theatre major) birdy told me that next semester, the department is putting on Hamlet. But here’s the twist: the email about auditions specified that all ethnicities and genders would be considered for the titular role. Yes, I did squeal and squee right in the middle of the dining hall’s Einstein Bagels. This is what I do, I told my birdy, this is everything I’m about—but now let’s really think about Hamlet.

The casting possibility with the most precedent, and the one I’ll discuss today, is that of a female Hamlet. Now, I’ve thought about exploring a female Hamlet before, but I always find myself stopping short, not feeling a hundred percent confident about it. I think the reason is this: within the context of a Shakespearean period, birthright, the driving force behind the whole damn play, is inherently a masculine trait. There’s a reason Gertrude isn’t made sole ruler after King Hamlet’s death: inheritance hinges on gender. Besides that, there’s the question of Ophelia. Ophelia’s arc, just as Hamlet’s, is contingent upon gender: her death is a result of the oppression and actions of men around her, so wouldn’t a female Hamlet be subject to the same treatment? But I have to return to one small detail. All of these gender specifications are only applicable within the context of the Shakespearean period. And Bard knows I can never limit myself to that.

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Sarah Bernhardt, one of the most notable female Hamlets, once reportedly declared that Hamlet should always be played by a woman. Right on, Ms. Bernhardt. Photo by James Lafayette and in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I can’t even start to say that we live in a post-gender world, but that hasn’t stopped actresses in three centuries (there are reports of female Hamlets going back to the 1700s). So maybe the question isn’t if it should be done, but rather, why it should be done. The answer, once I got to it, seems remarkably simple. We need a female Hamlet to remind us that women have a place in power too—that women too must fight for birthright. Having a female Hamlet makes Ophelia and Gertrude seem even more like archetypes, and allows us to see the different ways women can be entangled in power: Gertrude marries, Hamlet attempts to achieve it but cannot bring herself to action, and Ophelia is figuratively and literally drowned in its undertow. When we allow Hamlet to be a woman, the roles of the other women in the play become more profound, more universal. We all know a Gertrude, who sidles up to power; an ambitious Hamlet who doubts and hesitates just enough to fall short of her goals; an Ophelia who is tossed around by the demands of others. A female Hamlet (unsurprisingly) turns the play into a parable about and for women.

So what are the rules for a female Hamlet? Well, I obviously didn’t get the chance to see the Royal Exchange’s 2014 Hamlet, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say do it like Maxine Peake, who the critics adored. Male or female, Hamlet is more enjoyable when played “without girlishness” (a Peake quality that Guardian critic Susannah Clapp pointed out). I’ve always preferred a Hamlet who, while slowly descending into a deranged frenzy, maintains her seriousness and single-mindedness. Of course, dark clothes are a must—and by all means, tease at the dashing appeal that must have spoken to Ophelia.

You’ll notice that I haven’t even touched on different things that intersect with birthright—race, for example, or how much grief and mental instability play a role in Hamlet, and how to illustrate that. To go into that would be to just about write a novel. For now, start with casting a woman for Hamlet. You don’t need to cater to her femininity; no Hamlets of the past have. Not for the first time, I must emphasize my lack of authority in the field, but it’s just a gut feeling that even if you change nothing about Hamlet but his gender, you increase the dynamism of the show tenfold.

dreadpiratemama AKA Shakespeare Mom

A little different blog this week; in belated honor of International Women’s Day, let’s lift up another lady in the Shakespeare blog community.

I started the Shakespeare, Remixed project with, to be frank, no expectation of being noticed. I’m just a tiny student Shakespeare blog in a sea of much more learned scholars, ranting about character approaches I think would be cool. But early on in this Shakespeare experiment, I noticed a stranger like one of my promotional tweets –@dreadpiratemama– and when I investigated (because who would possibly care besides my friends?) I was satisfied beyond expectation.

Deidre Brill is a mom and writer living in north California who also is taking on a Shakespeare-related task: relating his works to present day. Not too dissimilar from my own goal! This includes such wonders as comparing Henry VIII to Donald Trump:

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–which makes the histories more palatable, particularly for someone like me who finds them intimidating as all get-out. Deidre also includes “recaps” of the plays before offering her analysis and real-life application, which is always helpful, even if you’re already familiar with the play.

Speaking of real-life application: that may be my favorite element of her blog. I –and many others–have always contended that Shakespeare endures because the themes are relatable and vital and human. Deidre makes that concrete. Reading her “Thoughts and Themes” segments of each post makes me want to point at the screen emphatically and shout, “SEE? See what I mean?” Particularly because the themes she finds in, say, Hamlet are so different than the ones I do–it’s a testament to how widely applicable these works are, how timeless.

I think what clicks with me about Deidre and her blog is that it contains that charming element that I’ve come across before, particularly in high school English teachers, a je ne sais quois that reminds me of looking across a desk, wide-eyed, at a woman more advanced in life than myself, who has learned more than I have, who understands more than I do, who is giving me insights into all that knowledge for free. It’s for this reason that in my head, Deidre is labeled “Shakespeare Mom.”

I’ll leave you with a link to dreadpiratemama, Deidre’s blog, a deliciously thorough post on Hamlet, and this clip of Deidre reading Sonnet #55.

Puck, Oberon, and Gay Representation: Creating Cohesion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This week I wanted to take a break from the tragedy analysis. Of course, it feels more potent to make dramatic roles more accessible, but re-approaching comedic roles can do just as much if not more to normalize minority or ostracized groups of people. Non-Shakespeare case in point: Bridesmaids normalized women, The IT Crowd normalized black nerds (you go, Richard Ayoade!), so on so forth. I’ve got a few ideas about a couple of the comedies, but for our inaugural comedy analysis, I wanted to go with my favorite of the genre: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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Anita Louise as Titania in 1935. Photo via janwillemsen on flickr.

Now, I say it’s my favorite of the genre—it might be more accurate to say it’s my favorite of all Shakespeare’s works. The extraordinarily beautiful Anita Louise as Titania in 1935 is my phone wallpaper.I wrote about my experience with the play in an essay that got me into my university’s honors college. When I found out my sister would be portraying Hermia in a production in Chicago last summer, I cried a little. I have part of a shelf dedicated to “comfort movies” by my desk—on that shelf, a DVD of The Globe’s 2013 production of Midsummer. That production is the one I would like to discuss (and praise) today.

I have been teased throughout school for seeing LGBT subtext in anything I can get my hands on, and I grabbed Puck and Oberon’s relationship right away. Puck defers to Oberon, but at the same time, there’s not quite a sense of subservience in it; he’s playful with the king, and the way Oberon refers to certain shared moments in their past makes it seem like they were companions more than master and servant. For proof, see 2.1.519, the beginning of their conversation: Oberon refers to “my gentle Puck” (indicating intimacy!) and when he gives Puck directions to fetch a flower, Puck playfully answers that he’ll “put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes”. It certainly sounds more friendly than a king and his servant, and I latched onto that and refused to let go.

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The comfort movie corner with Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Midsummer.

Thankfully, director Dominic Dromgoole seemed to have the same notion, for at the risk of sounding indulgent and millennial, the 2013 Globe production is deeply, gloriously gay. John Light’s Oberon makes any excuse to touch Matthew Tennyson; Tennyson’s Puck gestures flamboyantly and has no issues being manhandled by Oberon. It helps that Tennyson looks like he’s about a hundred pounds soaking wet while Light is a bellowing man built like a mountain, and thus moments of tenderness are far more pronounced. But this isn’t just an indulgence for the LGBT community (though it would be fine if it was). Building a relationship between Puck and Oberon also rounds out the comedic atmosphere more.

Oberon is one of the least comedic characters of the play: he’s domineering and aggressive, and while he incites the plot that leads to some of the greatest comedy, he does it with dark motivations and without ever really being funny himself. John Light’s hypermasculine presence and brooding glare do nothing to help him in that regard. In a way, he then risks being the only non-funny character in a play meant to be funny. In Dromgoole’s production, it is his interactions with Puck that integrate him into the comedy, and therefore make the character make sense within the context of the play. (It just doesn’t do to have a stick in the mud in a Shakespearean comedy!) When Puck starts delivering some sass, Light’s Oberon wears an unamused expression that inspires a giggle or two. While spying on the lovers in the forest, Puck rides on Oberon’s shoulders, and they hide behind twigs to disguise themselves as a tree—truly one of the funniest parts of the play. (For fourteen minutes’ worth of these kinds of interaction, click here.) So Puck’s intimacy with Oberon is what brings Oberon from intimidating to personable (no small challenge), and therefore makes the whole ensemble a matching set of funny folks.

Could you play Oberon and Puck platonically? Absolutely—that’s been done for hundreds of years, and it’s been just dandy. But considering just how easy it would be to angle them a little less straight, and how that softens Oberon’s sharp edges, I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t. Dromgoole pulled it off brilliantly, and I think that set a great standard. Midsummer is a comedy of follies, but like so many of the comedies, its final message is a hopeful outlook on love. If I can find one more place in the play to fit that in—by the Bard, I will.

Farmer Laurence: An Insight Into a Major Theme

Since my last post (read here!) was on Julius Caesar, one of the less accessible plays, I thought I would do a little reversal and take a new look on potentially the most accessible Shakespeare play of all the folios: Romeo and Juliet. It’s so well-known and generally well-loved that it almost feels too cliché to talk about, and to be frank, the play has been reworked and recast and redone so many different times in so many different ways that coming up with something new is very daunting. Romeo and Juliet themselves have been made interracial and queer in a number of ways; the “Mercutio and Benvolio were lovers” theory is a fan favorite, and one that I hold so dearly that it feels too obvious to approach (not that I won’t approach it later, mind you). But an oft-overlooked character gave me inspiration into a new approach: Friar Laurence.

The argument is often made that Mercutio is Romeo’s foil, contrasting Romeo’s tenderness with Mercutio’s brazenness, a cavalier attitude with a sensitive one. But I would argue that Friar Laurence is even more of a foil for Romeo; he is for the most part calm and rational, not at all like Romeo, and on top of that, represents a different social class and age group. The struggle between ages is well represented in the play in the sense of tradition vs. rebellion: the lovers versus their parents’ beliefs, the generations-old feud. However, Friar Laurence’s interactions with Romeo (and later, with Juliet) highlight the age vs. youth dynamic in the sense of wisdom and patience vs. irrationality and passion. Friar Laurence has such a different perspective on the lovers’ struggles that it then makes sense to add another differentiating factor: social class. This is where some analysis outside the text comes into play.

Within the text, we know that the friar is older than Romeo, and often the inference is made that he is in fact older than most of the characters of the play. I have no problem accepting this. The alteration I would make isn’t quite clearly touched upon anyway. The friar is never described as poor or of a humble rank, and in fact probably held some respect in Verona, but he is markedly apart from the wealthy families. That combination of factors reminded me of a certain trope: the farmer. It fits, doesn’t it? Extensive knowledge of plants, living dedicated to his work, serving the community, an example of experience and sagacity. Most of all, a contrast to wealth—in this case, a contrast to the warring families of Verona.

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A new look and new approach to the Friar, perhaps? Image by Dorothea Lange (USDA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I was thrilled when I came up with this idea and excitedly told it to a friend. She blinked at me and then said, “So you’re setting Romeo and Juliet in the Baptist South?” At which point I became even more thrilled. It’s painful to extricate Romeo and Juliet from its Catholic influences, but the Baptist South makes perfect sense for the play. Blood feuds that go back generations aren’t unheard of in the south (I live here, I should know), and the sweltering presence of religion is unavoidable. Additionally, the juxtaposition of old money (Montagues, Capulets) with farmers and moral figures (Friar Laurence) happens all the time. And with the religious traditions of the south, there’s nothing really stopping Friar Laurence from being a leader of the church, so his religious role in the play is still fulfilled. You can also argue the parallel that when farmers’ crops fail, their communities suffer, and when Friar Laurence fails to make the best decision for Romeo and Juliet, they suffer in the worst way. Responsibility is a huge factor of Friar Laurence’s character, and it would come through even more if he was costumed and presented as a farmer.

With my woman of color Cassius, I felt the casting would make the character more compelling and accessible. I don’t necessarily believe that of Farmer Laurence—the play is fairly accessible as is. But I do think making the choice to make him a farmer would highlight his role as a foil to Romeo, and Romeo and Juliet in the south would be a joy to watch. It may not be as politically ripe as some other interpretations, but it’s an idea, at the least, to emphasize one of the more subtle themes of the play.