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.

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.