- Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction
In William Ackerman Buell's The Hamlets of the Theatre (written in 1940, published by Astor-Honor in 1968), female Hamlets are relegated to the back of the book, in a final chapter entitled "A Plentiful Lack of Wit," where they are grouped with other "grotesque" (166) or "droll and lighter elements" (163) such as fat Hamlets and farcical Hamlets. "There are on record dozens of actresses who played the part," Buell reports, but, he adds dismissively, "none of them to any appreciable satisfaction for their audiences" (171). There have been at least two hundred female Hamlets to date; far from being isolated curiosities, they constitute a parallel history. Indeed, as Tony Howard argues in Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, they constitute a "Shakespearean subculture, inseparable from shifting attitudes to gender and political identity" (ix).
This engaging, richly illustrated, and thought-provoking study has a very wide scope. Treating the female Hamlet as a type, Howard is not only concerned with actresses' portrayals of Shakespeare's prince of Denmark, but with portraits of "female Hamlet types" in various cultural practices. Thus, Women as Hamlet includes within its fold Fanny Kemble's series of solo Shakespeare readings (1848), held as fund-raisers for women's and abolitionist organizations; novelist Mary Braddon's rewriting of Hamlet in Eleanor's Victory (1863); "regendered Hamlets" (91) such as Hedda Gabler; films in which female characters either wanted to play or to become Hamlet, such as in Morning Glory (starring Katharine Hepburn, 1933), All Men are Mortal (1995), which was based on a 1940s Simone de Beauvoir novel, and Robert Lepage's pastiche film noir Le Polygraphe (1996); and "meditations on the female Hamlet" (38) in Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince (1973) and Angela Carter's Wise Children (1991).
The superb opening chapter establishes recurring questions and prevailing issues of the female Hamlet through three case studies: the German actress Angela Winkler, who played Hamlet at the Hanover Schauspielhaus for Millennial Expo 2000 under the title "Hamlet 2000"; the French Romantic painter Delacroix, who used a female model for his iconic series of lithographs of Hamlet in the 1830s–40s; and an American railroad systems expert and amateur critic named Edward Vining, who penned one of the most fascinating interpretations of the prince in The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), which argues that Hamlet was not just feminine, but was a woman. The regendering of Hamlet, Howard finds, inevitably raises related questions about "the nature of subjectivity, articulacy, and action" (1), with the presence of the female Hamlet serving as "an elusive signifier of both schism and possibility" (x). [End Page 531]
While the first woman to play Hamlet was an actress named Fanny Furnival, at Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, in 1741, the first culturally influential female Hamlet was Sarah Siddons, who helped to "modernize" or psychologize Hamlet, to transform him into the universally human figure he has generally been considered since. Female Hamlets transformed the play itself into a "map of gender" (17) as all characters' relationships underwent redefinition. In addition, they made the character a "war zone" because "the great 'feminine' protagonist was male property" (25). The great age of the female Hamlet was the nineteenth century, when nearly every major actress tackled the role, including Charlotte Cushman, Louise Pomeroy, Alice Marriott, Julia Seaman, Clare Howard, Millicent Bandmann-Palmer, and Anna Dickinson—and, of course, Sarah Bernhardt, the first Hamlet of any gender on film and also the first (and as yet only) female Hamlet at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. Hamlet became these actresses' "passport to exploring the mind onstage with dignity" (80). When Howard mapped out appearances of female Hamlets from 1741 to 2000, he discovered "clustered events" that corresponded to the waves of women's emancipation movements (mid-to-late nineteenth century, 1920s, 1960s) and pointed up the gradual shifts in the culture. For instance, he argues that female Hamlets in the mid-1800s...