- Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction
The first third of Tony Howard's book does a superb job telling the history of female Hamlets, from Sarah Siddons, "the first established actress to play Hamlet" (16), to Sarah Bernhardt, whose "version was not just the apotheosis of the traditional female Hamlet [but also] heralded its demise" (92). The more surprising, and also superb, part comes later, with what I suppose Howard would call the nontraditional female Hamlet. Howard sets the nineteenth-century actresses who played the part in the larger cultural context of the character's feminization. (The book itself negotiates nicely among "part," "actress," and "character," but it might have given a more explicit, or critical, account of the buzz word "feminization.") He gives major credit to Delacroix's 1835 painting of an androgynous Hamlet, which Baudelaire described as "'delicate, pallid' . . . 'soft and slightly hesitant'" (13)—and hesitant he might well seem, given that Delacroix's model was the unambiguously female Marguerite Pierret—and to the sensational novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who in the 1863 Eleanor's Victory "rewrote Hamlet as the story of a Victorian woman in her teens" (70). These are interesting choices among the many that Howard might have made. I favor, on the basis of priority and weirdness, Goethe's description of Hamlet as "an oak tree planted in a costly vase";1 the expanding roots shatter the delicate container of one whose beautiful nature lacked a hero's strength. But the main point is that the sixteenth-century revenger had by the mid-nineteenth century become pensive, therefore passive, therefore womanly—and thereby hangs a tale. And not only women made Hamlet womanly: Edwin Booth, for instance, wrote that he had "'always endeavoured to make prominent the femininity of Hamlet's character'" (20).
Howard shows that women have played Hamlet almost as variously as men have, but the fact that they've played him at all has, he suggests, politically progressive implications. His evidence is mixed. One of his most interesting case studies is that of Angela Winkler in a German production at Expo 2000. According to Howard, "Winkler's . . . act of gender-redefinition suggested—for individuals and the body politic—the possibility of change" (12); but he also notes that British feminists criticized Winkler's girlish Hamlet because it seemed to equate femininity with infantilism. Michael Billington wrote that Frances de la Tour's Hamlet in 1979 was "'tough, abrasive, virile and impassioned'"; but the feminist critic Micheline Wandor slammed the expressly anti-Thatcherite production as a "'a generalised freak-show'" (270).
The most popular nineteenth-century female Hamlet was, like de la Tour, no wisp of a thing. A reviewer said that Alice Marriott's "'figure is imposing and her [End Page 109] carriage is, if not quite masculine, sufficiently so for stage purposes'" (80). I like the modifier "for stage purposes." Marriott's "'archaeologically-correct'" production was praised for being "'authentic'" (81), as if a woman in the role was no impediment to the paradox of theatrical authenticity. In fact, as Howard shows, none of the early female Hamlets profoundly shook the audience's sex-gender system. Howard wittily calls "[t]he female Hamlet . . . a walking, speaking, alienation effect" (5), but he goes on to describe an all-female Japanese production (1995) in which, its director says, "'As soon as rehearsals started everyone forgot about the sex of the person, she was like any other performer, playing Hamlet'" (5). Is a woman playing a male character necessarily more alienating than a man, in a modern production, playing a woman, as Adrian Lester so memorably did in Cheek by Jowl's 1991 As You Like It or as Edward Hall's Propeller Company regularly does? Is a female Hamlet different from other kinds of nontraditional casting? The underlying question is, What do we see when we see an actor, of whatever gender, acting? And of course, the only answer is, it depends.