At the moment, Maxine Peake is playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. The promotional blurb for the production on the Royal Exchange website states that Peake ‘creates a Hamlet for now, a Hamlet for Manchester’. But a woman playing Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, actually, nothing new. Numerous women have played the part in the past, with each generation offering new interpretations of the idea of a female Hamlet. Indeed, Tony Howard, a professor at the University of Warwick, has even written a book on the subject (which we’d highly recommend). Howard has stated that the two best Hamlet performances he has ever seen were with a woman in the title role.
The first known instance of a woman playing Hamlet was when Charlotte Charke, who lived from 1713 until 1760, played the Prince of Denmark. Charke was the twelfth child of the Poet Laureate Colley Cibber; she became famous for ‘breeches roles’, playing male parts on the stage, and even took to wearing male clothing off-stage. She therefore became one of the most famous transvestites of the age. Indeed, another notable stage role played by Charke was Lord Place, in Henry Fielding’s play Pasquin (1737). This was the play responsible for bringing about the Licensing Act, thanks largely to its satire of Robert Walpole’s government. For the next 230 years, all plays performed on the public stage in the UK would have to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain.
Sarah Siddons was the first established actress to take on the role of Hamlet, shortly after Charke. But it was in the nineteenth century that female performances of Hamlet would really become a phenomenon.
In the nineteenth century, Hamlet became almost an archetype of femininity. Undoubtedly Victorian attitudes to gender roles played their part here. As Lawrence Danson has summed it up, ‘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.’
But by the early twentieth century, things were beginning to change again. The first Hamlet ever captured on film was Sarah Bernhardt in 1900, and twentieth-century female Hamlets would often be notably different from their Victorian and eighteenth-century predecessors. In the 1920s, Asta Nielsen, the female star of silent movies, would be feted for her expressive performance of the Danish Prince. Such was Nielsen’s popularity that there was even a chain of ‘Asta’ cinemas across the world. Meanwhile, the first female Hamlet in the talkies was Katherine Hepburn, who delivers the ‘To be or not to be’ speech in the 1933 film Morning Glory. In more modern times, the notion of a female Hamlet, as Howard argues in his book, could have more overt political implications. Frances de la Tour played Hamlet to much acclaim in 1979, in an explicitly anti-Thatcherite production of the play. German actress Angela Winkler has been one of the more recent female Hamlets to garner widespread praise, when she played the Prince of Denmark at the Edinburgh Festival in Peter Zadek’s production of the play in 2000.
But the idea of Hamlet as a woman is more far-reaching than this. In 1881, Edward P. Vining wrote a book, The Mystery of Hamlet, in which he argued that Hamlet’s effeminate qualities in the play can be explained by recourse to a very simple solution: Hamlet is a woman. When Hamlet exclaims, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’, he may as well have substituted his own name, according to Rohtbach, a commentator quoted by Vining. Vining was a US railroad systems expert, and not an academic literary critic. As Howard puts it, summarising Vining’s argument, ‘Hamlet is a princess in disguise’, and this, for Vining, explains why the character continues to be so popular and fascinating for audiences and readers. But Vining was by no means the first to highlight Hamlet’s femininity: he simply took it a stage further. Delacroix had painted a suitably androgynous Hamlet in 1835.
So, although most of us would be sceptical of Vining’s hypothesis that the character of Hamlet literally is a woman, Hamlet has been a woman, on stage and screen, time and time again. And the idea of a female Hamlet continues to fascinate us, as the new Maxine Peake production demonstrates.
Image: Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, by James Stack Lauder (‘James Lafayette’), public domain.