Wonderous Strange: I Ain’t Afraid of No Girl!


Diane Venora plays Hamlet in Joseph Papp’s 1982 production at the Public Theater.

This morning, with the official announcement of the Ghostbusters reboot cast making waves around the internet, I find myself thinking once again about female Hamlets. I mentioned my interest in passing earlier, when I reported that Maxine Peake‘s genderbent portrayal of the Dane was coming to film. Today, I want to go further back.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Ghostbusters is a comedy which transcends gender, though there will always be those who find it difficult to see past the biological and cultural differences that cluster around that tiny X/Y chromosomal gap. Ghostbusters does contain a romantic subplot, but mostly it is a buddy comedy about schlubs who find themselves in over their heads. I have no trouble imagining that scenario with four buddy-schlubs who happen to be women; in fact, in some ways, it makes more cultural sense to me, especially when the Ghostbusters are framed as outcasts (at the start of the film, when they get booted off campus) or pariahs (towards the end, when bureaucrats are searching for scapegoats).

Hamlet is not a buddy comedy about schlubs in over their heads (although that does niftily describe Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead…hmm [files this away for further consideration]). And yet, the lead role has been cross-cast since the 18th century, so clearly there is something about tragedy that, like buddy comedy, transcends gender. Perhaps, if Hamlet were a by-the-numbers revenge play, that transposition would be harder to achieve — since, even today in Hollywood, it is rare and controversial to see a female vigilante. When we do, they almost invariably focus upon rape revenge, probably as a means to frame exploitative sexual content in ways that seem ethically justified.

But Hamlet is about more than revenge, and perhaps it is that “more” that allows the title role to transcend gender in performance. There’s an illuminating 1982 New York Times article about Joseph Papp’s production of Hamlet at the Public Theater, starring Diane Venora (probably the only Hamlet in history who would go on to play both Ophelia and Gertrude!). In that article, Papp explains what he sees about Hamlet that makes the character ripe for cross-casting:

I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet – not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.

There are men who have played Hamlet very effeminate and there are those who played it macho; the male spectrum goes from the very tough to the effete and very delicate. Most English Hamlets from the 19th century on were quite delicate, while American Hamlets were much tougher – like Barrymore. Diane is a strong Hamlet, but not a macho Hamlet; vulnerable, but not hysterical.

There are some contradictions here, but that’s hardly surprising when a director tries to describe one of the most self-contradictory characters in literature. Hamlet has the capacity to be macho, as Mel Gibson occasionally shows us; but clearly, he also needs to reveal a sensitivity and compassion that help to explain his hesitancy. Neither Papp nor I are suggesting that women are incapable of decisive action. But maybe the juxtaposition with a female body and a (traditionally) male role can help audiences apprehend something of Hamlet’s internal conflict.

There’s so much more to say here — about legends that the historical Hamlet may have literally been a woman in disguise, about cultural responses to cross-casting, about the difference between a “female Hamlet” and a female as Hamlet — but I have to pace myself. I’ll swing back to this topic soon, though, maybe with a catalogue of the top she-Hamlets in performance history.

Besides, I need to be careful for the sake of my own production, lest I go so far down one rabbit hole or another that I can no longer see the big picture objectively. Is casting a woman as Hamlet a good idea? Absolutely! But in some respects, as soon as you’ve done that, it becomes the idea — as Papp says, even after 300 years of cross-casting, “It is sufficiently radical to have a woman play the role that you don’t have to do more.” I’m not sure if I agree, yet; but I’m also wary because, well, I want to do more.

That’s the Question: Has anyone seen a female Hamlet, onstage or on film? Would you consider cross-casting any other roles in the play?


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One thought on “Wonderous Strange: I Ain’t Afraid of No Girl!

  1. Wesley says:

    Given the scant number of Shakespearean women in the canon, I’m not sure I can justify taking one away, however… a male Ophelia opens up a bouquet of questions and puzzles that seems ripe for exploration. The opportunities for comparison of society’s perspective on homosexuality and madness (depending on the period) pops to mind, heightening the romantic conflict for both young lovers as they deal with their respective dysfunctional families. Or it could just read as a terrible after school special…

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