Hamlet, Princess of Denmark

In Shake-speare's day, female roles were played by males. Sometimes, this was a simple, straight-up switch, with no other conceits, while in a few plays the practice resulted in men playing women disguised as men. Today, a role involving the latter disguise generally would involve a woman playing a woman disguised as a man.

In the 18th century, women began playing men. In opera, this practice is known as a "trousers role," most common when a male's voice is written to be performed in a mezzo's range.

Today, such juxtapositions can go either way, for example, from the men playing women angle, Mark Rylance's award-winning turn as Olivia, in Twelfth Night; or, as we see in this production of Hamlet by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, a male playing the female role (the Player Queen) in the play-within-a-play scene, even though the setting for this piece takes place long after women were playing women. (Why this throw-back to original practices, especially given two females in the troupe of travelling players at the fin de siècle?)

Foreground, left to right, Ava Kostia as Laertes and Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet; Background, Gary Wright as King Claudius and Mare Trevathan as Queen Gertrude
Foreground, left to right,
Ava Kostia as Laertes
and Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet;
Background, Mare Trevathan as Queen Gertrude
and Gary Wright as King Claudius
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
But foremost in this production is director Carolyn Howarth's choice to cast Hamlet and Laertes as women playing women. Such a practice apparently began in 1921, with a silent film adaptation. Let's not miss the irony in that choice: the lines were not spoken.

Certainly, these gender-bending exercises can be fun, and make for some amusing double and triple entendres. Among the many layers of Shake-speare's dramas, such cheap thrills had their place as well, for groundlings and nobility alike.

But do these juxapositions have the weight to carry an entire production?

In their publicity for this production, CU Presents proclaims:

CSF shakes up a Shakespearean masterpiece: In Hamlet, Director Carolyn Howarth asks, "Why not a woman?"

"Women have been playing Hamlet for hundreds of years, so this isn’t anything new," she says. "I’ve seen dozens of men play the role gorgeously and I will again. I just really felt like giving this character a slightly different perspective and seeing what new revelations that would bring."

Fair enough. So, let's see "what new revelations such an interpretation" brings. The press release goes on:

"Howarth says she got the inspiration to cast a woman while watching the Olympic Games last summer.

"I was mesmerized by the fencers," she says. "One day I turned on the TV after the fencing had started, and I didn’t know whether the fencers were men or women. They have such similar vocabularies of movement, and I thought that was really interesting."

In Howarth’s mind, good fight skills are good fight skills—so she had no qualms casting two women to act out the iconic Hamlet-Laertes duel scene. She’s confident Lenne Klingaman (Hamlet), a taekwondo black belt, and Ava Kostia (Laertes), an experienced fight specialist, can do the scene justice. (Editor: Note that the casting of Kostia involved an extended search.)

"Female actresses aren’t given that much opportunity to do fight scenes, even though they’re trained for it in school," Howarth says. "This will be Lenne’s first opportunity to show off those skills in a major role."

Yes, the women did a great job (fight choreography by Christopher DuVal) in that final scene.

Unfortunately, this Hamlet's gender-bending premise is a one-trick pony whose metaphor doesn't hold up for the three hours (including intermission) of action.

The gap between Howarth's metaphor and the audience experience begins with the text itself.

In the program guide, Hadley Kamminga-Peck, the dramaturg for this production, writes, "Many of Hamlet's qualities would have appeared feminine to an Elizabethan audience, including his penchant for melancholy and weeping and his erratic behavior."

Now, let's get this straight: the dramaturg is saying that melancholy, weeping, and erratic behavior are feminine qualities. Do contemporary feminists agree with this? Did Edwardian feminists agree with this when Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet as a man? Did Elizabethan audiences, particularly those at court, agree with this?

In the world of logic, there is a vast body of analysis begun by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle that includes a list of logical fallacies. Among those listed is one called Black & White, in which the error is in defining an answer as having only two possible choices; in this case, masculine or feminine.

Since Carl Jung's psychoanalytic work preceded the first woman playing Hamlet as a woman, one might think that, at this juncture, our intellectual universe would have room for a man with feminine qualities, and vice versa, since that is one of Jung's key points: for psychological integration to be realized, one must marry his or her masculine and feminine qualities, a process that Jung calls the Divine Syzygy.

In dramatic isolation, a woman playing a man or a man playing a woman may perform easily within these parameters, anywhere along the vast spectrum of sexuality. But this Hamlet is a woman and she is not in isolation; rather, she is speaking lines and performing actions of a male who has very specific attitudes towards his mother, his surrogate father, and his romantic interest. For the author, these characters are all based on real people who appear in numerous places in the canon.

The time stamp for this production is not described in the program guide, but from the costumes we can assume that the range falls from the very late 19th to the very early 20th century. During that time, homosexuality was not generally accepted in Denmark and Norway. In some cases, it was criminalized. Lesbianism in literature does not appear in either country until the mid-20th century.1

But in this adaptation one would not know—from the court of Claudius and Gertrude, including their chief counselor, Polonius—that such bigoted attitudes dominated the period, as Hamlet's same-sex love relationship with Ophelia is never mentioned or alluded. This is particularly strange given the fuddy-duddy conservative values espoused by Polonius. In the original manuscript, the playwright (de Vere) mocked his former guardian and present father-in-law (William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen's chief minister for nearly her entire reign) by calling this character Corambus (two-hearted, in Latin), whose real-life motto was "One hand; one heart." Even after de Vere relented and renamed the character, his borrowings from Burghley's stable of adages ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be ..."; "To thine ownself be true ...") are intended to mock the man, just like Hamlet does to Polonius. Yet, Polonius, a control freak, worries instead about whether Hamlet is really in love with his daughter Ophelia, without ever mentioning what would have been seen to him as an abnormal pairing; for example, the charges of homosexuality leveled against his son-in-law (de Vere) in the Arundel libels. So, at the time this play was written and at the time of the setting in this adaptation, homosexuality was not accepted by those at court, or the general public.

This is but one example of why this adaptation comes across as not only disjointed from the original text, but from its setting as well, as wonderful as Stephen C. Jones' eerie conjuration of Denmark’s Troll Forest and Hugh Henson's elegant Edwardian wardrobes are.

Then there is the main character, the former Prince of Denmark, now the Princess. For those who believe that the canon was written by a fellow from Stratford whose historical footprint gives no hint of how he developed into one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance—incorporating ideas from peers whose expertise crossed the entire spectrum of human knowledge available at that time, many of whom served as tutors to Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, years before Stratford retired from speculating in grain and headed to London—this play is in homage to his son, Hamnet, who died at a young age. Get it? The names are similar!

To those who believe that this play is adapted from two rare Scandinavian manuscripts—Amleth and Beowulf (the only known copy of the latter was in de Vere's guardian's library and checked out to the playwright's tutor—and massaged to incorporate the personnae of the playwright's former guardian and present father-in-law, his wife, one of his brothers-in-law, his mother, and his deceased father, as well as actual life events (such as being robbed and left naked on the shore by pirates, or a specific body of case law regarding suicide, which he learned during his training at Grays Inn and from a court case in in which he was involved), then this play is the most biographical in a canon literally overflowing with a surfeit of personal details.

In the former case, the entire canon, including its crown jewel, Hamlet, is nothing more than a series of public domain manuscripts to be altered according to the whims of those presenting it. Who is to say that these "interpretations" are valid or not, since those conceiving them have no historical context from which to draw? In the latter case, however, the entire canon is a detailed biographical account of the greatest dramatist and poet in recorded history, mentored by some of the greatest minds of the Renaissance, and offers endless insights into the dynamics of the court of Elizabeth I, as well as a record of the intellectual history of that age.

(Left to right) Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet and Emelie O'Hara as Ophelia
(L to R) Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet
and Emelie O'Hara as Ophelia
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
But the issues in this production go beyond flippantly flipping a character with the hope that manuscript will still make sense: a number of normally dramatic moments are rushed or ignored. For example, the scene between Hamlet (Lenne Klingaman) and Ophelia (Emelie O'Hara) that ends with the Princess telling her love interest to "Get thee to a nunnery!" This is a difficult scene for the pair, because as Hamlet later confesses in Ophelia's grave, she loves her. And indeed, the dialogue in this scene indicates that that this is so. But, it turns on a dime, from this:

Soft you now! The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember'd.
Hamlet, III, i, 87-89

To this:

You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.

I was the more deceived.

Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.

(Left to right) Gary Wright as King Claudius and Rodney Lizcano as Polonius
(L to R) Gary Wright as King Claudius
and Rodney Lizcano as Polonius
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
What causes Hamlet to quickly switch from fond remembrances to abrasive charges?

Generally, the most effective renditions of this scene have Polonius and Claudius, who are listening from behind a curtain, drop a set of keys, which causes Hamlet to immediately question Ophelia's honesty.

(L to R) Jihad Milhem as Horatio,
Lenne Klingaman as Hamlet,
and Blake Williams as Marcellus
Witnesses to the Ghost
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Instead, in this production, Polonius and Claudus stand behind a plexiglas screen, their shadows visible from the start, and Hamlet begins with a perfunctory chip on his shoulder. We never hear that she once loved Ophelia. In fact, the role has been directed and interpreted as if Hamlet actually seems mad (which the text does not support; for example, Hamlet has two witnesses who also see her father's ghost), rather than a clever strategist for whom, as Polonius notes, there is "a method to his madness."

Given the setting and the bigotry against same-sex relationships at the time this adaptation is set, and just a decade or so after Freud's musings on hysteria, we wonder why Hamlet, as a woman, is not in a straight jacket. There is, frankly very little method to her madness, with Klingaman's emotions overriding the clever riddles that are meant to further satirize Polonius (as a stand-in for Burghley; for example, calling him a fishmonger, in reference to Burghley's declaration requiring citizens to eat more fish [to improve the British fleet]).

Another instance in which the setting plays against the text is in the gravediggers' scene, where late 19th/early 20th century Hamlet pays homage to a court jester (Yorrick) in her father's court, long after fools were part of any royal entourage, given that the practice died out in the late 17th Century throughout most of Europe.

We are also unconvinced, after listening to Claudius (Gary Wright) admit in private that he killed his brother, the King, that Claudius has the heart of the killer.

Sam Gregory as Prologue
Sam Gregory as Prologue
A player in a play within a play
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
There are other examples, as well, where either the setting or the direction are at odds with the text, but let us not belabor the shortcomings of this adaptation. It does not work on so many levels, among other things skewing key, well-crafted relationships that the playwright painstakingly detailed. Adaptations are wonderful when they do work, expanding the import of the original messages to other times and places, showing the universality of the original script; but when adaptations (of the tragedies in particular) don't work, they do a disservice to the canon, turning people off to this great body of work, rather than turning them on in a passionate fashion. After all, we are talking about the plays and poetry by which these arts are measured. They were written before copyright existed (which is one of the numerous reasons the playwright and his family's ruse with the Stratford man succeeded) and may be freely adapted; but, beware of the erudition that you alter: it is a complex nexus of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual relationships.

It would have been interesting to see Klingaman's considerable acting talent applied to playing Hamlet as it was written—as a woman playing a man, the way the text reads and as the deeply biographical elements demand—now that likely would have been something!

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Hamlet runs in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew and Julius Caesar through August 13th. For tickets:

Bob Bows

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