Asta Nielsen and Fatma Girik's Hamlets: Old Mysteries, New Problems

Asta Nielsen (L) Fatma Girik (R)

Wherein Hamlet is no longer a neurotic male in princely guise but a woman invested with an identity crisis.

In a justly celebrated chapter of Great Expectations, Dickens travesties at great length a shabby, small-town performance of Hamlet, wherein the shambling ghost of Hamlet’s father suffers from a hacking cough, hecklers exhort a soliloquizing Hamlet to off himself, and costumed Danes brave the audience’s barrage of pelted nuts. Dickens’ apparent digression arguably serves a narrative function, as the fate of the much-maligned lead performer, the pretentious Wopsle, soon sinks to the indignities of playing in a barroom Christmas pageant, partly mirroring (if you recall) young Pip’s own career disillusionments. But the chapter clearly transcends merely narrative purposes, becoming a self-contained bit of satire.

Dickens takes pains to demythologize modernity’s most sacrosanct drama, which sees the individual hero emerge from his Elizabethan cocoon and rebel intellectually -- and uselessly -- against his own preordained narrative. A proto-existential figure trapped within a pre-existential scenario, Hamlet is doomed not by the intersections of fate and misguided will (as is Macbeth), but by the machinations of tragedy itself.

To the contemporary reader, Hamlet’s princely tragedy doesn’t mean much. If we inevitably reimagine Hamlet as a shadow of our present, anxious selves, we update in our minds what is vital and demote the rest to historical curiosity. The post-industrial employee or entrepreneur sees Hamlet’s indulgent, unproductive vacillation as what is now culturally shameful: idleness and a lack of industriousness. In recounting the dazzling failure of an early 19th century hamlet’s Hamlet, Dickens may have captured a sense of humanity’s eternal malaise, for all our strivings strain under the weight of impossible -- or inherited -- expectations.

Hamlet was a psychologically “modern” man precisely because -- centuries before Pirandello or postmodernism -- his predicament straddles the diegetic and extra-diegetic, the performative and the generic, the mentation of character and the cold mechanics of plot. He revolts against the norms of Elizabethan revenge tragedies, which were driven by decisive, mechanistic action (as in Middleton, Webster, and Tourneur), not realistically drawn characters. Hamlet, an undetermined man in a predetermined narrative, thus presciently mirrors the Age of Anxiety, in which we cling to fantasies of freedom but know the “genre” of corporatized, middlebrow existence has doomed us all.

Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film version, mercilessly freighted with Ethan Hawke’s mumbling hipster-Hamlet, seizes (at once cannily and blatantly) on the hero’s straddling of rebellious thought and generically mandated action. The film stages Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” within the banality of a Blockbuster Video, where existential questions are nestled amongst VHS covers marketing car chases and bargain-basement machismo. A glib euphemism for carnage, the word “action” no longer signifies moral, intellectual, or political action, but the mechanics of cinema, wherein “will” becomes little more than overboiled testosterone, rationalized through the etymology of the word “cinema” (from the Greek root kino-, “to move”).

Weaned on the notion of revisionist “relevance”, audiences no longer tolerate a “straight” production of Hamlet, with tights and doublets and Olivier’s cliff-side posturing. Over the years, we’ve been through a lot -- David Warner’s angry-young-man Hamlet, Nicol Williamson’s psychopathologized Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh’s populist-Hollywood Hamlet, David Tennant’s standup-comedy Hamlet, and so on. Somewhere in ill-attended cellars, intrepid producers surely have mounted a beach-party Hamlet, a nudist colony Hamlet, a slasher-movie Hamlet, a Balinese puppet Hamlet, an all-bird Hamlet (not so far-fetched -- remember 1948’s Bill and Coo, starring trained lovebirds), or what have you. Revisionist productions are less attempts to make Hamlet contemporary or “relevant” than attempts to remythologize what critics have so spent much energy demythologizing. Put another way, revisionism neither revivifies nor renovates -- it only reminds.

More radical than a cosmetic reconstruction of Hamlet is Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which doesn’t merely update the tragedy to postwar, corporatized Japan but intentionally sabotages tragic mechanisms and moral assumptions. Here, Toshiro Mifune’s ersatz Hamlet seeks revenge on his father’s killer without a shaming specter or pompous Fortinbras goading him into tragic action. Rather, Mifune’s hero rouses himself to action through will alone, mustering a sufficient amount of motivating hatred and suppressing his love for the daughter of his father’s killer (to whom he is deviously betrothed). Though Kurosawa allows the plot to unfold at a leisurely rate, we assume Mifune will dispatch the villain efficiently, even if he succumbs to a preordained demise.

As the slightly overlong film starts to drag and Mifune’s plans for revenge unfold, we become as anxiously impatient as the impassive Mifune should be. But the slow drag is part of Kurosawa’s strategy. Lulling us into an easily shattered complacency, Kurosawa finally pulls the rug out from under us -- and tragedy itself -- as Mifune perishes (off-screen) at the hands of a wholly underestimated Claudius figure. A languorous Hamlet of the early 17th century is afforded the luxury of inviolable generic rules: Hamlet may waver and philosophize, but Claudius still gets his comeuppance. The modern Hamlet of 1960 enjoys no such indulgence: Mifune’s Hamlet had waited too long, stretching the narrative mechanisms of tragedy to a degree that contemporary realism will not tolerate.

In the film’s final moments, the Claudius figure, after offing Mifune’s Hamlet, humbly calls his anonymous, bureaucratic superiors from the womb of his office, assuring them that he will retreat into retirement now that the troublemaker has been eliminated. The film’s title, The Bad Sleep Well, suddenly appears, as if to dethrone tragic aesthetics and declare that modernity’s villain is no longer a usurping schemer but an impenetrable, byzantine bureaucracy that a lone hero, no matter how seething his hatred, could never overthrow. Desacralizing tragedy by emasculating his hero, Kurosawa reveals how the cult of masculinity hinges precariously upon an outmoded cult of action.

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Modern -- and contemporary -- notions of heroic masculinity still rely upon what Rousseau called perfectability, which assumes that men, specifically, actively strive toward ideal ways of perfecting the potentials of the species. Rousseau’s sexism posited femaleness as a constant state of being, divorced from perfectable goals, and maleness as an ongoing process of becoming. Of Rousseau’s Emile (1762), many remember only the most infamous and least enlightened remark: “The male is only male at certain moments… the female is female all her life.” This simplistic, pre-feminist notion of female stasis and male “progression” still saturates (a heteronormative) culture, underwriting the continual policing of gender. At the risk of oversimplification, Rousseau’s intractable notion of gender allegorizes Hamlet’s dilemma: he must be continually active to perform the role of a prince, for even a moment’s wavering or passivity pushes him “backwards” toward effeminacy or impotence.

The Elizabethans, of course, were presciently a step ahead of Rousseau, disrupting the binarily gendered conflict through the practice of having young men play women’s roles (at least until 1629, when women started to appear onstage -- 13 years before the Puritans closed the theaters). In a crude sense, the practice introduced into masculine aesthetics the performative idealization of femininity, releasing the Rousseauean male from his eternal, unipolar striving toward an “absolute” maleness. However, the collapsing of gender found in female roles -- an extra-diegetic intervention -- mainly challenges aesthetic relationships, not political ones. Further, that female roles are masculinized -- and that Shakespeare’s comic plots often add internal layers of ironic, situational cross-dressing -- might actually more intensely masculinize the male players, who remain impervious to gender-performative mischief.

Asta Nielsen as Hamlet (1921)

But how might this gendered scenario change when it is the Shakespearean male who is cross-dressed? There exists, in fact, a marginal tradition of actresses tackling the role of Hamlet, most famously Sarah Bernhardt in a reportedly buoyant, boyish 1899 performance that deviated from the melancholic norm. In cinema, the most notable female Hamlet was offered in a 1921 film directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall and featuring Danish star Asta Nielsen, who’d played everything from Hedda Gabler to Mata Hari. Nielsen’s cinematic vision -- realized by her own studio, Asta Nielsen-Film -- found a pretext in Edward P. Vining’s 1881 monograph The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which conjectures that Hamlet was, in fact, a cross-dressed woman raised to act the political role of prince. Rooted in a Victorian worldview, pre-Freudian sexology, and stalwart gender essentialism, Vining’s The Mystery of Hamlet sometimes pops up on the margins of Shakespearean studies, albeit as an outdated joke. For Vining, Hamlet’s vacillations, prattling, and “fondness for dissimulation” are “naturally” feminine traits and betray only “stratagems that a woman might attempt.” ("The mystery of Hamlet. An attempt to solve an old problem", 1881)

Vining sees in Hamlet’s relations with women the telltale signs of a grand deception: “While upon feminine peculiarities, upon womankind in general, and upon his mother and Ophelia in particular, [Hamlet] pours out all the bitterness of his detestation.” In Vining’s analysis, Hamlet’s misogyny, “an anomaly against nature”, coupled with his effeminizing self-doubt and an alleged attraction to Horatio, can only mean that he is biologically female but burdened with male heirdom, much as Hamlet is generically burdened with the unwelcome role of filial avenger. Hamlet is thus no longer a neurotic male in princely guise but a woman invested with an identity crisis misinterpreted as male impotence and effeminate stasis by unsuspecting onlookers.

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