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.
A Woman’s Feigned Madness
In molding Shakespeare to Vining’s formula, Nielsen’s silent feature adds an explanatory prologue in which Gertrude collapses in despair after discovering her newborn child is a girl. “The crown is lost!” cries Gertrude in an intertitle. But her advisor has a devious plan: “Tell the people a male heir is born to the throne, and the people will believe it.” We fade into Hamlet fully grown, impersonated by Nielsen in a dark tunic and jet-black hair, her morbid bearing both tonally appropriate and gender neutral. Superficially, Nielsen’s tenebrous appearance might recall Conrad Veidt’s svelte somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose aesthetic influence had already spread by 1921. If expressionistic acting and décor intend to manifest and project interior states of being, we might be tempted to see in Nielsen’s gloom the heavy shadows of Romantic ennui. Despite Nielsen’s Caligarist facade, however, her performance owes little (if anything) to German expressionism. Her acting is subdued, graceful, and naturalistic (much unlike the ludicrous eye-bulging of Eduard von Winterstein’s Claudius), even if her silent, un-soliloquizing postures hardly express Hamlet’s layered angst.
Nielsen’s version also interposes intimate scenes that picture Hamlet and Horatio together studying at Wittenberg, evincing the implicit sexuality that, in Vining’s argument, underlies their relationship. They further transcend gentlemanly friendship when Horatio places his head in Hamlet’s lap as they lounge on the grass. As with most gender masquerades, we must wonder whether Horatio loves a male Hamlet homosexually or if he unconsciously “sees through” the disguise to love a female Hamlet heterosexually. In any case, it is through the male disguise that Horatio’s love for Hamlet arises, and when the “prince” is distraught over Gertrude’s treachery, s/he is comforted by Horatio in a manner generally reserved for heterosexual lovers.
The revisionist scenario also mandates a total alteration of Gertrude’s character and motivations. Because Gertrude is the engineer of Hamlet’s deception, Hamlet’s scorn for her takes on an entirely different meaning, while Hamlet’s femaleness obviously negates Oedipal interpretations of Hamlet’s neurosis. Needing to restore gender stability, the film’s climax ends the masquerade: when Hamlet is impaled in the final duel, Horatio rushes over and, in clasping her, discovers her covert bosom. Notably, there is no intertitle in which Horatio exclaims shock or reveals Hamlet’s secret; rather, Horatio kisses the mortally wounded Hamlet on the lips, presumably to the alarm of the lingering onlookers, who remain conveniently off-screen.
In Vining’s sexist paradigm, only a woman could be as neurotic as Hamlet seems to be. As a “genuine” man, Hamlet is unthinkable, but as a female man he becomes, as Vining says, “an exhibition of the deepest human feeling.” Nevertheless, Nielsen’s performance retains a shadow of neurosis, whether born of a gendered identity crisis or the filial duty she ideally would embrace were she in fact a man. On the surface level of action, Nielsen’s apparent subversion of impossible masculine ideals, like Hamlet’s contempt for contrived revenge plots, becomes moot. Her feigned gender, along with her feigned madness, must be finally revealed as a masquerade.
On the level of subtext, one could read the Nielsen-Vining argument more generously: the modern Hamlet-man, recognizing an ineluctable interior femininity, realizes the absurdity of Rousseauean striving, and it is this futility that becomes, in itself, tragic. But of course, any such reading, no matter how allegorical, still springs from the moldy, poisoned well of gender essentialism.
Fatma Girik as Hamlet (1976)
If a gender-inverted Hamlet cannot escape his bodily predicament, then a liberated Hamlet requires a new, non-Rousseauean body, one that mocks the usual binaries, even if does not transcend them. A differently imagined Hamlet arises in Turkish director Metin Erksan’s Female Hamlet (Kadin Hamlet, 1976), in which Hamlet is not a cross-dressed deceiver, but rather a murdered king’s daughter (albeit one outfitted in masculine garb, including a pinstriped suit and fat red tie that would make Al Capone blush). Erskan’s experimental, modern-dress production reduces Shakespeare’s prolix four hours to 86 minutes of expository and declarative statements and replaces tights, doublets, and cliff-sides with blue jeans, foxy ’70s-era fashions, and beach parties. Though the film wanders into ludicrous camp, Fatma Girik, star of nearly 200 films since the mid-’50s, is a formidably charismatic distaff Hamlet, more attractive as a virile, resolute woman than Hamlet ever was as an effete, wavering man.
The film envisions Hamlet as single-minded, not vacillating, perhaps because Hamlet’s “femaleness” is now out of the bag, so to speak. To forestall any equation between the traditional Hamlet’s hesitations and this Hamlet’s biological femaleness, Girik employs a stylized and “masculine” delivery, with heavily falling syllables that create a thunderous impact. (Her performance is admittedly hard to judge, since the dialogue was seemingly looped in post-production — but her visual magnetism remains.) A distaff Hamlet requires others among the dramatis personae to undergo a complementary conversion: Ophelia is now a dimwitted boyfriend, Orhan, who lacks money and whom Hamlet can no longer love, and Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are now two female compatriots, Rezzan and Gul, with whom she frolics at the shore.
If “seeming-ness” and the vicissitudes of self-presentation are Hamlet’s traditional themes, Erkan’s film takes notions of performance to disarmingly blatant levels, either as a calculated strategy of deconstruction or through aesthetic clumsiness. To hammer home “performance” motifs, Girik stands in a field, sporting a mock-Beethoven haircut and conducting a magic orchestra of animated, player-less instruments before delivering, with flailing arms and bulging eyes, an abbreviated version of “to be or not to be”. (The scene perhaps implies her “orchestration” of the machinations to follow, but the metaphor is still rather on the nose.)
At every turn, Erksan’s avant-garde staging expresses (paradoxically) the theme of literality. While feigning madness, the female Hamlet appears in a fringed Roman helmet or in military regalia, blowing a bugle, to announce her warlike cause; she places herself, dressed in a prisoner’s striped uniform, voluntarily in an outdoor cage, acknowledging that she is a prisoner of both circumstance and genre itself; and she critiques a young child’s painting to nakedly declaim themes an audience would otherwise infer: “You only painted the visible… don’t look in from the outside, look out from the inside.” When not indulging in gratuitously skewed angles, director Erksan even has characters address the camera nearly directly (perhaps only ten or 20 degrees off-center), as if commonplace dialogues were slyly disclosed asides.
Sweeping away every Shakespearean ambiguity, the film’s “operatic” declamation reaches an apogee when Hamlet, trapped in the cage of her own making, answers a question from Rezzan and Gul. “Why do you hold yourself in this cell?” they ask. “To make lies truths,” she responds, as if even her feigned madness needed denuding. For all her talk about inverting reality, however, the Female Hamlet — perhaps because her gender is already inverted — acts freely, much like a forthright ’70s feminist, accomplishing rather speedily what Toshiro Mifune’s Hamlet had distended into incompetence.
I’ve seen some commentators sloppily compare the experimental mise en scène of Female Hamlet to the spiel of Fernando Arrabal or Alejandro Jodorowsky, but Erksan’s film disavows their esotericism, metaphysics, and psychoanalytic pretensions, instead reducing the proceedings to low-budgeted, travestied pantomime. (Hamlet even sings a powder-faced vaudeville number before “The Murder of Ganzago”). The film treads a treacherously thin line between the avant-garde and the amateurish, and while Erskan’s declamatory style inhibits any unearned pretentiousness, much of the staging is hopelessly gauche, as if scholarly frat boys were putting on a pageant.
In his handling of the soundtrack, Erksin veers from clumsiness into perplexity, employing excerpts from Shostakovich’s pompous score for Kozinstev’s 1964 Hamlet, but elsewhere dipping into the nether regions of airheaded ’70s-era disco. When Hamlet stops by the beach with Rezzan and Gul for a bikini-clad swim, “Get Up and Boogie” somehow infects the soundtrack, less as a Jarmanesque anachronism than as an insipid bemusement; and when Hamlet appears to the strains of “Fly, Robin, Fly”, one desperately hopes the musical choice isn’t meant to be symbolic. Despite its veneer of chintz, however, the film is more or less Artaudian, rejecting metaphor in favor of concretism, reducing emotionality to puppet-like grimaces, and replacing human psychology with a colorful world of artificial, manipulable objects.
If the traditional Hamlet plays a youthful version of the Greek eiron (particularly in David Tenant’s incarnation), Socratically drawing out truths from unsuspecting dupes, Erskan makes the entire film ironic. Revisionist productions, especially those like Almereyda’s Hamlet, are meant to make Shakespeare “relatable”, as if it were the dress, and not the diction, that confounded later generations. But trudging through endless revisions, each more decorative than the last, only adds new crusts of myth and mystification to unpack, as overworked exercises of “relatability” become an academic chore in themselves.
Brandishing its chintz proudly — almost as a weapon — Female Hamlet reduces Hamlet to what it shouldn’t be, but still is: a pitiable revenge tragedy, as awkward, absurd, and ungainly as Dickens’ poor Wopsle makes it out to be. In his psychological deliria, Vining sought to “solve an old problem”, but merely compounded the mystification; abandoning the masks, Erksan finds a new solution in text, not subtext, in shameless exhibition rather than discreet camouflage.