A recent production of Hamlet – directed by Sarah Frankcom and starring Maxine Peake in the eponymous leading role – has been gathering much interest in the arts world for its bold choice of gender-swapping. In Sarah Frankcom’s production, Maxine Peake plays a decidedly female Hamlet, a choice that also makes for an excellent and novel secondary school production.
A History of Female Hamlets
Some discussion could be had about the feminist implications of casting a woman in a traditionally male role, but the history of casting women as Hamlet goes back to long before Sarah Frankcom’s choice. In the book Women as Hamlet, Tony Howard in fact suggests that there have been as many as 200 female portrayals as Hamlet, going back as far as the 18th Century.
In fact, in 1900, Sarah Bernhardt was not only the first female Hamlet on film, but the first Hamlet on film of any gender. Similarly, Eve Donne was probably the first Hamlet to be broadcast on radio. Many directors have interpreted Hamlet’s alleged femininity as ideal for women to play the part, and the idea opens new doors for those directors, and drama teachers, willing to try it.
How to Cast a Female Hamlet
One of the major points behind casting a female Hamlet is the understanding that Hamlet can already be interpreted as quite a feminine character. When seeking your Hamlet, therefore, it’s important to let your students’ interpretation of the character shine through as much as you can. A student who understands Hamlet well is a student who will really live up to the role, and perform to the audience’s expectations just as much as they will blow them away.
It’s also important not to make Hamlet too feminine. Sticking as closely to the script as possible is key, and allowing your cast to take into account that Hamlet can be a masculine woman as much as a feminine man is an important part of the production.
How to Cast Hamlet’s Supporting Roles
When swapping Hamlet’s gender, it might also be tempting to swap the gender of other main and supporting characters; particularly Ophelia, Gertrude and Claudius. Ultimately, the decision of who to cast in these roles is entirely up to you and your students, but here are some thoughts to bear in mind:
Gender Swapping Every Role
If you choose to swap the gender of every character, you have a number of opportunities presented to you. You can play the script straight, teaching your students (and audience) to find the deeper connotations of each character’s gender and what swapping it means.
Alternatively, you can have a bit more fun with the script, overplaying the masculine characteristics of now-female characters, and vice versa. This may be an odd tone for a tragedy, especially one such as Hamlet, but if you play a bit fast and loose with the script and cut it down a little this can definitely work out as an alternative, and entertaining, performance.
Gender Swapping Hamlet Only
Only swapping the role of Hamlet will almost certainly require a straight performance, and in this instance you can emphasise the duality of Hamlet’s masculine and feminine characteristics. In this version, you require a strong actress to play Hamlet, as most of the performance will hinge on her acting and interpretation of the character. Don’t worry too much about making it a Maxine Peake level performance, but certainly ensure that your actress understands her character and her role.
Gender Swapping Specific Characters
You have the choice, as Sarah Frankcom’s production did, of swapping the genders of only certain characters and leaving others as is. This can be done in two ways. Firstly, you can target specific characters to swap the gender of, with purpose. This can be as simple as maintaining a heterosexual dynamic by making Ophelia male. Or it can be more complex, such as choosing to make only Claudius female, creating a more female-centric main cast, and studying the play from this perspective.
Alternatively, you can throw out the idea of ‘traditional’ gender roles, and cast whomever works best for each role, based on their understanding and performance of the character in question. In this style, making sure that each actor understands their character and plays their part well is more important than any other aspect, and is sure to make a thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly unpredictable, line-up.
However you choose to cast and perform your version of Hamlet, even the smallest change of casting a female Hamlet is bound to draw attention to the performance and allow you to put on a show to be remembered.
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