Crossing Genre, Age and Gender: Judith Anderson as Hamlet

Female Hamlets

The desire to play Hamlet had been experienced and fulfilled by many women before Anderson, including Mrs. Furnivall, Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Inchbald during the eighteenth century.6 These women were led, Tony Howard suggests, by the desire to claim ownership over a role that was becoming identified as the greatest work of England’s greatest poet.7 Female Hamlets proved particularly popular in the Romantic age, a move attributable in part to changing conceptions of Hamlet’s character. Robin Headlam Wells notes the “age of sensibility invented a new Hamlet—sensitive, delicate, distressed,”8 and Elaine Showalter suggests this feminisation of the character opened the role to women.9 According to Tony Howard the first woman to essay the role in an American theatre was likely the touring English actress Mrs. Bartley at New York’s Park Theatre in 1819, closely followed by Fanny Wallack, Charlotte Barnes and, most notably, Charlotte Cushman.10 Departing from earlier models, Cushman privileged Shakespeare’s text in her production—she reinstated much of the play that was typically cut, as well as restoring her understanding of emotional “truth” to the Hamlet role, in a “conscious critique of what many men had done with it” before her.11

Anderson drew attention to the long tradition of actresses in the role and particularly cited Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, which the actress premiered in 1899 at the age of fifty-four, as a precedent for her own performance. Bernhardt performed her Hamlet within the tradition of “travesti” performance popular on the French stage. Actresses in travesti sought to create a stylised masculinity that male actors were thought to be unable to achieve in their representations of young men and boys. Gerda Taranow notes the object of travesti was not “androgyny.” Despite its insistence on the feminine within the masculine and vice versa, the aim of travesti was not to unite the sexes but to highlight difference through the contrast of female body and male attire. Female travesti “did not seek to intermingle opposite sexualities, but to emphasize, with delicate insistence, the feminine presence [of the actress in the male role].”12 Anderson, in contrast, would seek to direct attention away from her gendered identity and body when playing Hamlet. While many French critics applauded Bernhardt’s depiction of masculinity, some questioned the suitability of Hamlet for travesti performance, as they believed Hamlet’s feminine soul needed to be contrasted with a masculine body.13 English critics also objected to Bernhardt’s performance in terms of the body, finding it impossible to read this Hamlet as anything but a woman—specifically a very famous French woman named Sarah Bernhardt. In Max Beerbohm’s analysis, Bernhardt’s Hamlet “betrayed nothing but herself, and revealed nothing but [her] unreasoning vanity . . . her Hamlet was, from first to last, très grande dame.”14 The actress’s body and, more particularly, her celebrity, prevented critics from seeing the “real” Hamlet. The same phenomenon would attend Anderson’s appearance in the role.

From Anderson’s personal scrapbooks, she appears also to have been interested in two lesser-known female Hamlets: Asta Nielsen and Esmé Beringer.15 These actresses demonstrate radically different readings of Hamlet by women in the twentieth century, and provide a counterpoint to Anderson’s own approach to the character. Nielsen played Hamlet in the German film, Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance (1920), directed by Svend Gade. The plot followed Edward P. Vining’s 1881 monograph The Mystery of Hamlet in suggesting Hamlet had been born female but was raised as a boy for political reasons. As the title suggests, this adaptation rejected the passive protagonist of Romanticism for an active avenger. Nielsen’s Hamlet is a young “man” of intellect and honour, troubled by “his” (inexpressible) love for Horatio and grief at the death of “his” father. The film disrupts traditional readings of Hamlet’s delay, or resistance to revenge, as a “feminine” trait. Nielsen had become renowned for playing freedom-seeking new women and enigmatic prostitutes, and Lawrence Danson contends that she brought the memory of these roles to her Hamlet, thereby aligning the character with sexual transgression. In Danson’s analysis, this Hamlet thus became a spectacle of simultaneous liberation and containment: “In Nielsen’s polymorphous sexuality a viewer could read the strong image of a conceivable freedom from gender restrictions, crossed with the pathos of that freedom’s bafflement by actual social conditions” as represented in the material circumstances of the play.16 Nielsen’s Hamlet demonstrates the radical potential of cross-gender casting in Shakespeare, a potential that would also circulate around Anderson’s Hamlet.

Esmé Beringer played Hamlet in London in 1935 at the age of sixty-three, and later published an article in which she justified actresses playing Hamlet. She repeatedly figures the character in emotional terms: prior to the catastrophe he is “happy,” “highspirited” and “in love;” following it he is “grief-stricken,” and “runs the gamut of love, scorn and despair.” Beringer does not explicitly comment on the implications of cross-gender casting, but the aspects of the character to which she draws attention are those that seem particularly suited to female performers. She stresses Hamlet’s sensitivity, and finds his interpersonal relationships with Ophelia, Horatio, and Gertrude amongst “the most vital themes of the play.”17 Even within a normative reading of the play, and a conservative approach to theatre, Beringer implicitly validated actresses playing Hamlet. As an older woman performing Hamlet, Beringer also functioned as a precedent for Anderson. Had Anderson read the Times’s review of Beringer’s performance she would have seen that the actress’s age was ignored by the critics, but her ineffectual representation of masculinity and male behaviour, and her “monotonous, sing-song intonation,” were openly criticised.18 Anderson decided not to attempt a representation of masculinity in her reading, and to focus her performance on her greatest asset—her powerful and flexible voice.

Anderson on the road to Elsinore

In 1954, Anderson told an American journalist she wished to play the role of Hamlet.19 She reiterated this desire in the press that attended her appearance in Medea in Epidaurus in 1955.20 The opportunity to do so did not arise until 1969, a delay she attributed to the difficulty of finding a suitable director.21 Bernhardt had also stated that her desire to play Hamlet was long-standing but she had been delayed by production difficulties—in her case the search for an appropriate translation.22 This discourse of desire thwarted by circumstances beyond the actresses’ control has a number of effects: it foregrounds the actresses’ professionalism; inhibits reading their decision to play Hamlet as a “whim” or rash act of folly; and frames their eventual appearance in the role as in some way “destined.” Anderson’s trouble finding a director also suggests the limited commercial potential of a female Hamlet on the American stage in the late twentieth century.

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