Crossing Genre, Age and Gender: Judith Anderson as Hamlet

The idea of such an actress playing Hamlet, especially at the age of seventy-three, was so incongruous that some sections of the media automatically presumed her performance would become camp. However, as Anderson had shown in films such as Laura and The Red House, she could produce restrained and realistic performances when necessary, and her relatively measured Hamlet did not become camp solely on the grounds of “excess.” Nor was its old-fashioned style purely to blame, despite Bill Marvel’s description of Anderson as “out of her depth” in “attempting to make the Bard come alive for members of the Woodstock generation.”81 Indeed, as discussed earlier, some of the most appreciative viewers of the production were university students. Anderson’s Hamlet is more completely read as an example of what Sontag terms “naïve” or “pure” camp, the “essential element” of which is “seriousness, a seriousness that fails.” Sontag goes on to note that “not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”82 This Hamlet was expressive of each of these elements: “exaggeration” in its style; the “fantastic” in its casting of a seventy-three year old woman as a young man; “passion” in that woman’s intense desire to play the part; and “naivety” in her belief it could work. Ultimately Anderson’s experiment with Hamlet stands as an audacious, boundary-defying act, yet one that also demonstrates the very fixity of the boundaries it was attempting to cross.


Fiona Gregory lectures in the Centre for Theatre and Performance at Monash University in Melbourne. Her research on issues of celebrity representation and performance identity has appeared in New Theatre Quarterly, Australasian Drama Studies and Affirmations: Of the Modern. She served on the editorial board for Twenty-First Century Drama: The First Decade (Gale, 2012). She is currently undertaking a major research project on representations of the actress and mental illness from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day.


[1]“A Heartache and a Tragedy,” Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 1973.
[2] Michael Clowes, “Dame Judith Anderson,” Adelaide Advertiser, 19 February 1966, 8.
[3] Barbara Cloud, “Judith Playing Hamlet,” Pittsburgh Press, 3 January 1971, 19.
[4] Louis Calta, “Judith Anderson Plans to Play Hamlet,” New York Times, 19 November 1969, 44.
[5] “A Theatre Great is Still ‘A Country Girl,’” Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1973, 2.
[6] For a fascinating analysis of the history of actresses in the role into the twenty-first century see Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
[7] Ibid, 36.
[8] Robin Headlam Wells, Shakespeare on Masculinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 81.
[9] Ibid.; see also Elaine Showalter, “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” in Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds., Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (London: Methuen, 1985), 79.
[10] Howard, Women as Hamlet, 43.
[11] Ibid, 49.
[12] Gerda Taranow, The Bernhardt Hamlet: Culture and Context (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 83.
[13]Ibid., 85.
[14] Max Beerbohm, Around Theatres (New York: Greenwood Press, 1930), 36-7.
[15] Anderson’s personal scrapbooks, boxes 10-11, Dame Judith Anderson Collection, PA Mss 6, Department of Special Collections, University Libraries, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).
[16] Lawrence Danson, “Gazing at Hamlet, or the Danish Cabaret,” Shakespeare Survey 45 (1993): 45.
[17] Esmé Beringer, “Woman’s View of Hamlet,” 15 October 1953, unidentified fragment, UCSB.
[18] “Miss Esmé Beringer in Hamlet,” Times, 22 January 1938, 8.
[19] New York Herald Tribune, 18 October 1954, Judith Anderson Clippings file, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPL).
[20] Fragment from unidentified article dated 4 July 1955, NYPL.
[21] Morning Telegraph, 11 August 1970, NYPL.
[22] Sarah Bernhardt, The Art of the Theatre (London: G. Bles, 1924), 139.
[23] Gerald M. Berkowitz, New Broadways: Theatre across America: Approaching a New Millennium, rev ed. (New York: Applause, 1997), 78.
[24] Power’s opening speech, page from Anderson’s script of John Brown’s Body, UCSB.
[25] Nick Milich states Anderson “selected Ball to direct her,” in “Critics Missed the Point,” Watsonville Register, 13 October 1970, DJA. This does not preclude the possibility that Gregory initiated the project.
[26] Hamlet program, in author’s collection.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Funke, “Dame Hamlet.”
[29] Dan Sullivan, “Dame Judith in Hamlet Role,” Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1970, UCSB.
[30] Chris Curcio, “Anderson’s Hamlet: A Fiasco,” Daily Pioneer, 6 October 1970, UCSB.
[31] Nathan Cohen, “Female Hamlet Never Satisfying,” Toronto Daily Star, 27 October 1970, UCSB; Mel Gussow, “Stage: A Lady ‘Hamlet,’” New York Times, 15 January 1971, 18.
[32] Milich, “Critics Missed the Point.”
[33] Ibid; Cohen, “Female Hamlet;” Gussow, “A Lady ‘Hamlet.’”
[34] William Ball, A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing (New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1984), 27-8.
[35] Bill Marvel, “Hamlet’s Mother Plays Him,” National Observer, 5 October 1970, 17.
[36] Frank Hains, “Dame’s Dane: Madness in Great Ones Must Now Unwatched Go,” Jackson Daily News, 17 November 1970, DJA; Milich, “Critics Missed the Point.”
[37] Sullivan, “Dame Judith in Hamlet Role,” Los Angeles Times.
[38] Marvel, “Hamlet’s Mother.”
[39] Sullivan, “Dame Judith in Hamlet Role.”
[40] Ball, A Sense of Direction, 99.
[41] Robert Berkvist, “When a Great Role is Passed Along,” New York Times, 2 May 1982, NYPL.
[42] Anderson referred to the “friction” between herself and Ball in an interview with Clyde Packer, in No Return Ticket (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1984), 67.
[43] Richard L. Sterne, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet: A Journal of Rehearsals (New York: Random House, 1967), 294.
[44] Hains, “Dame’s Dane.”
[45] Milich, “Critics Missed the Point.”
[46] Curcio, “Anderson’s ‘Hamlet;’” Gussow, “A Lady ‘Hamlet;’ Sullivan, “Dame Judith in Hamlet.”
[47] Robert Feldman, “The Dame from Rose Park, Adelaide,” Bulletin, 27 December 1969, 54
[48] Tom Lutz, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 151.
[49] James W. Stone, “Androgynous ‘Union’ and the Woman in Hamlet,” Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 76.
[50] Sullivan, “Dame Judith in Hamlet Role.”
[51] Hains, “Dame’s Dane.”
[52] Ibid.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Curcio, “Anderson’s ‘Hamlet;’” Bernard D. N. Grebanier, Then Came Each Actor: Shakespearean Actors, Great and Otherwise (New York: McKay, 1975), 262.
[55] Grebanier, Then Came Each Actor, 262.
[56] Anne Davis Basting, “Dolly Descending a Staircase: Stardom, Age, and Gender in Times Square,” in Kathleen Woodward, ed., Figuring Age: Women, Bodies, Generations (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 251.
[57] San Fernando Sun, 19 November 1969, UCSB.
[58] Feldman, “The Dame from Rose Park.”
[59] Funke, “Dame Hamlet.”
[60] Ibid.
[61] Fragment of article by Melinda Wojtasiak, circa 1971, UCSB.
[62] Milich, “Critics Missed the Point.”
[63] Variety, 30 September 1970, NYPL.
[64] Grebanier, Then Came Each Actor, 262.
[65] Grant Blum, “Dame Judith Triumphs,” La Crosse Tribune, UCSB.
[66] Funke, “Dame Hamlet.”
[67] Grebanier, Then Came Each Actor, 263.
[68] Funke, “Dame Hamlet.”
[69] Curcio, “Anderson’s ‘Hamlet.’”
[70] Wojtasiak, “Dame Judith Anderson.”
[71] Show, 20 August 1970, NYPL.
[72] Kernan, “Dame Judith.”
[73] Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” was first published in Partisan Review in 1964 and reissued in Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). It is reprinted in Fabio Cleto (ed.), Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 53-65.
[74] Fabio Cleto, “Introduction to Section One,” in Cleto, Camp, 46.
[75] See points 50-53 in Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” in Cleto, Camp, 64.
[76] Mark Booth, “Campe-Toi!: On the Origins and Definitions of Camp” (1983), in Cleto, Camp, 67.
[77] Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 53.
[78] George Eres, Long Beach Independent, 25 November 1969, UCSB.
[79] Andrew Ross, “Uses of Camp” (1988), in Cleto, Camp, 312.
[80] Ibid., 310.
[81] Bill Marvel, “One View of Will Shakespeare: Let’s Respect the Stories,” National Observer, 23 November 1970, 20.
[82] Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 59.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message