With female Hamlet, these 10 lines change meaning

Anon It Moves casts Hamlet as a woman, and her talk of whores, chastity, and the nunnery takes a different tone

First of all, let me say that Anon It Moves‘ new production of Hamlet is grade-A small-theater Shakespeare, and if you’re a Hamlet fan at all, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Solid choices in casting, staging, and interpretation combine into a strong production with all of the ingredients a good Hamlet requires, plus a few you didn’t realize you wanted, but they work.

Crystal Ann Muñoz as Ophelia and Erica Terpening-Romeo as Hamlet. Photo:  Jack Wells

Crystal Ann Muñoz as Ophelia and Erica Terpening-Romeo as Hamlet. Photo: Jack Wells

Spirited, coordinated sword-fighting. Gauze-draped ghosts in spooky white commedia masks. An Ophelia to swoon for; an evil King who acts more like a callous boss; a gracious, petrified, powerless queen; a righteous, dashing Lysander; a sympathetic, secretarial (female) Horatio; a grave-digger who gestures with his half-eaten sandwich; a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who behave less like Hamlet’s friends than a two-person sales team—

On that note, the production is in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, featuring the same cast—

and a gong!

Now then. It must be mentioned that AIM has cast a woman in the role of Hamlet. (Hey, if ArtsWatch hadn’t told you, you’d probably notice.) As I may have mentioned recently in the Mercury, Shakespeare plays as writ tend to be the proverbial sausage party, where leading men are borne onstage by entourages of supporting men, to spar eloquently about the relative worth, purpose, nobility and mortality of man. (Sword penis fight! Go!) Obviously, this imbalance of male and female roles creates social inequality behind the curtain, and forces excellent female and feminine actors to either win a beauty contest or don a codpiece if they want to fall in step with the Bard.

To quote The Tempest—which, now showing via Portland Shakes, features a female “Prospera”—we’re locally seeing “a sea change.” Post5’s a big proponent: their current Love’s Labour’s Lost puts Ithica Tell in a male role, as did their last season’s Caesar. In their recent Hamlet, Cassandra Boice played Horatio to her husband’s Hamlet. And about a year ago, C. Boice directed a production of Antony & Cleopatra in which Chip Sherman played the female lead, resplendent in Egyptian drag-queen glory…but actually, scratch that; men playing women in Shakespeare is positively “retro.”

I only mention this last show because it had a queer-friendly bent, which brings us full circle. In AIM’s Hamlet, Hamlet’s a woman…and so is Ophelia. Even so, it would be a mistake to marginalize this play as Women’s Rights Queer Pride Hamlet (TM) (though you’re well within your own rights to enjoy it extra as such, if that’s your preference).

Photo: Jack Wells

Photo: Jack Wells

Erica Turpening-Romeo (hey, I have an idea for her next role, huh huh) plays an intensely human Hamlet, with all of the dash, wit, and angst the role demands, irrespective of her gender. It’s conceivable that even those who don’t particularly root for this Hamlet as a gay lady will still respect her as a hero. To accommodate the gender-swap, AIM’s adjusted the script’s pronouns: he = she, my lord = my lady, son = daughter, et cetera. Otherwise, the action plays out as classically as ever—EXCEPT! A few of the character’s lines, though verbally unchanged, just naturally take on different connotations when Hamlet is a woman. ArtsWatch played a game of “collect and interpret them all,” and found an even 10. Enjoy.

Hamlet to herself, about her mother: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”

Spoken by Hamlet about (but not to) her mother, this line gets a little more rueful snap-back when Hamlet is another woman. Is she assessing her own weaknesses while chastising her mother’s?

King to Hamlet: “Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father…but to persever…’tis unmanly grief. It shows a will most incorrect to heaven.”

When Hamlet’s uncle/stepdad says this to his nephew/stepson, it’s merely condescending. When he says it to his niece/stepdaughter, it doubles as “mansplaining,” a special form of condescension that presumes any ol’ man knows more than any (young) woman. Adding insult, he also importunes Hamlet to take time off college, and “bends [her] to remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye.” Oof. Don’t trouble yourself with further learning, you pretty thing. Amuse me around the house.

Laertes to Ophelia: “For Hamlet, and the trifling of her favor, hold it a fashion, and a toy…sweet, not lasting.” “On her choice depends the sanity and health of this whole state, and therefore must her choice be circumscribed unto the voice and yielding of that body whereof she is the head.” “If…you…your chaste treasure open to her unmast’red importunity…fear it, my dear sister.”

Polonius to Ophelia: “You do not understand yourself so clearly…you speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby…that you have ta’en these tenders…which are not stirling.”

Traditionally, this just seems like overprotective brother and father talk, but when Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s romance is sapphic, more layers will ring all too familiar to queer ears: “This is just a phase.” “She’s not going to risk her job by coming out.” “Nobody else will want you once you soil yourself by lezzin’ out.” “This is not real love; hold out for a nice man.”

Hamlet to Rosencrantz: “What a piece of work is man…Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”

Ha! Hamlet’s trying to make a point about humanity, and Rosencrantz is too busy snickering about her sex life to truly listen. Guess that dynamic remains unchanged by the gender switch, but the spirit of the comment is almost more appropriate when heard from a female Hamlet.

Hamlet to herself: “That I…must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words”

The “oldest profession” being one of the most gendered domains, and hence inherently closer to a female Hamlet’s capabilities than a male’s, this line just stings harder, and from a different angle. Male Hamlet makes it sound like he feels womanish, and women are weak, when he argues rather than physically fighting. Female Hamlet simply acknowledges that there’s a particular kind of woman she’d rather not be; she’d rather be a braver, nobler, more dangerous lady.

Hamlet to Ophelia: “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? Get thee to a nunnery.”

Don’t be a breeder, be a nun? Marriage to God has a long history of attracting those who’d much rather marry same-sex partners, but would be loathe to marry flesh-and-blood opposite-sex ones. When male Hamlet says it, he’s metaphorically locking Ophelia’s chastity belt. When female Hamlet suggests it, she’s ruefully giving the woman she loves a viable second-best option.

Hamlet to Ophelia: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap? I mean, my head upon your lap? Do you think I meant country matters?”

I’m going to assume we’re all grown-ups here, and understand how these statements sound different between ladies. “NSFW” is how they sound.

Hamlet to Gertrude: “Would it were not so! —You are my mother.”

When a man-Hamlet confronts, even threatens, his mother, he becomes hard for an audience to love. It gets even weirder when Hamlet goes on to try to regulate his mom’s sex life. Grown-son-to-single-mother domestic violence is real, and frankly gross, and not even former Armani model Ty Boice managed to make it a good look when he played Hamlet this spring. When this fight is woman-to-woman, though, it hits much closer to civilized reality. Mother-daughter “I hate you’s” are pretty par for the course, and Gertrude’s behavior is bad enough to deserve a daughter’s rebuke, if not a son’s threats.

Hamlet to Horatio: “…how ill all’s here about my heart. No matter. It is but foolery, but such a kind of gain-giving as would perhaps trouble a woman.”

Rather than chiding some theoretical woman, Hamlet seems to undermine—or validate?—herself.

…and that’s about where the differences end. At the end of the play, AIM’s Hamlet, like any other, dies fighting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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