A tragedy centered around a woman fighting for political power may give audience members a stinging sense of déjà vu, but the play in question is not about the 2016 presidential election. Rather, it's the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet, which makes the bold choice of portraying the titular character as a woman.
This artistic decision has garnered strong opinions as well as coverage in the New York Times. Dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck, who wrote her dissertation on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, has been immersed in the iambic pentameter and history of Hamlet since last summer, when director Carolyn Howarth approached her on the heels of 2016's festival. In the middle of the play's run, which ends August 13, Westword caught up with Kamminga-Peck to talk about how Hamlet's sex impacts Shakespeare's tragedy.
Westword: What prompted the idea to have a female Hamlet?
Hadley Kamminga-Peck: It was actually watching the summer Olympics last year. [Carolyn Howarth] was watching the female fencers, and she said she was just absolutely riveted by watching these incredible women demonstrate their athletic prowess and grace and strength. And it made her think of Hamlet, because she already had the play in mind.
What did you glean from your research into other versions of Hamlet that cast a female Hamlet? How do a female Hamlet and other female-cast characters, like Laertes and Polonius, affect the play as a whole?
A female Hamlet appeared in 1741, so quite a while ago — but those first female Hamlets, from 1741 through pretty much the early twentieth century, were all women who played the role as men. In 1920, there’s a silent film that has a woman playing Hamlet as a princess who was raised as a prince for reasons of political succession. Really, it’s not until thirty to forty years ago that you start to see women playing the role as women. It’s still a relatively new thing to have Hamlet played as a woman. As far as I can tell, we’re the only production to have done Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras all as women.
When we started talking about having a female Hamlet, we wanted to make sure that while we were obviously changing the original version of the script, we weren’t inadvertently making commentary on Hamlet’s character by changing the gender. So with Laertes and Fortinbras, both of them have these moments of being pitted against Hamlet, and there’s a parallel structure in the play between Hamlet and old Hamlet, Laertes and Polonius and Fortinbras and old Fortinbras, where we have these father-son relationships that are mirrored across different venues. For us, it was very important to maintain that parallel structure, so all of those became father-daughter relationships. And that [casting decision] also removed any question of whether Hamlet is fit to rule by virtue of her gender. All of them are equally fit to rule.
Dramaturg Hadley Kamminga-Peck.
I’m also wondering how gender impacts Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia and Claudius in your production, because those are some of the central conflicts.
Gary Wright, who plays Claudius, said at a talkback recently that having a female Hamlet actually makes it easier for Claudius to dismiss Hamlet and not think that she is a threat. When everything does start to hit the fan, it comes as a much bigger shock to Claudius, and the stakes raise very quickly. With Claudius, it’s a different relationship, but it’s a very interesting relationship because Hamlet’s so easily dismissed.
The relationship with Ophelia is still exactly what it is. The text very much indicates that it was a romantic relationship. The text also interestingly indicates that they were never going to get married; that was never going to be a possibility for them. Claudius and Polonius and Laertes all say that because Hamlet is of royal birth and Ophelia is not, he's going to have to marry for politics and not for love. Obviously because they are two women and the play is set roughly Edwardian in our version, they couldn’t have gotten married— that’s not what would have happened in the world that we’re living in for this play. But there are also other bars to their relationship than gender that Shakespeare does give us. The gender piece of [the scene] is something that other characters acknowledge, but it doesn’t become the primary issue at any point.
Hamlet is sometimes dismissive to Ophelia in a gendered way — “Get thee to a nunnery." It’s interesting having one woman say that to another.
The response that I’ve heard so far is that scene has a lot more honesty and truth to it being between two women, because those lines become, "Get out of this male-dominated world, get yourself someplace safe. Get out. Get away." It’s not about shaming. It’s not, "I hate you. Leave me alone." It becomes a true tactic of Hamlet’s to protect Ophelia, to warn her that what is happening in the castle is not good.
That’s really fascinating. Speaking of audience response, what’s it been so far?
So far, I think it’s been positive. We’ve had standing ovations every night when Lenne [Klingaman, who plays Hamlet] comes out to take her bow, because she’s just incredible in the role. What I feel, and what I’ve heard from mullings in the lobby, is that you accept the “she"s instead of “he”s within five minutes. It’s just the same as you have to accept the Shakespearean language; you just accept [the pronoun swaps] as part of the play. Lenne is so incredible at taking the audience into her role and bringing them along on her journey that by the end of the play, you care about who this person is — and whether she’s male or female is completely auxiliary to the point of this story and who these people are.
Hamlet (Lenne Klingaman) and her mother, Gertrude (Mare Trevathan), after the death of Polonius.
Do you have a “wow” moment in the show, where you watch it and are dumbstruck? One that gets you every single time?
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How can I pick just one moment? I would say...there’s a famous closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude, where she tells her mother everything that’s going on. She tells her mother, I’m just pretending to be crazy. Gertrude doesn’t seem to know whether to believe this or not, but there’s a dead body on the floor, and what’s going on? There’s just such a beautiful moment between Lenne and Mare [Trevathan, playing Gertrude]. They’re looking at each other as mother and daughter, and they want to be there for each other, but they just have different priorities in their lives. Hamlet has to accept the fact that she’s killed a person, and that’s something she’s never done before.
It’s kind of a heartbreaking moment, because we’ve reached the point of no return. At that point, the play is on a track, and there’s only one way it can go, and we know it’s all going to end in death. Shakespeare’s tragedies, for me, are comedies, right up until they’re not. Carolyn says this a lot: It’s a family drama, when you come down to it. As much as it’s this big, epic Shakespearean play, it’s about a family. And certainly that scene really epitomizes that.