Seriously, Should a Woman Play Hamlet?

In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's latest production of Hamlet, a woman plays the lead role.
In the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's latest production of Hamlet, a woman plays the lead role. Cecilia Pipolo, Flickr, Creative Commons
The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is fielding a female Hamlet this year, and the idea worries me. I can think of several reasons why a woman playing Hamlet is a terrible idea. Also, some that suggest it just might work.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and you can judge for yourself when you see Lenne Klingaman play Hamlet in Boulder starting Friday, June 23. In the meantime, here are some of the reasons it's a good – and not such a good – idea.

Six reasons why women should play Hamlet:

Shakespeare Should Have Written More Female Characters
Shakespeare created some of the best female parts in dramatic history — brilliant, tough-minded, loving, independent souls like Rosalind, Beatrice and Isabella — but there are way too few of them. In the average Shakespeare comedy, you find three or four; in the tragedies, there are even fewer, though the stage swarms with interesting males. There are just two key women in Hamlet, three in King Lear. A Shakespeare company almost always includes at least a dozen men and very few women — and actresses need work, too.

Gender Isn't Binary. Get Over It
Women can do anything men can do. And some things way better. Besides, scientists now say sex isn’t binary, many people aren’t simply one sex or the other — even if they believe they are — and there are many complex components to sexual identity.

It Reawakens Audiences

A woman could add a fresh dimension, something completely unexpected and revelatory, to an over-familiar role. Hearing “To be or not to be” or Jaques’s “A fool, a fool, I met a fool in the forest” (from As You Like It) spoken by a woman might reawaken audiences to the words’ depth, originality and meaning.

In Shakespeare’s time, decent women weren’t supposed to be seen on stage, and all those stunning female roles were played by young boys. It’s time to even the score.

Sometimes It Works
Glenda Jackson’s Lear was reportedly brilliant. (So, for that matter, was Mark Rylance’s Olivia in Twelfth Night.) And when Helen Mirren became Prospera in the filmed version of The Tempest, the relationship between her and her daughter, Miranda, shed “some of its traditional, patriarchal dynamic,” according to the New York Times. “Instead, a mother-daughter bond fraught with envy, protectiveness and identification blossoms into something newly rich and strange.”

I'll admit it: I have always wanted to play Richard III.

Read on for four reasons a woman should not play Hamlet.
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman