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.
click to enlarge Hellen Miren plays Prospera in The Tempest. - THE TEMPEST
Hellen Miren plays Prospera in The Tempest.
The Tempest

Five Reasons Why Women Should Not Play Hamlet:

A Messy Romance Becomes Messier
There are male roles I can imagine a woman doing very well. Prospero is one. Also Jaques. But all kinds of complications arise when there’s a key romantic relationship involved. Or a hard-core swordfight. Yes, I know there are women out there who can whip almost any man’s butt — but how many of them are also excellent actors?

It's Distracting
I’ve seen females play male roles, usually smaller ones like a servant or soldier (which generally means the company didn’t have enough men), and found it distracting. Rosenkrantz was a woman in an earlier Colorado Shakespeare Festival Hamlet, and the production implied that she and the melancholy prince had been lovers at university. It didn’t work for me. I couldn’t focus on what was happening for wondering whether Wittenberg admitted female students at the time, and what it said about Hamlet that he was so preachy with Queen Gertrude and Ophelia when he himself had had an illicit affair.

It Screws Up the Acting
A lot hangs on how actor and director decide the role should be played physically. Should the actor lengthen her stride, lower her voice and essentially impersonate a man? If so, audience members are likely to find themselves judging, minute by minute, how well she does it (Is she walking right? Wasn’t that sudden gesture sweetly girlish rather than masculine?) instead of following the plot. Focusing on getting all this right can also distract the actor herself from exploring the character. Or do you allow her simply to remain a woman — a woman who’s gay for Ophelia, obsessed with her mother’s sex life and over-attached to her dead father? That could work, I suppose.

A Play Is All About the Words
What do you do with the actual words? Change all the "he"s to "she"s? Or “Goodnight, sweet princess, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”? It sounds beyond wrong.

Playing Hamlet Nearly Broke Judith Anderson
The great classical actress Judith Anderson played Hamlet at the age of seventy (ageism is just as pernicious as sexism, right?), and the reviews were brutal. She later called the experience “a heartache and a tragedy.”

Hamlet, June 23 to August 13, University Theatre, University of Colorado Boulder campus, $10-$65, 303-492-8008,

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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