Some Thoughts On Hamlet And Gender Stereotyping
So, here’s a little rant about something that’s been bothering me lately. In a couple of weeks there will be a production of Hamlet at the student theatre in Cambridge, which I’m sure will be perfectly good since I have friends involved with the show (although most Shakespeare I’ve seen here has been awful) who are all very talented and lovely and hard working.
The difference with this production is that they have cast a female actor as Hamlet. This is in no way a bad thing in my eyes, although I do find it a little odd that instead of just casting a girl in the role they have altered the script to suggest that Hamlet is actually female within the text, making the love affair with Ophelia sapphic and the relationship with Gertrude very interesting indeed, I would imagine. All this seems very intriguing, and I like intriguing takes on Shakespeare, although from what I’ve heard they seem to be trying to make Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia much deeper and much more romantic than it is (to me, at any rate).
The problem for me came when I read an interview by a female journalist in one of the student newspapers with the girl playing the lead, asking her about whether the role was difficult, if she felt the pressure of history behind her and so forth, and what was making this production interesting and different. The part I took exception to in this interview was the agreement between the journalist and the actor that it did, in fact, make much more sense to play Hamlet as a woman, since he is so emotionally articulate. Because men can’t be emotionally articulate. Because Hamlet is not manly. Because, since he whines about his problems all the time, he is feminine. Hmm.
This sort of generalisation hurts people of both genders: in this case it was used to valorise the feminine and suggest that the masculine is lacking, but it was also taking a male fictional character who is willing to talk about his thoughts, feelings and philosophies and suggesting he is “not masculine”, and perhaps even “effeminate”. If we see a character like Hamlet, who is at times, of course, flawed and misogynist and very inconsiderate towards others, but is also eloquent and able to discuss his feelings, and characterise him as ‘feminine’, won’t we be detracting from a man’s ability to take these good qualities from this character, and continuing to feed the mythology that men just can’t talk about their feelings, women have to do all the talking, women just always want to talk, how annoying of them.
Hamlet is an interesting case when considering masculinity: he is often all talk and no action, but at the end of the play he does do what he believes he must, and that is staged in the form of the fencing battle with Laertes. His uncle, Claudius, is the one who kills with poison and works undercover; Hamlet murders with a sword and faces his own death head-on. His varying attitudes towards the women in the play are questionable, and there is not time to consider them here as examples of why Hamlet may or may not be either misogynist or pro-women (I am reluctant for many obvious reasons to use the word ‘feminist’ here). Is it really just because he talks about his feelings that we now see him as a non-masculine character? Because he isn’t Macbeth, or Coriolanus, or Othello – characters who all fail, essentially because of their inability to fully articulate their inner workings, which ultimately drives them to insanity. But these more masculine characters do talk about their emotions, sometimes at length; are they only more masculine because they are warriors? Can Hamlet not be a vision of what it might mean to be a man because he is an intellectual?
I don’t want to say here that Hamlet is or isn’t masculine – that’s not the point, the point is that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ shouldn’t, in the twenty-first century, be characterised by such outdated generalisations as I read in that newspaper article. It was a subtle case, but it demonstrates how such stereotypes permeate every corner of our social thinking without us even realising it. In a backlash against the rise of a new wave of feminism, media and advertising seem to have headed towards more extreme portrayals of masculine and feminine ideals, and these need to be debunked immediately. An individual’s choice or predisposition towards being what we might term ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ should have nothing to do with their biological gender. I like science fiction and action movies, but I have pink hair and wear make up and high heels and frilly skirts because I like those things. I’ve been told I write my essays in a ‘masculine’ voice, but I often write feminist criticism of texts. So what? I know plenty of women who cannot articulate an iota of emotion – that doesn’t make them failures as women in any way, nor does it make them ‘masculine’. They just are themselves, in whatever way they are happiest. It doesn’t help anyone to say, “This is masculine behaviour, ergo all men should behave like this or they’re like women,” or, “This is feminine behaviour, ergo all women should behave like this or they’re not women.” It seems an obvious point, right? So why do we still see that kind of logic everywhere in our society? And when is it going to disappear?1 note