The role of Hamlet has been played by many a well known actor since it was first written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1602, for me probably the most intriguing portrayal was by a Danish actress named Asta Nielsen in the 1921 German silent film of the same name directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall.
In this interpretation, inspired by Dr Edward P Vining’s book The Mystery of Hamlet, Hamlet is born a woman and disguised as a male to preserve the lineage.
Though a radical interpretation, the New York Times said this film, “holds a secure place in class with the best.”
Edward P. Vining, was a railway engineer before he turned to literary criticism. In his opinion, the well-known contradictions and perceived deficiencies in Hamlet’s character could be perfectly explained by the fact that he is, in fact, a woman. “When God created man in his own image, male and female he made them,” he explains. The discerning reader will recognize that Hamlet demonstrates an essentially female nature:
Gentleness, and more or less dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the female nature, and Hamlet possessed both. […] Where strength fails, finesse succeeds; and therefore Hamlet plans and plots. His feigned madness, his trial of the mimic play, are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature.
It is also worth noting that there is a long history of female actresses playing Hamlet; Sarah Bernhardt is the most famous example, even if it seems that she got rather mixed reviews. (A film version of her Hamlet survives; the duel scene with Laertes was filmed for the audio-visual Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre spectacle shown at the 1900 Paris exposition). This and other cases were of women playing a male role, though, rather than the gender bending of Asta’s version.
Asta’s Hamlet depicts events that occur before the start of the Shakespeare play, which starts in medias res. In the film, we get a prologue showing the Norwegian and Danish armies at war. During the conflict Hamlet Senior despatches King Fortinbras, but himself is grievously injured.
Back in the royal castle, Queen Gertrude has just given birth to a girl when she hears of King Hamlet’s mortal wounds; to preserve succession, she takes up the suggestion of passing her daughter off as a prince. However, Hamlet Senior survives, buoyed by the news. Upon returning he learns the truth about his child’s gender, but by that point the deception is entrenched.
The film really starts when Hamlet is a young adult. Her parents worry about her solitary habits, and consequently send her to the University of Wittenberg. It’s here that she meets Horatio, who is from Provence in this adaptation. In the Shakespeare, Horatio was Hamlet’s most trusted friend, but here there is a bit more going on. They get an honest-to-goodness meet-cute, bumping heads in the lecture hall when Hamlet drops her pencil. Hamlet is instantly taken with Horatio, and we see her give him the eye …
She also meets Fortinbras, crown prince of Norway. It is awkward when you realize that your father murdered the father of your classmate. But Fortinbras is willing to make like Black Flag and rise above, and the two of them shake on it. Pals!
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. King Hamlet has died after being bitten by a snake. Hamlet arrives back in Denmark to a combination funeral/wedding celebration, her uncle Claudius having hurriedly wed Queen Gertrude. Hamlet is disgusted at the crassness and haste of the event, and withdraws.
To uncover the truth, Hamlet decides to feign madness. This means that we get some great scenes where Asta schemes, cackles, and generally causes mischief. Her objective, however, is to catch her uncle off guard and confirm her suspicions, while neutralizing herself as a threat in his eyes.
Another plot strand of the central part of the film is Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia. Initially she brushes Ophelia off, but as it becomes apparent that Horatio has fallen in love with Ophelia, Hamlet steps up her game and flirts with her quite boldly (well, interspersed with pushing her away with her crazy behaviour). Motivated by the desire not to lose Horatio to Ophelia, Hamlet succeeds in winning Ophelia’s love.
Hamlet’s turmoil increases. There is a revealing scene in Act Four between Gertrude and Hamlet; Gertrude is unnerved by Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, though she is more concerned about Hamlet blowing her cover than she is about Hamlet as a person. The following inter title reveals the inner conflict Hamlet feels:
t’s also the first time she realizes that Queen Gertrude was behind the deception that Hamlet is living.
Meanwhile, Ophelia has gone crazy in the wake of Polonius’ death. Laertes returns to the castle to find her agitated and unable to recognize him. After she drowns herself, he blames Hamlet for the situation.
Everyone is familiar with the end of Hamlet, but again gender adds another wrinkle to the story in this version. In the duel with Laertes, Hamlet has been stabbed in the stomach area, and Horatio keeps trying to look at the wound, while Hamlet twists away and tries to keep her shirt semi-closed. After she dies, however, the secret is out, as Horatio’s hand finds her chest.
“In death your secret is revealed! Your golden heart was that of a woman! Too late, beloved, too late!”