Breaking down Hamlet’s gender agenda

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11.04.2022

Theatre is an ideal space to question and explore expectations around gender, according to The University of Sydney’s, Professor Annamarie Jagose. Someone who has discovered this first-hand is Harriet Gordon-Anderson, who is currently playing the male lead in Hamlet. We brought them together to find out more.

Edited by Felicity McLean
March 2020

How might a female actor, playing Hamlet as a man, throw new light on the play for audiences?

Harriet Gordon-Anderson: We had an inkling during rehearsals that some of the darker elements of Hamlet’s misogyny would be starker in this production, and that’s what several audience members have told us.

I am presenting as a man; I’ve cut my hair and used a couple of theatrical devices to ensure I am telling a young man’s story. But it’s blurred because the audience knows I’m not a man when I’m offstage. I’m still a female body in space, irrespective of how androgynously I’m presented. Perhaps as a consequence, we’ve found much of Hamlet’s abusive behaviour feels a lot more apparent and more violent.

Professor Annamarie Jagose: I’m surprised and intrigued to hear that. I hadn’t thought of that audience response prior to hearing you, Harriet. Of course the theatre is probably one of our more accessible places for thinking about how gender works as a social construction and pulling apart components of social identity that are usually presumed to fit together. The stage is therefore perfect for thinking through relations of sex, gender and erotic desire, which in everyday accounts are presumed to follow logically from each other.

Audiences understand an actor is a real person, perhaps with a celebrity status and they partially suspend that knowledge to engage with the character.

When you overlay that actor/character split with a concrete focus on gender, you can create a significant space for thinking about gender relations that doesn’t easily exist in our regular worlds.

Where else do we really experience sharply our own genders or even less likely the genders of others as being anything other than coherent? I can think of a few examples but it’s not the norm. The norm is that those things are tightly connected – one’s sex leads to one’s gender expressions and those are knit up in a reassuringly natural expression of sexual orientation.

HGA: What you were saying just brought me back to the fact that we're working with such a historic text, which isn’t always front of mind. The poetry and aspects of the text feel so defiant of time and history but what you say about these accepted norms and even the language of gender – to think about feelings is feminine, to think about drive and revenge is masculine – the fact that those things are still so prevalent as a paradigm today is so interesting to me.

We still use that same language, the ‘femaleness’ of Hamlet and the ‘maleness’ of Hamlet along that divide of ‘feeling self’ and the ‘rational self’. These days we might think that’s a historical paradigm but it’s still the language at our fingertips.

That’s so interesting. At once, the text feels historical but also very recent.

PAJ: It does. That’s one definition of a classic, isn’t it? It keeps making new forms of sense in new contexts.

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Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet and Ray Chong Nee as Claudius in 2022 Hamlet (photo Brett Boardman)

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Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet and Rose Riley as Ophelia in 2022 Hamlet (photo Brett Boardman)

A number of times in the play, Hamlet appears to be emasculated by his indecision and over-thinking. He characterises himself as more like a boy or a woman at several points. What do you make of Hamlet’s apparent crisis of masculinity?

HGA: What has stuck out for me is the deep tragedy of a young person who is told that it is unbecoming of them to grieve and follow their heart and that that is knit up in what it is to be a man. The first time we meet Hamlet, his uncle tells him that grieving is socially unacceptable. It’s a huge catalyst for Hamlet’s dissociative feelings.

You see him quash his longing and his grief and everything that his heart is telling him. And that is what eventually leads him to his death; to enter a sword fight that he knows he’s going to lose. It’s what makes him not listen to Ophelia and Gertrude who, at times, show deep understanding and compassion for him. He meets them with violence and blocks anything that they offer him.

It’s almost an internal misogyny – he’s peeling off the woman inside of him. It makes me feel really sad.

PAJ: Hamlet is not idiosyncratic in that respect. In a more general cultural sense, the denigration of femininity is both contemporarily and historically persistent. We can think of countless examples where emasculation or feminisation testifies to a certain cultural priority given to masculinity ahead of femininity.

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Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet and Lucy Bell as Gertrude in 2022 Hamlet (photo Brett Boardman)

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Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet, Lucy Bell as Gertrude, Robert Menzies as Polonius and Ray Chong Nee as Claudius in 2022 Hamlet (photo Brett Boardman)

As in wider society, gender inequality remains an issue in many areas of the arts and creative industries. In theatre, do you think gender-blind casting can help address that?

HGA: I’ve had such an amazing time in this role. I’ve learnt so much about myself as a performer and I’ve learned so much about the text. I’ve never had the experience of playing a heteronormative man before and I don’t think that young people should grow up thinking that there are roles that are off limits for them to play.

I have had young women come up to me at the Stage Door after the show saying it’s made a huge difference for them, whether they are performers or not. So that’s exciting for me.

But at the same time, I don’t think that there will be a huge amount of systemic change until we see more women in positions of influence – those who are in charge of not just curating the stories that we’re telling but also speaking from their experience of how they walk through the world.

When there is more diversity in our writers, directors and artistic directors in theatre and film – that’s more exciting to me. I’m still waiting and fighting and hoping to do what I can to put those people in positions of power or make space for storytellers who are still finding it bloody hard to get a foot in the door.

PAJ: I have to agree with you there. Probably none of us in a genuine way thinks that cross-casting would address gender inequality in the world in any kind of straightforward sense, but it certainly engages some of the energies and opportunities for thinking about the world differently.

It can be reductive to think that something can only be political if it is immediately effective in securing systemic change. And I think once we realise how difficult it is to achieve systemic change intentionally, it seems like an unrealistic burden to put on any one thing; whether that’s cross-casting in a play or whether it’s protesting in the street.

I don't think overturning inequities that have centuries of history behind them can occur in such simple ways. At the same time, I love being in a world where cross-casting energises things differently.

So, for me, it’s less about whether something is going to dynamically change as a consequence of cross-casting. It’s more about accessibly putting into circulation the tools for people to think differently and experience their world differently. And that seems to me to be genuinely quite political.

HGA: I agree. That’s really well put.

I was told at drama school by a lecturer, who I respect very much, that I had ‘a very masculine confidence’ that I should be careful of. Even in 2014 or 2015, that was seen as really important knowledge to impart to a young female performer.

And more indirectly, by the time I completed my training, the roles I was practised at playing were mothers or daughters grieving the death of their male loved ones or children; or grieving the action of the men around me. And roles involving a lot of flirting and falling in love.

That is incredibly reductive and of course there was so much more that I was able to learn from those experiences but, if we only ever cast the classics rigidly to gender, then that’s the playground that we’re giving generations of young artists to explore their ideas. It’s very limiting.

In this production of Hamlet, I am expected to do an hour of sword-fighting every day, followed by an hour of martial arts, and then step into a room to effectively lead an ensemble. It’s an experience I genuinely thought that I might never have.

On a professional level, that has been an incredibly profound experience for me, in terms of pulling down the sky a little closer. It’s made me very inspired to enlarge that playground.

My 10-year-old sister is in the play, shown in Super 8mm footage as flashbacks to Hamlet’s youth. She is female-identifying now but since she could talk she has been male-presenting and gender non-conformative in a way that has been so unradical. Her primary school have never commented on it, her friends never cared.

In our experience, the next generation have so little time for putting people in boxes. They just love Mirii for who she is. She’s carving out her experience of what it is to be a person in the world and that is so exciting to me.

So, if we in the theatre can nudge out the stitches slightly to make a little bit more room in this suit that we’re all wearing in the arts, that has got to be step in the right direction.


Further details

  • Harriet Gordon-Anderson is appearing in Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Sydney (4 March – 2 April), Canberra (7–16 April), and Melbourne (28 April – 14 May). She is also a University of Sydney alumna.
  • Professor Annamarie Jagose is Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at The University of Sydney.
  • This article was edited by Felicity McLean, a Sydney-based author and alumna of The University of Sydney (Bachelor Arts/Bachelor Commerce, 2004). Her debut novel The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is out now, and her second novel Red will be published in May 2022.