Svend Gade’s Female Hamlet and the Deconstruction of the Gender Binary

by Louise ROSZAK

Hamlet as an androgynous figure (0035’37”)

 In the essay The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (1881), railroad systems expert Edward P. Vining pushed forward a surprising theory: what if the Danish prince was actually “a woman masquerading in a manly part”?[i] His theory was meant to correct what Vining perceived not only as unmanliness, but as gender deviancy. He was perplexed by Hamlet’s merciless rejection of Ophelia, deeming it impossible “that any young man of refined training and possessing any real nobility of character could so scourge the maiden whom he has at least pretended to love”. He was also disturbed by the subtextual erotic bond between Hamlet and his Platonic soulmate Horatio, judging their feelings to be “far greater than is natural between friends of the same sex”.[ii] Interpreting Hamlet as a heterosexual woman wearing men’s clothes therefore enabled him to rewrite the play to fit a more socially conventional gender binary system wherein Hamlet’s failure to act as a revenger and a lover is no longer problematic. As aptly put by Tony Howard, “by listing Hamlet’s crimes against masculinity, labelling them ‘feminine weakness’ and then transferring them to a masquerading lady, Vining exorcised the spectre of inversion”.[iii]

Though never adapted onstage, Vining’s bold reinterpretation of Hamlet’s character and gender identity was famously brought to the screen by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall in 1921, with Asta Nielsen in the leading role. “Based on ideas from the Hamlet saga, discovered by Professor Vining” (01:24-01:35), this German silent movie builds on Vining’s speculations that Hamlet was declared a boy following rumours of her father’s death during his duel with King Fortinbras.[iv]

In this reinvented Elsinore, only Hamlet’s parents and the viewer are aware of her true identity, and are able to see through her paper-thin disguise. However, the film moves away from Vining’s conservative stance and deliberately creates ambiguous situations where Nielsen’s androgynous Hamlet is shown moving seamlessly between gender and sexual categories, making eyes at Horatio (as a woman) in one scene and then being shown fencing with classmates and striking a friendship with Fortinbras (as a man) in another. In this piece, I analyse how Nielsen/Hamlet functions as a proto-queer figure whose purpose is to challenge gender roles and undermine their socio-cultural meanings.

Hamlet falling in love with an oblivious Horatio after they first meet (0012’03”)

Hamlet sealing his virile friendship with Fortinbras with a beer, after a fencing lesson (0017’17”)

Horatio nearly exposing Hamlet’s breasts under her torn-up tunic (0137’24”)

Dressed as a boy, undressed as a woman, Nielsen/Hamlet’s objectified body is at the centre of an erotic game heavily reminiscent of the travesti, historically “a complex erotic game in which gender was assumed, concealed and exposed”.[v] Her masculine clothes contribute to eroticizing Nielsen/Hamlet’s female body, particularly as the movie draws near its end. The ineluctable revelation of Hamlet’s femininity is brought by her being undressed by male characters. Her tunic is torn open first by a dying Claudius clawing at her neck, and by Horatio trying to uncover a swooning Hamlet’s stab wound following her duel with Laertes. As a woman, Hamlet becomes a passive object under the spectators’ gaze, who are made to ogle at her body, more revealed than concealed by her masculine clothes.

However, with her strikingly androgynous look and masculine persona, Nielsen/Hamlet is very much a portrayal of a modern woman, inspired by the cultural emergence of the New Woman in 1920s movies: “a more mature figure than the flapper or shop girl, one who demanded equality on the sexual as well as the sociopolitical front”.[vi] Although she is occasionally shown as being overwhelmed by emotion and unable to act, her Hamlet bears little resemblance to the antiquated ideal of the ingénue, embodied by golden-plaited Ophelia, “a caricature of naivety […] posed in lumbish embarrassment”.[vii] Instead, Nielsen’s Hamlet is presented as leading the investigation on her father’s death, gathering clues (Claudius’s dagger) and questioning witnesses. Strikingly, there are no ghosts in Gade’s movie, which further insists on the princess’s role as “a modern rationalist, a detective”.[viii] hough female, Nielsen’s Hamlet is masculinized, as she is shown in Wittenberg to fence and drink alongside men. Sometimes, she even fulfils the role of an action hero, such as when she snatches Horatio’s sword from his hand to run after Claudius after The Mousetrap. Even more remarkably, she is also the only Hamlet who succeeds in intentionally killing the royal usurper, catching him off guard while he is getting drunk in a tavern, and setting the inn on fire from the inside after he passes out.

The visual contrast between Hamlet and Ophelia (0037’54”)

Nielsen thus becomes an ideal of femininity having reappropriated masculine traits, who is able to emancipate herself from the influence of masculine figures of authority. Unlike Ophelia, she does not obey her father and is not dependent on her lover. Horatio is “passive, supportive[…] [with] full lips, flowing locks and fey costumes (including a white skirt and large bonnet)”.[ix] Moreover, the movie emphasizes his passiveness by turning him into an object of female desire. One scene shows him crying on a bed, touched by Ophelia’s grief; distraught, Nielsen’s Hamlet lets her hand fall to Horatio’s hip, completely inverting the conventional, gendered roles of the sensitive female love interest and the cool-headed, active male protagonist. While Gertrude and Ophelia’s “common factor is that they giddily embrace erotic domination by male power-figures, however ludicrous (Polonius) or primeval (Claudius) they are”, Nielsen portrays Hamlet as “a polymorphic woman in a stereotyped world; her film condemns everyone, female or male, who collaborates with reactionary structures of gender and power”.[x]

At first glance, a female Hamlet masquerading as a man appears to reinforce sexist clichés rather than subverting them, by associating Hamlet’s weakness with a concealed female identity and playing into the constant sexualization of the actress’s body. However, the androgynous identity of Nielsen’s Hamlet seems to challenge heterosexual norms instead of reinforcing them by questioning Elsinore’s patriarchal definitions of masculinity and femininity, and creating ambivalent erotic dynamics between Hamlet, Ophelia and Horatio.

Gade’s movie stands out as one of the most daring adaptations of Hamlet with regards to its portrayal of one’s sexual orientation and gender identity as a lot more fluid than meets the eye. At the beginning of the twentieth century, silent movies had a reputation for challenging a stereotypical view of women’s gendered attributes and appearance, which gave them a socio-political dimension. Nielsen was famous for being what we would now call a proto-queer icon thanks to her travesti roles: “as early as 1912 she kissed girls and shaved in Youth and Madness”.[xi] The movie explored what Joan Rivière would later describe in 1929 as “types of men and women […] who, while mainly heterosexual in their development, plainly display strong features of the other sex”, a possible expression of “the bisexuality inherent in us all”, focusing especially on “intellectual” women “who wish for masculinity and may put on a mask of womanliness”.[xii] Because of the political lie she participates in, Nielsen’s Hamlet is forced into an impossible position where she has to pretend to be mildly interested in women in order to successfully pass off as a heterosexual man, while repressing her genuine love for Horatio. Interactions with either Ophelia or Horatio can simultaneously be viewed as the expression of Hamlet’s heterosexuality while being misconstrued as homosexual romance, creating ambiguous situations where the characters’ sexual orientations are blurry.

In the movie, Nielsen’s blurry gender identity is used to explore all forms of sexual desire and gender identity. At first glance, rewriting Hamlet as a woman could be seen as reinforcing heterosexual norms within Elsinore rather than challenging them. Indeed, the only kiss that the couple shares happens on screen after Hamlet’s femininity is revealed, with Horatio finally accepting his feelings once he is certain that they are heterosexual (“Only in death is your secret revealed! Your golden heart was that of a woman! Too late, my love, too late!” 1:46:35-1:46:49). Likewise, Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is nothing but a decoy to make Horatio jealous, and scenes showing Hamlet about to seduce her systematically reveal princess Hamlet’s true feelings and intentions, often by a close-up on her face while she is biting her lower lip with a sarcastic smirk.      Nevertheless, both of Hamlet’s romantic (or pseudo-romantic) relationships are erotically charged. The imagery of Nielsen kissing Lilly Jacobsson’s fingers, nearly putting them in her mouth undeniably references lesbian desire, which is only reinforced by centring Hamlet’s identity as a woman. Similarly, when Horatio confesses his growing feelings for Ophelia to Hamlet, he does so while “he and Hamlet lie on a sunny bank with his head in his lap like Ganymede and Orlando”.[xiii] The scene deliberately places both Hamlet and Horatio in the role of desirable ephebes, hinting both at Hamlet’s ambivalent gender identity and Horatio’s already dubious heterosexuality. While conspiring against Claudius, Hamlet and Horatio are shown sitting next to each other on a bench, their faces an inch away from each other and almost close enough to kiss. Perhaps even more striking is the end of the movie, in which Hamlet’s gender appears more blurred than ever when it should precisely be revealed. Though Horatio only kisses her once he is certain that Hamlet is a woman, he then covers her body with his black coat up to the chin, concealing her femininity. His final words to Hamlet (“Too late, my love, too late!” 1:46:35-1:46:49) are also ambiguous, since they might be hinting at his having had romantic feelings for Hamlet while he still believed her to be a man.

Hamlet and Horatio’s erotically-charged friendship (0042’43”)

Furthermore, the movie occasionally frames the relationship between Ophelia, Horatio and Hamlet as a bisexual love triangle. During The Mousetrap, Horatio puts down Ophelia’s coat for Hamlet to sit at Ophelia’s foot, cuddling her lap. This is followed by a reaction shot of Horatio’s face, looking at the scene with jealousy. However, if we interpret his friendship with prince Hamlet as homoerotic, then it is unknown who he is feeling jealousy for. If both Ophelia and Horatio participate in Hamlet’s masquerade, then it raises the question of what the ‘mask’ is supposed to hide. Hamlet’s heteronormative identity and desire for Horatio? The latent bisexuality of either Hamlet, Horatio or Ophelia – if not all of them? By sitting at the cross-roads of all gender identities and erotic desires, Nielsen’s Hamlet disrupts the fixity of the heteronormative identity that she only pretends to uphold, as “the love stories depicted in the movie are both hetero-normative and queer: “heterosexual (the heroine loves Horatio), homosexual (Hamlet loves Horatio), heterosexual again (Hamlet woos Ophelia) and lesbian (Asta Nielsen woos Ophelia)”.[xiv]

Due to his/her unstable sense of self, this female Hamlet thus embodies the fluidity of desire in romantic scenes where heterosexual interpretations coexist with queer ones. Not merely a heterosexual woman in men’s clothes, Nielsen’s Hamlet can be seen as a disturber of gender and sexual categories, as he/she strips them of their ascribed social meanings.

Gade’s film questions the audience’s ability to recognize masculine or feminine identity by constantly blurring the lines between the two. At first glance, the femininity of Nielsen’s Hamlet is made obvious to everyone but the other characters, who are the only ones incapable of accurately determining her gender. With the exception of Gertrude and King Hamlet, already in the know, everyone fails to see Hamlet as a woman in spite of how little her costume or manners conceal her feminine identity. In a review, Moving Picture World found the characters’ failure to discover Hamlet’s secret to be incomprehensible, stating that:

It is certainly very impressive to see a human being whose sex is proclaimed in every line of her figure, go through life without her nearest friends suspecting the trick she is playing on them. That every breath she draws reveals she is a woman does not penetrate the skull of the court physician even when he puts his ear to her chest and listens to her breathing.[xv]

Even more absurd is Horatio’s failure to see the princess as anything other than “the male Hamlet he is conditioned to see”, even when she appears in front of him in torn-up clothes that nearly reveal her breasts.[xvi]

Yet, if the movie makes fun of the characters’ selective blindness, the characters’ mistaking of Hamlet as male does not appear to be merely played for comic effect. It rather highlights the ambivalence of Hamlet’s gender identity, which is shown as anything but constant and self-evident. Interestingly, the beginning of the movie shows the princess becoming a prince during a conversation between Gertrude and King Hamlet. Although both characters are aware of Hamlet’s femininity, Gertrude refers to her daughter with the German masculine pronoun “ihn” instead of “ihr” (09:03). This choice of pronoun is surprising if we think of ‘prince Hamlet’ as a constructed, fake identity that must be upheld in public for politics’ sake. Why would Hamlet’s parents refer to her as a ‘he’ when there is no one to eavesdrop on them and learn Hamlet’s secret? Is Gertrude misgendering Hamlet? Probably not, since the prince/princess’s identity is in constant movement. The camera adopts Gertrude and King Hamlet’s point of view by filming Hamlet in a wide shot, showing him as a distant and boyish figure lounging on a wall. Gertrude does not refer to him as a man because she thinks Hamlet is one, but because at that particular moment, Hamlet looked like a man, justifying her being considered as such. When the second shot zooms in to reveal Hamlet’s femininity in a mid-shot, it does not bring to light a mistake on Gertrude’s part, but rather that gender identity resides in the eye of the beholder rather than in a biological reality. Just like Hamlet’s gender identity changes depending on how Gertrude sees him/her, the viewers are always manipulated into viewing him/her as male or female, putting their capacity to read gender into question.

Hamlet first appearing as a man from afar (0008’48”)

Hamlet, then revealed to be a woman from up close (0009’26”)

By playing on camera movement and gender-coded body language, Gade’s movie brings to light the act of crossing gender lines themselves. As a silent era actress, Nielsen conveys the character’s gender fluidity through her body language, alternating between a masculine and a feminine style of acting. Tony Howard notes the female grace of her movements: “fencing, she flexes like a ballerina in response to every feint”, which sets her apart from the other, male, characters.[xvii] However, Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet is just as capable of adopting a masculine body language when she crosses to her male persona. In her wooing of Ophelia, she transforms into a male seducer, biting her lower lip, kissing the young woman’s arm and hand, and whispering sweet  nothings into Ophelia’s ear while holding her in her arms in the garden. When angry at Gertrude or Ophelia, Hamlet becomes aggressive and predatory-like, shouting and advancing threateningly on the female characters who back away, frightened by Hamlet’s underlying promise of violence. Always on the edge of the masculine and the feminine, Nielsen’s “appropriation of masculine styles” turns her Hamlet into “a figure of sexual mobility – a figure who destabilizes the polarized opposition between masculine and feminine identities”, and she is framed as such.[xviii]

This is how, instead of showing the viewer a clear crossing to masculinity or femininity, some shots reinforce Hamlet’s gender in-betweenness. The end of the movie particularly blurs his/her gender identity, as the one that is now publicly identified as Princess Hamlet has her true gender once again hidden from the public. Horatio covers the body up to the chin with his coat in what seems like a substitute for Hamlet’s signature turtle-neck, and she is given a military funeral, carried by Fortinbras’s soldiers.  However, the last and lingering shot of the movie zooms in on her face, contrasting her hidden, genderless body being carried away by soldiers in a masculine ceremony with her painted eyelids and half-open mouth in an almost erotic picture of death. The end of the movie therefore restores Nielsen’s Hamlet’s gender ambiguity, rendering him/her an undecipherable enigma for the viewer’s gaze.

The final shot of the movie (0150’13”)

To conclude, Nielsen’s binary-breaking performance is not merely part of the film’s narrative, but is also, to some extent, part of a social commentary on the evolution of gender roles and gender identity. Fully able to socially behave as a man in all matters except those of the heart, Nielsen’s Hamlet arguably does not enforce the biological and cultural differences between men and women, but rather stands out as an androgynous character both trapped and empowered by his/her double identity. By constantly redirecting and manipulating the spectator’s gaze into viewing Nielsen’s Hamlet as feminine, masculine, or neither, Gade’s movie shows the limits according to which we view gender identity as affixed and intelligible, suggesting instead in a precursory way that it might be fluid and reliant on social circumstances, as well as on one’s sometimes inaccurate perception.

[i]      Edward Vining, The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1881), p. 81.

[ii]    Ibid., pp. 57 and 65.

[iii]   Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 22.

[iv]    All quotes drawn from the English subtitles of Svend Gade, (dir.), Hamlet: The Drama of Revenge (1920-1), reconstructed by the Deutsches Filminstitut in 2007 from the movie’s previously lost original version. All screenshots taken from non-subtitled German version, uploaded on Youtube by Wassermelone (Hamlet (1921) – YouTube).

[v]     Desmond MacCarthy, quoted in Howard, p 40.

[vi]    Lucy Fischer, “INTRODUCTION: Movies and the 1920s” in American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variation, ed. Lucy Fischer (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 6.

[vii]  Howard, p. 151.

[viii] Ibid., p. 148.

[ix]    Ibid.., p. 146.

[x]     Ibid., p. 152.

[xi]    Ibid., p. 145.

[xii]  Joan Rivière, ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ (1929), reprinted in Athol Hughes (ed.), The Inner World and Joan Rivière: Collected Papers 1920-1958 (London and New York: Karnak, 1991), p. 91.

[xiii] Howard, p. 151.

[xiv]  Ibid., p. 152.

[xv]   Moving Picture World (New York : The World Photographic Publishing Company, November 1921), p. 336.

[xvi]  Howard, p. 154.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 145.

[xviii]       Patrice Petro, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 153.

References:

Primary Sources:

Gade, Svend (dir.), Hamlet: The Drama of Revenge (1920-1).

Moving Picture World (November 1921). New York: The World Photographic Publishing Company.

Secondary Sources:

Fischer, Lucy (ed.), American Cinema of the 1920s: Themes and Variation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Howard, Tony, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Petro, Patrice, Joyless Streets: Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Rivière, Joan, ‘Womanliness as Masquerade’ (1929) in Athol Hughes (ed.), The Inner World and Joan Rivière: Collected Papers 1920-1958. London and New York: Karnak, 1991.

Vining, Edward, The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & CO, 1881.

Louise Roszak is an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris Saclay. She obtained her agrégation in English in 2021. Recipient of a doctoral contract with the LARCA (UMR 8225)
research centre, she is currently writing her PhD under the supervision of Ladan Niayesh at Université Paris Cité. Her research focuses on post-gender adaptations of Shakespeare from theatrical staging to hyper-contemporary media. A sample of her previous work on Hamlet is forthcoming in an essay co-authored with Ladan Niayesh, “Elsinore (2019) Video Game: An Interactive Experience in Reforming Gender Roles” in Actes des Congrès de la Société Française Shakespeare 41 (2023).



Citer ce billet
kgosselet (2023, 6 février). Svend Gade’s Female Hamlet and the Deconstruction of the Gender Binary. Genres et sexualités / Gender and Sexuality Studies. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/p92u