Is Hamlet sexist?

Published in The Telegraph on May 19, 2016

Is Hamlet sexist? To even ask the question might sound provocative. Hamlet: the greatest play ever written, the pinnacle of any actor’s career. Hamlet is a hero; Hamlet is the role Hollywood stars want to play. Surely no misogynist would be so worshipped and adored?

But, for all that Hamlet is a masterpiece, all this reverence might actually be the problem. It’s why director Katie Mitchell wants us to look again, a little bit harder, at Shakespeare’s great tragedy – suggesting its gender politics are outdated and offensive.

As we mark 400 years since the Bard’s death – when the mood is one of celebration – it’s undoubtedly bold to strike such a note of warning.

But Mitchell – in collaboration with playwright Alice Birch – has stuck to her guns. She’s now offering another side of the story: Ophelia’s Zimmer, which opens this week at the Royal Court. The play shows the action from the perspective of Hamlet’s famously ‘mad’ love interest, Ophelia. Spoiler alert: it isn’t pretty.

But then what happens to her in Hamlet isn’t pretty. As written by Shakespeare, Ophelia is a victim – a young girl without a voice or power; sent mad after her boyfriend appears to turn against her and accidentally kills her father. Finally, she drowns in a stream.

“If you just take the five scenes she’s in, it would be a short play about abuse,” points out Mitchell.

“The idea of Ophelia has been highly aestheticised” – the speech announcing her death renders it poetically beautiful, painting an image of Ophelia surrounded by flowers that artists have long been drawn to. “But imagine a bloated, dead body of a young girl in river. Blimey, it’s horrible.”

Surely, though, we can recognise that the play is a product of its time? “We have to be careful of that, because sometimes it’s not possible to frame the gender politics responsibly,” says Mitchell. “A younger audience could mistake that for being OK. I worry that the idea of Hamlet and his treatment of women somehow licenses misogyny.”

She has a point. While the play may be a product of its time, there are things about the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship that seem wincingly true, even today. That’s the genius of Shakespeare, after all: his works still speak to us.

We still have the sexual double-standards Ophelia is warned about. Hamlet the hero as an angst-ridden, emotionally fickle young man, so self-regarding and self-righteous he’s blinkered to the damage he causes women? Well, that still sounds familiar. This is not a ‘type’ of masculinity that has gone the way of doublet and hose, alas.

The misogyny of Hamlet might actually be one of the reasons why we need to keep staging it. Theatre reflects life, but it promotes reflection on life, too. That’s why we need to talk about how Hamlet treats Ophelia.

Naturally, any modern director is likely to be thinking deeply about all this: how you present Hamlet’s brutality, and how Ophelia reacts – quite possibly with resistance, in contemporary productions.

The real problem, then, is the status – the idea – of Hamlet. The reverence and awe we bestow on this play can risk squashing any troubling elements.

Hamlet is cultural shorthand for greatness. The play is considered the pinnacle of Western literature. At school and university, young people are taught that this is the big one. Looking back, it’s for their portrayal of the royal Dane that great actors are often remembered: Olivier, Gielgud, Redgrave, Branagh, all pictured with skull in hand.

It’s also a bankable hit, subject to masses of media hype. Hamlet has become a badge of honour, with canny big-name casting guaranteeing sell-out productions: think Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law, David Tennant, the forthcoming Andrew Scott production.

For lesser-known actors – such as Paapa Essiedu at the RSC currently, or Ben Whishaw back in 2004 – it’s breathlessly referred to as a career-making opportunity.

It’s easy to get caught up in all this sound and fury, as a theatre-goer, and to believe the Hamlet hype. But this can also blunt the play. It’s more difficult to deliver nuance or critique when an audience arrives solidly assured of a play’s status, and already half in love with the leading man. When we repeatedly hold up Hamlet as the greatest role of all time, it’s possible we also blind ourselves to darker elements of it.

“It’s not just about the play; it’s the idea that the male romantic hero contains abuse towards women,” points out Mitchell. “It’s very easy to accept that part of Hamlet’s greatness is its misogyny – and then you go, hang on. Can we just stop for a moment, and check we’re not smuggling in something very toxic, which licenses awful interactions between men and women in our society today? Particularly as Hamlet is so symbolic, and so culturally significant.”

Mitchell isn’t a lone voice in trying to place more focus on Shakespeare’s overlooked women and the gender politics at play in his works. A new BBC adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is to feature a ‘controversial’ lesbian kiss. While Emma Rice, the first female artistic director at the Globe, wants at least half the actors on stage to be women – and isn’t against swapping male roles for female.

Hamlet may feature sexism, but that’s not necessarily a problem. Misogyny exists, and we need plays that give us ways to explore it, help us talk about it. Where we need to tread more carefully is in glorifying it. Shakespeare’s leading man is not a straightforward hero, and he shouldn’t be revered as such. Just ask Ophelia.

Ophelia’s Zimmer is at the Royal Court, 17 to 21 May

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