We’re all probably familiar with the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Hamlet, prince of Denmark, seeks revenge on his uncle at the behest of his father’s ghost, all the while finding the time to talk to skulls, wallow in existential dread, etc. etc. However, this 1921 German silent film adaptation turns the familiar tale on its head, doing so with a very interesting proposition from Dr. Edward P. Vining’s 1881 book: Hamlet is actually a woman.
This not actually as unusual as it might seem; there is, in fact, a long and rich tradition of female Hamlets. After Charles II gave permission for women to act, the first woman to appear in a Shakespeare play did so in 1660, and soon afterwards, women began playing not only women’s roles but also those of men. In the 1770s, famed Welsh-born actress Sarah Siddons became the first known woman to play Hamlet, but fearing London critics, took on this role only in provincial theaters. In 1796, Elizabeth Powell played Hamlet in London’s Drury Lane, and in 1820, Sarah Bartley became the first female Hamlet in America. Charlotte Cushman was another notable 19th century Hamlet, and Sarah Bernhardt continued the tradition at the beginning of the 20th century.
Asta Nielsen, the famed Danish actress and one of the first international movie stars, sets herself apart from this crowd of “trouser roles” quickly, however — at the beginning of the film (which Nielsen formed her own production company to make), it is revealed that her Hamlet was born female, then subsequently disguised as male by Queen Gertrude in order to preserve the family lineage. The unique nature of these circumstances is most prominent in scenes between Hamlet and Horatio, where we see Hamlet’s secret love for Horatio and the conflict that this creates in Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. Also notable is the portrayal of Queen Gertrude as a scheming queen who, for example, administers the poison she will drink later by accident.
Overall, the main drawback in this Hamlet for me is that, due to its nature as a silent film, it cannot make use of much of Shakespeare’s original dialogue, which limits the film from realizing its full potential and really exploring the consequences that a female Hamlet might face and how Hamlet’s gender identity might impact some of the larger themes in Shakespeare’s play. I also found a couple of plot decisions, like the manner of Claudius’ death, to be a bit confusing as to why they were changed from the original play.
Nevertheless, Nielsen manages to take a theory ultimately derived from reductive, old-fashioned views on gender (i.e. Hamlet is gentle, indecisive and not very willing to fight, ergo, he must be female) and elevates it through the powers of her superb acting. Nielsen shines especially in Hamlet’s brooding scenes, where her dark, expressive eyes do all the talking. I also loved the humor in scenes such as the one in which Hamlet drops her pencil in a lecture and Hamlet and Horatio bump heads going to pick it up, Hamlet eyeing Horatio playfully afterwards.
The screening will be accompanied by the Filmharmonia Duo, who were commissioned to create a new score for the film by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The score includes music composed by three sons of J.S. Bach. The Filmharmonia Duo consists of Michael Tsalka (harpsichord and piano) and Dennis James (organ), who will be joined by Marija Bosnar (mezzo soprano). The Filmharmonia Duo, founded by Dennis James, seeks to perform authentic accompaniment to silent films, showcasing unusual instruments in order to recreate period styles and performance and to reproduce sounds that are not only accurate to the silent film era, but entertaining for an audience perhaps not used to silent film.
Whether you’re a Shakespeare fanatic, silent film lover or just want to hear some really lovely music and enjoy the awe-inspiring talent of Asta Nielsen, I would definitely recommend checking out this screening of Hamlet (1921), which had its original color-tinting restored in 2007.
Cornell Cinema is presenting this free screening with a live score performed by the Filmharmonia Duo on September 14th at 8 p.m. in Sage Chapel.
Ramya Yandava is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.