I was cast as Claudius in an all-female production of Hamlet directed by Angie Higgins with the Silicon Valley Shakespeare Company in San Jose, California, this past summer.
The idea of an all-female cast had a mixed reception among the male actors in the community. Some were behind it 100%. Some gave unasked for character advice before the rehearsals even began. Some wished us all well while continuing to point out that they ‘hadn’t even had a chance to audition’. One of my dearest friends, while acknowledging that playing Claudius was the role of a lifetime, apologetically told me that he wasn’t attending because he “just couldn’t handle all the estrogen in the concept”.
The “concept” as it turned out, was simply Hamlet. Textually, the show was no different—no pronoun changes to emphasize our genders. At the same time, however, nothing overt was done to change our outward appearance to make us more masculine. There was no taping of breasts, no fake facial hair, no specifically masculine changing of posture or stance. The gender specifics were in the text, and that was enough.
On opening weekend, a director friend of mine approached and told me that not only did he love the show, but that for the first time in a long time, he saw the characters in a different light. He saw Claudius not just as a king and the villain of the piece, but as an individual character with his own story and struggles. I was struck by this—WHY? What was it about this production that was different? The only thing I could think of was that we were women and that fact was visibly clear to everyone watching the play.
Perhaps the innate knowledge that I was a woman gave him the ‘permission’, as it were, to accept other more fluid aspects of the character than those which rigid gender norms generally allow. I was ‘allowed’ to visually express Claudius’ deep love for Gertrude and it wasn’t perceived as a weakness because gender norms allow women to behave that way. Claudius was therefore ‘allowed’ to be seen struggling with his desire to be a good stepfather to Hamlet and to be a good king for his country. He became not just a testosterone-fueled powerhouse and a menacing king, but a real person with his own struggles and desires.
There is little indication at the top of the play for the audience to assume anything except that Claudius is a good person. Hamlet has plenty to say against him, but his grief makes him an unreliable source. The ghost tells us that Claudius murdered him, but Hamlet isn’t sure the ghost can be trusted. There is nothing verifiable until Claudius tells us himself in the prayer scene and as he tells us there, we aren’t presented with villainy, but guilt, remorse, and attempts at repentant prayer. It seems far more tragic to see a man who we actually relate to at the top of the show make choices that eventually destroy everything we see him working so hard at the top to create.
It’s evident that Shakespeare has set up Claudius as the villain of the piece, but he’s not simply a murderous monster. He’s a multi-faceted villain with many conflicting human qualities that arguably make him a character worthy of his own tragedy. It’s easy to separate things into neat categories like male/female and good/evil, but life is seldom that binary, and Shakespeare’s characters aren’t either.