Hamlet – Royal Exchange (2014)

Maxine PeakeThe Royal Exchange theatre is one of the reasons why Manchester is a great place for a cultural life. It is everything that regional theatre should be: challenging, innovative, exciting and encased in original architecture. As soon as it was announced that Maxine Peake had been cast as Hamlet, I ordered my tickets. I am so glad I did: first because it sold out and second because she was superb. (You can find the range of reviews of her performance – here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29235529)

Casting a woman as Hamlet is an interesting but not novel decision. It has been done many times before (although not for 35 years on the British stage) and I have always understood that decision from a performer’s point of view. Hamlet is a complex and intriguing role to play, especially when compared to the women in the play. The role of Gertrude is to look dignified, say few words and be excluded to the point that she unwittingly causes her own death. Ophelia, like Hamlet descends into madness, but her loss of sanity is silent and silenced, whereas Hamlet’s is articulated, conscious and with conscience. Of course a performer of any gender would want to tackle the complexity of Hamlet’s tragedy.

However, this was the first time I had encountered the decision as a member of the audience and I was unsure what it would mean. However, I was surprised that, for the most part, it did not matter. In theatre, you have to suspend disbelief. Shakespeare does not do ‘naturalism’.  The dialogue, the set, casting and production were not designed to provide realism. That Hamlet was a fresh-faced, feminine man was just absorbed in the performance. However, that fresh-face did remind me that Hamlet is a young man, a university student. (In the 19th Century an actress playing Hamlet was a political statement – a woman could play a university student but could not be educated within a university (Howard2007)). Peake’s Hamlet looks young and vulnerable. His/her masculinity is inexperienced, obviously being tried out and worn-in, in similar ways to the young men I witness starting university. It is being practiced and rehearsed.  I feel obliged at this point to reference Judith Butler and her discussion about drag, gender and performativity.

Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. (Butler, 1999: 191, emphasis in original)

So, while we see Hamlet struggle to come to terms with his new-found manhood, Hamlet’s masculinity is also being manipulated. We are invited to watch him talk to himself, to ghosts, to friends, to skulls as he plots actions, just as we watch those in power do likewise. When Hamlet does this, it is madness. When a King does it, it is politics. His loss, grief and friendships are not taken seriously by those in power. They are merely to be controlled or destroyed. So, in this production, I saw Hamlet as an inter-generational struggle. The generation with power is eager to discredit and remove power from the following generation, to define grief as dysfunctional, to manipulate and discredit any political action taken by the young, to buy favours and manipulate those at the fringes of power, whilst refusing to acknowledge the enormity of their own wrong-doing.

Does a play about medieval Denmark still have relevance for social justice today? I would say so.


Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble [2nd Edition] London: Routledge

Howard, T. (2007) Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


3 thoughts on “Hamlet – Royal Exchange (2014)

  1. I keep wondering if the use of the female actress is symbolic of the ‘othering’ of madness as the gendered disease? Ties with the cultural representations of madness…maybe…where metaphorical representations become the corporeal.
    ‘Thus when madness, even when experienced by men, is metaphorically and symbolically represented as feminine: a female malady.’ (Showalter, 1987:4)
    Showalter, E. (1987) The Female Malady: women, madness and English culture, 1830-1980. London, Virago Press.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really interesting point. But I struggle with the idea of “the use” of the female, when I see the act of playing Hamlet as agentic. It was definitely Peakes choice to play the role and several women have made that choice before her. What becomes interesting is how we read that when faced with a performance and how madness is then translated by both the audience and actor and the role gender plays within that. What it keeps making me realise is that madness is a power relation, mired in age, gender and power. Hamlet is mad. Ophelia is mad. But Claudius, a manipulative murderer is not?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The ‘use of’ is intended in the generic, technical way that theatre ‘uses’ actors, or props, or lines in order to perform the play; with the play being of course, the ultimate aim. The ability to of a female to have the choice being a luxury not afforded within the period it was written of course – as Mary Firth’s arrest illustrates.

    I always find the concept of madness interesting within Shakespeare, particularly in relation to gender. Within Shakespeare, the women move swiftly, abruptly into madness…whereas men engage in ‘…wild and whirling words’.

    Is Claudius sane? Or does his cold, calculating and control portray a different form of madness – one that would certainly fit on the DSM tick lists?

    How many of the Shakespearean concepts of madness are now enshrined in our modern perception of ‘female qualities’? Yet, how many were in fact simply developed due to the practicalities of having females portrayed by young, inexperienced male actors, who would struggle with complex characterisations?And how many were a consequence of gendered views of the female as simplistically child-like in the period of writing?

    Liked by 1 person

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