The title role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has, quite naturally, been played by some of the greatest male actors of all time, from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh. Over the play’s 400-year history, countless performers have inhabited the troubled Prince of Denmark as he ponders how to revenge his father’s murder. It’s a massive role: Hamlet speaks nearly 40 percent of the show’s lines in the Bard’s longest play.
So why does Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new production, opening on February 25, have a woman in that legendary role? And, of all people, why is it diminutive Sara Clark, more often cast as young women or mischievous characters such as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? In truth, she’s directed or performed in roughly 75 productions during her 16 years with Cincy Shakes, taking on male roles like Mark Antony in an all-female staging of Julius Caesar. But this is her first foray into inhabiting Shakespeare’s enormous tragic character.
“When you’re a woman,” Clark says with a smile, “and someone offers you that part, you say, Hell yes.” She’s quick to point out that women have occasionally played Hamlet since the 1700s, though it’s typically been a woman—such as Sarah Bernhardt in 1899—acting as a man. “I need to play it as a woman,” Clark says. “It matters to see Hamlet played by a woman.”
She has given this assignment much thought since being asked to take the role four years ago. The production was originally planned for CSC’s 2019–2020 schedule, focused on the “Season of the Woman” undertaken by many local arts organizations and ArtsWave to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Before the pandemic cut that season short, Clark delivered a local TED Talk built on the premise that, as much as we claim to live in an equal world, “It’s just not how it plays out.” Referring to efforts at creating equal opportunities for women onstage, she made a sharp point: “How do we move from conception to reality? We have to be able to imagine it, and there is no better place to exercise our imagination than in the theater.”
It’s not her goal to deliver the definitive Hamlet or to say that this is how it should be done. “But I want to say, Why not? and What if? For a couple of hours, can we break out of our preconceived notions and experience something slightly new? What does that do to us going forward? How is our perspective shifted ever so slightly? How does it change how we see women in these different aspects of life? Maybe we’ll start to question why we don’t see more of them.”
Clark points out that Hamlet is frequently unkind to women in the play, including his conflicted mother Gertrude and his potential wife Ophelia. “Think about what it is for a woman to say, Frailty, thy name is woman,” she says. “How often do you see women be harder on other women than men are? Isn’t that something that’s interesting to explore?”
But Clark likes that Hamlet is not always an admirable character, saying, “Women in entertainment tend to be steered toward being likeable.” Too often, she points out, strong female characters are defined by just one characteristic, such as manipulative Lady Macbeth, who she’s played for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Clark says she’s drawn to complicated roles that are nuanced, perhaps ranging from weak to cruel.
The role of Hamlet has many colors. An actor in the role, Clark says, “gets to be funny and loyal and a wonderful friend and beloved and a person who is experiencing the whole range of human emotion in a couple of hours. How wonderful to have an opportunity to do that as a woman, and for an audience to see it. We have little chance to watch women go on that journey until you see something like this. I rarely see that many different shades of a person when a woman is doing it.”
Hamlet is being staged by director Sarah Lynn Brown, a theater artist from Nebraska who has explored classic works from new perspectives. “You always have to cut the script of Hamlet, otherwise it’s four hours long,” says Clark. “There are decisions you make about what you want to focus on and what is the story within Hamlet that you actually want to tell. Sarah has done some really nice stuff to bring a little bit more of an ensemble quality to it and make sure the play keeps moving forward.” That’s exactly what Sara Clark is doing as she questions whether to be or not to be this winter.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company presents Hamlet February 25–March 20 in Over-the-Rhine.