The world-famous actor Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) cross-dressed to play the role of Hamlet in 1899. This postcard shows a photomechanical print of Bernhardt in the graveyard scene, giving the celebrated ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ speech. For the role, she used a human skull which had been given to her by the French novelist Victor Hugo.

Hamlet played by a woman: what were the critics’ views?

Hannah Manktelow discusses Bernhardt’s performance:

A canny self-promoter, Bernhardt cultivated her image as a mysterious, exotic outsider. She claimed to sleep in a coffin and encouraged the circulation of outlandish rumours about her eccentric behaviour. In 1899, when Bernhardt was an established theatrical coach, manager and performer, she took the controversial decision to play Hamlet. Her production was an immediate success, touring extensively across Europe and America.

In stark contrast to the melancholic interpretation of English tradition, Bernhardt’s Hamlet was youthful, energetic and volatile. She claimed to be more suited to the role than any man, arguing that “a boy of twenty cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet”, while the older actor “does not look the boy, the light carriage of youth with … mature thought”.

The critics, however, were not so sure. Many felt that Bernhardt and the actresses she inspired were fundamentally incapable of understanding male drives and emotions. Max Beerbohm wrote that

[c]reative power, the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility: women are denied it. In so far as they practise art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.

This extract is from Hannah Manktelow’s chapter entitled, ‘“Do you not know I am a woman?”: The Legacy of the First Female Desdemona, 1660’ in Shakespeare in Ten Acts (London: The British Library, 2016), pp. 94–95.