THE HAMPHELIA PROJECT

"TO BEND, OR NOT TO BEND..."

AN EXPLORATION OF GENDER IN THEATRE PERFORMANCE

 

Written by Emma K. Harr, MFA

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die – to sleep –
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…

             

—Hamlet (III.i.55-67)

Whether standing center stage or sitting in the audience, plays are meant to be fully and wholly experienced.  It is in the immediacy of live theatre that the layers of humanity are peeled away, facets of our base nature are put under a microscope, and all the realms of imagination and possibility are explored.  As an actor, my job is to passionately delve into stories, imbuing my characters with life and nuance, in order to connect to and communicate with those who come to bear witness.  One of the integral elements of my job is to explore and challenge the material I am working with, in order to develop as many alternative interpretations as are available.  By deconstructing and reimagining a text or a character, I am able to discover new avenues of thought and meaning that can further inform the work itself, as well as the following performance.  These concepts form the foundation for my diagnostic performance research on the gender roles in the relationship between one of Shakespeare’s most famously doomed couples: Hamlet and Ophelia. 

THE PREMISE

Based solely on my physical type, the characters whose lives I most often inhabit are women who have a certain strength or maturity about them.  Never do I get to play the dashing leading man or tackle the great Kings Richard or Lear.  A dear friend and colleague of mine, Chase Byrd, knows this problem as well.  On stage, he is the pure definition of warrior and lover, and because of that, he will never get to experience what it is to be, say, Juliet or Lady Macbeth.  It is this encasement of our types, combined with our mutual interest in gender studies, that inspired what he and I lovingly call the Hamphelia project. 

THE PARAMETERS

Together, we decided to create a scene study laboratory that examines the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, and the effects caused by swapped-gender casting.  We were specifically interested in how the gender roles affect the relationship and the overall perception of the story.  In order to do this, we created a specific set of parameters to measure our progress by:

 

First, we needed a newly constructed scene, featuring Hamlet and Ophelia interacting together, as well as giving both of them their own soliloquys, so that they are showcased individually.  We decided to begin with Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, followed by a compilation of the cheeky and sexually charged “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” with the ever-stinging “Get thee to a nunnery” encounter, and then closing it out with Ophelia’s moving “O’ what a noble mind” lament.  This allowed for us to create a natural story arc that remains true to the relationship between the pair, as well as allowing for the maximum interaction between each of them together and each of them alone with the audience.

 

We also needed to address Shakespeare’s language itself, in regard to the gendered pronouns found throughout our constructed scene.  We decided that the only changes we would make to the physical text would be to alter the pronouns according to who was playing which character at which time, leaving all remaining scansion and figurative language intact. 

 

An example of this change is shown here:

Second, we knew that in conversations about gender, we must acknowledge and include the separation of gender identity and biological sex, as they are not necessarily congruent.  We needed to define the specifications of masculinity and femininity, so that we could identify and alter patterns of behavior as we embodied both characters.  For example, perceptions of masculine traits tend to be more hard and angled, while perceptions of feminine traits tend to be more soft and curved.  Finally, we created a four-tier framework for exploring the swapping of the genders, where we would end up both playing each part twice as a man and twice as a woman:

Our plan was to spend the fall semester on the first two iterations, and the spring semester on the last two, culminating in final performances of each.  Our goal was to discover how our gender swaps affected the characters and the story at large; we would seek to find the nuances of what makes the story “work,” in terms of sliding along the spectrum of masculinity and femininity, so that no matter which actor interprets which role as which gender, the story, and the relationship, itself is always preserved and communicated effectively.

THE DISCOVERIES

Throughout the rehearsal process, Chase and I kept logs of the time we spent working together in rehearsals, and categorized our thoughts, feelings, and discoveries along the way.  One of the most fascinating discoveries we made was that regardless of the actor, the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia stayed the same.  Hamlet, confused and volatile, emotionally abuses Ophelia, who attempts to confront the problems within their relationship, but who ultimately takes the blows being thrown.  The differences in the final performances of our first two iterations were centralized in how we each told the story through our separate character embodiments, how psychological abuse is dealt and handled by a masculine or feminine hand.  We were fascinated by how different the scenes were, even though the text and what happens in regard to the basic plot remained the same every time.  It was our personal connections to the characters that created the shifts—how I embodied Ophelia versus how Chase did, and how he embodied Hamlet versus how I did.  Our discoveries always brought us back to discussions of gender—was the root cause of a particularly intense moment inherently dependent on the gender of the person driving the action?  Is my interpretation of Hamlet any less valid or true to the story, simply because I am female?  And because each iteration is different, how does that affect our audience?  How are Hamlet and Ophelia perceived differently based solely on their gender?

Chase contributed a few of his revelations in his own words:

 

“I think my biggest revelation with this project was that no matter who was playing Ophelia at the time, it was clear that this character is being emotionally abused. It doesn't matter if a male or a female is receiving the abuse; the hurt is absolutely the same. We may experience anger or sadness in different ways, but this doesn't change the fact that it's hurtful. Men can be harmed emotionally too; we aren't just "hard" or emotionless, although some of us would prefer the world to think we are.

My (male) Hamlet felt particularly hot and explosive; angry at the world and women in general. My role as (male) Ophelia was the opposite, feeling rather cool and concentrated on the inner involvement rather than outward rage. In Hamlet, I wanted to push everything I felt inside out onto Ophelia and the world; as Ophelia, I took everything that was outside myself and took it in, absorbing and internalizing the problems of those around me.


        I very much enjoyed playing Ophelia. She has so much quiet inner strength. Ophelia doesn't have to fight back or argue; she takes in everything that Hamlet dishes out. This speaks volumes for her strength in that moment, but is also an interesting juxtaposition to the downfall that we know is coming. Nevertheless, I find her speech so poignant, so incredibly heartbreaking. It is beautiful, poetic language; however, I think it is also important to point out that (besides the pronouns) these characters have nothing in their language that is inherently male or female, only human. It is a universal experience, only colored by our own perceptions of gender.”

For my part, I am often told by directors that I need to be more “feminine”—which is often difficult for me to grasp: I am female, isn’t anything I do, then, inherently “feminine” in quality?  But that is not what they mean—when we speak of masculinity and femininity, we are speaking from ideas of perception, what we think these constructs are rather than examining them as they exist in the world. 

 

As my feminine Ophelia, I realized that, although she has markedly fewer lines than Hamlet, her strength is not inherently “quiet.”  She chooses when to challenge her lover, and when to concede to his rants.  She sees so clearly that he is no longer the man she fell in love with, and all she wants is to remind him of who he was, before tragedy and loss darkened his demeanor; but she is no longer willing to be his personal whipping post.  While Chase’s Hamlet was hot and aggressive, my Ophelia was cool and guarded, earnest in her entreaties to him. 

 

My Hamlet was at the other end of the spectrum.  Interpreting Hamlet as a woman felt so powerful, so full and hungry.  I was naturally drawn to a more innately sensual interpretation, viewing my lover as a plaything that was mine to use and discard at will.  I felt calculating and manipulative, alternating between fire-hot and ice-cold.  And when I spoke to Ophelia in order to hurt him, I was lithe, serpent-like, and entirely aware of the pain I was inflicting—and the fact that I didn’t care.  I could feel the simmering madness just underneath the surface, and I liked the way it felt. 

 

Chase and I performed the first two iterations of Hamphelia as part of a studio showcase in December 2013.  The feedback we received was incredibly interesting to us.  One of our (female) faculty members, upon seeing our second iteration for the first time, made this remark to me: “Your Hamlet is a bigger dick than his is!”  The irony of that gendered insult was not lost on me.

 

After our first performance, a young female audience member told me that she was put on the defense by Chase’s Hamlet, but that she empathized with mine—she recognized that our words and actions were ultimately the same, and that it was our gender that she was responding to, which unsettled her—that because my Hamlet was a woman, she would have defended my abusive actions against Ophelia because she perceived them to be “justified,” while the actions of Chase’s Hamlet read much more clearly to her as blatant domestic abuse.  This feedback begs the question: did this young female audience member only empathize with my Hamlet because she herself is female, and so she empathized with the woman on stage, regardless of what that woman was doing?  This seems likely. What does this say about our human empathy, that we are possibly already biased in a given circumstance, simply due to our biology or gender identity?  How interesting to us then, as actors, to receive this feedback and compare it to our own experiences embodying these characters.  Our research was no longer just about how we felt and were influenced by stretching the lines of gender constructs—it was being prepared for the honest and visceral responses of our audience to our work, even if they surprised us. 

 

Ultimately, our research has clearly shown that as actors, we approach character through a myriad of means, one of which being the experiences that are endemic to us personally, which are greatly colored by our own cisgender identities.  I cannot look at the role of Ophelia as a woman without associating all of her thoughts and feelings with what it is to be a woman.  Similarly, Chase cannot approach Hamlet as a man without being driven by what it is that makes him a man.  For the final two iterations, we spent a great deal of time exploring the abstract concepts of how masculinity and femininity are defined and embodied through physical exercises, as well as through Greek neutral mask work: the goal of which is to find a universal masculine and feminine that are untainted by human bias (insofar as we are capable of removing that bias from our work).  What we have discovered about ourselves is that neither one of us is a perfect benchmark for universal femininity or masculinity, but we both exhibit traits inherently in line with Western societal ideals of what these two opposites are supposed to be.  Each completed iteration was different, and that had everything to do with the gender assignment of actor to character.  But one thing remained the same—no matter which brain, which heart, which set of personal histories examined these characters, both were created as carefully and discerningly as possible.  Both man and woman experienced full ranges of emotion; both dug into the deepest pits of intellect; both approached the concept of madness, and returned enlightened yet unscathed.  In this incredible respect, neither one of us had the advantage over the other in creating character based on our respective genders.  How we created the characters was different, but the fullness of exploration by each remained in equilibrium. 

 

Hamphelia has been fascinating and revelatory for both Chase and myself, and has helped each of us to grow into stronger performers, as well as strengthening our trust in each other as colleagues.  Hamphelia is not just about exhausting gender stereotypes, or subverting traditional casting: it’s about real, whole, human people and the broken relationship between them.  It’s about understanding that love, pain, fear, and even bloodlust are emotions we are all capable of having.  It is what we do with these that defines us, not the labels we are categorized under.

 

In appropriate closing fashion, I leave you with the wisdom of Ophelia’s earnest response

to Hamlet’s introspection and wavering sanity:

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th' observed of all observers – quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

 

—Ophelia (III.i.150-161)

Works cited:

 

Byrd, Chase. Personal interview. 27 Mar. 2014.

 

Hamlet. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997. 1208-1209.

 

Harr, Emma K. Hamphelia. Original digital artwork. March 2014.