Tag Archives: Judith Buchanan

Hamlet (1921) at BFI Southbank: Shakespeare’s sister

Hamlet (1921) screens at the BFI Southbank twice this week as part of the season, In the Eyes of a Silent Star: The Films of Asta Nielsen. It’s a must-see, although I would say that. You can see the film on Wednesday at 6.15pm with musical accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch and on Saturday at 5pm with music by Meg Morley and an introduction by Professor Judith Buchanan.

Hamlet is a woman! At least she is in this German feature film, Hamlet: A Drama of Vengeance (1921). And not just any woman, but the inimitable Danish diva Asta Nielsen.

From Sarah Siddons to Maxine Peake, many actresses have played the Prince of Denmark, and a fragment of Sarah Bernhardt’s stage interpretation of the role was even captured in a short film shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. However, the distaff twist in this film was prompted, or at least justified, by Edward P Vining’s scholarly 1881 book The Mystery of Hamlet: An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem, which makes the case for Prince Hamlet being so feminine a character that his contradictory nature is best explained by imagining that underneath the black tunic he’s really a woman. The film also draws on Danish history and a German play from 1704 called Fratricide Punished. The gender-swap allows for an intriguing new take on Shakespeare’s text, recasting his hero/heroine’s relationships with Ophelia, Horatio and Gertrude in fresh moulds.

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