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.
I love early cinema in all its wild and strange glory, but there is a special place in my heart for Shakespeare adaptations, especially those earliest examples from the 1900s and 1910s. The British Film Institute produced a video, many moons back, called Silent Shakespeare, featuring wonderful examples of films adapted from Shakespeare’s plays from around the world, dated between 1899 and 1911, with gorgeous scores by Laura Rossi. I loved it. The VHS tape was subsequently rereleased on DVD and is still available from the BFI shop, priced £19.99.
Now there is another way to watch these truly gorgeous films – they are streaming on the Globe Player, an online service from the people who run Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank in London – just a few yards away from the venue formerly known as the National Film Theatre, but several centuries away in spirit. You can rent the bundle of seven films for £5.99 or buy it outright for £9.99. Here’s the link.
The films in the Silent Shakespeare set are:
King John (GB 1899 2 min) the first Shakespeare film ever made, released both as a film in variety theatres and as a peepshow Mutoscope on the same day as Tree’s production of the play opened at the Her Majesty’s Theatre, London.
The Tempest (GB 1908 12 min)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (USA 1909 12 min)
King Lear/Re Lear (Italy 1910 16 min)
Twelfth Night (USA 1910 12 min)
The Merchant of Venice/Il Mercante di Venezia (Italy 1910 10 min)
Richard III (GB 1911 23 min) a condensed version of one of the Stratford productions mounted by the F.R. Benson Company.
The glimpse of Herbert Beerbohm-Tree as King John is really something, and the hand-stencilled colours of Re Lear are sumptuous, but I must confess I do have a favourite: the charming, ingenious version of The Tempest, directed by Percy Stow for the Clarendon Company in 1908. It’s just sublime – and Michael Brooke calls it “comfortably the most visually imaginative and cinematically adventurous silent British Shakespeare film”, so I am in good company. Try another of my favourites, the 1911 Richard III on for size.
Frank Benson had been playing Richard III for decades at this point, and his ease in the role really shows, especially during these haunting scenes from Bosworth field.
Asta Nielsen as Hamlet, Lilly Jacobson as Ophelia in Hamlet (1920)
Look what I found tucked into my copy of Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange Eventful History by Robert Hamilton Ball. It’s not a “vintage” postcard, but was bought for me by relatives on holiday in Berlin when I was writing a dissertation on silent Shakespeare. Asta Nielsen as Hamlet also graces the cover of the book, and looking at these pictures again I am reminded why I am so excited about the BFI screening of Hamlet next week. I’ve not seen this 1920 film directed by Sven Gade before, as it was not available on DVD when I was at university, and it still isn’t.
The BFI screening will be a chance to see a restored print of the film, and this event was also to be the premiere of a new score by Claire van Kampen – but unfortunately, that is no longer the case. However, I’m sure that Neil Brand’s improvised piano accompaniment will be up to his usual high standards.
Hamilton Ball says of the film that: “by adaptation and acting appropriate to pictures in motion, the least Shakespearean Hamlet becomes the best Hamlet film in the silent era”. He also quotes from a contemporary review in the periodical Exceptional Photoplays:
Rare is it indeed to see so complete a suggestion of all physical means – appearance, gesture, even the movement of an eye-lid – to the sheer art of showing forth the soul of a character as that which Asta Nielsen accomplishes in her role of Hamlet … For here is a woman whose like we have not on our own screen. Asta Nielsen’s art is a mature art that makes the curly headed girlies and painted hussies and tear-drenched mothers of most of our native film dramas as fantastic for adult consumption as a reading diet restricted to the Elsie books and Mother Goose … It is well … to put Shakespeare resolutely out of mind in seeing this production and take it on its own merits, though that is a mental feat made harder than it need have been by the frequent use of Shakespeare’s words in subtitles … Taken all in all, Hamlet reaches a level not often seen in our motion pictures.
Hamlet (1920) screens at the BFI Southbank on 27 January at 6.45pm. There are still a few tickets available here.