Sarah Bernhardt Becomes the First Woman to Play Hamlet (1899)

At one time, the name Sarah Bern­hardt was syn­ony­mous with melo­dra­mat­ic self-pre­sen­ta­tion. In her hey­day, the actress cre­at­ed a cat­e­go­ry all her own—impossible to judge by the usu­al stan­dards of the dra­mat­ic arts. Or as Mark Twain put it, “there are five kinds of actress­es: bad actress­es, fair actress­es, good actress­es, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bern­hardt.”

Admired and beloved by Vic­tor Hugo and play­wright Edmond Ros­tand, who called her “the queen of the pose and the princess of the ges­ture,” Bern­hardt com­mand­ed atten­tion in every role, and became infa­mous as “a can­ny self-pro­mot­er,” as Han­nah Mank­telow writes. Bern­hardt “cul­ti­vat­ed her image as a mys­te­ri­ous, exot­ic out­sider. She claimed to sleep in a cof­fin and encour­aged the cir­cu­la­tion of out­landish rumors about her eccen­tric behav­ior.”

Bernhardt’s world­wide fame rest­ed not only on her pub­lic rela­tions skill, but also on her will­ing­ness to take dra­mat­ic risks most actress­es of the time would nev­er dare. In one notable exam­ple, she played Ham­let in 1899, at age 55, in a French adap­ta­tion of Shakespeare’s play. What’s more, she bold­ly under­took the role in Lon­don, then again in Strat­ford at the Shake­speare Memo­r­i­al The­atre. Final­ly, she became the first woman to por­tray Ham­let on film (see a short clip above).

Reac­tions to her stage per­for­mance by con­tem­po­raries were mixed. In her review, actress and writer Eliz­a­beth Robins praised Bernhardt’s “amaz­ing skill” in play­ing “a spir­it­ed boy… with impetu­os­i­ty, a youth­ful­ness, almost child­ish.” But Robins issued a qual­i­fi­ca­tion at the out­set: “for a woman to play at being a man is, sure­ly, a tremen­dous hand­i­cap,” she writes, a crit­i­cism echoed by Eng­lish essay­ist Max Beer­bohm, who went so far as to deny women the pow­er to cre­ate art.

“Cre­ative pow­er,” wrote Beer­bohm, “the pow­er to con­ceive ideas and exe­cute them, is an attribute of viril­i­ty; women are denied it, in so far as they prac­tice 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.” Set­ting Beerbohm’s cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly sex­ist asser­tions aside (for the moment), we must mark the irony that both he and Robins are trou­bled by a woman play­ing a man, giv­en that all of Shakespeare’s female char­ac­ters were once played by men, a fact both crit­ics some­how fail to men­tion.

Where Beer­bohm saw in Bernhardt’s per­for­mance a mere “aping of viril­i­ty,” Robins, unham­pered by Beer­bohm’s ugly misog­y­ny, observed the great actress in vivid detail, in an essay that brings Bernhardt’s Ham­let to life with descrip­tions of her, for exam­ple, “appeal­ing dumb­ly for anoth­er sign” after see­ing her father’s ghost (on paint­ed gauze), “and pass­ing pathet­ic flut­ter­ing hands over the unre­spon­sive sur­face, grop­ing piteous­ly like a child in the dark.”

The pathos of Bernhardt’s per­for­mance was under­cut, Robins felt, by some clum­sy moments, such as her  mis­treat­ment of poor Yorick’s skull. (A real human skull, by the way, giv­en to her by Vic­tor Hugo). “It was not pleas­ant,” writes Robins, “to see the grin­ning object han­dled so cal­lous­ly…. Indeed, I feel sure that Madame Bern­hardt treats her lap-dog more con­sid­er­ate­ly.” On the whole, how­ev­er, Robins felt the per­for­mance a tru­ly dra­mat­ic achieve­ment through Bernhardt’s “mas­tery of sheer poise… of spar­ing, clean-cut ges­ture… the effect that the artist in her want­ed to pro­duce.”

Fur­ther up, see an ink draw­ing of Bern­hardt as Ham­let by Regi­nal Cleaver and, just above, an 1899 post­card pho­to­graph (with Hugo’s gift­ed skull). Read more about Bernhardt’s per­for­mance, and the atten­dant pub­lic­i­ty, at the Shake­speare Blog, and learn about a new play based on Bernhardt’s Ham­let called “The Divine Sarah” at the Fol­ger Shake­speare Library’s Shake­speare & Beyond.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare 1910 Audio: Sarah Bern­hardt, ‘The Most Famous Actress the World Has Ever Known,’ in Racine’s Phè­dre

When Ira Aldridge Became the First Black Actor to Per­form Shake­speare in Eng­land (1824)

What Shakespeare’s Eng­lish Sound­ed Like, and How We Know It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Dan Venning says:

    The title of this arti­cle is deeply mis­lead­ing. Off the top of my head, I know that Char­lotte Cush­man played the role near­ly four decades ear­li­er, and Sarah Sid­dons well over a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er, in 1775. These are well-doc­u­ment­ed per­for­mances with many eas­i­ly acces­si­ble sources. And there cer­tain­ly *may* have been oth­ers even before Sid­dons.

    Bern­hardt almost cer­tain­ly was the first female actor to play Ham­let *on film,* as Jones notes in his arti­cle, but the title makes a much broader—and deeply his­tor­i­cal­ly inaccurate—assertion.

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