Country Matters: Spoony Bard Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”

The name of the new theatre company working on campus, Spoony Bard Shakespeare, references the video game Final Fantasy in which the Engrish insult is understood as loosely akin to “you bastard!” The geek culture meme to which the name alludes accurately represents the aesthetic of their Hamlet: a dark Mulan-ification of the Danish prince that tonally smacks of something like the ABC television series, Once Upon A Time. Through provocative costuming, soundtrack, and cross-dressing choices (including tags from Mulan, The Little Mermaid, the Harry Potter series, and Beauty and the Beast), Spoony Bard manipulates our familiarity with Hamlet to spotlight the rankness of transprejudice.

Caution: possible spoilers ahead.

It is not enough to say that Hamlet is played by a woman, Megan Scharlau, in this production. So are Rosencrantz (Hannah Kline), Guildenstern (Kara Lane), Fortinbras (Mylene Haus), and Horatio (one of Celia Mueller’s most understated and arguably best performances yet). Within the fiction of the play Hamlet is and isn’t a woman. It is unclear if a female Hamlet has been cross-dressing as male for her entire life in order to fulfill the requirements of an heir to the throne, or is a transgendered character that everyone seems to accept as female except for Polonius (rather perfectly cast with Tom Fornander), Ophelia (Sara Nie), and Laertes (Clayton Gentilcore). In this case, not only is the love between Ophelia and Hamlet taboo to her father for reasons of sexual orientation rather than class, but it seems too the Ophelia acquiesced to Hamlet’s courtship only when she was out of women’s weeds. Having realized she had fallen for a woman, this seems to motivate Ophelia into returning Hamlet’s letters and snitching. When Hamlet then asks Ophelia why she would be “a breeder of men,” that question rings entirely differently and I might say more meaningfully. Likewise, when Ophelia cries out to Hamlet “heavenly powers restore him,” she is literally asking Hamlet to be biologically transformed somehow or even back again. Even the well-worn joke, “did you think I meant country matters?” (with the play on “cunt”) rings quite differently as an embarrassing spotlighting of Ophelia’s possible bisexuality in front of the whole court—a kind of cruel outing on Hamlet’s part.

Suggesting the transprejudice also is the fact that nearly everyone in the play refers to Hamlet as “she” except for Polonius and his family. Polonius even corrects Gertrude (Delilah Hansen)—a kind of washed-up Snow White (who struggles to activate her chest resonator)—on the pronoun usage. In this regard, the death of Polonius from behind the arras is additionally satisfying, suggesting the rat, the source of bigotry, has received his comeuppance in a way that a pretentious father and sycophant never seems to fully deserve in traditional stagings of the play. Additionally, Horatio seems to serve as a more ideal romantic partner for Hamlet than the Ren faire princess Ophelia; it is suggested obliquely throughout and then made clear in the last moments of the play. In my notes as I was waiting for Tuesday evening’s dress rehearsal to begin, I asked myself whether this was going to be a ghost story, revenge tragedy, or tale of love gone awry, the usual suspects for Hamlet. That this play was so capable of encoding sexual prejudices and homophobia was a pleasant surprise that upturned my horizon of expectations. I started listening not for my favorite lines, but for moments made new under the pressure of these identity politics.

In this regard, what become most rewarding are the later soliloquies and the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia. You don’t realize how often Hamlet contemplates “man” and ideal masculinities until you hear a woman saying those lines. A believable aping of acceptable masculine norms seems frustratingly out of reach for Hamlet. The act two speech, “what a work is man,” brings this particular point home and cultivates a powerful sense of empathy for all of this identities we wish we could perform but can’t seem to. The giggle that follows Hamlet’s line “man delights not me” has material weight behind it rather than just philosophy: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern giggle because Hamlet is stating the obvious, and everyone knows s/he is into girls. The recurring self-condemnations of “coward” (not as brave as a boy) and having to “like a whore, unpack my heart with words” ring differently as gendered prejudices and expectations. The need to perform a man correctly for her country and for her beloved seems an impossible task. And in that strife, the task of killing Claudius (Kevin Gomez) gets a bit lost in the motivations. The directors seems to have sensed this, and so usefully problematized Claudius’s character who here seems to care meaningfully about both Hamlet and Gertrude. When he requests Hamlet not go back to Wittenberg due to her “unmanly grief,” this comes off as compellingly protective rather than cruel.

When I read the description of the production, I was imagining something more cos-play, something more ornamental in its interpretation. I do not make much of the Disney costumes and production elements here I think because in part they were so evenly incorporated into the world of this Hamlet. (That anti-transgender legislation has spread rapidly across the country in recent months no doubt has colored my reading of this production.) Denmark doesn’t have a particular cultural resonance for American audiences, so the fairyland world of tales gave it a different, symbolic richness stressing ideas over realism. I am a sucker for a play that knows it is a play, that knows that the goal is not to recreate the fallen world we already live in, but to build one in which we can meditate on a particular idea, problem or question for a time. It is a Hamlet for the current moment, and an truly excellent way to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary this weekend.


  • Spoony Bard Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet plays at the Channing-Murray Foundation Friday, April 22 at 7:00PM, and Saturday, April 23, at 2:00PM and 7:00PM.
    • Note: I love this performance space. With only two stage entranceways and no discovery space, it recreates Tudor elite family halls that was the normal playing space for early modern troupes long before they settled in London playhouses. The recessed tabernacle space and bannister make for a natural tiring house, again imitating the spaces for which these plays were initially designed.
  • Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for non-student adults; check out the Facebook event to RSVP and to get more information.
  • Interested in more She-Hamlets? The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is also doing a Hamlet this summer with a female lead. Click here for more information.

“Be Stone No More”: Collaborative innovations in Theatre History

Hide death upon her face.

There are few forums in which the discourses of theatre history and theatre praxis meet, and fewer still where they mutually inform. On a cool Friday evening, the departments of Theatre and English at the University of Illinois collaborated on an enraging performance art piece that put criticism and performance in direct conversation. The event Be Stone No More was equal parts contextualizing talk, comparative performance, and group discussion. Dr. Andrea Stevens began with a brief talk covering the state of the Renaissance repertory stage in 1611. This was followed by a performance of a scene from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale blended with a scene from Thomas Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, the combination of which—orchestrated by Sara Boland-Taylor—aimed to test the performed female body. The Q&A component was then not situated as a space for intellectual overflow, but a formal component in which the audience as a group conducted a kind of group analysis of the repertorial comparison. Unlike anything I have seen, the evening gave context, primary evidence, and analysis equal time and weight and wherein emphasis was distributed between director, critic, and performer.

Repertory studies is increasingly a powerful methodology for organizing early modern drama and exposing the analytical capacities for its performance. It has often been confused with repertoire: the collection of strategies and skills an actor collects, perfects, and deploys over a lifetime. Repertory is a two fold concept: a) a system of performance in which a playing company rotated a series of plays on the boards, putting a different play up every day, and b) the collection of plays a company purchased, revised, and/or commissioned, curated into a set by a company (with varying degrees of intention) that exposes possible immanent readings. This performance piece provided a snapshot of what repertory is capable. By staging comparable scenes of still and silent females—one a statue, the other a painted corpse—the performance was an act of both recovery and myth-busting. Putting Shakespeare on equal footing with Middleton reveals and begins to recuperate the merit-worthy drama as yet under-examined, undermining the supposed pre-eminence of “the Bard.” So while we could never recreate original conditions of early modern performance, the evening seems to argue that we can in fact apply original practices as we know them in order to summon up thematic and ideological approximations.

Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale by Johan Zoffany, ca. 1780.

Staging a slice of the 1611 repertory in an open forum like this presents the critic with the challenge of taking a leap into imaginative speculation. It is a leap that the current positivist discourse of theatre history shuns despite valorizing the rigor repertorial comparisons provide. In this case, where co-directors Sara Boland-Taylor and Stevens wanted to explore the fetishizing of the female as art object on the early modern stage, it seemed a necessary and productive move away from the entrenchment of the historical record. The most immediate realization in observing these blended scenes was the presence of a still, silent body. While in the seventeenth century the female stone/dead bodies would have been performed by boys between the ages of 7-17, here they were performed by a dancer and an actress, both lean and blonde. The dancer performed the stone body of Hermione and the Lady’s corpse, the actress her daughter in both cases but alive and as a spirit, respectively. In both cases, it was unclear to the audience throughout the scene whether the stone/dead body was going to perform reanimation, or continue as a form of inanimate stasis. This was especially powerful in the case of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione becomes reanimate in a gesture that suggests her persecuting husband’s recuperation, but never in fact speaks in that reanimation from stone (if she was ever really convincingly stone at all). The effect was a blurring of that moment of change, questioning whether any change occurred at all, or as a third option, leaving room for individual audience members to interpret the conditions of change individually. While that suggestion might be made by a single play, the comparative and excerpted staging compellingly suggested the notion that a staging could carve out a polyphonous interpretive space.

In the end, two innovations came to the fore in Be Stone No More. In the first, the comparative mechanism highlighted the repetitive invocations of art, artifice, and the forcing of beauty on an object to create art, suggesting a kind of metatheatrics. What conditions of silence provide room for a range of interpretations? Was flexible interpretability a value in the early modern theatrical marketplace? To what degree were the King’s Men, in a drastically reduced and censored marketplace, cultivating competing and comparative resonances through parallel motifs and compositional strategies? In the second, the innovative event format of context, performance, and analysis provided an actual formula for scholarly and performative investments to commingle without having to first prove their respective relevancies to one another. And in an unexpected turn, while most of the evening’s investments were in undermining the Shakespeare Industry’s preeminence in period production choices, it was also a kind of recovery for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a play whose criticism is dominated by the puzzle of the oft-quoted stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a Bear” (III.iii). In recuperating comparative and collaborative methods of assessing drama, across disciplines and between works, perhaps it will only be the methods of isolated textual analysis that are in this manner discharged.