“They are actions that a man might play,” utters Hamlet to his mother in Act I, Scene ii of the famous tragedy. What does Hamlet mean by the word, “man”? Does this refer to a masculine human being, someone with both an X and a Y chromosome, or to all of humanity (“mankind”)? What does it mean to be a “man,” and what does it mean to be a “woman”? Can the answer be found in our social performances of these gender roles? Since we all “do our gender” every day, we are all performers. If we unconsciously “play” our gender on a daily basis, how is this any different than playing a theatrical role?
My thesis is as follows: since gender is a social performance, an actor should be able to effectively play a character of a different gender than they are. The way in which I came to this conclusion is twofold. In an independent study my junior year, I analyzed how the performance of the role Hamlet, a male character, changes when a female performer takes on the role. I then performed one of Hamlet’s lesser-known soliloquies, keeping a strong focus on gesture, posture, mannerism, and costume. I concluded that by “covering up” my femaleness with “male” gesture and clothing, it ironically emphasizes my own femaleness. Then, I further teased out this research in my theatre senior capstone project in performance, “Actions That A (Wo)Man Might Play,” where I played both Hamlet and Olivia, a female character from Twelfth Night. I followed a similar methodology in this project—I interpolated traditional “masculine” characteristics into my performance of Hamlet and “feminine” ones into Olivia, and I found that I related more to Hamlet than I did to Olivia, despite the fact that Olivia and I are both female.
Simpson, Hannah, "Actions That A (Wo)Man Might Play" (2016). Student Symposium. 1.