Sarah Bernhardt had chutzpah. This illegitimate daughter of a Dutch Jewish courtesan had already gained wide renown as the best actress of her day when she decided to take on an exceptionally high-profile, high-risk role: She wanted to play Hamlet. Not girlfriend Ophelia or mother Gertrude, but the Danish prince himself, considered by many to be Shakespeare’s most difficult and iconic character.
It was a glass-ceiling-breaking move, one among several in Bernhardt’s career, and it inspired playwright Theresa Rebeck to build a play, set in 1897, around Bernhardt’s struggles. First Bernhardt had to overcome the dismissive skepticism of some men: “It’s grotesque. If Shakespeare meant for Hamlet to be a woman, he would have named the play ‘Hamlet princess of Denmark,” Rebeck has one critic protest.