Sarah Bernhardt was an actress in a category of her own. Mark Twain (quoted in the program for Bernhardt’s 1912-1913 American tour) famously said “There are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses, and Sarah Bernhardt.”
Not only was Bernhardt a singular actress, she was also a master of what we would now call personal branding. For instance: she gave herself a motto—Quand Même (literally: “despite everything”)—and had it emblazoned on everything from her tea towels to her revolver. She also took over the Théâtre de Ville in Paris and renamed it the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, which is basically cell phone providers in the early ’00s levels of confidence.
Bernhardt cast herself in roles for which she was technically (many years) too old—she played 19-year-old Joan of Arc at age 46 (to quote Twain again: “Mme. Bernhardt is so marvelously young. She and I are two of the youngest people alive”). She was also known for playing male characters, including Hamlet.
Which brings us to this day in 1899, when Bernhardt’s Hamlet premièred at the aforementioned Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt. Lucky for us, there’s a recording of Bernhardt’s performance from 1900, making her the first female Hamlet ever captured on film.
There’s a rich tradition of women playing Hamlet, from actress and novelist Charlotte Charke in the 18th century to Ruth Negga in 2018 (all of whom seem better suited to the role than Mel Gibson).
Here’s a video of Bernhardt-as-Hamlet, in all her tortured, dueling glory.