Shakespeare’s Women and Claire Bloom

Sixteen year-old Claire Bloom (1931-) debuted at Stratford-Upon-Avon as Ophelia to Paul Scofield’s Hamlet. Years later, he recalled she “looked lovely and acted with a daunting assurance.” At 21, she appeared opposite Charlie Chaplin in the film Limelight, directing the public eye and expectations to a career that had, up until then, been admittedly instinctual. Over the years, in addition to more contemporary roles, Bloom played most of Shakespeare’s women. She later toured in a one-woman show from which we see selections.

“I was young, pretty, and got away with a lot at Stratford. When you’re young, you think you’re the best, then as you go along, you find out that you’re not… Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) was a highlight in my life… She was an extremely aware young girl waiting eagerly for fulfillment. It’s hot stuff… (We see a glimpse of Bloom  on stage at 16.)

“When you’re young enough to play these roles, you don’t understand sexual power. By the time you’re really ready, you’re too old to convincingly play a young girl, so you substitute compassion and intelligence for youthful fervor… The sad fact is that men can play Hamlet and Macbeth for a 30 year span, whereas women…In the old days one could play Juliet until the end,” she says wistfully.

At 22, Bloom reprised Ophelia to Richard Burton’s Hamlet. “He was a beautiful man with a wonderful voice and driving intelligence.” She notes the Welshman was one of the first actors who never tried to seem like a gentleman. His interpretations were working class. Later the actress played Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, “a woman of guilt, conscience, and great sexual appetite.” She found the latter more complicated and satisfying.

“Shakespeare seems to survive every art form.” Bloom points out that playing excerpts one has no partner and must invent the world of the character. That’s why, in her show, the actress chose to predominantly play parts she had done in order to recall and conjure.

We see her at 24 as Lady Anne to Laurence Olivier’s Richard III. Anne follows her husband’s coffin in tears. Richard approaches her lasciviously and the Lady spits in his face. It was not difficult to relate to the much older Richard, she laughs, “because he was played by Larry.” A portion of Anne from her show maintains emotional tone, but gestures emerge too many and too big. This is often true compared to early stage work.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia disguises herself as a young man to address the court. Bloom comments that the character becomes much more interesting in this aspect. “I’m fascinated by the boys in Shakespeare’s time who played women. Boy actors dressed as girls who masqueraded as men. Shakespeare creates wonderful games with sexual ambiguity. He knew what a turn-on it was.” She continues, “I understand pretty boys playing young girls, but they also played Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. How did they do that?” During tenure on the Shakespearean stage, boys were also apprenticed to a profession so that when their voices broke, they’d have a way to earn a living. Bloom quips that Actors Equity should arrange that now.

As Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline, the actress again exaggerates while reciting. A glimpse of the earlier production shows focused channeling of emotion. As if unconsciously addressing this, we’re shown a 1929 clip of the British stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell (1865-1940) discussing the fundamentals of acting and speech and John Barrymore’s 1935 screen test for Hamlet. Both are dreadfully unnatural, fully reflecting the era.

“It wasn’t until the 1950s that people realized there had to be a radical new way to approach Shakespeare.” Bloom taught. She comments that students thought the Bard spoke a foreign language. “I’d tell them, don’t act, just sit in a chair and talk to me.” Recitations of Lady Constance out of King John: “she correctly fears she’ll never see her son again.” And Catherine of Aragon from Henry VIII: “pride and certainly not swayed by provincial people” Both are credible. Perhaps the older women were more relatable at that point in her life.

“When I do my recital, I very much look forward to Emilia’s speech from Othello. (Emilia is Desdemona’s Lady in Waiting.) It’s completely modern and relevant, a refreshing voice of reason.” “What is it they do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is. Have we not desires for sport?”

“The older roles in Shakespeare are so fulfilling, I wouldn’t mind pottering along until the end,” the actress says with a hopeful smile.

Photos Courtesy of BroadwayHD

In 2010, Bloom played the role of Queen Mary in the British film The King’s Speech. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2013 Birthday Honors for services to drama.

Shakespeare’s Women and Claire Bloom
Directed by Phillip Schopper
Narrated by Roger Rees
Interviews by Julian Schlossberg (We neither see nor hear him)

Streaming on BroadwayHD

About Alix Cohen (1190 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.