Kees van Dongen depicted a variety of performing artists in his work. Actress in the Role of Hamlet counts among the cross-dressed subjects in the artist’s repertoire. Women in male stage roles were not uncommon in Van Dongen’s time, and the most famous actress to play Hamlet was Sarah Bernhardt, who performed the Shakespearean play in Paris and London in 1899. The copper-coloured curly hair and wide eyes of the shapely figure resemble the features of Bernhardt, who was still acting at the time of her death in 1923. An inscription in the artist’s hand on the back of the painting quotes a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (“Angels and ministers of grace, / defend us!” Act I, Scene IV), which situates the scene at the moment Hamlet first encounters the ghost of his murdered father, who informs Hamlet of Claudius’ treachery and swears him to revenge.