When Joseph Papp's new production of ''Hamlet'' opens at the Public Theater on Thursday, audiences will see a lithe, dark Hamlet, slight but athletic and aggressive. This Hamlet fences with the best, throws Ophelia to the floor during his ''Get thee to a nunnery!'' speech, and wrestles his mother to the ground during the closet scene. Most theatergoing New Yorkers have seen more than a few Hamlets, but this production offers a dimension few will ever have experienced. For this Hamlet is being played by a woman, Diane Venora, a handsome 30-year-old actress who made a striking impression as Hippolyta in last summer's New York Shakespeare Festival production of ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' Not that such unconventional casting is unheard of. Indeed, the history of theater is peppered with female Hamlets, although they were always regarded as something of a novelty, here as in England. Frequently, however, female Hamlets have appeared in benefit performances or in less-than-full productions of the play, and the Hamlets taken seriously by 20th-century critics have invariably been male.
Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet, rapscallion, and William Shakespeare's more dastardly contemporary (as well as his biggest influence), should be high on the list of people whose DNA we ought to sniff out for cloning purposes.
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