Women Roles in Hamlet

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the two female characters, Gertrude (the queen of Denmark) and Ophelia (the daughter of the King’s advisor), stand out amongst the dominant male cast. When I first read this play, I assumed Shakespeare was guilty of standard 17th century sexism since he portrayed these two female characters as weak and submissive to their male counterparts. Within the first act Hamlet laments of Gertrude’s quick, new marriage to Claudius with her former husband “but two months dead–nay, not so much, not two”  (I.ii.142). Gertrude’s haste to remarry portrays her as a desperate woman who needs another man to feel secure in her image, despite the recent death of her husband. Perhaps her hasty marriage sought to solidify her claim to the throne; she might have been too weak to resist the security of power, wealth, and luxury in spite of the indignity to be found in neglecting to grieve her husband. This indignity is exacerbated by her decision to marry not just any other man, but the brother of her deceased husband.This incestuous act depicts the queen as even more desperate to have the support of a man–so desperate she will torment her son by marrying his uncle. Hamlet even describes his mother as weak when he cries “Let me not think on’t; frailty, thy name is woman!” (I.ii.150). Shakespeare highlights the weakness of Gertrude’s nature when he has her own son denounce her in a public audience. Shakespeare’s deliberate public shaming of Gertrude’s feeble attempt to secure the throne highlights the baseness of her actions as well as the transparency of her actions. Gertrude’s lack of disagreement with Claudius, who she obediently follows, even in the face of his horrendous treatment of Hamlet further objectifies her as a device intended to help Claudius achieve his own personal goals

Shakespeare’s other female character, Ophelia, also seems to be portrayed as a weak and submissive character within the play. After Ophelia’s father, Polonius, orders her not to “slander any moment leisure as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet,” Ophelia dutifully answers “I shall obey my lord” (I.iii. 133-136). Although her father has denied her the privilege to see the man that she loves, Ophelia simply obeys him without resistance or argument to his orders. Later, when Ophelia tells her father of Hamlet’s crazed entrance into her bedchamber, Polonius says “I am sorry that with better heed and judgement I had not quoted him. I feared he did not but trifle and meant to wreck thee. But beshrew my jealousy!” (II.i.111-115). After Polonius admits the fallibility of his advice, one might expect Ophelia to begin resisting her father’s orders and act more independently; however, Ophelia continues to blindly follow his subsequent wishes. As with Gertrude, Ophelia’s blind obedience to another male character in the story reduces her to the position of a tool to advance the goals of her father, as exemplified by her obedience in waiting for Hamlet in the gallery under her father’s orders. Indeed, when her father dies, Ophelia loses her sense of sanity and shifts to appalling and unexpected actions. Her subsequent suicide soon after clearly indicates Shakespeare’s message: that Ophelia is so dependent on her father that she cannot live without him — his death leaves her with no desire to live herself.

These were my initial thoughts about Shakespeare’s portrayal of women throughout the play. However, after addressing this topic in the panel discussions and thinking on it further, I’ve started to alter my opinions. Under the women’s superficial actions–the ones mentioned earlier that make them seem weak and dependent–maybe Shakespeare was trying to portray a totally different message about the strength of women. To many modern viewers, the actions of Gertrude and Ophelia may make them appear weak, but if we remember to heed some advice from Foster–“don’t read with your eyes”–perhaps we can uncover Shakespeare’s true message about feminine strength. The plot line of Hamlet would retain its structure without Gertrude and Ophelia, yet Shakespeare still includes them in the play. Why else would Shakespeare do this unless he wanted to convey a message about women?

When the play was written, women had strict societal limitations on their actions.While a modern reader would not consider Gertrude and Orphelia strong, independent women by 21st century standards, female strength and independence had to manifest itself in different ways during 17th century patriarchal society. Careful close analysis shows how Shakespeare infuses Gertrude and Ophelia’s characters with these traits.

Beginning with Gertrude, King Hamlet’s ghost mentioned that Claudius seduced “the will of [his] most seeming virtuous queen” (I.v.42-46). King Hamlet’s assumption may at first portray Gertrude as weakand malleable to the wishes of Claudius. While some may argue that Claudius somehow tricked Gertrude into marrying him, I believe that Gertrude remarried Claudius in order to take charge of her own life and protect her son. She obviously had to see that Hamlet, in his grief-stricken state, could not rule the state of Denmark as a strong leader and weather the invading forces of Fortinbras. In an act of noble protection for her son and country, Gertrude may have sacrificed her dignity in order to better supply Denmark with a strong leader. Or, perhaps she was motivated to marry Claudius for political and social reasons. Living in a patriarchal society, Gertrude may have realized that she needs a man beside her on the throne to legitimize her power as queen, and therefore used Claudius to advance her own political motives. Although this desire to increase her social respectability would not excuse marrying her husband’s murderer, Gertrude lives in ignorance of her first husband’s. After Hamlet speaks “daggers” of truth to his mother, Gertrude changes her attitude towards Claudius with this new information. Her ultimate and final act of independence and strength occurs at the duel between Laretes and Hamlet. Claudius orders Gertrude to not drink the poisoned goblet, but she defiantly replies “I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me” (V.ii. 234). Gertrude likely knew the goblet had been poisoned, but even if she had been ignorant to this, her direct defiance of the orders of a king highlights a bold act uncharacteristic of a weak or submissive female character. Confined to a strict patriarchal society, Gertrude may have realized death was her only means of escape and defiance from her cruel, manipulative new husband. This decision to take her own life marks a strength and decisiveness that even Shakespeare’s protagonist, Hamlet, could not muster. Her defiance to her husband and decision to take her own life marks her independence and strength as a woman.

While Gertrude lived in the highest of classes, Ophelia wields less political power; nevertheless, Shakespeare still subtly characterizes her as both strong and independent. Although Ophelia’s meek demeanor may at first seem weak, her emotional resilience in the face of other’s treatment of her underlies a reservoir of emotional strength. Even though she loves Hamlet, Ophelia restrains and represses her affection for him upon her father’s orders. On the flipside, Ophelia remains stoic in the face of Hamlet’s awful treatment of her, such as when he yells at her that he “never gave [her] aught” when she tries to return his gifts and he insults her by saying “get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.138). Despite this treatment from the man she loves, Ophelia takes his insults with composure, demonstrating her strength. Abused by her lover and faced with the death of her father, Ophelia must have felt abandoned and powerless in the patriarchal society in which she lived. By committing suicide, Ophelia committed an independent act that profoundly affects the actions of other characters. Although Ophelia has noticeably fewer lines than other characterizes, her death quickly catalyzes a fight between Laretes and Hamlet as they prove who loved her more. The fact that Ophelia maintained such an impact on these two male characters demonstrates her strength and power.

An initial read of Shakespeare shows females as weak and submissive; however, further contemplation reveals the master playwright’s subtlety in challenging and commenting on the societal standards of his time. Both Gertrude and Ophelia find themselves in a society unwelcoming to women, but an analysis of the key decisions each female character makes demonstrates their true independence and strength within the play.



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