Examine how Shakespeare explores the role of women in Hamlet. What might the response of a modern audience be to this aspect of the play? It is interesting to see in Hamlet how women and their characters are not clearly defined. There is uncertainty about the women and their past lives. Instead they are defined mostly by their relationships with men; Margaret Atwood suggests that Ophelia is ‘constructed by others rather than herself’. According to the Great Chain of Being which was very significant in Elizabethan times men have a higher status than women who would be subservient to them.
Women were not thought of as individuals in their own right, and we can see this clearly in how the women are conveyed. We see ideas relating to the Great Chain of Being in how she is treated by her father Polonius, and is reflected in the way Ophelia is obedient to him. Polonius is particularly domineering over Ophelia. In the scene after Laertes has left he uses many imperatives such as ‘you must not’ ‘Do not’ and ‘Think’ and there is little emotion in his speech.
Ian Johnston claims that ‘Love, for Polonius, like everything else, can be understood in the lowest denominator of human activity as a power struggle’ with his vocabulary referring to money and contracts, saying ‘set your entreatments at a higher rate’. Fundamentally Polonius is whoring Ophelia, saying ‘I’ll loose my daughter to him’ implying ownership of Ophelia. He sees her as either an asset or a liability; not a person in her own right, worrying that ‘you’ll tender me a fool’.
There is also the issue of the filial bond which is a strong contract-like bond from the child to the parent that meant they had to be respectful of their parent and accept their authority. The bond was very important in Elizabethan times. From it we can understand why Ophelia is so obedient to Polonius; like Leverenz says, she gives way to him saying ‘I shall obey, my lord’. When Laertes speaks to Ophelia he is patronising when he advises her. However she is quick to respond and implies he is being hypocritical, saying he should not ‘Show me the step and thorny way to heaven’ while ‘Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads’.
She is saying that Laertes should apply his advice to his own life as well. She is assertive and perceptive, using the imperative ‘Do’, and implying her brother might be ‘puffed’ and ‘reckless’ which is strong language. Ophelia shows subtle intelligence here whereas in Elizabethan times women were considered to have the lower faculty of emotion whereas men had the higher faculty of intellect, reflecting the ideas of the Great Chain of Being. The Reformation in the Church led to challenging of the traditional views of women, causing women to be more assertive. This is reflected in Ophelia’s character.
With the men in her life both telling her what to do Ophelia is under much pressure and has little free will. Similarly Gertrude faces pressure from Claudius and Hamlet. There is conflict between the men, and Gertrude is ambivalent; she should submit to Claudius as he is her husband, but according to Elizabethan conventions Gertrude was obliged to ask Hamlet for his permission for this marriage. As the family peacemaker and mediator Gertrude is in difficulty. In Elizabethan times family was regarded as very important and was seen as a microcosm of the world, and marriage as the foundation of the family.
Since Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage is illegal and based on lies, this means the family has a fundamental weakness. Claudius progressively distances himself from Hamlet and when talking to Gertrude refers to him as ‘your son’ putting the responsibility of Hamlet onto Gertrude. Carol Thomas Neely refers to ‘the extraordinary power Gertrude has in Hamlet to attract, repel, influence or obsess all the men in the play’ and this is shown in how she is at her best in social situations and is charming and graceful, addressing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘gentle Rosencrantz’.
Gertrude uses the closeness between her and Hamlet to try and manipulate him, saying ‘Let not thy mother lose her prayers’. This is persuasive and emotional language; ‘Let not’ gives the impression that she is pleading with him, and by referring to herself in third person as ‘thy mother’ she is reminding Hamlet of the filial bond. ‘Thy’ is informal, affectionate way of addressing someone and Gertrude is using this intimate language with Hamlet partly to make him feel guilt for being distant with her. However Hamlet formally addresses her as ‘you’ showing Gertrude that he is still angry with her.
The fact that Gertrude has to use cunning and manipulation shows that she is in an extremely difficult situation. The ghost refers to Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage as ‘damni?? d incest’ and Hamlet describes Gertrude going swiftly to ‘incestuous sheets’. The Book of Common Prayer forbids women to marry their husband’s brother, which is why Hamlet is so shocked and disgusted at what Gertrude has done, exclaiming ‘Frailty, thy name is women! ‘ The appearance of the ghost acts as a catalyst for Hamlet’s feelings towards Gertrude. He refers to Gertrude as ‘my most seeming virtuous queen’ implying the opposite and subtly undermining Gertrude.
Claudius is also the killer of Hamlet’s father, and Hamlet and the ghost seem to be unfairly placing much of the blame of the murder on Gertrude, with Hamlet calling her a ‘pernicious’ and later on refers to what she’s done as ‘kill a king, accusing her of being directly involved with the murder although it is assumed she wasn’t. It is surprising that Hamlet trusts the ghost, as it is not a part of the Great Chain of Being and is therefore unnatural. In the scene where Hamlet is in the closet with Gertrude, Hamlet’s anger and disgust and Gertrude is shown vividly.
He describes what she’s done as ‘such an act that blurs the grace and blush of modesty’. However it would seem that he is exaggerating Gertrude’s part in the corruption of the court, and this is because he is emotionally attached to Gertrude and obsessive over her actions and sexuality, telling her fervently ‘Go not to mine uncle’s bed’. In Elizabethan times women were often compared to Eve, as corrupters of men. Neely claims Gertrude’s sexuality ‘is threatening to both Hamlet and his father, who imagine it as violent, excessive, contaminated’.
The men in the play recognise how powerful a woman’s sexuality is, and this is seen in how they try to contain, control and dominate the women. Hamlet describes ‘the rank sweat of an enseami?? d bed’ and the idea of Gertrude and Claudius ‘honeying and making love’ fills him with rage and he speaks to her violently and intensely, using shocking and graphic images. Gertrude is vulnerable and weak against Hamlet, exclaiming ‘Help, help, ho! ‘ and pleading ‘O Hamlet! Speak no more! ‘ but is willing to repent and takes responsibility for what she has done, saying she sees ‘such black and graini?? d spots’ on her soul.
By the end of this scene Gertrude submits to Hamlet, asking ‘What shall I do? ‘ We can infer that he is being physically violent as Gertrude, fearing for her life exclaims ‘Thou wilt not murder me? ‘ She has little choice but to agree to do what Hamlet says; in Elizabethan times men were trained in sword fighting and other physical activities but women were not and Gertrude couldn’t physically defend herself. Gertrude dies from drinking poisoned wine meant for Hamlet in the battle scene. She directly disobeys Claudius; knowing the wine is poisoned Claudius says ‘Gertrude, do not drink’ and Gertrude replies ‘I will, my lord’.
It seems that this is a final gesture from Gertrude, and Leverenz’s statement is contradicted as finally Gertrude refuses to ‘give way to Claudius’ and it leads to her death. As Hamlet feels more resentful towards women he treats Ophelia in a derogatory and vicious way, telling her to be ‘as chaste as ice, as pure as snow’ and says ‘get thee to a nunnery’ (in Elizabethan times a nunnery was another word for a brothel, and it is ambiguous which meaning Shakespeare meant). He feels women are corrupting and although Ophelia is not promiscuous he treats her like she is.
This is perhaps reflecting Hamlet’s feelings towards his mother; his conflict with her affects his attitude towards Ophelia. Tillyard suggests that ‘he sees her in repetition of his mother. ‘ Hamlet chastises women for being seductive and for making ‘wantonness your ignorance’; however, he acknowledges that men are guilty too and will degrade women; ‘we are arrant knaves all, believe none of us. ‘ Ophelia is emotionally fragile as she is very dependent on the men in her life, and Hamlet cruelly telling her ‘I love you not’ would have a devastating impact on her.
After Hamlet rejects Ophelia and kills her father, Ophelia is driven to madness, Although women were seen as corrupting to men, it would seem that in Ophelia’s case it was the other way around; the three most important men in her life have abandoned or betrayed her, and as she is so dependent and repressed by them she becomes mad. In her madness Ophelia is able to express herself sexually; she sings ‘He let in the girl, and when she left She wasn’t a virgin anymore. ‘ She is showing the court that she knows about sex and corruption and is not a ‘green girl’ as thought by Polonius.
She may also be referring to how she was badly treated and betrayed by Hamlet. Ophelia also exclaims ‘By Cock, they are to blame’ expressing her rage at men. The language used is crude and angry with strong sexual references. Ophelia no longer feels confined by obedience and chastity and appears in court chaotically dressed and singing lewd songs, which would have been rude and unladylike. Disregarding the conventions of a patriarchal society she demands to be heard, saying ‘pray you, mark’ to Gertrude. Although she is mad she also shows herself to be perceptive and intelligent.
When giving flowers to the people of the court she tells Gertrude ‘There’s fennel for you, and columbines. ‘ These flowers are symbolic of adultery and Ophelia is insulting Gertrude and expressing her rage at everyone else’s wrongful actions that have led to her deterioration. Ophelia speaks ambiguously most of the time and uses puns and riddles to express her views which may show that even in her madness she is not truly free; although she uses the riddles and songs to rebel they mask her views. Soon after she turns mad Ophelia drowns in the river, and it is assumed that she committed suicide.
Gertrude announces Ophelia’s death in a monologue using detailed descriptions and natural images of beauty, describing Ophelia ‘like a creature native’ with ‘fantastic garlands’. This emotional description of her death reflects the typical Elizabethan view of women being more emotional than men. Overall in Hamlet the role of women is complex. The typical Elizabethan view of women is shown in Ophelia and Gertrude but is also challenged, and the changing role of women in society is reflected in the assertiveness of the characters.
A significant issue is that the death of the women is due to their treatment by the men in their lives and they are victims of the behaviour of the men. Gertrude and Ophelia are both oppressed by men, and when they break away from their confinements this leads to their imminent deaths.
Bibliography Ian Johnston, ‘D. The Facts of the Case’: from English 366: Studies in Shakespeare/Introductory Lecture on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. David Leverenz, ‘The Women in Hamlet; an Interpersonal View’ Carol Thomas Neely, ‘Feminist Criticism and Teaching Shakespeare’: ADE Bulletin 1987 Margaret Atwood.