Explore the ways in which Shakespeare presents male characters Essay
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The female characters in ‘Hamlet’ have several vital roles within the play that serve to add depth and interest to the overall plot. Shakespeare employs the women to emphasize key themes such as betrayal, that might not otherwise be drawn out, and also enable the audience to gain a deeper understanding of the main male characters through the way in which they view and treat women. It is important to closely examine the male-female interaction and relationships in order to understand how Shakespeare uses the women as a dramatic device.
The main male characters of Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius and Laertes are repeatedly shown to possess negative attitudes towards women. These attitudes result in unjust, oppressive and abusive relationships with the female characters of Gertrude and Ophelia. The primary male character, Hamlet, bears no exception to this general negativity directed at women. Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a man with a progressive hatred of womankind, having a detrimental influence upon his relationships with the female characters.
Shakespeare implies the reason for Hamlet’s increased negativity to be his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius. The extent this has affected Hamlet is implied through repeated mention of it, such as in his second soliloquy when he speaks of Claudius’ two crimes as making his mother a “whore… and the murder of [his] father”. Here, Shakespeare uses the order in which Hamlet lists Claudius’ crimes to convey which event Hamlet views most severely. Damage caused by the remarriage is again seen through Hamlet’s resulting negativity towards women.
One such attitude is the belief that women are overtly sexual. Upon Hamlet’s ‘Chance’ meeting with Ophelia, he comments unfavourably on her tendency as a woman to “jig”, “amble” and “lisp”. Shakespeare’s chosen combination of verbs implies that Hamlet thinks women to have an inherently flirtatious nature. Hamlet also speaks to Ophelia of women’s “wantonness” becoming their “ignorance”, implying that sexual desires become their downfall. It seems that this view of women as sexual tempters leads Hamlet to believe that they should be ‘cut off’ from men, so as not to cause men detriment.
Shakespeare conveys this through Hamlet’s instruction to Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery”; repeating this line to demonstrate his conviction that women should remain separate so their overtly sexual nature cannot negatively influence men. Shakespeare emphasizes this through the forceful language Hamlet uses to instruct Ophelia in this action, for example “go, and quickly too” and that she must “go now”. Through Hamlet’s repetition of the imperative verb “go”, Shakespeare conveys his commanding tone, leaving the audience with no doubt of his vehemence.
Shakespeare again shows Hamlet’s problem with women’s sexuality through his repulsion at his mother’s relationship with Claudius. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy he speaks of the speed of the marriage, saying how Gertrude did “post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”. Here, Shakespeare’s repetition of ‘s’ sounds acts as a sibilant to emphasise that Hamlet is hissing the words, conveying disgust at his mother’s remarriage and sexual relationship. In negatively viewing the sexuality of both women in his life, Shakespeare hints that Hamlet not only has a problem with them individually, but that his grudge also lies with womankind.
This is epitomized through his suggestion to Ophelia at the ‘Chance Meeting’ that there should be “no more marriage”, thus effectively terminating sexual relationships. Hamlet’s disapproval of women’s sexuality is linked with his belief that they have a ruinous influence upon men. Shakespeare shows this attitude through the way that in the ‘Chance Meeting’ with Ophelia, Hamlet suggests that women in general corrupt men, saying “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them”. Shakespeare again shows Hamlet blaming women for men’s faults including his own ‘insanity’, saying their flirtatious games “hath made [him] mad”.
Thus, Hamlet is shown to hold women as scapegoats, accountable for men’s faults. Hamlet’s negative attitudes of women combine to produce unequal and oppressive relationships with both women in his life. Shakespeare demonstrates the imbalance in Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia through the way the two characters treat one another so differently. Whilst Hamlet carries out a character assassination of her in the ‘Chance Meeting’ saying that she is “corrupt” and a “sinner”, Ophelia glorifies him. Ophelia implies that Hamlet is awed saying he is “observed” and the “glass of fashion”.
Also, Ophelia believes him to be of good character, saying he has a “noble mind”. This suggests Ophelia’s adoration of Hamlet, prior to his ‘madness’, and hints at her love for him. Through this contrast between Ophelia’s treatment of Hamlet with his of her, Shakespeare indicates who dominates their imbalanced relationship. The result is confusion and pain for the subservient Ophelia, shown through her repeated questions such as “what means this my lord? ” and her declaration of grief at Hamlet’s rejection, proclaiming “O woe is me”.