The Portrayal of Women in 'Hamlet': Gender Roles and Stereotypes

Categories: Hamlet


William Shakespeare's play 'Hamlet' is a timeless classic that continues to captivate audiences across generations. One of the intriguing aspects of the play is the portrayal of women and their roles within the narrative. In the Elizabethan era, when the play was written and performed, societal expectations and gender roles were vastly different from those of the modern day. This essay explores the multifaceted depiction of women in 'Hamlet,' analyzing how Shakespeare reflects the prevailing Elizabethan attitudes towards women while also offering a nuanced perspective that allows for contemporary interpretation.

The Character of Gertrude

Gertrude, the queen and Hamlet's mother, is a central character whose actions and motivations have long sparked debate and discussion among audiences. In the Elizabethan era, a woman's role in society was often restricted, and marriage was considered crucial for a woman's well-being and security. Gertrude's hasty remarriage to Claudius, her brother-in-law, raises questions about her character and motivations.

In the eyes of an Elizabethan audience, Gertrude's marriage to Claudius might have been seen as a reflection of her lack of independence.

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Women of that era were often dependent on men for their social and economic status, and marriage was a means of securing their future. However, a more modern audience may perceive Gertrude's marriage differently. It is possible to interpret her choice as an attempt to retain her position as queen, especially considering her involvement in the murder of King Hamlet. Such interpretations reflect a more contemporary understanding of women as capable of wielding power and agency in their decisions.

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The Role of Gender Expectations

The role of gender expectations in 'Hamlet' is significant in understanding the portrayal of women in the play. In Elizabethan society, women were generally viewed as fragile and incapable of handling certain matters. The appearance of King Hamlet's ghost to his son Hamlet rather than his wife Gertrude can be seen as a reflection of these societal beliefs. One interpretation suggests that Gertrude's involvement in the murder led to the ghost's decision to approach Hamlet instead. Another perspective is that women were perceived as emotionally weaker, making them unfit to deal with the revelation of the murder and take appropriate action.

The theme of madness is another crucial element in the portrayal of women in 'Hamlet.' Madness is often associated with female characters in Shakespeare's works, and 'Hamlet' is no exception. Ophelia's descent into madness and eventual death exemplify this theme. In the Elizabethan era, madness in women was considered a sign of weakness and instability, reinforcing stereotypes about the female mind. Ophelia's madness serves as a lens through which the audience can examine the societal perceptions of women during that time.

Factors Contributing to Ophelia's Madness

Ophelia's madness is a direct consequence of the events surrounding her, particularly her relationship with Hamlet. Before King Hamlet's death, Hamlet had promised to marry Ophelia. However, his father's death changes him, and he begins to act erratically. From Ophelia's perspective, the man she loves is now mentally unstable and rejects her, denying that he ever loved her. The conflicting messages and behaviors of both Hamlet and her family leave Ophelia in a state of confusion and emotional turmoil.

Compounding her distress, Ophelia's father, Polonius, dies, leaving her without a familiar presence in her life, as her brother Laertes is away in France. This absence of guidance and support pushes Ophelia further toward madness. This contrast between Ophelia's reaction to her father's death and Gertrude's reaction to King Hamlet's death is noteworthy. Gertrude appears to move on quickly, while Ophelia's grief and vulnerability contribute to her mental instability. This contrast highlights the diversity of female characters in the play and suggests that not all women are portrayed as weak and submissive.

Ophelia's Death and Society's Perception

Ophelia's death in 'Hamlet' is a significant moment that sheds light on the societal views of women in the Elizabethan era. While her death is commonly interpreted as suicide, it can also be viewed as a reflection of a woman who was so accustomed to being dominated by men that, when all the males in her life are no longer present, she becomes lost and directionless. This perspective adds depth to Ophelia's character and invites a more empathetic understanding of her circumstances.

In Act 5, the gravediggers discuss Ophelia's death, and their comments provide insight into the prevailing attitudes towards her. Interestingly, they do not mention her sorrows or the events leading to her madness. Instead, they focus on the assumption that she committed suicide. They even suggest that if she were not of high rank, she would not receive a Christian burial. This underscores the harsh judgment women faced in Elizabethan society, where their social status determined the treatment they received even in death.

Gertrude's Transformation

Gertrude's transformation throughout the play is emblematic of the evolving dynamics of women's roles in 'Hamlet.' In the final scene of the play, for the first time, Gertrude openly disagrees with her husband, King Claudius, and almost refuses to obey his orders. When he instructs her not to drink from the poisoned cup, she responds with, "I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me." While she does not follow his order, her response still conveys the utmost respect for him. However, this act of defiance leads to her tragic demise.

It is intriguing to note that just before her death, Gertrude feels compelled to explain the situation to Hamlet, saying, "The drink, the drink, I am poisoned." This moment is significant because it challenges the traditional portrayal of women as submissive and suggests that Gertrude possesses a level of autonomy and self-awareness not typically associated with women of her time.


In conclusion, William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' offers a complex and multifaceted portrayal of women that reflects the societal norms and gender roles of the Elizabethan era. The characters of Gertrude and Ophelia, in particular, provide insight into the challenges and expectations that women faced during that period. While the play does depict women as vulnerable and subject to societal pressures, it also hints at their potential for agency and resistance.

Shakespeare's portrayal of women in 'Hamlet' aligns with the prevailing views of his time, allowing the audience to glimpse the limitations and biases that shaped Elizabethan society. However, it is important to recognize that the play's nuanced characterizations also leave room for interpretation, making it relevant and thought-provoking for contemporary audiences.

The themes of gender roles, madness, and societal expectations in 'Hamlet' continue to resonate with audiences today, sparking discussions about the evolving perceptions of women and their roles in society. As we consider this play in both historical and contemporary contexts, it becomes evident that Shakespeare's portrayal of women serves as a reflection of his era's thinking and stereotypes while also challenging those conventions to some extent. 'Hamlet' remains a timeless work that invites us to explore the complexities of gender and power dynamics, making it a classic piece of literature that endures the test of time.

Updated: Nov 10, 2023
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The Portrayal of Women in 'Hamlet': Gender Roles and Stereotypes. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Portrayal of Women in 'Hamlet': Gender Roles and Stereotypes essay
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