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If we were to assume that Shakespeare’s depiction of Gertrude and Ophelia represents Shakespeare’s view of women, what strengths and weaknesses would he ascribe to women?
Hamlet being one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays has only two women characters, Ophelia and Gertrude. Gertrude, who was Hamlet’s mother, and Ophelia who was Hamlet’s love, played a very significant role in Hamlet, because they helped shape the characters. In the time period that Shakespeare lived in, women were not allowed onto the stage and they had very little to no rights. If it was assumed that Shakespeare’s depiction of Gertrude and Ophelia represent his view on women then a reflection would be seen of the idea that women were as powerless as they were in Elizabethan times, however both Ophelia and Gertrude both have redeeming qualities as well numerous weaknesses.
Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius and the sister to Laertes, is the most one-dimensional character in Hamlet. Ophelia is beautiful and gentle and is in love with Hamlet; however, due to her father and brother lecturing her on the impossibility of their love Ophelia withdraws from Hamlet. This is Ophelia’s first flaw, even though it was expected of women in Shakespearean times to obey the males in their lives. When Polonius orders her to stop seeing Hamlet, Ophelia replies with “I shall obey my lord” (Act I scene iii, 142) there is no fuss over how she loves Hamlet, she easily gives in without so much as an argument, showing Polonius’s complete control over his daughter, with her desire to please him as a cause of this. Ophelia dependency on her father is to the point where it seems where she really can not function without him.
Ophelia’s dependence and trust on her father leads her to spy on Hamlet to see whether his ‘madness’ is really just love sickness. This leads to her encounter with Hamlet who is still playing the card of a madman, and he lashes out at Ophelia viciously, denying that he ever loved her, and then tells her “To a nunnery, go.” (Act III scene i, 156-57). The word “nunnery” could be use in two contexts, the convent or a whorehouse, if Hamlet meant the latter then it would have been a huge insult. However Ophelia does not protest too much, which shows another weakness, an inability to stand up for herself. She is sacrificing her true feelings for Hamlet because her father told her to, showing her submissive nature, which is also seen in Act III, where she refuses to truly stand up for herself.
Later on in Hamlet after Ophelia loses all her ambitions, it can be noted that Ophelia begins to speak her mind and more information arises about Ophelia. In Act IV Ophelia makes comments on both her dead father Polonius, “he is dead on gone” (Act IV scene v, 31). Ophelia also comments on her lost love Hamlet, “how will I know your true love” (Act IV scene v, 25). Upon further readings, Ophelia’s gullibility is shown, when she makes the comment “hadst not come to my bed” (Act V scene iv, 69). Ophelia uses that quote to tell the story of a girl wanting to marry a young man after she has thrown herself at him; the young man refuses because the young girl has already slept with him. If this is a true representation of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship, then Ophelia is not only very gullible but very trusting as well.
Even with these weaknesses Ophelia does have a few redeeming qualities she is a selfless person preferring to put others peoples wants before her own, and her heart is pure. Ophelia’s selfless attitude is shown through out the parts of the play where her father is ordering her to stop seeing Hamlet, and to stop accepting the letters that he writes. Ophelia is also very honest which is a redeeming quality, her only lie throughout the play is the one in which she lies to Hamlet about where her father is, “at home” (Act III scene i, 139) this could have been done out of fear on Ophelia’s part but it was mostly done out of loyalty towards her father, which also show’s that Ophelia is very loyal.
If it were assumed that Ophelia did depict Shakespeare’s view on women then it would seem that women were very gullible, very obedient, and very submissive. With very few redeeming qualities, honesty and loyalty to the wrong people, if Shakespeare truly did believe in the saying “frailty thy name is women” (Act I scene ii, 148) which was state by Hamlet then Ophelia fits perfectly. With no real mind of her own Ophelia just like Gertrude is subject to following the men in her lives, obeying there orders without any argument. However unlike Ophelia, Gertrude is more assertive, and there are times when she does rebel.
Gertrude, the wife to both King Hamlet and King Claudius and mother to Hamlet, is one of the most difficult characters to understand in Hamlet. It is never made clear if Gertrude played a part in her husband’s death and if Gertrude did play a part in her husband’s death she masked it perfectly. However one can also assume Gertrude’s innocence, which is what this paper focuses on mainly. Gertrude is shown to be a cold mother at the beginning of Hamlet as she criticizes her son for still mourning his father’s death. This harsh criticism could have been influenced by Claudius who continues to criticize Hamlet, though there is no textual evidence to support that claim. Gertrude’s first flaw is her inability to question anything, especially her husband’s unfortunate death to her hasty marriage with Claudius, which makes Gertrude come off as ignorant to most of the tension of the court early on in the play.
Gertrude even allows Claudius to spy on Hamlet to see if he truly is insane and when Claudius tells her to leave she replies, “I shall obey you,” (Act III scene i, 43). This shows that Gertrude like Ophelia does listen to the men in their lives, as was the custom in Shakespearean times. Hamlet also shows some contempt for his mother’s actions, especially her and Claudius marrying so soon after his father’s death, and Hamlet believes it is an “incestuous” relationship. Hamlet’s view of his mother of his mother helps shape his view of women throughout the book, and Hamlet is highly critical of women, “frailty, thy name is woman,” (Act I scene ii, 148) is the quote Hamlet used to describe his feelings for his mother, he even goes as far as to call her a “beast” (Act I scene ii, 152).
Gertrude’s inability to feel her son’s disgust with her is also another fault of hers. This inability to sense her son’s true feelings leads to the closest scene, in which Gertrude is alone with alone with Hamlet, one of the two scenes in which she is alone with another scene. The closet scene shows the reader a more vulnerable side to Gertrude who begins to show fear, Hamlet even tells her to stop “wringing of your hands” (Act III scene iv, 39). Hamlet’s harsh criticism reveals to the reader that not only is Gertrude clueless to Hamlet’s feelings she also shows the reader that she is a very shallow character, as she does not realize that her actions do have reactions on Hamlet. This leads to a revelation on Gertrude’s part:
Thou turnst my eyes into my very soul,
And here I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct. (Act III scene iv, 104-106)
This shows the reader that even Gertrude believed that she was wrong. Another of Gertrude’s fault is her trusting nature, which is shown throughout most of Hamlet.
Even though Gertrude has many faults, like Ophelia, she also has a few redeeming qualities. Unlike Ophelia, Gertrude occasionally shows that she can disobey orders. This is seen only a few times in the book, especially when Claudius tells Gertrude not to drink the cup and she does saying, “I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me” (Act V scene ii, 295). These moments of rebellion show the reader that Gertrude is not always frail and she can act on her own accord. Gertrude’s love for Hamlet is also another redeeming quality, and she show’s it by lying to her Claudius to protect him. Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet is “mad as the sea and wind” (Act IV scene i, 7) to try and show Claudius that Hamlet truly is insane.
Shakespeare depicts Gertrude as a stronger character than Ophelia, though she is still a frail woman, who has more faults than weaknesses. With all the textual evidence in the book it could be said that, in Hamlet Shakespeare attributes submissiveness to women, as well as ignorance and coldness to women as weaknesses, Shakespeare attributes honesty, loyalty and love to women as strengths. All things considered Shakespeare shows more seems to emphasize more on the faults of women in Hamlet.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc, 2002. 1-350.