Women in Shakespeare's Works

Hamlet’s attitudes towards women are equally significant in his relationship with his mother, Gertrude. Shakespeare gives a parallel to Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia when Hamlet again issues a total character assassination of Gertrude following the ‘Mousetrap’ scene, saying she has a “wicked tongue”, is “evil and pernicious” and acts “foolishly”. The detrimental affect this causes is shown when the Queen begs Hamlet to “speak no more” as his words “turn’st [her] eyes into [her] very soul” and “like daggers” enter her ears.

Here, Shakespeare’s use of vile imagery vividly conveys Gertrude’s pain and suffering under Hamlet’s cruel conduct. The effect of Hamlet’s behaviour is exemplified when at the end of the same scene Gertrude declares that he has “cleft [her] heart in twain”, powerfully signifying that Hamlet’s abuse has totally crushed and deflated her character. Both women are forced to endure oppressive and unequal relationships, in which Hamlet acts cruelly to their own detriment.

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Surprisingly, Claudius’ attitudes towards women are similar to those of Hamlet, despite their obvious contrast of character.

Shakespeare shows Claudius to primarily view women as possessions through his repeated use of possessive pronouns, continuously referring to his wife as either “mine Queen”, or “my Gertrude”. Claudius reinforces this whilst praying in repent following the ‘Mousetrap’ play, listing the “effects” for which he murdered King Hamlet as “my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen”. Here, Claudius refers to his wife as a ‘thing’, grouped alongside his material assets, again implying ownership.

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Shakespeare also uses the order Claudius lists his belongings to convey the value he places on each, with Gertrude below his kingship.

Claudius’ possessive view of Gertrude likely accounts for his perceiving her as a commodity to be exploited. Shakespeare shows this through Claudius’ use of Gertrude as a mere tool for his own benefit, such as when explaining Polonius’ hasty burial to Laertes. Claudius excuses his lack of action against Hamlet by saying it was for Gertrude’s sake, claiming his wife is “so conjunctive in [his] life and soul” that he could only “exist by her side”. Shakespeare’s use of overly dramatic language intimates the falseness of Claudius’ declaration of love for Gertrude.

Claudius’ hyperbole also emphasizes the way he manipulates his marriage for personal gain; to excuse his own behaviour whilst maintaining his public facade. Shakespeare also presents Claudius as believing women to be intellectually inferior. Prior to Polonius’ “news of the cause of [Hamlet’s] distemper”, Gertrude seeks to explain it herself, accounting it to his father’s death and their “o’erhasty marriage”. However, despite this in fact being the correct reason for Hamlet’s dismay, Claudius dismisses his wife’s theory saying only to her “well, we shall sift him anyway”, moving straight to Polonius’ “informed” judgment.

This implies that Claudius deems his wife’s conclusion as less valuable and intelligible than that of a man’s, Polonius. Shakespeare again suggests this point when prior to the ‘Chance’ meeting Claudius sends his wife away, saying “Gertrude leave us… to encounter and judge”. This again points to Claudius’ view that Gertrude lacks the intellectual capacity to analyse the reason for Hamlet’s madness, and that he and Polonius are better equipped to do so. Shakespeare shows Claudius’ view that Gertrude lacks intelligence to believe it necessary that he instruct her, leading to a relationship in which he seeks control.

Shakespeare suggests this when Claudius repeatedly tells Gertrude to “come with him”, or to “come away”, or adversely that she must “stay a while”. As well as commanding Gertrude to do things, Claudius also tells her what she must not do, such as prior to the ‘Chance’ meeting when Gertrude contests the plan, Claudius says “no Gertrude” it “must” be done. Shakespeare’s use of definitive and commanding language mimics that of a person to an animal, signifying the dominance within the couple’s relationship.

Claudius clearly holds the power, epitomized in Act three where upon his order to leave himself and Polonius alone to discuss the ‘Chance’ meeting Gertrude states “I shall obey you”. Claudius’ negative attitude of women has a hugely detrimental affect on his relationship with Gertrude. Despite the ‘loving’ outer front put on to satisfy the public eye, Shakespeare shows the couple to share very little intimacy. Instead, what Claudius and Gertrude say to one another is almost always conditioned by the other people present.

In the one moment of privacy following the ‘bedroom’ scene in which Polonius is killed the couple share virtually no thoughts with one another, this despite the trauma both have endured with Gertrude having witnessed a murder and Claudius fresh from a painful moral crisis explored in his soliloquy. Instead, Claudius signals a new separateness from his wife when, for the first time, he refers to Hamlet as ‘her’ son. Shakespeare presents husband and wife as suffering in mutual isolation beneath a veneer of intimacy. They exchange words but not confidence. In fact, they tell each other lies.

For example despite Hamlet’s demonstration to Gertrude of his sanity a few moments earlier, she develops the fiction that her son is “mad as the sea and wind”. Shakespeare shows that Polonius also harbours negative attitudes towards women and suggests that Polonius views women as nai?? ve and intellectually simplistic. When counselling Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet following Laertes’ departure for France, Polonius refers to his daughter as a “green girl”, meaning that she is innocent, and that she is “unsifted”, implying her inexperience in worldly matters.

Shakespeare implies that Ophelia is in need of guidance. Polonius gives Ophelia constant ‘advice’, telling her that she “must be” restrained in her relations with Hamlet in order that she “must guard” her honour. Shakespeare uses Polonius use of the imperative to show that he does not merely instruct his daughter, but commands her. Shakespeare emphasizes this point when Polonius tells Ophelia “I charge you” and “I’ll teach you”, suggesting he believes himself adequate to command and control her, hinting at his arrogant and self-assured nature.

Shakespeare also presents Polonius as a man who, like Claudius, believes women to be a possession. When directing Ophelia to “be somewhat scanter” in limiting her time devoted to Hamlet, he instructs her to “tender [herself] more dearly” in order that she receives “true pay” of “sterling”. This implies Polonius wishes his daughter to offer herself at a higher rate. Here, Shakespeare’s deliberate use of language with financial connotations shows the way in which Polonius views women as a commodity to be exploited, as well as demonstrating his character’s own mercenary motivations.

In using Ophelia as a commodity, Shakespeare shows Polonius’ selfish inspiration, believing women to be an instrument from which to gain. This is demonstrated through Polonius’ constant concern with the way that Ophelia’s conduct will reflect upon himself. When questioning Ophelia about her ‘over indulgence’ in Hamlet, Polonius warns her that “if it be so, as so ’tis put on me”, and that she must tender herself more dearly or else she’ll “tender me a fool”. Shakespeare uses Polonius’ repetition of “me” to show the selfish nature of his character, and over-concern with his own wellbeing.

Shakespeare again demonstrates Polonius’ selfish motives through the absence of any form of concern for his daughter. Polonius never asks Ophelia how she feels about a matter, even after the ‘Chance Meeting’ where it is clear that she is distressed, proclaiming “O woe is me”. Instead, Shakespeare’s omission of any suggestion of compassion towards Ophelia demonstrates the cruel and abusive nature of their relationship. Polonius’ attitudes towards women result in a detrimental relationship with Ophelia.

Despite her love for Hamlet, Ophelia is eventually forced to betray his confidence at the ‘Chance Meeting’ when Hamlet asks “where’s your father? “. Ophelia has little choice but to lie due to Polonius’ presence. Thus, it can be seen that Polonius’ control over his daughter directly results in pain, revealing to the audience the malice in their relationship. Shakespeare emphasizes Polonius’ mistreatment of Ophelia through providing a contrast with that of his son. Upon leaving for France, Laertes too is given advice on how he should conduct himself.

However, unlike with Ophelia, Shakespeare shows Polonius to treat his son with far greater emotion when he instructs that above all other things; “to thine own self” Laertes must “be true”. Shakespeare shows Laertes to also foster similar negativity towards women. Laertes is presented by Shakespeare as believing women are in need of guidance and counsel. When leaving for France, Laertes gives Ophelia a set of clear guidelines regarding her relationship with Hamlet to follow in his absence.

Regarding Hamlet’s proposed love for Ophelia, Laertes instructs his sister to “think it no more”, and that she should “fear” and “be wary” of the damage that surrendering her virginity would cause. Laertes’ language implies that he believes his instructions to be for Ophelia’s own benefit, evidence that Laertes sees Ophelia, and perhaps women in general, as nai?? ve and vulnerable. Shakespeare uses the similarity between Laertes’ attitudes towards women and those of his father, Polonius, to hint at the futility of the Elsinore society. In drawing the parallel between father and son, there are deeply rooted implications.

For example, since Laertes’ assumptions are likely inherited from his father, the society is seen to be set in a vicious cycle of male dominance and female suppression. This message has the powerful effect of quashing the audience’s hope for the female characters, seeing little chance that lessons will be learnt from the destruction of Ophelia and Gertrude, so eliminating hope for the future too. Throughout the play, Shakespeare shows male characters to portray and maintain extremely negative attitudes towards the two female characters, Gertrude and Ophelia, exposing them as weak and oppressed victims of their male peers.

Shakespeare allows the audience to draw a parallel between these two women, both of whom are shown to be passively suppressed and abused by the patriarchal society in which they live. The consequence of these attitudes results in the male-incited deaths of both Gertrude and Ophelia. Through this total destruction of the female characters, Shakespeare portrays women as the victims of an unjust society, with men as their cruel and ruthless oppressors.

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Women in Shakespeare's Works. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/women-in-shakespeares-works-essay

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