Because of his mother’s over-sensual affection for her son, Hamlet developed a sexual attraction towards his mother. Yet he repressed these incestuous urges, stifling them with a cloak of depression and despair, until he witnesses the sudden rekindling of Gertrude’s sexuality. His intrinsic wish to replace his father as his mother’s lover is reawakened when he sees someone else, a member of his own family, namely Claudius, doing just this. This explains why Hamlet delays in killing Claudius – he cannot punish someone for doing exactly what he has fantasised about doing himself, as he would be punishing himself.
He is, however, blinded to the true, subconscious reason for this reluctance, and is furious at his apparent cowardice, criticising himself, saying, “I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall”. Hamlet’s incestuous desire is emphasised to varying degrees in different productions; some show Gertrude and Hamlet kissing each other sensually on the lips, and some even go so far as to imply Hamlet being sexually violent towards his mother in the closet scene. Some productions of the play choose to merely hint at the incestuous desires in a much subtler manner.
Attitudes towards women have altered dramatically since Elizabethan times. The treatment of women in ‘Hamlet’ may seem sexist now, but was nothing extraordinary in the 16th and 17th century. Shakespeare would have been influenced by the popular attitudes and views held towards women in his time. Elizabethan England was patriarchal. Women were deemed inferior, intellectually, emotionally and physically weak, and unable to think logically. They had no suffrage, few rights and did not hold positions of power within society (the one exception being the Queen).
Women were not allowed to act, so boys would have played the parts of Gertrude and Ophelia. They were controlled by men and could only have influence through men. ‘Hamlet’ serves to highlight and examine widespread assumption and treatment of women. In the 20th and 21st Century, the play is often seen as sexist. Today women and men are much more equal, and there is generally less sexism and sex-based prejudice in society. Women have the right to vote, and to hold high-powered jobs, and are generally not seen as weak and irrational.
Much of the criticism of the sexism in ‘Hamlet’ comes from feminists, who seek to challenge assumptions and sexual stereotyping in the play. Literature, especially in the past, is seen to have contributed to the marginalisation and ‘silencing’ of women. Neither Gertrude nor Ophelia are as fully realised as Hamlet or Claudius; they have far fewer lines and far less stage time, although it could be argued that Ophelia and Gertrude are underdeveloped deliberately, so their roles don’t overshadow the main tragic storyline. Feminist criticism looks at the ‘silencing’ of women as an important part of the play’s meaning.
Feminism also examines the responses of other audiences and artists to Gertrude and Ophelia, and how they have become, outside the play, symbols of women as victims, for example, in the painting entitled ‘Ophelia’, by John Everett Millais. The role and portrayal of women in ‘Hamlet’ serves as a basis of major tragic elements in the play, and also reveals and highlights many inherent aspects of the tragic hero’s character. Through the behaviour of Gertrude and Ophelia, opposites in character, one a manipulator and one a manipulated, we glean understanding of Hamlet’s psychological person and his constant struggle between good and evil.
This subsequently gives us a heightened grasp of the play – through analysis of the aspects of sexuality between Hamlet and the female characters, we are able to comprehend Hamlet’s misogyny, why he seems depressed, irritable and neurotic, and why he cannot bring himself to exact revenge on his murderous stepfather. Through the use of women in ‘Hamlet’, Shakespeare observes, (hundreds of years before Freud, as noted by Bradley), how the intrinsic human wish to gratify basic desires affects all aspects of our lives.
The introspection and revelation in the play prompts the audience’s own introspection and revelation, as effectively now as it must have done in Elizabethan audiences. Shakespeare brings to the surface issues that we recognise and can apply to ourselves. This perhaps explains why ‘Hamlet’ is still the most popular play of all time and continues to engage the intellectual energies of academics. It is my belief that Shakespeare’s portrayal and use of women is fundamental to the main issues that are addressed in the play.