The play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, was written in the early 17th century, during the Elizabethan era. In this time period, women were expected to marry at a young age and have children to carry on the family name; this was to be their only role in life. Women were not believed to be rational and intelligent human beings. For centuries, women have been imprisoned within this box, constricted and restrained by the male view of what women’s role in life is.
They are mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and wives but never philosophers, business people, investors, owners, doctors or lawyers; they were thought to not be capable in such occupations. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses this age-old idea and because of that the role of women is minimized to that of a mother, daughter, and wife. However, Shakespeare does cast a very sexual light on the role of women within this play. The female characters within the play Hamlet play a very minimal role and only serve to further develop the characters of the men within the play.
Gertrude is both a mother and a wife within this play and she helps to motivate Hamlet further in gaining his revenge on Claudius.
And yet, within a month â€“ / Let me not think on it â€“ Frailty, thy name is woman â€“ / A little month, or ere those shoes were old/ With which she followed my poor father’s body, / Like Niobe, all tears â€“ why she, even she â€“ / â€¦ Would have mourned longer â€“ married with my uncle, / â€¦ Within a month, / Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears / Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, / She married.
Hamlet speaks of Gertrude’s sudden marriage to Claudius after the death of Old Hamlet. In the second line of the above quote, Hamlet uses the world frail to describe women, meaning that women are weak and not in control of their emotions. Shakespeare also does nothing to develop Gertrude’s character any further; we learn very little about her thoughts and feelings towards Old Hamlet, her marriage to his brother, and even Claudius himself. Ophelia also serves to motivate Laertes to further his revenge against Hamlet. “By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight/ Till our scale turn the beam” IV.v.ll 167-168. Yet, neither of these women were the original motivation; they only served to further motivate both Hamlet and Laertes.
Both Ophelia and Gertrude are portrayed as weak females with virtually no independence. An example of this is Ophelia obeying her father when he commands her to stop seeing Hamlet. “I shall obey, my lord” I.i.ll 141. As a daughter, she immediately surrenders to her father and brother’s will. Ophelia is further characterized as weak when she goes insane. When compared to Hamlet, we see that Hamlet managed to overcome his father’s death and plot revenge on his father’s murderer.
Ophelia, on the other hand, succumbs to the distress and shock and goes insane instead. This is saying that men are strong and don’t let their emotions overcome them, unlike women. Even Gertrude moves instinctively towards the safer choices given to her. An example of this is when she seeks out Claudius right after her confrontation with Hamlet. “Bestow this place on us a little while. Ah, my good lord, what have I seen to-night!” IV.i.ll 4-5. She does not stop to even think about her situation or what has happened. Gertrude is completely reliant on the men in her life and only seems to be able to think for herself in social situations.
Good gentlemen, he hath much talked of you, / And sure I am, two men there are not living / To whom he more adheres. If it will please you/ To show us so much gentry and good will/ As to expend your time with us awhile, / For the supply and profit of our hope, / Your visitation shall receive such thanks/ As fits a king’s remembrance.
Gertrude is in control of herself here and doesn’t, at any point, look to Claudius for assistance as she normally does. The one time that Gertrude does try and show some independence is when she drinks from the poisoned cup. “I will, my lord, I pray you, pardon me” V.ii.ll 302. The message being given here is that without the guidance of men, women cannot function because if Gertrude had listened to Claudius, she would not have drank and survived.
Throughout the entire play Hamlet, both Ophelia and Gertrude were controlled by the men in their lives; they are not in control of their surrounding at any time. Ophelia’s immediate obedience to Polonius when he orders to stop seeing Hamlet is an example of this. “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth, / Have you so slander any moment leisure, / As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. / Look to it, I charge you. Come your ways” I.iii.ll 137-140. Polonius tells Ophelia what she has to do and doesn’t allow her to think for herself. Each action that is done by either woman is the result of an earlier action done by one of the male characters. Ophelia goes crazy and then dies because of Polonius’ death and Hamlet’s rejection of her.
“O, this is the poison of deep grief. It springs/ all from her father’s death” IV.v.ll 74-75. Another example is when Polonius plans to use Ophelia as bait to figure out the cause of Hamlet’s madness; he is controlling what she does and says here. “At such a time I’ll loose my daughter to him, / Be you and I behind an arras then, / mark the encounter” II.ii.ll 175-177. “Ophelia, walk you here. â€“ Gracious, so please you, / Well bestow ourselves. â€“ / Read on this book, / That show of such an exercise may colour/ Your loneliness” III.i.ll 48-52. They are completely dominated by the male figures in their lives.
The role of women in Hamlet is also very sexually oriented. There are many references to prostitutes, sexual favors, incest and sex itself. There are also many comparisons between objects and emotions to sexual objects or people. An example of this is when Claudius compares the guilt he is feeling to a prostitute. “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience! / The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art, / Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it/ Than is my deed to my most painted word” III.i.ll 57-60. Each negative feeling or emotion, such as guilt, is compared to women, as if they are somehow similar. In Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia, he tells her many times to go to a brothel where she belongs, as she acts much like a whore does.
“Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a/ breeder of sinners?” III.i.ll 131-132. Hamlet also speaks of women’s attitude and how they pretend to be innocent and beautiful but are really not.
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. / God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves/ another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, and nick-/ name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness/ your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on it. It hath made/ me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages. Those/ that are married already, all but one, shall live. The rest/ shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.
During the play performed by the Players, Hamlet speaks to Ophelia with heavy sexual connotations behind his words. “Do you think I meant country matters?” III.ii.l 115. “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs” III.ii.l 117. Ophelia is a noblewoman and yet, she is subject to embarrassing conversations that a servant woman would normally endure. This is saying that all women are alike and they have no class distinctions between them as men do. Even when Hamlet speaks with Gertrude in her room, he makes many references to her incestuous bed. “Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty!” III.iv.ll 102-105. Women are subject to whatever faults men place on them instead of themselves.
Within the play Hamlet, the role of women is very negative; they are sexual objects, weak, and not independent. Shakespeare has used a model of the women of his time and put them into this play, Hamlet. Though time has passed and views have changed on women, Hamlet remains the same, stuck in the 17th century. The role of women in Hamlet remains very minimal and only serves to further enhance and characterize the male characters within the play.