Although men often prevail over women regarding superiority, women have always had to take on necessary roles in society. In works of literature, women often portray caregivers, villains, significant others, and lost individuals, inevitably impacting the outcome of the work. Beowulf and Hamlet demonstrate how women characters in literature take on imperative roles which impact other characters, thus deepening the themes of the work.
In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother acts as a dominant figure due to battling the main character, Beowulf. The poem describes the battle writing, “…But she rose quickly and retaliated, grappled him tightly in her grim embrace. The sure-footed fighter felt daunted…” (Unknown, 13). Since Beowulf finds Grendel’s mother’s “grim embrace” incredibly difficult to escape on his own, he begins to question his suitability as a warrior. While Beowulf’s confidence falls during the battle, and later peaks, the decline in his confidence assists him in later discovering his true weakness–his overbearing conceit. Without the strong female warrior role portrayed by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf would not have realized his ultimate flaw in his leadership. Therefore, Grendel’s mother plays a key role, since she aids Beowulf in identifying his imperfection in his character.
Grendel’s mother defies the stereotype of men triumphing over women regarding strength. As Martin Puhvel writes, “…the notion of female physical inferiority is here unmistakably woven into the fabric of the poem” (Puhvel, 82). While Grendel’s mother serves the primary purpose of avenging her son’s death, her character serves the purpose of demonstrating the capability of female antagonists. Although Beowulf battles other characters such as the dragon and Grendel, Grendel’s mother differs from her antagonist counterparts simply because of her gender. Moreover, “This idea of demonising Grendel’s Mother through translation can be further supported by considering how her appearance is described” (Wydrzynska, 125). Grendel’s mother differs from other females due to her beastly appearance, which includes horns and talons. Although the poet of Beowulf does not characterize Grendel’s mother as a femme fatale as most writers tend to depict a female antagonist, her appearance aids her character in debunking the stereotype that men possess more strength than women. Due to the stereotype of men dominating women in regards to strength, readers find it laughable when a female character, such as Grendel’s mother, makes a male character question his competence. However, the role Grendel’s mother plays in Beowulf debunks the stereotype that men prevail over women in regards to strength, as she makes Beowulf question his competence as a warrior. Despite Grendel’s mother getting defeated, the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother demonstrates the impact of a fierce female role on the overbearing confidence of a male character.
Grendel’s mother also appeals to independence amongst women by defying societal norms. Moreover, “The most common role of female Anglo-Saxon duties is the role of peacemaker; indeed, women are most often found in Old English and Icelandic lore as peacemakers” (Harris). Not only does Grendel’s mother break the stereotype of a woman’s appearance due to her beastly look, but she wants to cause chaos–specifically for Beowulf. Grendel’s mother battles Beowulf in hopes to avenge her son’s death, intending to defeat Beowulf to get justice for Grendel. Meanwhile, stereotypical Anglo-Saxon women serve their husbands, tend to their children, and attempt to make peaceful ties between individuals. Moreover, Beowulf’s army lacks female warriors, and fathers at war cannot take care of their children due to their constant travels, leaving children for their wives to tend. However, Grendel’s mother does not spend her time taking care of children. Instead, she copes with the death of her child by attempting to kill his murderer, standing up for herself and her family. While the typical Anglo-Saxon woman acts as a peacemaker, Grendel’s mother does not care what ties she breaks and will harm anyone who tries to oppress or harm her and her son. Although the characterization of Grendel’s mother depicts her as a beast, her lack of feminine features and her willingness to defend her son indicate that she refuses to become a stereotypical Anglo-Saxon woman.
While Beowulf employs women characters to demonstrate power and aid men, Hamlet features female characters such as Gertrude, who serves as the reason the entire conflict takes place. Hamlet expresses his haste for his mother in a soliloquy saying, “But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two. So excellent a king, that was to this…As if increase of appetite had grown…(Let me not think on‘t: frailty, thy name is woman!)” (Shakespeare, 16). Two months following the death of Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, his mother, Gertrude, decides to marry King Hamlet’s brother, Claudius. At this stage in the play, Hamlet does not know that Claudius murdered his father. Therefore, Hamlet’s anger stems from the perfidious actions of his mother. Hamlet’s anger leads him to become jealous of his mother’s relationship, and even consider taking his own life. Due to Gertrude’s action, Hamlet spends a majority of the play contemplating revenge on her and Claudius, conveying revenge as one of the major themes of the play. While Claudius hurts Hamlet by murdering his father, Gertrude’s lack of sorrow over King Hamlet’s death and her tendency to move on quickly to another husband leads Hamlet to believe Gertrude does not love his father and does not love him. Furthermore, Gertrude fuels the story behind Hamlet due to her deceitful ways, thus expressing the theme of revenge.
Gertrude’s actions not only lead Hamlet to seek revenge, but to look down upon other women. As Jane Dall writes regarding Hamlet, “…women’s actions lead to political instability, and a disruption of natural harmony occurs…” (Dall). Gertrude’s behavior leads Hamlet to question his own romantic relationship, resulting in him having no one to trust or turn to for advice for his revenge tactics. Hamlet hurts Ophelia with a harsh invective, as he orders her to a nunnery and claims that he no longer loves her. However, following Hamlet’s irate remarks, Hamlet speaks with Ophelia, making sexual innuendos. Gertrude’s licentious actions drive Hamlet to madness, making him confused regarding his own romantic affairs. Since Gertrude toys with Hamlet’s emotions by marrying his uncle only two months after his father’s death, Hamlet feels that he has no other method to release his anger than to toy with Ophelia’s emotions. Hamlet’s angry tirade direct towards Ophelia demonstrates how, “Hamlet’s denunciation of his mother’s weakness is projected onto the whole gender. Thus, Ophelia is victimized as a consequence.” (Hussein Al-Ali, 91). Gertrude’s actions have a snowball effect, as her relationship with Claudius leads to Hamlet’s complications within his relationship with Ophelia, which leads Ophelia to question the value of her life. Therefore, Gertrude’s behavior employs the theme of insanity between Ophelia and Hamlet.
While Gertrude initiates the conflict in Hamlet, Ophelia portrays the role of a confused young woman, trying to navigate a rocky relationship. Pragati Das writes, “Ophelia, it would seem, wholly at the mercy of male figures throughout her life, is certainly a victim figure” (Das, 38). In her soliloquy following Hamlet’s harmful words, Ophelia expresses how Hamlet’s actions have taken her by surprise. She expects him to model the behavior of a lover, yet he confesses that he no longer loves her. Some readers believe that Ophelia committed suicide, which indicates that her uncertainty within her relationship with Hamlet serves as a factor in her choice to end her life. In addition, Hamlet’s accidental murder of Polonius does not aid Ophelia in believing that Hamlet truly loves her. Ophelia wants to believe that Hamlet only denies loving her due to the pressure arising from his father’s recent death, and his mother’s marriage to his uncle. Ophelia portrays the role of the victim of Gertrude’s behavior due to the snowball effect Gertrude creates. Ophelia’s permanent solution to temporary issues conveys her vulnerability, appealing to the theme of madness.
While works of literature such as Hamlet and Beowulf feature more male characters than female characters, every female character plays a significant role, which shapes the meaning or other characters in the particular work. Regardless of whether or not a female character acts as an antagonist, or as a supporting role, the inclusion of female characters aids the impact of the particular work of literature. Characters such as Grendel’s mother, Gertrude, and Ophelia impact works of literature by their motives, appearance, and actions.