The Role of Women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
The women of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” appear to be frail, passive figures used as pawns and dying prematurely after the mistreatment of men. However, there is more to Gertrude and Ophelia than meets the eye. Even though Hamlet is certainly not a play based on women, both female characters are more active than their vices and virtues previously lead us to believe. A closer inspection reveals that the true roles these female characters took on had purpose; these women were not as passive as they seem at first glance.
Our first perception of Gertrude is influenced by Hamlet’s response to learning she has married her brother-in-law after he has murdered her husband. Hamlet shows anger and disillusionment toward her, believing that she should remain loyal to the memory of his father the king. Yet, there is no evidence that she knows of the murder Claudius has committed. It appears she has allowed herself to be seduced by Claudius, but once again there is no evidence of whether the seduction has taken place before the death of King Hamlet or afterwards.
Gertrude finds herself in a position where she is conflicted by the roles different men wish her to play. She feels somewhat guilty about her son’s disappointment in her, but feels that she can do nothing about the situation due to her relationship with Claudius. Claudius also has expectations of her, including his wish that she disregard Hamlet and remain loyal only to him.
It could be said Gertrude is so fickle she lacks virtue, however, in Act II, scene IV, she shows motherly concern for Hamlet’s welfare and makes plans to speak with him in her chamber. After Hamlet accuses her of lust, she does not make excuses for herself; she openly admits her shortcoming. What redeems Gertrude is her final act of loyalty to her son.
In the final act, when Claudius pours the poisoned wine, Gertrude claims thirst while reaching for the goblet. Claudius warns her not to drink; nevertheless, she does, knowing it was poured for Hamlet, and as she dies, she tells her son that the drink is poison for him. In her sacrifice of herself for her son, there is redemption for Gertrude’s lust, immaturity, and fickleness. She has now shown, not passivity, but strength and loyalty.
The role of Ophelia is presented as a gentle, loyal, obedient, and young woman who is meant to be the love of Hamlet’s life, even though he rarely thinks of her or considers her in his plans. Most of the time Hamlet just appears to be cruel to her, as if he is just using her as a pawn, as is so when Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet appears to her to be looking and acting like a crazy man. It seems very likely he is just using Ophelia as part of his plot to get the word out that he is insane.
Ophelia is an example of a perfect daughter who obeys her father without argument. Even when she is asked to reject Hamlet whom she believes is the love of her life, she responds subserviently that she will obey, and meets with Hamlet to deceive him. Polonius also uses his daughter for his own reasons, which in this case, is to spy on Hamlet. This actually becomes a turning point in the play. Hamlet reveals his complicated feelings for Ophelia as well as the depth by which he is hurt and betrayed by her. As Ophelia tries to return his gifts his feelings become evident. Hamlet becomes defensive refusing to accept the return, and responds with, “I never gave you aught”. He then continues to express his anger and disgust with women and humanity as he tells her, “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” This hurts Ophelia mentally as well as physically since he has thrown her around a bit and she expresses this with her own thoughts.
“Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown. The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword; The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mold of form, The observed of all observers, quite, quite down! And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, That sucked the honey of his music vows, Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh; That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me, To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”
Basically, Ophelia is saying, “Wow, he seemed like such a wonderful guy; before his words to me were so sweet and I let myself fall for him, and now he’s gone totally gone around the bend.” Ophelia’s perfection also becomes her downfall, unfortunately she has no “voice” nor does she seem to have any obvious heroine qualities; and one thing of interest that comes to mind is her lack of desire to defend herself.
Even with all this being said, Ophelia’s life and death have a profound influence on some of the most important characters in the play, including Hamlet. Her own madness has importance in the play. It gives Ophelia the freedom to do and say what she could not before. She passes out flowers to the court and gives columbine and fennel to Claudius, this is a jab at the king since these flowers were representative of ingratitude and infidelity at the time. This is where she loses her innocence, and this loss of innocence finishes with her eventual suicide. At the time, suicide was a sin against God and people that committed suicide were not allowed a proper funeral. Ophelia’s innocence is somewhat preserved by allowing her a funeral even though her death was at her own hand.
Looking closely, Ophelia’s role appears to be a precursor for Shakespeare to foreshadow future events. In her opening scene, her brother and father warn her to stop seeing Hamlet. This warning could be said to foretell her future conflict with Hamlet. At the beginning of Act II, when Ophelia rejects Hamlet’s advances he goes off-the-wall, there are two ways to interpret the scene, one possibility being that after Hamlet warns Horatio and Marcellus that he will “put an antic disposition on” he acts crazy when meeting with Ophelia to get the word out there that he is “mad”. Another possibility is that Hamlet was genuinely distraught by Ophelia’s recent rejection. Anyway you look at it these scenes with Ophelia seem to foreshadow things to come.
We begin to realize also that Ophelia is not as passive of a character as originally thought. She is obviously a tool for Shakespeare, but also for Hamlet and Polonius, as the plot thickens around her.
After Ophelia’s death Hamlet is reminded of his deep feelings for her, which had been hidden due to his obsession with vengeance and his lack of trust in women. Ophelia’s death also deepens Laertes’ need for vengeance. He already has much reason to kill Hamlet, since Hamlet had murdered his father and driven his sister mad, but Opherlia’s suicide is that last little push over the edge; that drives and justifies Laerte’s revenge.
As it turns out Ophelia is the common factor that brings together Hamlet and Laertes. She is the reason for their irrational actions, and in a twist of fate, the being that brings them great emotional turmoil. None of this has she done intentionally, yet she becomes her own play within a play. Our focus on Hamlet and his sufferings are set aside, as Ophelia’s story shocks us when she suddenly breaks, is driven mad, and then commits suicide.
To one that simply reads the play and thinks nothing more about it, these women may seem trivial. However, those taking the time to think about Gertrude and Ophelia are rewarded with the knowledge that each of these characters is woven into a role that affects and motivates a main character. They are the characters that passive, as they may seem, actually spur the men in the play to further advance the play’s central action. Clearly the roles Gertrude and Ophelia take on are a contribution to the terrible events that occur in Hamlet, making for a perfect dramatic tragedy.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 4th ed. Ed. Ann Charters and Samuel Charters. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007 1252-1354.