The women of Hamlet

The women of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" appear to be frail, passive figures used as pawns that die 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 lead us to believe. A closer inspection reveals that the true roles these female characters took on had a purpose; these women were strategically placed within Hamlet not as passive creatures, but as motivational tools.

Our first introduction to Gertrude comes from Hamlet's response after he learns she has married his uncle.Hamlet is angry at the shot-gun wedding and believed she should have remained loyal or at least grieved a little bit longer for his father the king. There is however, no knowledge that she knows of the crime that Claudius is suspected to have committed. She seems to have a deep relationship with Claudius, but there is no proof if this relationship had started before the death of her husband or after. (Stuttaford)

Gertrude is in a position where she is conflicted by the roles different men wish her to play. She is portrayed as feeling somewhat guilty about her son's disappointment in her, but it seems as if she cannot do anything about the situation due to her relationship with Claudius. Claudius has his own expectations too; his idea being that she should disregard Hamlet and remain loyal only to him. Gertrude's true tension throughout the play comes from her desire to be peacemaker, and her inability to please everyone. (Stuttaford)

It could be said Gertrude is so fickle she lacks virtue, however, in Act III, scene IV; she demonstrates motherly concern for Hamlet's welfare and makes plans to speak with him in her chamber. After Hamlet accuses her of lust, she is honest and does not make excuses for herself; she openlyadmits her shortcomings. In Act IV, scene I, when describing to Hamlet's killing of Polonius, Gertrude covers for Hamlet's indifference in attitude by saying that he cried afterwards. She knows that Hamlet did not show sorrow but as a mother, she describes him in a way that will make things easier for him.

In the final act, when Claudius pours the poisoned wine, Gertrude claims thirst while reaching for the cup. Claudius warns her not to drink; nevertheless, she does, knowing it was poured for Hamlet, and as she dies, she tellsher sonthat the drink is poison meant for him. In her sacrifice of herself for her son, there is redemption for Gertrude's lust, immaturity, and fickle nature. She has now shown, not passivity, but strength and loyalty to Hamlet. (http://www.enotes.com/hamlet/group/discuss/role-women-hamlet-11899)

What better motivation is there for a son already on the verge of revenge for his father's death, than to take action upon the murder of his mother?

The role of Ophelia is presented as a gentle, loyal, obedient, 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 the case 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". (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I) 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?" (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I) 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! (Hamlet, Act III, Scene I)

Basically, Ophelia says, he was such a good guy I really loved him and now he has completely changed and I have been fooled. This becomes Ophelia's turning point, her downfall; she has no obvious heroine qualities, and no "voice" or desire to defend herself in this situation and madness takes over.

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. It is as if 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 her upper class status, allowing her a respectable funeral even though her death was at her own hand.

Looking closely, Ophelia's role appears to be an omen 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" (Hamlet, Act I, Scene V) 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 rejection. Any way you look at it these scenes with Ophelia seem to foreshadow things to come. (Charters)

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 dies Hamlet is reminded of his deep feelings for her, which his obsession with vengeance and his lack of trust in women had hidden. Ophelia's death also deepens Laertes' need for vengeance. He already has great reason to kill Hamlet, since Hamlet had murdered his father and driven his sister mad, but Ophelia'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 actions, and in a twist of fate, the one connection that brings both of them great emotional turmoil. Never has she done this intentionally, yet she becomes her own play within a play. Our focus on Hamlet is momentarily set aside, as Ophelia's story shocks us when she suddenly breaks, is driven mad, and then commits suicide.

To one that simply reads Hamlet 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.

Works Cited

  • Charters, Ann, and Samuel Charters. , Literature and Its Writers: A Compact Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. Print.
  • "Role of Women in Hamlet." Web. http://www.enotes.com/hamlet/group/discuss/role-women-hamlet-11899
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet (Signet Classics). New York: Signet Classics, 1998. Print.
  • Stuttaford, Genevieve. "Hamlet's Mother and Other Women." Publishers Weekly. General OneFile, 1990. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. <http://find.galegroup.com/gps/start.do?prodId=IPS&userGroupName=20200>.

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