In Elizabethan England women played a subordinate role in society, economically and politically. As a result, many literary works were reflective of this diminutive role women encapsulated, in many cases gaining little reference at all. In contrast to this trend, Shakespeare’s tragedies portrayed the female characters as catalysts inspiring action in others. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet both Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest, affect many of the decisions and actions (or inaction) made by Hamlet. But do Shakespeare’s feminine characters actually contribute to the downfall of the tragic male heroes?
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character of Gertrude is the antitheses of her son, Hamlet. Hamlet is a scholar and a Philosopher, searching for life’s most allusive answers. He cares nothing for this “mortal coil” and the vices to which man has become slave. Gertrude is shallow, and thinks only about her body and external pleasures. Manipulative and ultimately self-centred she re marries in excessive haste seemingly not contemplating the effect this could have on her son. He is upset about the fact that his mother married Claudius within less than two months after the death of King Hamlet. Hamlet says, “O most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (1.2.157). Gertrude influences Hamlet significantly throughout the course of the play. Gertrude, is in some ways the epicentre around which Hamlet’s emotions revolve. Her role is difficult to determine; Shakespeare makes it possible to view Gertrude in two juxtaposed ways, she can be seen, like Desdemona, as the passive victim of male ambition and strife, or she can be placed amongst the likes of Lady Macbeth as privy to her husband’s misdeeds.
The character of Ophelia, seemingly one-dimensional, throws light on much of Hamlet’s predicament. She undoubtedly was Hamlet’s love. Ophelia is a Shakespearean woman who is caught between ‘the pass and fell incensed points/ Of mighty opposites,’ a strong father and a strong lover. She must choose right in the first act whether to obey her love for Hamlet or her father’s orders. The tragedy for Ophelia is that she chooses her father, when he commands, “From this time, daughter, / Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence” (1.3.120-121) to Hamlet. Ophelia tells her father she will do what he commands: “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.136). By choosing her father, Ophelia displays a passivity that will lead to her own destruction when he is killed. Ophelia ends up in a very compromising situation in this act. Through her obedience of Polonius, she has lost her lover and is therefore reliant on her father. Hamlet, understanding what has happened is cruel to her and orders her to, “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.122). However, the nunnery is also an Elizabethan slang for a whorehouse. Either way, this is not a viable alternative for her, she must either marry and leave her father or suffer. With the loss of her father at the end of the act, Ophelia is left without anyone to protect her and eventually goes insane as a result. Gertrude has her part to play in Hamlet’s harsh words to Ophelia as now his opinion of women is very low, unbeknown to Ophelia she confirms Hamlet’s doubt in women by obeying her father.
The Impact of Gertrude’s actions coupled with Old Hamlet’s death send the Prince into an unwavering state of melancholy. Melancholia is a medical condition defined as “A mental disorder characterised by severe depression, apathy and withdrawal.” Hamlet succumbed to this ‘illness’ and displayed several of the characteristic signs of the ailment. The relationship Gertrude and Claudius have paralyses Hamlet, shown in Act 3.3 when he could avenge his fathers death but fails to, justifying himself by wanting to kill him in, ‘th ‘incestuous pleasure of his bed.’ Hamlet’s inability to act embitters him further making him unable to confront his repulsive mother. Gertrude soils Hamlet’s view of womanhood because in his eyes she represents all females. There is also a Greek based idea of an Oedipus complex deep within Hamlet which explains some of his behaviour, his fixation on his mothers sex life re affirms this desire to sleep with his mother. But Gertrude’s actions are unforgivable in Hamlet’s eyes causing a cycle of mental anguish which affects others. Stemming from a heinous crime of maternity Hamlet projects his anger onto Ophelia. His expectations of Ophelia are thus altered. Telling her, ‘I loved you not,’ Deep in melancholy at his mothers remarriage Hamlets perception is thwarted as to how to avenge his fathers death justly. In Elizabethan England and in Jacobean time avenging your fathers death was the only honourable course to take and by preventing Hamlet from doing so compromises his masculinity.
A central issue to the essay question is how Shakespeare actually represents women, how he paints their picture. Ophelia is portrayed rather negatively as being completely controlled and ordered around by her father Polonius and brother Laertes. This is very significant, as her obedience and complete submission to the male figures in her life indicates that women where second class citizens at the time. if Ophelia’s madness comes from the fact that her father has been murdered, then her madness becomes one that makes her a victim. Rather than dismiss Ophelia as some lovesick girl who has driven herself insane over a man, Ophelia becomes a woman who loved her father so dearly that in his being murdered, Hamlet has created Ophelia the madwoman. Shakespeare may not have intended to create such a controversial character when he created Ophelia. Whether or not he did will always remain questionable, but to say that he certainly did is a mistake. When reading his play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, each character tends to stand out in different ways. Hamlet stands out for his strength and persistence, Polonius for his loyalty to Claudius, Laertes for his love for Ophelia, etc. So, where does this leave Ophelia? Her character is said to be beautiful by many. When he sees her, Hamlet calls her “The fair Ophelia. Nymph,” (3.1.87). Claudius calls her “pretty Ophelia” on many occasions. Ophelia is clearly a very attractive woman, but the audience is not satisfied with this being her only attribute. She is also a very intelligent and passionate character, which many believe add to the depth of Hamlet’s character. I believe Ophelia to be a moral embodiment of love and adoration. Her loving nature is tested when deciding if paternal love is more important than physical. These are some of her more positive characteristics, but in order to find the real value in Ophelia’s character, one must look into her reasons for madness as well as at her actions when she reaches this state of mind in the play.
The role of women in society has changed dramatically since Shakespeare’s time favouring equality and mutuality, so our view of the play will vary from Shakespeare’s contemporaries. It was more acceptable to address women in derogatory ways shown by Hamlet’s discussion about, ‘country matters,’ with the fair Ophelia. The degree of change is massive in terms of respect shown for women and how they are treated. Although Gertrude is single minded she is also manipulated by Claudius to spy on her own son, Hamlet. In fact without any sililoquay from Gertrude it is difficult to estimate her true motivations but the only time in the play where she acts unaided leads to her death when she disobeys Claudius’s direction, ‘do not drink!’ from the poison cup, she independently replies, ‘I will my lord, I pray you pardon me.’ This gives a good indicator to how Shakespeare’s contemporaries viewed female independence. Shakespeare was ahead of his time in his perception of women, he saw women of his tomorrow to be as devious as Regan in king Lear, as ambitious as Lady macbeth and as single minded as Queen Gertrude. The paradox in Hamlet of Ophelia and Gertrude underpins Shakespeare’s old and new world in which woman’s role has drastically changed. By using Gertrude as Ophelia’s foil Shakespeare makes Hamlet’s predicament that more difficult, as his mother’s soiling of femininity causes him to reject Ophelia he is rejecting somebody who juxtaposes every characteristic he despises in his mother. A damning situation! To conclude I must address my opening conundrum, ‘Are the actions of female characters central to the downfall of the central protagonist?’ Namely Hamlet. My answer derives from the instigator of everything that Hamlet experiences, everything that Hamlet is, Hamlet himself. I speak of Queen Gertrude his mother, who set into motion forces, like Oedipus and rejection of femininity, which Hamlet could not comprehend and ultimately caused his demise.
By Matthew Norbury