“Frailty, thy name is woman” Hamlet famously exclaims in the first act of William Shakespeare’s longest drama, and one of the most probing plays ever to be performed on stage. It was written around the year 1600 in the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, an era of real uncertainty and confusion; while the prospect of Elizabeth’s death and the question of who would succeed her brought grave anxiety to the nation as a whole, the rise of the Renaissance movement gave rise to many challenges and unanswered questions to the old ideals and beliefs that were for such a long time embedded in every Englishman’s soul and mind.
Women during that time had no role in society; traditionally, they occupied different ‘spheres’ to men and so were expected to be completely obedient to their husbands, to do all the house duties and to raise their children up on the very same image of society at the time. In ‘Hamlet’, through the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia, Shakespeare reflects on this truth: both are disrespected, insulted, abused and manipulated by the leading male characters, and both die due to tragic circumstances.
Thus, through the illustration of the two characters, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, Shakespeare is able to explore the role of women in society, touching on many controversial contemporary issues under the mask of beautifully constructed lies of poetry and an unpredictable cycle of events, which tragically ends with the deaths of two of Shakespeare’s most infamous female characters. The use of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ explores the idea of women as mere objects and pawns for others to use through the word “love.
” Throughout the play, Ophelia is subjected to Hamlet’s abuse and “madness” as well as her own obedience to those of authority without real compensation or gratitude. The verbal abuse and manipulation that Hamlet puts Ophelia through as well as the ploy that Claudius and Polonius subject to her are examples of the extent to which men will use women in the name of “love” to benefit themselves.
While such treatment would be shocking to a modern audience, in Shakespearean times the reality of the situation was, for most women, men did act in very much the same way Polonius does to his daughter Ophelia for example, or the way Hamlet treats his mother in the ‘closet scene’. One of the dramatic climaxes of the play, the ‘closet scene’ provides an important insight into Gertrude’s character and the way she, like Ophelia, is largely influenced by the male characters in the play.
For Gertrude, the scene progresses as a sequence of great shocks, each of which weaken her resistance to Hamlet’s condemnation of her behaviour; she is haughty at the beginning, then afraid that Hamlet will hurt her, shocked and upset when Hamlet kills Polonius, overwhelmed by fear and panic as Hamlet accosts her and disbelieving when Hamlet sees the ghost. Finally, she is contrite towards her son and apparently willing to take his part and help him, having been convinced by Hamlet’s power of feeling.
This illustrates what many critics have felt to be her central characteristic: her tendency to be dominated by powerful men and her need for men to show her what to think and how to feel. From this interpretation, it is easy to see why Gertrude would have turned to Claudius so soon after her husband’s death, and also why she so quickly adopts Hamlet’s point of view in the closet scene. Moreover, it is perhaps due to her powerful instinct for self-preservation and advancement that leads Gertrude to rely too deeply on men.
Not only does this interpretation explain her behaviour throughout much of the play, it also links her thematically to Ophelia, the play’s other important female character, who is also submissive and utterly dependent on men. In act one scene three, almost as soon as Laertes finishes lecturing his sister about her sexuality, her father, Polonius gives Ophelia his advice about the matter as well. Here, Ophelia is what Feminist critic, Elaine Showalter, calls a “consistent study in psychological intimidation, a girl terrified of her father, of her lover, and of life itself”.
In his movie Kenneth Branagh presents Ophelia as an intimidated victim. Polonius scoffs at Ophelia’s suggestion that Hamlet’s interest in her is romantic, and instead warns her that she had better not make him the grandfather of a bastard grandchild. Branagh shoots this scene in a chapel which in itself had overtones of patriarchal religion, sin, and guilt, but Branagh also chooses to film Ophelia and Polonius behind barred doors. This visualization helps convey how trapped by the men in her life Ophelia feels.
Before she can scarcely vocalize them, Ophelia’s feelings are immediately negated by her brother and father, and worse, her father’s interests seem to lie less with his daughter’s feelings but more with his own reputation. In addition to the oppression and control exerted on her, Ophelia suffers from the Hamlet’s manipulation of her mentality. In some ways, it seems that he does it for simple pleasure and in other situations it seems he is simply trying to gain knowledge about the murder. In the confrontation with Ophelia, Hamlet is very abusive.
He first claims that he never loved her and that the “remembrances” were not sent by him. His words “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? ” some critics argue, reflects some of the true characteristics of Hamlet, and the men in this play in general: an ability to be cruel, which is brought out here with much emphasis. Hamlet then proceeds with, “Where’s your father? ” which reveals his sense of unease about something and that he perhaps knows that he is being set up.
Hamlet claims that he “loves” Ophelia, yet he criticizes and chastises her to such an extent that may have helped promote her madness. At the Mousetrap play, Hamlet is extremely vile. He talks of “Nothing” and the implications of the word are crude. To see also the extremes by which Hamlet treats Ophelia is overwhelming. Prior to the play, he insults her terribly and then compliments her at the play, “No, good mother, here’s metal more attractive” (3. 2. 95), only to chastise her once again.
Ophelia, being of a lower class, does nothing to escape this persecution and Hamlet seems to know this; he therefore plays off this, especially in the presence of Polonius and Claudius. One interpretation of the way Hamlet treats Ophelia at the Mousetrap play, and later on the way he deals with his mother in the closet scene, goes back to the idea of how women in the 17th century were treated like pawns at the hand of powerful men; thus the manipulation and verbal abuse of Hamlet as well as the plan of Claudius and Polonius can be seen as realities to the way that men will treat a women for the benefit of themselves.
Contrary to this interpretation, some critics have argued that for Hamlet, the reality of the situation means that “(he) must be their scourge and minister”, meaning that he finds himself in a position whereby it is his responsibility to act as God’s agent punishing the wronged one and helping them to repent. While in his abuse of Gertrude in the closet scene, Hamlet can be seen to be Machiavellian in his cunning, wanting her to confirm her knowledge of Claudius’ crime or to see if she was complicit to it, a contrasting interpretation finds that Hamlet confronts his mother purely for personal reasons.
In his need to convince her of his sanity, of Claudius’ guilt, and in his need of her love and care, Hamlet reprimands her to make her see reality the way he sees it. He feels anger for what he sees as her ‘betrayal’ of his father, but in the end, having won her heart and in accordance with the Ghost’s advice, he is tender and caring, asking of his mother: “Forgive me this my virtue”, and explaining his actions in the words “I must be cruel only to be kind”.
In light of this view, it is not unforeseen to see a modern audience sympathising with Hamlet; not only has his father been murdered, but that the murderer himself is now married with his mother. Thus, in some way or another, Hamlet’s anger can be justified, and his caring attitude to his mother at the end of the closet scene can be seen as an indication of his love and respect for her despite all the events that have occurred. Gertrude’s reaction to the events in this scene brings about much debate between critics and commentators of this play.
Despite Gertrude’s sobbing which links acts three and four together, we never get a ‘translation’ of “these profound heaves”; Gertrude does not share a soliloquy with the audience and thus we have little sense of her as an individual. While some critics have seized on this as an example of how very little Shakespeare developed his female characters, others have seen it as a deliberate move to leave the characters and later events of the play ambiguous to the audience. As Linda Charnes says “No one in this play ‘knows’ or ‘understands’ anyone else”.
Just as Gertrude’s personality is left unclear throughout the play, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan holds that the most striking characteristic of Hamlet’s language is its ambiguity: everything he says is transmitted, in various degrees, through metaphor, simile and, above all, wordplay. Despite his seven soliloquies and the very many lines he takes up from the play, his utterances, in other words, have a hidden and latent meaning which often surpasses the apparent meaning, leaving him just as ambiguous as any other character.
In conclusion, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, women, though all from a variety of situations, play important roles that determine the conclusion of the plays. ‘Hamlet’ is no exception; while it is easy to see Gertrude and Ophelia as fringe characters, a closer look finds that they impact the course of events in many ways, and are used by Shakespeare to echo many hidden messages about society of the time. Although much of her character is left undeveloped, Gertrude nevertheless has a significant impact on both the plot and theme of this play.
Tragically, she drinks the poison from the cup Claudius prepares for Hamlet as a show of her love and sacrifice for her son. Yet, it is through this act that we begin to understand Gertrude as a deeply misconstrued character, who is seemingly shallow but is actually intense in her feelings and emotions but perhaps feels she has to hide them because of her position in society. We also begin to understand that her ‘frailty’ or tragic flaw that ultimately leads to her death is perhaps her propensity to be controlled by powerful men and her need for men to show her what to think and how to feel.
Whether this is as a result of a fault in her personality or as a consequence of decades of women being oppressed and degraded by the males of society we can never be sure: Shakespeare does not pass judgement here and instead leaves Gertrude’s personality deliberately ambiguous prompting much debate and argument among critics throughout the last century. However subtle, Ophelia too plays a significant role riddled with control, grief and vulnerability. She is made mad not only by circumstance but by something in herself.
A personality forced into such deep hiding that it has seemed almost vacant, has all the time been so open to impressions that they now usurp her reflexes and take possession of her. She has loved, or been prepared to love, the wrong man; her father has brought disaster onto himself, and she has no mother and thus she is terribly lonely. Thus, in many ways Ophelia is the quintessence of the impact society’s mistreatment of women and the deprivation of their rights as human beings has on each and every one of them.
“In her meek conformity, she lives in a meaningless world until her madness relieves her of the responsibility of language and she can ignore the speech of everyone else and herself speak whatever gibberish comes into her mind” says one critic, Zulfikar Ghose, she is very much like a delicate, wilted, flower… ruled by the men in her life, Ophelia, like many women at the time, was never allowed to blossom.