The following sample essay on “Elizabethan society in Hamlet”: to what extent do you consider Hamlet a play which presents a patriarchal society.
In order to understand a patriarchal Elizabethan society, we must first understand the social and historical context of the play. Elizabethan society was fundamentally male. Most roles of importance were assigned to men. The thought that a woman was to be given a post of responsibility would have caused much upset among male civilians. Even though there was a female monarch at the time, men essentially ruled the scene, with the queen as its figurehead.
Shakespeare had to convey this situation fairly accurately, as a play in which women were empowered by male standards would have been frowned upon during that period in history.
However, given the change in society’s views on women since Elizabethan times, the play may not have been construed as patriarchal at the time of writing. It would have been viewed as an accurate representation of the monarchy and its hierarchy of power.
It is known that Elizabeth was a fan of Shakespeare’s work, and for Shakespeare to present a society in which women were viewed entirely as sexual objects and nothing more would have been unacceptable in the queen’s eyes, which I believe results in the subtle hints at empowered women.
Some film portrayals show Gertrude as very similar to Elizabeth I, a woman who “uses” and manipulates men in order to gain power. Others show Gertrude as a “wine-swilling, rampantly sexual temptress”, which I do not believe to be true.
I believe that even though Gertrude marries her brother-in-law, and so soon after her Husband’s death is not an act of sexual desire, rather an act of emotional need. Also, in the closet scene, she expresses remorse for marrying Claudius so early, and some believe that in doing this, she “aligns herself with Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and shuns Claudius’ touch and bed.
In the play, it can be considered that women are only disempowered in a male sense. They do not play major roles in the development of the play, but their interaction with the male characters can be seen as a form of sub-plot, additional to the main events of the play. To empower someone is defined by the English dictionary as “to authorize, or enable someone”. Throughout Hamlet, we see that this means women are not empowered in the play in terms of power in the literal sense, however are empowered in their dignity and actions.
There are two views of female figures in Hamlet – “cunningly empowered”, as one critic, Praveen Pillai, puts it, or as “fundamentally weak figures, who are entirely disempowered”. Both these views, I believe, are partially true. In one sense, women are “cunningly empowered” through death. Females in the play die in a gentle fashion, with Ophelia slowly drowning, surrounded by her dress, and the queen being poisoned by wine. This can be seen as a more empowered way to die than the male figures in the play, as most of them die violent deaths, through poisoning, being stabbed, and killed by other men.
In a way, this is a triumph for the women in the play, especially as Ophelia, corrupted by her sexual desire for Hamlet, dies a virgin. This is empowerment in a feminine sense, as it does not fit with male views of empowerment. However, women can also be seen as fundamentally disempowered in the sense that they hold no real authority, and are merely seen as objects of desire by the men in the play. Ophelia is seen as the cause of Hamlet’s madness, providing women with a negative image.
Some critics, such as Praveen Pillai, even say that Ophelia’s name has roots in sexual imagery, with “Ophelia” being likened to “O-Phallus”. Also, Hamlet’s sexual obsession with his mother further proves the fact that women are seen as sex objects and no more – “Incestuous sheets”, “Live in a bed of rank sweat”. This lust seems highly derogatory, and jealousy of Claudius may be a contributing factor in Hamlet’s anger and madness, also shown in the quote “Almost as bad as to kill a king and marry his brother”. This Freudian view of Hamlet is widely accepted by many, and has become a fundamental part of analysing the play.
One of the most powerful statements in the play clearly shows a male view of female disempowerment in the play – “Frailty thy name is woman”. A powerful statement, which has its roots in the Elizabethan attitude towards women. It shows that women are viewed as fundamentally weak beings in the eyes of men. The scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in the royal bedroom acts as a sort of commentary on the male society’s views of Elizabethan women. It shows the low amounts of respect given to women, and the way they are scorned through sexual relations with others.
Loving a woman was seen as weak, and Hamlet’s lust for both Ophelia and Gertrude are seen as weaknesses contributing to his madness. Rebecca Smith states that because Claudius, his mother’s second husband is the killer of his Father, Hamlet’s “general outrage at women increases and spreads” and that it Ophelia’s unexpected rejection of his love is also a trigger factor in this, her rejection being due to the order from her brother and father, that “results from their one-dimensional view of a woman as a sexual “object”. I am not entirely sure that this is true.
I do not doubt that the general view of the female characters in the play by male characters is that of “sexual objects”, but rather the order was given to Ophelia by her brother and father out of an unselfish and untainted love for her as a family member, in them wishing that she should not be associated with Hamlet, who they regard as “Mad”. In this way, Ophelia is empowered Gertrude appears in the play as a woman whose actions contribute greatly to the negative turns in the plot – as Claudius puts it, Gertrude is both “My virtue or my plague”.
She is shown as having poor judgement, as seen in Act 1 Scene 2, in which we realise she must be more sensitive to her son’s feelings. However, Gertrude’s own insensitive actions reveal a form of male disempowerment in the play – Jealousy. Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother during the grieving period may be for two reasons – one, that as her son, Hamlet should be given more attention than Claudius, and two – the fact that his mother has just married his uncle – “O, most wicked speed, to post, With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! “.
During the scene in the royal bedroom, a symbol of sexuality in itself, one of Gertrude’s main weaknesses shows. She has the opportunity here to face the issue head on and resolve it, however she is the type of person to put bad news to the back of their minds and pretend like nothing has happened. She gives no deep thought to the matter at all. Hamlet’s madness can be linked to his jealousy of Claudius in this scene, and the fact that the ghost of his father warned him to “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be a couch for luxury and damned incest”.
The introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by the King and Queen show a fundamental contrast in their characters, the Queen, representative of a female character wishes them to discover the roots of her son’s madness so she can help him feel better, however the king, representative of a male character in the play, uses them for more sinister purposes, showing the great contrast between male and female characters in the play, and highlighting a form of empowerment for the women – the men’s underhand evil deeds lead to acts of revenge and violence, yet the female act of kindness leads to a form of peace and understanding.
In this way, then we can definitely say that women are subtly empowered in Hamlet. Even though it is seen that Gertrude is an “insensitive mother”, in not showing her son compassion and understanding after his father’s death, while still being married to her Husband’s murderer, there are certain parts of the play where she defends her son from Claudius, showing moral strength – for example, when talking to Claudius about Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, she says that he” Cries afterwards” in an attempt to cover up the fact that he did not think anything of it.
This is an outstanding act of compassion towards Hamlet, and proves her to be a loving mother, morally empowered. A form of female disempowerment is seen in the way that Gertrude cannot see through the deception of Claudius. He convinces Gertrude (perhaps too easily) that Hamlet’s sending away is to protect her, rather than the true reason, that Claudius fears for his life when Hamlet is still around. If Gertrude was empowered as a woman in this way, she would object, for fear of Hamlet’s life. This is a subtle element throughout the play that really stands out when the play is seen in terms of weakness, empowerment and disempowerment.
Ophelia, the only other woman in the play, mostly shows female disempowerment throughout most of the play. One critic puts it well – Amanda Mabillard says that “Ophelia could become the tragic heroine of the play; instead she crumbles into insanity and becomes merely tragic. ” It seems that Ophelia’s purpose in the play is to show the “dual nature” of women – “Ophelia’s distinct purpose is to show at once Hamlet’s warped view of women as callous sexual predators, and the innocence and virtue of women.
” Throughout the play, Hamlet becomes increasingly convinced that women are “whores”, shown by both women in the play – Gertrude chose Claudius over her dead husband, and Ophelia chose her father over Hamlet. These both strike Hamlet as “incestuous” and add to his madness. Ophelia’s character is very one-dimensional and shallow; her main purpose is as an instrument through which other characters act, i. e. her father using her beauty to suit his underhanded needs, such as where she is told to spy on Hamlet to try and determine the cause of his madness.
She gives Hamlet the opinion that the most innocent looking women are the worst corrupted with sexual desire, and throughout the play, we see that to an extent this is made true through Ophelia’s sex-crazed madness. Hamlet appears before Ophelia with “no hat on his head, his stockings soiled, and round his ankles”. This initially frightens Ophelia, and the fact that she confides in her father to tell him of her fear portrays her as a weak individual, unable to cope with her feelings, or her sexuality.
This develops into a sex-fuelled insanity later on in the play, with her using blatantly sexual imagery in her speeches, such as when she sings – “By Cock”. This may be untrue, as the slang word “Cock” may have not been used in Elizabethan times. However, in a modern context, this can be seen as a way for Ophelia to release her bottled-up emotions through her madness, much alike to Hamlet’s madness throughout the play. Gertrude’s last acts show female empowerment in a nice way.
During the dramatic final scene in which she drinks the poisoned wine, and realises that Claudius is guilty of killing her husband and attempting to murder her son, she valiantly warns her son against drinking the wine – “No, no, the drink, the drink – o my dear Hamlet – The drink, the drink! I am poisoned! ” It is unusual in this scene that Claudius does nothing to prevent Gertrude from drinking the poisoned wine, even though he murdered the King out of a sexual desire for her.
Even though she is about to die, she still manages to show a final act of compassion for her son, and effectively renounces Claudius from her heart, giving Hamlet a final triumph, and easing his madness. In conclusion, I think the evidence shows that there are different types of empowerment and disempowerment, male and female scattered throughout the play, some blatantly obvious, some rather more subtle. After careful analysis of the play, I have come to my own personal opinion that women in Hamlet are essentially disempowered, for these main reasons :
Firstly, there are more men than women in the play, showing that women play less important roles. Secondly, women are not involved in the real important parts of the plot, they only act as a sub-plot, a tangent from the storyline. Also, by the end of the play, neither of the women are seen to have any sort of peace of mind, and they both die tragically.