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Ophelia and Gertrude are the most prominent female characters in “Hamlet” and as a result they do seem quite susceptible and vulnerable in the patriarchal society of Denmark that the play is set in. Many of the ideas and suggestions presented in the play are put forward by the dominant male characters. Since both women seem to have a loving attachment to Hamlet, when it comes to suggestions for establishing the cause of Hamlets madness, they are often used by the men as “bait” to lure him in.
This in itself could testify for the idea that both Gertrude and Ophelia are collectively victimised.
This is demonstrated in the scene just before Hamlet talks to Ophelia about his real feelings for her. Claudius declares he and Polonius will act as “lawful espials” and they then “may of their encounter frankly judge”.
Ophelia does not voice her opinion of their plans, although she is present for the entire discussion. Through this, she is shown to be passive with no strength to defy the orders of others. This could be due to a weak character or the fact that Ophelia is forced to conform to the ideals of the time and doesn’t know any better.
Through this repression, Ophelia is some what victimised as she feels and knows she must respect her elders wishes and obey her father. In one of the earlier scenes of the play, after Ophelia has been discussing her courtship with Hamlet to her brother Laertes, Ophelia attempts to express to her father these feelings that Hamlet has claimed to have for her.
She says “He hath of late made many tenders of his affection to me. ” To which Polonius replies “Affection? Puh! You speak like a green girl.
” This makes the audience aware of Polonius’ attitude towards his daughter, he quickly dismisses all the claims she makes and by calling her a “green girl” he is emphasizing her young naivety. This attitude does not seem dissimilar to some held by other male characters, Laertes calls her “chariest maid” and there is definite emphasis on her innocence and purity throughout. Polonius effectively exploits her to the other characters by commanding Ophelia not to respond to or read her love letters from Hamlet and then publicly humiliating her by reading extracts out to members of the royal court.
The aim of this is quite self centred, they are merely trying to account for reasons for Hamlets madness. Polonius shows a lack of respect or consideration for his daughters feelings, which doesn’t help, what we could perhaps assume to be, her steadily deteriorating mental state. Ophelia’s character is effectively trapped by Hamlets decision to feign madness. His behaviours leave her distressed and confused and she is unwittingly victimised by him. He declares to her that “I did love you once” and in his next statement he says “I never loved you”.
As a character with relatively little to say, the audience does not begin to understand Ophelia’s feelings towards Hamlet until she turns mad. These earlier statements not only seem to trigger the emotional turmoil that she suffers, but later on we are presented with a possibility that the statements were not true, and that Hamlet did love Ophelia. By this point it is too late and his only shown moments of love and affection towards her are when she is gone. Hamlet says “I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.
” Thereby defying everything he has said to her before. In this situation, Ophelia has become the helpless victim, her lover murders her father and says he doesn’t love her and she is left alone and helpless when he is sent away to England. Her madness however provokes some insight into Ophelia’s inner most feelings, the only time we really learn anything about her character. Behind the poetic words of her song seems to lie plausible meaning “How should I your true love know” and “And I a maid at your window, to be your valentine” seems to show for the first time some of her feelings of love and longing for Hamlet.
Whereas “He is dead and gone; At his head a grass- green turf, at his heels a stone. ” seems to be a blatant reference to her fathers recent death, the appearance of these two matters in her mad evoked sing-song seems to indicate further the importance of them to her and demonstrates that she has now become a victim of her own feelings. Her weak character allows her to succumb to her bout of emotions rather than allowing her to get along with her life, her death signifies her character being finally engulfed by this. In comparison to Ophelia, Gertrude is shown to be victimised in a quite different way.
Although it never seems entirely clear if she was aware of the plot to kill her last husband, she has been effectively forced into a situation with little control over what is going on around her and where she must make the right connections or face learning to fend for herself. At King Hamlet’s death, Gertrude is the first living victim, as she is not linked by Royal Parentage she is almost forced to remarry quickly to her deceased husbands brother to maintain her position as Queen. She is not guiltless for this, she worries for her son constantly as his madness becomes apparent.
However, she shows some ignorance as to all the plausible causes for his state saying “it is no other but the main. His father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage”. It is not until later that some other possible reasons are explored, and through this explanation she, like Ophelia, is somewhat victimised. Gertrude only wants the best for Hamlet, yet here she is used in plans where she is not always aware of what’s going on, and her efforts to get through to him are hapless as well as the subject of monitoring by the other royal courtiers.
Gertrude’s efforts to amend circumstances after King Hamlet’s death lead only to her son turning against her, Hamlet feigning his madness now feels he has the capability to have control over his mother much like the other male figures in the play. He quite openly insults and manipulates her feelings, for example in Act 3 Scene 4 he says “The heyday in the blood it tame” inflicting her with the idea that she is getting quickly older. Gertrude has no power to protect herself from her sons disposition and this is demonstrated by her weak replies to what he is saying to her “O Hamlet, speak no more.
Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul. ” It is clear that Hamlets behaviour towards her is highly distressing and it may follow that she is now becoming some what frightened of what he could do to her. Following his murder of Polonius, she is harrowed by what she has witnessed and seems to succumb to all ideas presented to her regarding him, even his being sent away to England. Despite her helplessness, Gertrude has attempted to gain some control over the political standing of Denmark when King Hamlet dies.
To some degree she has remarried not only to keep her position (or perhaps to fulfil possible desires for Claudius) but in an attempt to keep her beloved country from falling into disarray under an entirely new monarchy. She is a weakened character but she is also devoted and concerned for the well being of others and of her nation. Gertrude, like Ophelia, is a victim of Hamlet’s madness, however she pulls through better and this may be contributed to her maturity or the arguable point that she doesn’t suffer as much as the young Ophelia.
In conclusion, Shakespeare has produced two somewhat vulnerable and slightly passive female characters. They are certainly both the subject of victimisation and this is predominantly caused by the oppression and grief they face from members of the opposite sex, particularly Hamlet. Their representation as weak minded reinforces the ideals of the time, that the men should be strong and go out and fight and the women must be passive and obedient at home. They are victims not only of their associates but of patriarchal society.