The accepted definition of a tragedy is an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress. Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrates a tragedy on many levels, beginning with the murder of King Hamlet and ending with the paternalistic and discriminatory treatment of women. The two supporting female roles in the play, Gertrude and Ophelia, are depicted as powerless pawns serving the whims of the male characters. In the time of Hamlet and throughout history, men treated women as property, and as such, women depended on the men for their future and survival. Women had limited control over their own lives, causing them to struggle in an unfair environment.
The men in Hamlet assign “womanly” traits negative connotations, turning them into insults. The new King Claudius reprimands Hamlet, “Tis unmanly grief. It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, A heart unfortified, a mind impatient, An understanding simple and unschooled.” This language suggests the view that women are weak, simple-minded and immature. He believes that women are incapable of the strength and intelligence that a man has. Only two months after King Hamlet’s death murder, Hamlet still sulks around the castle grieving. King Claudius believes Hamlet exhibits womanly traits by grieving and should stop immediately. The social climate during Hamlet exemplifies the double standard in the belief that men should not show emotions. Not only does this double standard hurt women by turning their traits into insults, but it also prevents men from expressing natural emotion. After Laertes’ sister Ophelia drowns, Laertes acknowledges, “But yet It is our trick. Nature her custom holds Let shame say what it will. When these are gone, The woman will be out.” Laertes and his sister Ophelia had a close relationship, making her death devastating to Laertes. He admits that crying cannot be controlled, but he feels shame about it because it is “womanly”. The stereotype that only women cry makes men feel inferior when they naturally release emotion.
Because women were seen as property, Gertrude and Ophelia had to go along with the demands of the men of the court. Ophelia’s father had complete control over her life. Ophelia and Hamlet had a deep romance until Polonius demanded Ophelia stop speaking to him. Once Hamlet began to act in madness, Polonius instructed her to help him spy on Hamlet by pretending to read a book in Hamlet’s presence. Polonius declared, “Read on this book That show of such an exercise may color Your loneliness.” Ophelia had no choice other than to go along with her father’s plans in fear of his wrath. Her future in the court depended on her status and reputation, which came from her father. Ophelia does as he says in an attempt to maintain her given role as someone who serves her father, and then her husband when she marries. Gertrude, even as the queen, has to go along with the plans of the men. Polonius demands, “ Look you lay home to him. Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with”. Gertrude has no real power in the court, she only participates in social activities. If she does not comply, she loses her status and possible stable future.
As a woman of the royal court, Gertrude had few options when her husband died. She could either marry again quickly within the court or face an uncertain fate. She chooses to marry her husband’s murderer. Hamlet forces Gertrude to repent for her bad decision when she had few choices to secure her fate. Gertrude lamented, “O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grainèd spots As will not leave their tinct”. With Hamlet’s unpredictable behavior, his will directs her feelings. She complies as a form of self-preservation. Hamlet leaves a question mark as to Ophelia’s true intentions with her drowning incident. Gertrude questions the nature of Ophelia’s final act: “Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element.” Gertrude ponders whether this is an intentional act of suicide, or is her slow descent into the flower-filled water a refusal to take control to prevent this tragedy? Perhaps Ophelia took control of her life the only way she could, by taking her own life. Ophelia was driven mad by her limited options after the loss of her father who controlled her and as a rejected woman of the court.
Shakespeare’s iconic play about plotting and revenge exemplifies the status of women of the 17th century. Women were second class citizens who served their masters, the men in their lives. Any power they had was derived from how well they served their position as wives, daughters, sisters, and members of the court. In modern times, Shakespeare’s Hamlet reminds the world of the real tragedy of sexism.