William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy following the titular Danish prince as he tries to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Claudius, while he attempts to manage the problems he sees in himself and society. As one of Shakespeare’s more well-known plays, Hamlet is capable of being approached and adapted from multiple literary directions Hamlet is a play written from a male viewpoint. Therefore, some assumptions that go along with this analysis is that Gertrude and Ophelia, the plays only female characters, are objectified, mistreated and given marginalized opinions and roles, while the play solely focuses upon the male characters and their experiences. And so, this paper will analyze Hamlet through a feminist lens, arguing that Ophelia and Gertrude are being looked down upon, portrayed as “props” in the play and struggling with similar hardships both having to do with the men in their lives.
During the Elizabethan era, England was highly patriarchal. The evidence is shown in Hamlet through the ways that the male characters talk down to Ophelia and Gertrude, demonstrating a relationship that Kolodny views as “asymmetrical” and favouring men. Ophelia is given no voice throughout the play; This has been demonstrated in many scenes but in one scene particular this is shown in the rudest way possible when Hamlet says “Get thee to a nunnery” This implies that Ophelia should become a nun and preserve her own chastity to not bear children that are sinners. However, this does not seem to affect Ophelia at all showing us how she has no power and confidence to define herself as an individual character. This just comes to show us how female objectification was such a big social norm at that time that even females were accustomed to it. This primarily is also shown in many other scenes for example when Ophelia is talking to her father Polonius and at the very end says “ I shall obey my lord”. This is demonstrated clearly through Ophelia being unable to have her own voice. Shakespeare was a male writer writing in a male-dominated time where women had significantly fewer rights (Howards) than they enjoy today. This comes to show us why Ophelia does not have a voice of her own. Even though we did see her try to establish her self confidence, it was quickly shut down by her father. Women in Shakespeare’s period were viewed only in terms of their utility, whether it was to be a good wife or housekeeper Thus as we see it through Ophelia.
Similarly, Gertrude who one would assume would have a great and significant role because she is the queen does not. She is portrayed as Claudiouse’s toy, only there for him to use when he needs her. Although Bloom argues that she is, in fact, a strong female character, saying, “Queen Gertrude is evidently a woman of exuberant sexuality who inspired luxurious passion first in the king than later in the king Claudius”(Bloom, as cited in Henderson), Even here when Bloom describes her as an influential, he only refers to her powers of seduction. In attempting to defend Gertrude as a powerful individual, he only demeans her further. As we know in the time of Shakespeare it was common for women to marry right away as it was taboo for women to remain single. Therefore it is not a surprise that Gertrude remarried so quickly to her dead husband’s brother Claudius. However, in her interactions with Hamlet Shakespeare makes it clear that Hamlet only views her decision as shallow or self-serving. For instance, in the closet scene, when the Queen says “thou hast thy father much offended” , he immediately replies with “ Mother you have my Father much offended”. He does not care about either his mother’s opinions or her choice to remarry. Further, throughout this whole scene, Hamlet is throwing his anger out at his mother, but we don’t see Gertrude at all trying to fight back and justify her point, this emphasizes her vulnerability which is constantly alluded to throughout the play as she meekly goes along with whatever is said.
Gertrude and Ophelia, despite not being blood relatives, nevertheless share a powerful bond one of solidarity and femininity, proven with Gertrude being the one to tell the audience about her death instead of her brother, which signifies to us that she was the first one to hear about the death. She stood above the grave Lamenting Ophelia’s death and said ”I hoped thou should have been my Hamlet’s wife; I thought thy bride-bed have decked, sweet maid” , This quote demonstrates to us the Love Gertrude sees that Opehlia has for Hamlet, that Claudius could not see, and that if she were not dead she hoped that something could have sparked between them. Further, their bond is noticeable through their similar situations. Both Ophelia and Gertrude are subject to mistreatment by their male counterparts (Gertrude by Hamlet and Claudius and Ophelia by Hamlet and Polonius) and used as pawns in the power games of the men in their lives. Their relationship can, therefore, be viewed as a feminist show of solidarity in which women who were in that era were bonded together to protect each other in the face of the reckless actions of men. Furthermore, their lives follow nearly equivalent paths, As both women are mistreated by the men in their lives with little to no character shown by them. Thus we can see that most of the time they appear naive or clueless or at the very least unaware of the misogyny. For instance, Hamlet’s Mysogny towards Ophelia (and by extension all women) is encapsulated in his frequent lewd jokes made at her expense such as “That’s a fair taught to lie between a maids legs”. Witch demonstrates us Hamlet’s conflicting feelings towards her. Likewise, this puts Ophelia in a situation where she is not allowed to respond because then that would show that she knows a bit too much about sex. This could be harmful to her reputation. Likewise, Gertrude and Ophelia are following what society back then was telling them is the right thing to do and trying to live up to the expectations society gives them eventually ending up dead due to their own innocent actions. Comment by Michael Goodchild: Comment by Teodora Bajlon: Comment by Teodora Bajlon: Comment by Michael Goodchild:
Shakespeare emphasized Gertrude and Ophelia as being viewed as ‘property’ to the men in their lives. Ophelia is “deprived of thought, sexuality (and) language” and “her story becomes the story of O-zero the empty circle of mystery”(Henderson). This shows us how Shakespeare dehumanized the women in his play, because to this day people only remember Ophelia as the girl who committed suicide but nothing more. Throughout the play, the female characters are used as foils for the male characters. They are there as shadows to help in their feud but not depicted as showing any emotion whatsoever. More so they are used as pawns that the male characters can throw around to their benefit. Act 3 Scene 4 the closet scene is a good representation of female objectification. Hamlet is interacting with his mother full of anger and rage at her for what she had done, but not once through the scene do we see Gertrude try and talk back to Hamlet. Instead, she simply sits there and listens to his problems. This shows us how Gertrude has no power to stop Hamlet, but we also see Hamlet treating his own mother like she is an inanimate object with no feelings. He is controlling her using derogatory terms trying to make her feel guilty and fear for what she has done by remarrying Claudius. This shows us Gertrude in a vulnerable state lost for words and not being able to respond.
While a social norm in Shakespeare’s day, there has fortunately been great progress made in the empowerment of women and the efforts of feminists to gain a greater level of equality in the centuries since. However, the fact that debates over wage gaps, maternity leave, and social equality continue to rage into the 21st century demonstrates that feminism remains an important topic in the 21st century and that Shakespeare’s plays truly are timeless in depicting social issues that continue to resonate into the future.
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- Henderson, Steve. ‘Hamlet: A Feminist Argument.’ ThoughtCo, Jan. 3, 2019, thoughtco.com/hamlet-a-feminist-argument-740000. Accessed March 1, 2019.
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- Kolodny, A. (2002). Dancing trough the minefield. Toronto:
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