A Theme Of The Unfair Treatment Of Women In Hamlet

Even though there are only two women in the play Hamlet, Shakespeare’s represents the negative stereotype of women as viewed during the Elizabethan time through both of the women. Throughout Shakespeare’s play, the men either directly or indirectly use women as pawns to get what they want. Though the women are seen as outside characters, they are very vital to the story’s plot. Gertrude and Ophelia are two of Shakespeare’s most underdeveloped characters in Hamlet and are forced to live their lives in the shadows of the superior male characters around them. Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet is primarily about male superiority and Ophelia and Gertrude’s characters provide perfect evidence for this statement. Gertrude and Ophelia are considered weak as their thoughts, actions, fates, and opinions are abused by a dominant patriarchal society of the Elizabethan time. Perhaps unwittingly, Shakespeare’s portrayal of how men in the Elizabethan time treated women gives testament to the difficult struggles, unending pain and unfair treatment women have suffered throughout history by men that consider women to be inferior.

Shakespeare created a very interesting character when he made Gertrude. Gertrude is one of the two women in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s depiction of Gertrude in Hamlet introduces critical interpretations of her character from many literary scholars. Whether directly or indirectly, this underdevelopment of Gertrude’s character has left plenty of room for misogynistic critics to describe Shakespeare’s character as “shallow” and “a direct reflection of her male superiors thoughts and opinions”. Perhaps scholars feel they can speak so harshly about the Gertrude because Shakespeare portrays her as voiceless and silenced female.

Although she is underdeveloped, Gertrude has many roles in the play from the very beginning. She is Hamlet’s mother, Queen of Denmark, the widow of King Hamlet, and Claudius' new wife. Hamlet was very angry with his mother for her decision to marry her brother in law. It is obvious that Gertrude sits in the middle of all the conflict and appears to not participate in much of it. Instead, Gertrude chooses to watch the men handle situations from the sidelines.

An example of this would be Gertrude’s marriage to Hamlet’s uncle. Her marriage to Claudius seems to upset Hamlet more than his recent father’s passing before he even knew he was the man who killed his father. From the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare protrays Gertrude as an incestuous woman (in the Elizabethan time, incest included marrying your in-laws) who did not spend time grieving the death of her husband before marrying his brother. Some scholars argue that Gertrude caused Claudius to kill King Hamlet in the first place and with this action caused a domino effect for all other events in the play to take place. It is very unfair of scholars to blame Gertrude for every single characters actions in this play, because as readers, we were not given any information leading up to the where the story began. Scholars throughout history have stuck to stereotypes when it comes to women in this time period. This is unfair for Gertrude and Ophelia. Gertrude is simply a woman in the Elizabethan time who knows nothing else besides belonging to a man. It is obvious she feels abandoned and scared of being alone and that is why she married so quickly. Hamlet continually tries to make Gertrude feel bad for her marriage and does not think she should be able to be happy prior to his father’s death. This is obvious when Hamlet says,

“Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears

had left the flushing in her galléd eyes,

She married. O, most wicked speed, to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

It is not, nor it cannot come to good.

But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”

Although Gertrude’s hasty marriage to her brother in law would still be looked down on in today’s society, it would not be considered incest as it was in Shakespeare’s time. Hamlet is acting like a whiny child in this part of the play. He does not agree with something his mother did, so he instead he is tears her down and tries his very hardest to make her feel inferior. Hamlet should have more compassion for his mother during this time. She is trying her best even though she does not know her role without a man to be dependent on. Hamlet does not stop with that line though. He continues on to say, “Frailty, thy name is woman! / A little month, or ere those shoes were old / With which she follow’d my poor father’s body.” In addition to the first snarky comment about Gertrude’s recent marriage, Hamlet also tells Gertrude that she as well as all women are frail, meaning they are breakable, weak, and should not have the freedom a man has. Hamlet is taking a slash at Gertrude’s womanhood with these lines. Hamlet is not only blaming Gertrude for the cause of all of his grief, but he is also using Gertrude’s marriage that he doesn’t agree with as a way to attack all women through stereotypes. These lines seem to be ironic by the end of Shakespeare’s play as Gertrude by drinking from a poisonous cup. Gertrude is not the only woman in Hamlet with a strong sense of dependency on men.

Shakespeare writes Ophelia as an inexperienced and naive girl with two ultimate flaws. Ophelia’s flaws are that of obedience as well as extreme dependence. It is very obvious in the play Hamlet that Ophelia will do anything to please her father and brother, even if that means doing something she doesn’t agree with. In Act I scene III, Polonius and Laertes ask Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. Ophelia proves her loyalty to her father and brother when she agrees to obey them even though she doesn’t want to. Polonius completely disregard Ophelia’s feelings and fondness towards Hamlet when he asks her to stay away. Throughout their conversation, Polonius tears down Ophelia’s confidence, so that all Ophelia has left to do is obey him and stay away from Hamlet. Polonius’ inconsiderate actions towards his daughter prove that he does not care about her feelings or self esteem. In her response to her father, Ophelia says “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” Ophelia has been controlled by the men surrounding her for her entire life.

Another example of men forcing Ophelia to obey them in the play is when Polonius and Claudius use Ophelia as a pawn to test Hamlet. After obeying her father and King Claudius’ orders, Ophelia is forced to have a conversation with Hamlet to test his madness. She begins by returning the gifts and mementos that Hamlet had given her while they were in love. She says, “My lord, I have remembrances of yours, that I have longéd long to redeliver. I pray you now receive them”. Hamlet is betrayed and embarrassed by Ophelia’s actions. In order to remain superior to Ophelia, Hamlet proceeds to deny ever giving these gifts to her. Even though she does not mean her words, she later says that Hamlet’s offerings have lost their value. She is involuntarily saying these words to Hamlet, but instead is remaining obedient to her father. Hamlet is taken aback after this encounter with Ophelia. Her actions drive him to outrage and insult her. This occasion was not how Ophelia truly felt. She loved Hamlet with her whole heart, but her flaw of obedience was stronger than her love.

As well as being obedient to the men in her life, Ophelia is completely dependent on those men too. Ophelia’s dependence upon the men in her life ironically leads to her death. Each male characters actions play a key role in the cause of her timely suicide. Some examples of this include, her lover Hamlet abandoning her and becoming cold, her brother Laertes moving from Denmark and leaving Ophelia alone, and her father accidentally murdered by Hamlet. Her father seems to be the most influential man in her life as well as the biggest cause of her flaws. That is why when Polonius dies, a void is left in Ophelia that she does not know how to fill. She has been obedient and dependent on men her entire life and now she feels betrayed by all men and abandoned. Ophelia becomes a direct reflection of Hamlet’s pretend madness, except her madness seems to be genuine. Before she died, Ophelia says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died”. Ophelia uses the analogy of dead flowers because she lifeless and dead as she has been forced to become independent in a world where women cannot be independent. She also has been forced to learn how to cope with being alone. Shakepeare uses other characters words to paint a picture of the void the men have left in Ophelia’s life. Claudius says, “Oh, this is the poison of deep grief. It springs /all from her father’s death, and now behold!”. The “poison” in this line is Ophelia’s loss of a superior male figure in her life. Opehlia may miss her father, but as a woman in the Elizabethan time, she must miss her fountain of dependence more. Ophelia commits suicide soon after her father’s death. Possibly by accident or on purpose, Shakespeare portrays Ophelia’s death as a direct result of her dependence and obedience to the men in her life.

After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet is secretly watching the burial ceremony. Once he realizes it is Ophelia who has died, he acts impulsively. He jumps into the grave along with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes. Hamlet did not have a problem treating Ophelia poorly when she was alive, but after she died, he wants everyone to know he loved her more than any other man. Laertes is offended by Hamlet’s words and actions. He responds harshly by saying, “The devil take thy soul!”. Hamlet and Laertes proceed to wrestle in the grave of the girl they claim to love. Hamlet says, “Why, I will fight with him upon this theme until my eyelids will no longer wag.” These two characters seem to make a competition of who loves Ophelia more. These men did not truly love Ophelia. The are fighting over who controlled Ophelia more because that is all they did. The obsession over controlling Ophelia even when she has passed evolves into a reason for murder. In the next scene, Laertes and Hamlet fence in which Laertes stabs and kills Hamlet.

Throughout history and literature, women have been stereotyped as weak and frail. Without the women in the play, who would the men control? The surface-level and underdevelopment aspect of Gertrude and Ophelia depicted by Shakespeare himself has pressed readers into thinking they are unimportant characters. The treatment of women as inferior in was popular in Elizabethan times as seen through Hamlet. It is the men’s actions, behavior, and ineluctable presence towards Gertrude and Ophelia that gives readers an insight into how women were treated during this time period. 

16 December 2021
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