Gender and The Rise and Fall of Female Resistance in Hamlet

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William Shakespeare’s Hamlet portrays a complex tale of revenge, madness and love which uses various themes to bring out the underlying complications of the play. Since the event of the murder of late King Hamlet, the motif of misogyny permeates through the play as Hamlet begins to consider the women in his life, Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, as mere worthlessness, and uses language to force the female characters to be read as characters incapable of representing themselves. Although in The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents, author McDonald points out that discrimination against women as an ubiquitous presence: “…the limited options for women in early modern culture seem oppressive and unjust”, when the eager and madness for revenge in Hamlet emerges in the play as a factor, I believe we can no longer conclude his distrust and loathing for women as a simple result of misogyny. Furthermore, despite the contempt against women in the play and the social expectations for women in the seventeenth century England, I believe the female characters attempt to use their agency to subvert the patriarchal dominance in the play and carry out their identities, separating from the opinions Hamlet imposes on them. I believe the play represents an intricate exchange of traditional male domination with the rising self-recognition of female, nevertheless whether the outcome leads to a success or a stalemate remains a complicated answer as the affection between the characters evolves and entangles through the play.

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The concept of misogyny emerges after the first cause of grief, the death of Hamlet’s father, in the play, when Queen Gertrude is married to King Claudius, who Hamlet believes as the murderer of his father. Hamlet depicts his mother’s heinous relationship with King Claudius, stating, “frailty, thy name is woman!” and “O most pernicious woman! O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!”. Hamlet not only likens Gertrude to the murderer of her husband but also extend the conception of incredibility in Gertrude to all women. At this point, Gertrude represents a character who lacks royalty and selflessness, which the society expects a womon to have in a patriarchal world in order to become a obedience wife or mother. Hamlet considers Gertrude’s horrendous act of marrying to her dead husband’s brother stains her character and that her action brings to all impurity and unreliability in female, as Hamlet disdains, “[S]uch an act that blurs the grace and blush of modesty, calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose from the fair forehead of an innocent love…with heated visage, as against the doom, is thought-sick at the act”.

From Gertrude, Hamlet extends his misconception of women to Ophelia, who is the embodiment of cherished femininity in the play. The character of Ophelia reflects an image of an ideal female with beauty and purity and she complies with the patriarchal system by following the orders from her father Polonius and brother Leartes. When Ophelia confuses about Hamlet’s affection and seeks guidance from Polonius: “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”, Polonius mocks her as “a green girl”, and tells her “[T]ender yourself more dearly”. The reaction from Polonius reveals the expectation for female to be reserved and chaste in that time of society. Ophelia then replies “I shall obey, my lord” and accepts Polonius’s order of not seeing Hamlet anymore. However, when Ophelia returns the gifts to Hamlet, he becomes exasperated and starts to doubt the fairness and honesty of Ophelia. Hamlet exclaims, “[G]et thee a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” and humiliates Ophelia, “I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” Affected by his anger towards Gertrude’s remarriage, Hamlet speaks of all women as liars and worthlessness and conversely, rejects Ophelia. The response of “[A]nd I, of ladies most deject and wretched” from Ophelia again shows her lack of agency and inability of defending herself. From her obedience, one can easily see that Ophelia relies on the protection of patriarchal power which in turns secures her expected femininity and makes Ophelia follow the orders without owning her opinions.

As a contrary of Hamlet’s representation of women imposed on Gertrude, she repeatedly displays her capability of overthrowing the traditional opinions on female. “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness. So shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted way again, to both your honors”: in the lines from Gertrude, Ophelia is capable of utilizing her female strength to influence Hamlet to bring back his happiness. Moreover, Gertrude seems to be in aid of promoting and recognizing the ability of female power to alter the mind of a man. When Hamlet questions and loathes Gertrude, she remains calm and answers, “[T]hou turn’st my eyes into my soul, and there I see such black and spots as will leave their tinct”, implying that she understands the consequences of her remarriage and accepts that a stain would mark her soul. Even after the madness in Hamlet unfolds, Gertrude still have the agency to sympathize Hamlet’s situation and discern his troubled thoughts. “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend…and in this brainish apprehension kills the unseen good old man” and “[T]o draw apart the body he hath killed, o’er whom his very madness, like some ore among a mineral of metals base, showing itself pure: he weeps for what is done” both illustrate Gertrude’s faith in Hamlet, in which she believes the good and kindness remain in her son. While the craziness and delusion in Hamlet seem to deceive every other character in the play, only Gertrude can unmask Hamlet’s madness and see the true him, a hurt but virtuous soul. Gertrude’s awareness shows her intelligence and sensitivity exclusive to female and thus demonstrates her ability to unravel the ambiguous political revenge. On top of her perception, Gertrude also exhibits rebellion against her religion by her remarriage: her defiant spirit reject the order from the church and her dead husband. As a result, I believe Gertrude successfully subvert male domination and female oppression.

In addition to the unconventionality of Gertrude, Ophelia on the other hand, presents her progression of acquiring agency through the play. When Leartes confronts Ophelia about her love affair with Hamlet, instead of obeying him, she answers with: “[B]ut good my brother, do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me steep and thorny way to heaven, whiles a puffed and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads”, highlighting her resistance and ability to expose Leartes’ falsehood with a clear mind. Although the madness of Ophelia after Polonius’ death seems to define her weakness and confirms female oppression, her fragmented riddles and songs signal a resistance to her inherent female identity and provide Ophelia her own voice. “I hope all will be well. We must be patient, but I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him i’th’ cold ground. My brother shall know of it. And so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night”. Between the lines, Ophelia appears to be speaking for herself, albeit driven by madness. Furthermore, the madness then allows her to make the decision of committing suicide. From the conversation of the gravediggers, “an act hath three branches——it is, to act, to do, to perform. she drowned herself wittingly”, we then understand the cause of Ophelia’s death represents her own will. Finally not complying with orders and rules, I believe Ophelia accepts the consequences of her suicide, gains decisive independence as a female character, and finds her own peace.

Despite Hamlet shows disdain towards the nature of femininity and scolds the behavior of Ophelia and Gertrude, I believe he forces himself to weave lies in order to protect the ones he love from the consequences of his revenge. During his conversation with Ophelia, he suddenly asks “[W]here’s your father?”, suggesting he senses eavesdropping from Polonius and perhaps Claudius as well. Therefore Hamlet decides to distance Ophelia by his cruel words in order to isolate himself, since the revenge against the King may be unpredictable and fatal. In addition, before his revenge, Hamlet seems to be telling the audience that all his actions produce merely an act: “[H]ere, as before, never, so help you mercy, how strange or odd some’er I bear myself. (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on)”. Based on his lines, his absurdity and animosity towards women may all be a feigned act. In fact, Hamlet’s sentiment for Ophelia can be readily seen in his words after the death of Ophelia: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?”. Hence I believe the play does not advocate the expected traditional female virtues, acquiescence and chastity, but instead employs the theme of misogyny as a mean to contrast and bring out the hidden female resistance and independence.

In spite of Gertrude’s unwillingness to obey authority and Ophelia’s madness lead to their ultimate downfall and death, the rising female resistance may seem diminished, yet through their short-lived resistance and reversed conventional female representations, we can observe the thriving spirits of women. Therefore the play celebrates the potential power and influence in women, that even through the most perplexing situations, we can still see hope of women having the strength to overcome misogyny and the expectations from a society. 

07 April 2022

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