Hamlet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1602. The play is set in Denmark where Hamlet is instructed to take revenge on his uncle Claudius who killed Hamlet’s father, Hamlet Senior, and then married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, in order to seize the throne. Female characters play an important yet underappreciated role in most of Shakespeare’s plays especially Hamlet. The presence of only two female characters, Ophelia and Gertrude, shows the little value Shakespeare had for woman.
Ophelia and Gertrude both play important roles in the progression of the play, however they are not adequately credited for their contribution. Gertrude, the queen of Denmark plays the role of a peace keeper between her new husband, Claudius, and her son Hamlet. Ophelia is Prince Hamlet’s romantic interest and daughter of Polonius, the man who helped Claudius kill the king. Shakespeare represents both women as submissive, naive and feeble instead of their positive traits.
In the Elizabethan era, women were tutored at home; they were not allowed to attend university or act in theatres. Disobedience to men was seen as a crime against their religion. To affirm this belief the Scottish protestant leader John Knox wrote, “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man”. Elizabethan women were taught how to govern a household and became skilled in housewifely duties. Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in his plays are a reflection of the common roles of women in the era in which he wrote his plays.
Gertrude is submissive to Claudius and follows what he says to the word. When Polonius comes to inform the King and Queen about Hamlet’s madness, the King asks Gertrude to leave him and Polonius alone so they may discuss a plan which would reveal the true cause of Hamlet’s madness. The king tells Gertrude “Sweet Gertrude, leave us too:/For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,/ That he, as ‘twere by accident, may here/ Affront Ophelia. ”(III,i, 29) to which Gertrude replies, “I shall obey you:” (III,i,38).
Gertrude plays the role of the Queen of Denmark, mother to Hamlet and wife to Claudius, however she does not ask to stay and watch Hamlet’s interaction with Ophelia, but trusts Claudius’s judgment. Shakespeare shows us that women play a role by holding a title such as Queen, but do not use any of the power invested within the title. Similarly, Ophelia is obedient and compliment to her father and brother’s wishes.
Polonius tells Ophelia that, “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,/Have you so slander any moment eisure,/As to give works or talk with the lord Hamlet. /Look to’t, I charge you: come your ways. ” to which Ophelia replies, “I shall obey, my lord” (I,iii, 132-136). It can be inferred that Ophelia lost her mother at a young age; thereafter Polonius and Laertes have become overly protective of her. Ophelia sets aside her personal feelings towards Hamlet in order to comply with her father’s wishes. Both women play detrimental roles within the play, however, they are controlled by the men in their lives and hold little say as to what happens to them.
Throughout the play there are several instances where Gertrude and Ophelia are both naive to the events unfolding around them, partly due to the male dominance in the play. Claudius is not honest in his relationship with Gertrude and deceives her many times by hiding from her the fact that he killed Hamlet Senior, that he sent Hamlet to England to be killed by the people there, or about the cup of wine which contained poison which led to the death of Queen Gertrude. It is far too late when Gertrude realises that her drink was poisoned and does not survive.
Claudius tries to warn her by saying, “Gertrude do not drink. / I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me. /It is the poison’d cup: it is too late. ” (V,ii,282-284) Gertrude blindly trusts Claudius’s judgment and decisions and does not hold much of an opinion for herself. Similarly, Ophelia is blinded by her father and brother’s judgment and does not question their love for her. She displays unwavering loyalty towards her father however, her unquestioning attitude can be attributed to the fact that she lost her mother at a young age. She was never taught the necessary skills needed to venture into the world.
When Ophelia comes to Polonius to inform him of Hamlet’s behaviour Polonius is quick to go to the king, “Come, go with me: I will go seek the king. This is the very ecstasy of love,/Whose violent property fordoes itself/ And leads the will to desperate undertakings/ As oft as any passion under heaven/ That does afflict our natures. ” (II,i,113-118) Polonius does not hesitate to use his daughter for his own needs. When Ophelia describes Hamlet’s strange behaviour towards her, Polonius interprets this to his own advantage. He thinks Hamlet’s madness is a result of his overwhelming love for Ophelia.
His reasoning would work to his advantage because it would cause Ophelia to be wed into royalty and bring Polonius ranking higher in society. Ophelia is blind to her father’s mischievous plans and agrees with him. Both women display an undying commitment to the male figures in their lives which causes them to become naive and oblivious to what is going on around them. The most famous quote used in Hamlet is “Frailty thy name is woman. ” (II,i,146) This quote is said by Hamlet in the first soliloquy after he witnesses his mother’s marriage to his uncle.
Frailty can be described as a weakness in character present within a person. Witnessing his mother marrying his uncle so soon after his father’s death puts a dirty stain on the character of females in Hamlet’s mind. Thereafter he begins to view Ophelia with the same scrutiny and judgment as he views his mother. Gertrude shows weakness in character by simply being a weak woman. She is told by Hamlet in their dramatic confrontation to confess her sins, the killing of Hamlet senior. It was her ultimate mistake to marry her dead husband’s brother, so soon after his death.
She did not consider the feelings of her grieving son and did what she felt was best for her at the time. When Hamlet confronts his mother, she shrinks back in fear as her son rages in front of her and says, “What wilt thou do? Thou will murder me? ” (III, iv, 22). A strong woman would never assume her son would kill her as she did. Instead she would have stood up to him and proclaimed her innocence. Instead she cries out saying his words are “daggers”. Ophelia displays frailty in character by allowing herself to be used as a decoy by Claudius and Polonius in an attempt to discover Hamlet’s true cause for his madness.
She does not protest to the idea and willingly agrees. When Hamlet finds out that Claudius and Polonius are listening to their conversation, he is outraged and tells Ophelia to go join a nunnery. At this point he has put Gertrude and Ophelia in the same box, claiming that a female’s “love” is only temporary. The role and treatment of women in Hamlet is a much debated topic among writers and readers. The presence of only two female characters and their ultimate deaths show the little importance Shakespeare places on their role in his plays.
In Hamlet, the roles of women are minor yet essential to the plot of the play. Gertrude and Ophelia are both seen as being submissive, naive and frail. Their actions are greatly influenced by men’s decisions, giving them a weak image as women who are dependent on men during Shakespeare’s time. Gender inequality is a predominant issue in many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet. To some readers Ophelia and Gertrude’s downfalls can be blamed on the narrow minded and sexist men or their own inevitably obvious weaknesses.