Discuss the role of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In your response, make reference to and quote from the play to support your answers.
Before I answer this question, I’m just going to give some pointers on how to tackle it and some useful techniques to employ to ensure that the examiner can put nothing on your exam paper but 60/60 and a lovely A1!
- Before you tackle this question, the first thing you should do is get a highlighter and highlight or underline the key words in the question. What is being asked here? We are being asked to discuss THE ROLE OF WOMEN in Hamlet; so therefore, it’s important not to confuse this with the PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN. Of course, they overlap, but to get 60/60, you have to be precise and ATTEND TO THE QUESTION THROUGHOUT your answer. Therefore, ask yourself: what is the role of women? Okay, they’re portrayed as weak and fickle, but that isn’t their role is it? NO, IT’S NOT! Yes, they are weak and fickle, but Shakespeare uses these qualities to highlight the main themes in the play and they also act as catalysts to the main plot and THIS IS THEIR ROLE WITHIN THE PLAY.
- In my last post, I told you how to tackle any Hamlet question (just to refresh your minds, I said to write down each character’s traits and then compare and contrast that character with all the other characters in the play). IF YOU DID THIS, then you will see that this question is no problem to you. This bullet point is simply to re-emphasize how handy it is to do that.
- You’ve underlined, you know all the information, you’re ready to dive straight into the question aren’t you? CALM DOWN A SECOND. The best thing you can do is to take 5 minutes and MAKE A PLAN. Your teacher undoubtedly told you this, but I can’t stress enough how important they are. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of your essay with nothing to write, do you? Make a plan and say “right, what is this question asking me? Role of women – okay, no bother.” Write down what you’re going to discuss in each paragraph – it makes everything so much more fluid as well. Students think that making a plan is a waste of time, but I know for a fact that it is the opposite. You only have 60 minutes to do this question, so when you start writing, you can’t afford to be sitting around and vacillating over what to write. MAKE A PLAN!!
And here is my answer to the above question – finally! I will discuss the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia and purely for the purpose of clarity, I will discuss them separately:
“Frailty thy name is woman”.
These are words spoken by the titular character of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that highlight the role of women within this tragedy. Women are characterized as weak and submissive and as obedient and acquiescent. There are only two female characters in this play – Gertrude; the Queen, and Ophelia; Hamlet’s love interest. Both ladies play a passive role in the play’s action, but they are extremely important in exposing the play’s themes – in particular Hamlet’s misogyny.
Gertrude impresses us a woman who is wholly dependent on men. She lives in the shadow of two kings. Her first husband – Old Hamlet was murdered and yet “within a month”, she married her brother-in-law, Claudius. Claudius and Gertrude make an unlikely couple to an audience aware of the former’s deceit. It would appear that their marriage is procured for convenience rather than love. Gertrude is completely unaware that the man she married is the murderer of her first husband. It has been suggested that Gertrude only married Claudius for the good of the state. One would therefore think that she is an apt queen – even Claudius says that she is “the imperial jointress to this war like state”. However, Gertrude does little to prove this statement. She is too weak to challenge Claudius and is most certainly not his equal. Gertrude’s role as the Queen of Denmark is overshadowed and undermines by Claudius’ deceit and treachery.
Shakespeare uses Gertrude to show the fickleness of women. There are suggestions that Gertrude and Claudius had a relationship even when Old Hamlet was still alive. In his soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his disdain towards his mother “to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets”. This is said even before the Ghost appears and when the Ghost of Old Hamlet does appear, he confirms this – saying that Claudius “won by lustful sin, the heart of my most seeming virtuous queen”. These words not only highlight the fickleness and shallowness of Gertrude, but they are also important in expressing Hamlet’s and possibly Shakespeare’s misogyny. Women are characterized in a one dimensional manner – they cannot live without a man and constantly need one in their lives. Gertrude’s “o’er hasty marriage” to Claudius exemplifies this.
Gertrude’s passivity in action is what allows her to be dominated and controlled by the men in her life, but she is also somewhat ignorant and oblivious to her surroundings. According to Hamlet, she played the part of the grieving widow well – “she followed my poor father’s body, like Niobe, all tears”. However, because she got over her husband’s death so soon, she also expects Hamlet to do the same. As a queen, Gertrude is ineffectual and as a mother, she is insensitive and blind to her son’s distress. She asks Hamlet; “why seems it so particular with thee?” to which he replies “seems madam, nay it is, I know not seems”. Gertrude cannot understand why Hamlet persists with his melancholic demeanour and agrees with Claudius when he says “tis unmanly grief”. Gertrude lets her own opinion of Hamlet’s mental state be influenced by Claudius. This displays her inability to think for herself. She is led by Claudius and shows no independent thought.
Gertrude’s role as a loving mother to Hamlet is therefore; warped. It would appear that she puts her own pleasures before Hamlet’s welfare. However, Gertrude’s redeeming feature is her propensity for goodness. She is by no means calculating – unlike her husband and indeed her son. None of Gertrude’s actions are premeditated, so it seems rather fitting that she dies drinking from the poison chalice – completely unaware of that is in it. Through her death, Gertrude highlights the position of women within this tragedy – completely obedient and totally oblivious to the corruption around them.
Ophelia, like Gertrude is a woman who is led and controlled by the men in her life. She is described by her brother Laertes as “a sweet sister and a kind maid”. Ophelia’s primary role is to showcase Hamlet’s warped view of women. However, to an audience, Ophelia is a completely innocent and obedient young woman. Out of al the characters in the play, she is the one who cast in the most one dimensional manner. Ophelia has the potential to be a tragic heroine, to overcome her father’s control and gain Hamlet’s love, but due to her submission and conformity, she is merely tragic. Shakespeare uses Ophelia to portray the fickleness of women.
As Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia is extremely obedient. When he tells her not to speak to Hamlet anymore, she obliges, saying “I shall obey my lord”. Her inexperience and inability to defend herself is evident when Laertes tells her that Hamlet is “subject to his birth” and for that reason alone, she could never be with Hamlet. Ophelia resigns and accepts these harsh ‘truths’ because she is simply too weak to stand up to any man, or challenge their authority. She, like Gertrude, is constantly undermined and controlled by then men of the play.
There are recurring tones of misogyny throughout the play and Ophelia’s acquiescence; combined with Hamlet’s maltreatment of her showcases this. Hamlet’s innuendos are lost on Ophelia, who passes them off as innocuous remarks, for she knows that she cannot possibly rebuke a king. In saying that, it leaves us wondering whether or not she may simply just be confused by Hamlet’s sudden change of character. He uses guttural language when speaking her, saying “get thee to a nunnery, whey woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?” This is a grossly offensive remark to the “sweet and innocent Ophelia”, but she simply agrees to do as Hamlet tells her. She possesses no strength of character to stand her ground and instead, Ophelia plays a passive and obedient role.
It is notable that Gertrude – a woman announces Ophelia’s death, elucidating women’s ability to empathise with each other. Ophelia kills herself because of the men in her life – her father is dead and her love for Hamlet is unrequited. She cannot function without a man and therefore, is driven to insanity. Gertrude’s elegiacal speech on Ophelia’s death highlights the frailty of women and portrays the poignancy of her death. “Sweets for the sweet”, she says, as she places flowers on Ophelia’s coffin. Ophelia’s association with nature – the flowers, the willow tree in the lake, all display “a young maiden” who was pure, virtuous and fatally innocent.
The women of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are characterised as weak and ineffectual. They submit to their male counterparts and are led by them. Both Ophelia and Gertrude are fiercely obedient, as they are controlled by the men in their lives. They play passive roles in the play, but are key to exposing the titular character’s distorted view of a woman.
There is is! All done! Just one last word before I go, there’s no point in handing up this essay to your teacher if he/she gives you this question – it might be the easy option, but it’s not going to do you any favours. I wrote this to give an example of the kind of structure and content you will need in your essay to get an A1. Of course, take some ideas from it, but I’ve said before, learning anything off by heart APART FROM QUOTIONS is a waste of time!
Happy studying and good luck,