Hamlet, perhaps the most famous and most argued over play by Shakespeare, was written between the years 1599 and 1601 as Elizabeth I was reaching the end of her reign. The play features two of the most famous women in Shakespeare: Ophelia and Gertrude and Hamlet’s relationships with these women account for a large number of the three hours or so stage business that the play comprises. The presentation of these women constantly shifts as the play develops and according to the contexts in which they are shown: women are frequently reviled by Hamlet who seems repulsed by their sexuality; yet there are also moments of genuine tenderness; women are regularly accused of deceit, yet are also frequently the victims of deception perpetrated by men; women are controlled and dominated by the men in a clearly patriarchal society; despite this, however, they consistently show moments of genuine statesmanship and real competence.
The two women are at polar extremes of experience. Gertrude, as the Queen of Denmark, possesses the greatest status it is possible to achieve, she is mature and experienced, her son Hamlet being 30 years old. Ophelia, on the other hand, as the young daughter of a courtier, has a very lowly status in Danish society and has no opportunity to exercise any independence.
Hamlet’s so-called “sex nausea” is given full and robust voice in his first soliloquy in Act I scene ii. He declares to the audience that “Frailty – thy name is woman” and abhors his mother for her re-marriage when Hamlet senior is “but two months dead… a little month”. Within this soliloquy, Hamlet compares his mother to a
“beast that wants discourse of reason”
and the sixteenth century audience would have been aware that animals in drama were often associated with lechery and lust. When combined with the sensual image of Gertrude who
“would hang on [the old King Hamlet] /As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on”
it becomes clear that Hamlet is implying that the hasty remarriage was caused by his own mother’s sexual urgings. The fractured grammar and frequent caesurae in this soliloquy reveal the almost incoherent disgust that this breeds in Hamlet.
Nor does this disgust end here. In Act III scene iv, the closet scene, Hamlet returns to the same question and dwells on the same concerns. He initially refuses to accept the fact of his mother’s sexuality because, at her age “the heyday in the blood is tame” and later he accuses her of a “mutine in matron’s bones”. This continues through the scene, culminating in the disturbing image of Gertrude choosing
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty”
which continues the animal imagery of the earlier scene. This central scene in the play, therefore, revolves around the presentation of women as debauched, bestial sexual creatures. Hamlet’s language in this scene is crude and violent and one of the final images in the scene is of an
[Where] rank corruption, mining all within,
This image of corruption and disease, recalls Hamlet’s previous utterance that there is “something rotten” in the state of Denmark, along with a wealth of others. This “something rotten” in Act III scene iv becomes identified with the rotten, unhealthy and diseased sexuality of Hamlet’s own mother and, by extension all women.
Gertrude is not the only woman to receive this treatment from Hamlet. In Act III scene i Ophelia is told by Hamlet that
“the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd”
“wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them”
. This reference to the myth of the cuckold reveals Hamlet’s apparent certainty that no woman would fail to deceive and be unfaithful to their husbands. There is a different quality to the language here, however. The language seems almost proverbial or academic and lacks the bitterness clearly seen in the closet scene. Even the famous “Get thee to a nunnery” is more than capable of being interpreted as Hamlet giving very sound advice to Ophelia about the physical and moral danger that Elsinore poses to her.
Indeed, it is perhaps with Ophelia that we see Hamlet’s moments of tenderness towards women. In Act 2 scene i, Ophelia relates an incident between herself and Hamlet which had left her “affrighted”. She recalls that Hamlet entered her closet, and
“falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it”.
Whilst this incident clearly and understandably distressed Ophelia, and whilst her father interprets it as the first sign of Hamlet’s madness, this scene represents one of the most touching in the play. This shows, through Ophelia’s recollection, Hamlet’s farewell to her, having decided to “wipe away all trivial fond records” from his life in order to pursue the ghost’s commandment to “remember me”. The ferocity and length of time with which Hamlet gripped Ophelia, his unusual silence throughout the meeting, the final turning of his eyes to watch her as he left the room are all telling and moving signs of the love that he felt for her and his regret at having no more opportunity to pursue it.
The extent of Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia are never made clear, however, and Hamlet is contradictory in his attitude to her. He alternates in Act III between “I did love thee once” and “I loved you not” within four lines; it is clear that he has made “tenders” of her affection, yet he claims also that “I never gave you aught”. Prior to the start of the Mousetrap, Hamlet appears to deliberately attempt to humiliate Ophelia in public by offering to “lay in your lap”, referring to “country matters” and dwelling on the euphemistic meanings of “nothing”.
Ophelia’s death, too, forms an emotional core within the play. Gertrude’s description in Act IV scene vii of the willow’s “hoar leaves in the glassy stream” from which Ophelia fell and her clothes which “spread wide and mermaid like awhile they bore her up” is undeniably moving. The use of slightly archaic and lyrical words such as “hoar” and the peaceful rhythm of her verse powerfully evoke the tenderness with which the audience views Ophelia and contrasts with the way both Hamlet and Polonius speak to, manipulate and use her throughout the play. This beautiful tribute to Ophelia undermines the vulgarity with which she had at times been treated by other characters, fittingly echoed in the
“long purples that liberal shepherds give a grosser name”
in Gertrude’s litany of flowers and reveals Shakespeare’s own presentation of her. It is no wonder that Ophelia’s death has inspired a range of iconic art.
It is typical of the attitude other characters in the play have of women that Ophelia’s burial becomes the scene of an extraordinary contest of protestations of love for her between Laertes who offers to be buried with her and Hamlet who offers
“Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
The tenderness of Ophelia’s death, the pain of her fractured mind are suborned to two competing male egos challenging each other to declare their love for Ophelia in the most bombastic manner imaginable and physically squabbling in her very grave. Shakespeare pits these two men as nemeses from the beginning of the play: Claudius ignores his son-in-law by speaking to Laertes first, speaking his name repeatedly in Act I scene ii; Laertes is permitted to return to Paris, Hamlet is denied permission to return to Wittenburg; both men have lost a father to violence; both men seek revenge for that father’s death. Shakespeare clearly shows in this scene how male impulses and male competitiveness hijack Ophelia’s last moments and trample on her. This reflects in miniature the overpowering masculinity and patriarchy of the Elsinor court in which nothing feminine is permitted to thrive.
Hamlet’s most damning criticism of women in this scene is the accusation that
“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another”
, a theme that returns in Act V scene i where Hamlet speaks to the skull of Yorick and tells it to
“get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick”
. His inability to trust women, his belief in the gulf between their apparent facade and the real person beneath the mask finds a telling image in these references to make up. This is, of course, doubly ironic because no women were permitted on the stage in 1600 so both Ophelia and Gertrude were played by male actors on whom the make up was no doubt applied an “inch thick”.
This, however, is not a concern which is not directed solely at women: Hamlet suspects his uncle of being a “smiling, damned villain” and declares that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. The courtly and sophisticated “smile” which acts as a mask behind which Claudius’ villainy hides is a far more invidious and sinister image than the women’s make up. Within the play, Shakespeare at no point shows a woman being deceitful: Polonius concocts a plan to “loose” his daughter on Hamlet; Claudius spies on them with him; Polonius decides, fatally, that “behind the arras I’ll convey myself”; Hamlet declares that during the Mousetrap, “mine eyes will rivet to his face” as he joins in the routine of espionage amongst the men. Whilst the language of the character Hamlet berates women for being, literally, two-faced, the play Hamlet portrays men acting in that manner and using women for their own ends.
The first time that the audience sees a female character in the play Hamlet is in the very public Act 1 Scene 2 and for a very long stretch of time, Gertrude is silent. This scene introduces the royal family to the audience and Claudius occupies centre stage throughout. Although he constantly uses the first person plural in his address, such as “it befitted us to bear our hearts in grief”, it is clear that this is a royal “we” and he is clearly referring only to himself, as when he refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister”. He does, nominally, accord power to Gertrude in the long verse address to the Court, referring to her as his “imperial jointress”, but her very silence reveals the hollowness of that title, as does the ominous phrase “Taken to wife”. Whilst the play is silent about the motives behind the marriage, it is certainly credible that Gertrude was an unwilling partner whom Claudius seduced or pressurised into marriage in order to consolidate his own claim to the throne and pre-empt any criticism from Hamlet.
It is telling that the first time at which Gertrude feels able to speak is in domestic matters: her son’s intention to return to Wittenburg. She chooses to speak as Hamlet tells Claudius that he is “too much i’the sun”, echoing Claudius’ calling him “my cousin Hamlet and my son”. Whilst his response is punning and riddling, he is implicitly spurning Claudius’ publically offered and politically motivated allegiance. The relationship between Claudius and Hamlet could only be incredibly difficult: any step-parent relationship is challenging, exacerbated as Hamlet may have had “ambition” to succeed his father but Claudius had
“popped in between th’election and my hopes”
and further complicated by Hamlet’s apparent hatred of Claudius referring to him as a “satyr” even before knowing of the murder. For this difficult relationship to have fallen apart quickly and before the entire Court as appears likely at this moment would have been catastrophic and it is Gertrude who steps in and consoles her son. Hamlet makes it clear that in remaining in Elsinor, he
“shall in all my best obey you, madam”
and not Claudius. Similarly, Gertrude gently cajoles Polonius to keep to the point, appears to correct Claudius as to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern’s names and listens intently and sensitively to her son in the closet scene. Despite the misogynistic rhetoric that fills the play, therefore, what we see of Gertrude is neither a sexually aggressive predator nor a deceiver but a mature and competent stateswoman who is frequently seen treading a difficult path in a very surefooted way.
Whilst there is an argument that Gertrude is being manipulated and controlled by Claudius, it is patent that Ophelia is in thrall to her family. Polonius when discussing her relationship with Hamlet even states that
“You do not understand yourself so clearly / As it behoves my daughter and your honour”
. It is crucial that he demands that Ophelia act appropriately as his daughter before considering her own feelings. This was typical of the patriarchal society of the sixteenth century in which Shakespeare was living and writing. Daughters were treated almost as a commodity by their fathers and it was a motif that recurred throughout his career: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing and Desdemona in Othello are all rounded on by their fathers for refusing to marry the man their father picked, appearing to sully the family name or marrying an inappropriate suitor. This commodification of daughters recurs again in Act I scene iii as Polonius demands that Ophelia
“tender herself more dearly”
, clearly adopting a semantic field drawn from the mercantile world. It is noticeable that at no point does Ophelia rebel against or reject her father’s instruction, instead obeying it to the letter she does indeed reject Hamlet’s advances.
It is vital in the play Hamlet not to be dragged into the characters’ own views of women. There is a vast gulf between the misogynistic and patriarchal views expressed by Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet and the competent, tender and sensitive portrayals of both Ophelia and Gertrude. Neither of them are simply the weak victims that men treat them as, nor are they the lascivious beasts that they are described to be. Instead, Gertrude represents a competence and calmness throughout the play whilst Ophelia becomes an icon of the effects of the repressive and patriarchal society in both Elsinore and England at the time in which Shakespeare was writing. Both women are destroyed by that society and their presentation in the play is extraordinarily sympathetic.