Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’


Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.




Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

It’s surprising how coincidences happen sometimes.

I mean, it’s no surprise that there’s been a lot of crime and detective fiction in my reading list recently: it’s basically research! But there’s also been a lot of Shakespeare in it!

Ali Shaw’s The Trees isn’t – I don’t think – based on Shakespeare but there are resonances and echoes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through it. The whisperers in their enigmatic and invisible presence stir memories of Puck and Robin Goodfellow, or perhaps the fairies, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote and Mustardseed, tending on the creature on the throne as if they were an Oberon. And the trees’ own confusion of season recalled the lines

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

And now, I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a modern revisiting of The Tempest for the Hogarth Shakespeare project, where Prospero has become Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival usurped by his assistant following the deaths of his wife in childbirth and then his daughter Miranda.

And alongside that, I have picked up Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, thinking from the blurb that it was more of a murder mystery – until, that is, I read the prologue and kicked myself for not recognising perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most potent quotations

“I could be bounded in a nut shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

How could I not have recognised that?!

Here, Hamlet is indeed bounded in a nutshell: he is a (somewhat precocious) unborn foetus two weeks from birth listening to – and narrating – it requires a serious suspension of disbelief – his mother’s and uncle’s plans to murder his father. Just on a small note, what McEwan does with the names is delightful: Gertrude (a name which teenagers usually mocks) becomes quite beguiling as a Trudy; Claudius (which has classical connotation) is modernised to Claude which, phonologically, conjures up the image of a clod of earth, which fits delightfully with the scarily unimaginative and dull-witted would-be murderer.

Intertextuality is a strange idea.

It’s reasonable and intuitive that texts refer both backwards and forwards within themselves: how many stories and tales begin and end at the same place and setting? Detective fiction is built on the importance of small early details turning into clues to be resolved later. Anton Chekov went so far as to call it a rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

As a reader, we’d say that the presence of the gun prefigures its later use. These references are what semioticians might call horizontal.

But the books we read are littered with what the same semioticians might describe as vertical references: references to other preceding texts. Every reference to any pastoral idyll echoes a range of poetry dating back to the Garden of Eden. Learned scholars might say something like

Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. For structuralists, language has powers which not only exceed individual control but also determine subjectivity.

This intertextuality stuff, to those of us who are just readers is, to my mind, anything that reminds us of any other text or style of writing. At its most superficial, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle or an in-joke; at its most abstruse, it can inhibit understanding. T. S. Eliot can fall within both these at the same time!

The most obvious example of intertextuality would be a quotation deliberately inserted by the writer. Susan Hill does this at the end of her opening chapter: Kipps recalls but cannot identify the lines

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The quotation is from Hamlet and brings to mind the tortuous family relations within Denmark and the rottenness that ensues. It therefore deepens and prefigures the equally tortuous relations within the Drablow family, especially those between mother and child.

The fact of the quotation, however, itself recalls the quotation from Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Marinerthat Dr Frankenstein is put in mind of after his creature rises:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

As Kipps’ quote introduces key themes, so does Frankenstein’s. And the use of quotations by both characters highlights parallels between them: they are both rational beings catapulted into a world that is not susceptible to legal or scientific scrutiny.

This is not the only parallel with Frankenstein: the opening chapter consists of a ghost story competition, reminiscent of the creation story of Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein; the tales of

“uninhibited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards”

recounts almost every Gothic trope and cliche including the charnel houses in which Viktor Frankenstein found his “materials”. Even the very framing narrative of older Kipps recalls both the framing narratives of Captain Walton in Frankenstein and of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

The entirety of the chapter A Journey North appears to me to be an homage to Dracula: Kipps and Harker are both solicitors clerks heading out of London and into increasingly uncivilised and dangerous terrains, albeit one heading north and the other east; both travel by train (and the train and it’s timetables become so important to Dracula); the carriages, which were originally “as cosy and enclosed as some lamplight study” that becomes nothing more than a “cold tomb of a railway carriage”, recalling the coffins in which Dracula travels.

The In The Nursery chapter introduces the reader to the rhythmic “Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” which is later revealed to be the rocking chair. But the rhythm clearly echoes that of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Even the title of the chapter Whistle And I’ll Come To You apes the title if M R James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The graveyard and monastery around Eel Marsh House cause a wry dismissal of Romantic poetry whilst the house itself reminds Kipps and the reader of “the house of poor Miss Havisham” from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Brontë, Shelley, Stoker, Dickens, Shakespeare, James, Poe. As well as John Clare and Walter Scott and Victorian novels and Romantic poetry in general. Epistolary narratives embedded in a first person narrative embedded within a framing narrative.

The book – the text – is as haunted by these writers as Kipps is himself! And is that not the point – or at least a point? That there is no such thing as a present without a history behind it? No such thing as a now devoid of then? Nothing original in the world, only old patterns re-worked? This is what those aforementioned semioticians might cite to challenge the entire concept of authorship: is this in any sense Hill’s story more than Shelley’s or Dickens’?

Kipps himself falls into the authorial fallacy: his belief that discovering Jennet Drablow’s story will somehow appease her ghost, “solve” her story as if it were some rational puzzle to demystify and control is shown in the horrific final chapter to be tragically wrong. And it’s a mistake he repeats as he attempts to tame her again in re-telling the tale to us! The stage version of the book delves further into this fallacy: the attempt to rationalise Jennet Drablow out of existence actually summons her into the theatre itself, unleashing her on the director and the audience.

I worry about Sweden.

It keeps me up at night.

I wake in cold sweats.

I worry about the weather there: the snow and freezing temperatures. I worry about the trolls. I worry about IKEA. And I worry about the people. And families.

It must be a terrible place.

Every single novel I’ve read from there – Stieg Larsson, Mons Kallentoft and now Lars Kepler – seem to hold a mirror up to show the twisted, rotting heart of Swedish families. Darkly. Incest, violence, neglect, abuse.

I suppose any country that invents the concept of IKEA must have something to hide beneath the surface of its sleek plywood exterior.

I also worry about the effect of these books on the Swedish tourist economy. Especially on any hotel, bed and breakfast or hostel labelling itself as family-run.

*Disclaimer: yes, I do understand that these are works of fiction. This is not racism; it’s satire!*

Kepler – which is actually the nom de plume of the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril – opens The Hypnotist with the slaughter of what seems to be an entire family. The violence is gruesome but not lingered over – which is a relief to those of us with a tender nervous system! – and a couple of images of severed limbs and joints suffice.

A child is discovered still to be alive despite multiple wounds and extensive injuries and he is rushed to hospital. A familiar image then resolves: the well-meaning but somewhat brusque police officer wants to interview the child; the concerned doctor says he’s not up to it. And it’s at this point that the doctor calls in an expert in trauma care: the eponymous hypnotist Erik Maria Bark.

This is a book that jumps around between different points of view and we see the events of the story through the eyes of Bark; his wife Simone – whose nickname of Sixan I found was oddly sweet; Sixan’s father, a retired but police officer with a somewhat mythic status; and the aforementioned Police Officer, Joona Linna. Apparently Linna is the main character in the book which is the first in a series based around him.

Which is a little odd: Linna has a rather minimal role in the book and is the least used point of view; the book is not named after him; his character is barely fleshed out. Perhaps the plan is for Linna to be little more than a thread from which to hang more interesting characters that he encounters.

Erik Bark’s is the first viewpoint we see. Bark is given the honour of an extended first person flashback narrative half way through the book.

And Bark I did find interesting. His relationship with Sixan – flawed, frayed and fragile as it was – was actually quite moving. A hypnotist who doesn’t hypnotise. A doctor who self-medicates. A husband who has betrayed his wife. The way that a simple misunderstanding – the wrong person at the hospital answers his phone – fed by a previous betrayal – leads to doubt, fear and suspicion and eventually the disintegration of the relationship was actually rather deftly handled and moving. I hope that it doesn’t reflect the two Alex Ahndorils’ relationship! I’ve got enough to worry about!

There are a number of plots running through this book. The slaughtered family that opens the book is dealt with rather quickly: within 50 pages or so the injured boy, Joseph Ek, has been hypnotised, confessed to the murders, given the police the location of his surviving sister and escaped from hospital. Thereafter, Bark’s son Benjamin is kidnapped and the main plot commences. The race to find and rescue Benjamin is given even more urgency as he has a blood clotting disease and will die without weekly injections. The pace of the book is quick: the chapters are really short, perhaps 3 or 4 pages; the writing is in present tense; the changes in perspective are rapid; the writing is quite visual … it’s almost as if the Ahndorils had a mind to a film version as they were writing. A third and the weakest plot evolves as Sixan and her father investigate Benjamin’s computer in which a local gang – somewhat oddly naming themselves after Pokemon characters – have been terrorising Benjamin’s girlfriend and her brother.

The plots involving the Ek family and Benjamin’s disappearance were not terribly well integrated. The Ek plot seemed little more than a device to introduce Erik Bark and I felt it had more potential to be developed in its own right or could have been knitted into the main plot more fully. I wonder whether one was Alexandra’s plot and one was Alexander’s.

There is another gripe I have with the plotting. The main theme is that the past is never past: as a hypnotist, Bark’s research is to resolve his patients’ traumatic histories; Erik’s past betrayal gives Sixan’s present misunderstanding real pain. And the past is at the root of Benjamin’s kidnapping which we learn is rooted in the reasons why Erik gave up hypnotism. But he doesn’t remember that incident until he comes across a video of a hypnosis session. It just didn’t strike me as realistic that the phrase “the haunted house” would not have triggered Erik’s memory as soon as he had heard it!

Altogether though, a decent well paced thriller. And insofar as genres are useful (limited if at all: I do find genre a limiting concept. The temptation is to only read the books that a publisher has given a certain label too. Surely the only real genres are books-I-like and books-I-don’t-like. Otherwise we end up with Polonius wondering whether a book is

tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

Anyway, rant over…) I’d say it is a thriller rather than crime because of the prominence of Bark as a character over Linna.



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

“to live
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

“ulcerous place,
[Where] rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen”.

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”

and that

“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?
I’ll do’t.”


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.