shakespeare's presentation of women in hamlet : LUSENET : Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet : One Thread

examine shakespeare's presentation of women and their relationships with hamlet

-- rita (, January 06, 2005


Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. In this essay I will look at Hamlets perception of women in general but particularly Gertrude and Ophelia. I will also look at the historical presentation of women, comparing Hamlets time to today and seeing if the symbolic role that the females characters have is related to the period. Also I will look at Hamlets madness, whether it was real or not and also whether women could be the cause of it. Finally I will look at a possible ‘Oedipus complex’ in Hamlet. ‘Hamlet’ as the title suggests is based around the character Hamlet Prince of Denmark. This is why women are often presented the way that Hamlet sees them. Also Hamlet lives in a very enclosed world with only a small circle of friends and family. Only 2 women, Gertrude and Ophelia, enter into his world, so he used their characters as a complete character assessment of all women. Hamlet directs the insult ‘frailty thy name is women’ at Gertrude, and in some ways this remark is justified. Hamlet is disillusioned with her because of her ‘o’erhasty marriage’ to Claudius. He thinks it is incestuous and at times seems angrier about it then his father’s murder, ‘in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed.’ This is why often people say that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. This is an idea developed by Freud who says all sons want to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers. There are many arguments that go against this though. Hamlet is very outspoken about Gertrude’s ‘incestuous behaviour’ so isn’t likely to want it himself. Hamlet seams repulsed by sex. Also Hamlet seems to view his father as a type of god and so isn’t very likely to want to kill him. In fact the exact opposite, as he is trying to revenge the murder of his father. Gertrude is also suspected by Hamlet of being involved in the murder of Old Hamlet although we are led to believe that she is not. This is because the ghost of Old Hamlet tells Hamlet to say nothing against her as though she is an innocent party in Claudius plan ‘against thy mother aught; leave her to heaven’ She also she turns to support Hamlet at the end of the play, even by saving his life by drinking the poison intended for him. Hamlet only sees the ‘incestuous behaviour’ from Gertrude though and as for him, she represents women in general, he is suspicious of all women. We do get a view of Gertrude and particularly of Ophelia through the eyes of other people at certain times. When they are shown, they are often represented in a very negative way, in the way they would have been represented at the time. A good example of this is when Laertes tells Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet and she replies ‘I shall obey, my lord.’ Because we are led to believe that she is in love with Hamlet, this we be exactly what she doesn’t want. In medieval times when Hamlet was set, women were expected to obey their fathers and brother until they got married and could obey their husbands. This is why Ophelia had little choice but to say this. This is why Ophelia’s madness has such an importance in the play. It gives Ophelia the freedom to say what she could say before, for example giving columbines to Laertes to represent ingratitude’s and infidelity ‘There’s fennel for you and columbines’ Also her loss of innocence finishes with her eventual suicide. At the time suicide was a sin against God and so people who commit suicide weren’t allowed a proper funeral. Ophelia’s innocence is somehow preserved by allowing her a funeral even because of her suicide. We also see how Gertrude is treated by her Claudius and Polonius. The both boss her around and tell her what to do, even Polonius who has no right, by not being related to her. We see this when Polonius tell Gertrude that he is going to hide in her room and listen to her conversation with Hamlet. This backfires on him though as it eventually leads to his murder by Hamlet. Hamlet claims that he is faking madness but at times his madness appears real. There are 2 suspected reasons for his madness and both reasons include women. The first explanation is that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia and his rejection from her has driven him to madness. This is a reasonable explanation because Hamlet often seams at his maddest when he is talking to Ophelia ‘Get thee to a nunnery.’ The other explanation for Hamlets madness is the most likely though. Hamlet is mad because he is offended by Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius. He doesn’t think that Claudius is worthy to be like his father. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia in the play can be interpreted in 2 ways. Most of the time he appears cruel to her, as if he is just using her as a way of convincing everybody else that he is mad. A good example of this is when he is talking to her and he realises that Claudius and Polonius are listening. This is when he says the line ‘get thee to a nunnery’ He seams physically overbearing to Ophelia is shown to hurt her physically as well as mentally. Another explanation of this is that he is trying to protect her. Hamlet describes the world as a corrupt Eden and so ‘get thee to a nunnery’ is sending her away from evil and corruption. Also he is sending her away from the bloodshed that he predicts is going to happen. Hamlet is often sceptical against women. He says to Ophelia ‘or is thou wilt need marry, marry a fool, for wise men know what monsters you will make of them.’ This shows how bitter he is towards women and how bitter he is towards the world. This bitterness may be because he feels he has been betrayed by the 2 main women in his life. His mother by marrying Claudius and Ophelia by rejecting him. Women often have symbolic roles in Hamlet. Gertrude isn’t an evil character but is tainted by Claudius. This proves that Shakespeare presents women as being morally week, and led by men, rather than making their own choices. Even when Gertrude breaks away from the evil of Claudius she is led by another man in her son Hamlet. Although this is a more positive reflection of Gertrude/women it still shows how women are shown as easily led and not able to make their own decisions. It isn’t decisive whether Shakespeare is showing this presentation of women as a way of showing that this is wrong, or whether it is just a part of the play that fits in with historical setting. Or he may have been agreeing that this is the way that women should be portrayed.

-- Andy Malbon (, February 28, 2005.

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