A Level English: “The only role of women in Hamlet is to be used by men”


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You don’t need to look for any further evidence for the significance of the ‘woman’ debate in Hamlet that to simply type “women in Hamlet” in Google and discover that there are about “16, 700, 000” results.:

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However, an important question to ask is whether there is a large discussion on the roles women play in Hamlet because Ophelia and Gertrude have been “silenced”, as some feminist critics suggest, by Shakespeare, or whether they actually have a meaningful role in the play which warrants discussion.


It is significant to note that neither Gertrude nor Ophelia is developed substantially; Shakespeare gives them far less stage time and far fewer lines than might be expected by the audience, considering the amount of time Hamlet spends in the play criticising different aspects and faults of either one of them (examples include “look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours”). Some critics might see Shakespeare’s lack of development for the women in his play as a result of his intent on confirming the stereotypes of women as weak and marginalising them– indeed, Ophelia arguably does little than consent to “obey” her male superiors and she is never presented as being in love with Hamlet; the play’s focus is entirely on whether he loves her. Similarly, Gertrude too is presented as submissive, assuring the King “I will obey you” and losing control of the conversation with Hamlet in the Closet scene.

Some critics have argued that the only role of women in the play is to be used by the males. Laertes puts a special emphasis on Ophelia’s weaknesses– the “danger” of her “chaste treasure open[ing] to [Hamlet’s] unmastered opportunity”. Furthermore, Ophelia is described by Polonius as a “baby”, the imagery emphasising her physical weakness. However, to claim that the ‘only’ use of women in the play is to be used, is perhaps an over exaggeration. The audience never knows, even by the end of the play, if Gertrude was seduced first or if she took the opportunity to marry. Although the former argument would confirm the suggestion that women are continuously ‘used’ by men in “Hamlet”, the latter would give Gertrude significant power over her own life. This ambiguity prevents the audience from being able to claim that women are marginalised completely in “Hamlet”.

If an alternative explanation were to be found for the small role Gertrude and Ophelia play in “Hamlet”, perhaps it might not be implausible to suggest that Hamlet was already Shakespeare’s longest play, with 4024 lines. Thus, Shakespeare may not have desired to make his play even longer than it already was by giving his female characters longer speeches. Perhaps Polonius’ remark that “This [the Phyrrus speech] is too long” is allegorically Shakespeare’s anticipation that critics would later criticise the length of his play. By giving Ophelia and Gertrude limited roles, Shakespeare was, possibly, more able to focus on developing Hamlet’s personality, particularly in his soliloquys.

However, other critics have argued that in madness, Ophelia is given a limited kind of power. Maurice Charney, in Hamlet’s fictions argues that “Through madness, the women on stage can suddenly make a forceful assertion of their being… breaking through unbearable social restraints”. Indeed, the first word the gentleman uses to describe mad Ophelia is “importunate”, suggesting that she has acquired some power to be demanding. Ophelia is perhaps given the role of the ‘licensed fool’, able to speak satirically whilst other courtiers at court are not (e.g. in the song she sings to Gertrude “which bewept to the grave did not go with true love showers”) It might be suggested that perhaps the role mad Ophelia plays deviates from her role whilst she was sane– Shakespeare is arguably able to emphasise the hypocrisy of the court and the corruptness of the world through mad Ophelia (“there’s tricks i’ th’ world”). Indeed, Laertes claims that “this nothing’s more than matter” and Horatio describes the threat of Ophelia “strew[ing] dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds”, in effect emphasising Ophelia’s acquired power through madness.

Some critics have suggested that Gertrude suspected the drink the King offered to Hamlet in Act V was poison, leading her to drink it to save her son. This is significant in that were it true, Gertrude would arguably be shown to resist the category of ‘dutiful wife’ that patriarchal society places on her. Gertrude’s asking permission from Claudius to “pardon [her]” could be seen as her request that Claudius forgive her for choosing Hamlet over the king, her claim that “I will [drink] my lord” arguably a defiant message that she would not continue to obey her husband. Perhaps the Queen “carous[ing to Hamlet’s] fortune” might be interpreted as her desire to preserve Hamlet’s future, though sacrificing her own; she is, indeed, quick to correct the king “No, no, the drink, the drink” as the cause of her death, thus voicing information contrary to the wishes of Claudius.

However, this interpretation has two principal problems: Firstly, there is no way to confirm that Shakespeare intended for his character to be acted or read in this way, thus, it is merely a suggestion, not a fact. Secondly, if this interpretation were to be true, the issue with it is the message Shakespeare would be sending to his audience: defiance in a woman has dangerous consequences. Indeed, in arguing that Ophelia’s suicide was her ultimate action in regaining power over herself, critics invite the argument that Shakespeare thus warns against women seeking to gain more powerIn the Elizabethan era, suicide was believed to be one of the ‘mortal sins’- one would be unable to repent, as it was their last action on earth. Those who had committed suicide were buried in unconsecrated soil. If the Elizabethan and Jacobean audience were to believe the gravediggers and Hamlet, who all suggested that Ophelia had “ford[id her] own life” they would arguably not have reacted with applauding Ophelia for her act of strength- it would instead be seen as a confirmation of women’s susceptibility to sinning.

Nevertheless, what is evident from this study is that the role of Gertrude and Ophelia in “Hamlet” was not limited to simply being used by men– whether as Shakespeare’s device in emphasising the virtuous and sinful characteristics of women, or as a means of both presenting and satirising the hypocrisy of Elsinore and “corrupt[ness]” of the world, Shakespeare seems to have had ulterior reasons in the way he presents women in “Hamlet” than simply to objectify them.

Please feel free to tell me what you think about this theme in the comment section!

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