Hamlet's Women: The Victims
The women closest to Hamlet, Gertrude, his mother and Ophelia, his lover, are victims. The tragedy of Hamlet portrays many deaths and sorrows, but it is the women who suffer most, as they are treated like instruments to be used by the male characters to achieve their most pressing desires.
As one reads the tragedy of Hamlet, it is obvious that the female characters play inferior yet important roles in it. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet during the 16th century, wherein women occupied a status lower than the ruling males. In this period, women hardly had any of the rights that men enjoyed. Women were thought to be instruments of the devil, because they were the authors of original sin who seduced men to sin and hence lured them away from God. Society's beliefs went as far as to consider women as the only imperfect creatures that God created.
Parents and future husbands commanded the unquestioned and silent obedience of the women in all subjection. Women's importance lay only in marrying wealthy men and in baring and taking care of children, to ensure the continuation of her husband's dynasty. Gertrude as well as Ophelia are examples of victims of their time.
The female characters play an important role in connection to their relationship with Hamlet. Gertrude's role shows the audience how Hamlet's insanity develops. Ophelia, on the other hand, gives us more insights from Hamlet's mind. Shakespeare chose his female characters carefully to highlight the tragic hero. The women's relationship with the tragic hero is a factor that makes them victims of the tragedy.
Hamlet loved his parents deeply and saw Gertrude and King Hamlet as a perfect couple who loved each other dearly.
So excellent a king, that he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly... why, she would hang on him
as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on. (1.2.143-149)
Gertrude seems to be very lucky to have a son who respects and loves her, and sees her as the ideal woman, and a loving and caring King. She has everything that a woman was expected to have during the 16th century: a wealthy and powerful husband and a successor to the royal heir. However, at the start of the play, king Hamlet dies and with him the fortune she has. Gertrude is left with a kingdom, which she can't manage by herself and, a son who is too deeply in grief over his father's death. She marries Claudius, the brother of her dead husband, and this is where Hamlet's disappointment, which develops into hatred, is born. He confides to the audience the confusions and hatred he is not able to express to his mother:
Within a month, ere yet salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets...
But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue. (1.2.157- 164)
The marriage of Gertrude and Claudius is considered "incestuous" in the eyes of Hamlet. But the reason for her to marry so soon is her sense of responsibility to continue running the Kingdom where the King left off. She marries Claudius to prevent the wealth of the royal family from being dispersed. However, Hamlet totally disagrees with the situation. Gertrude has to set aside her sorrow over her Husband's death and must remarry Claudius for the sake of keeping the power and wealth of the family. Instead of her son supporting her during this hard time, Hamlet gives her the cold shoulders, which of course is very painful for a mother. When Hamlet asks for permission to return to Wittenberg she says:
Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.
I pray thee, stay with us. Go not to Wittenberg. (1.2.122-123)
She is sincerely asking her son to stay and to keep her company during this time of sorrow and grief. Although Hamlet agrees to stay, he doesn't consider easing his mother's pain, but rather worsens it so as to make her pay for her betrayal of his father. When Hamlet meets his father's ghost, his anger and hatred towards Gertrude and Claudius become even stronger, because he gets to know the truth about his father's death. As the king tells his son about his treacherous murder he tells him to avenge his death, but...
...Howsomever thou pursues this act,
taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven
and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
to prick and sting her. (1.5.91- 95)
Although the king clearly tells Hamlet to exclude her from his revenge, one can doubt if he is angrier with Claudius or Gertrude. According to Ernest Jones, the author of Hamlet and Oedipus: a classic study in psychoanalytic criticism- the mother's fidelity to her husband helps an infant to build up defenses against his sensual impulses and gradually to transform and divert them along more hopeful paths. Once the mother commits adultery, the child generates a sense of aversion, disgust or even hostility to his mother as to protect himself. This is exactly how Hamlet reacts when he was told that his mother committed adultery with Claudius even when king Hamlet was alive. To some extent, he feels himself involved in the adulterous relationship, having a part of her nature. In Hamlet's eyes, the stock from which he sprang from was now rotten. Although Hamlet seems to be the victim, Gertrude, who is guilty and feels the disgust of her only son towards her, is probably aching in pain, but she cannot show any of her feelings but has to put on a faÃÂ§ade of a less affectionate queen.
When Hamlet becomes insane the Queen is of course devastated, because after she loses her husband, she thinks she has lost her son to madness. Although she wants to help Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius, Ophelia's father, take matters into their hands. Polonius thinks that Ophelia's rejection of Hamlet's love is the cause of his madness, so he and Claudius decide to spy on a conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet. Before they spy on the two, Claudius tells Gertrude:
Sweet Gertrude, leave us too,
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither...
... we may of their encounter frankly judge
and gather by him, as he is behaved,
if't be th' affliction f his love or no...(3.1.31-39)
After the play of The Murder of Gonzago, Polonius and Claudius agree that Polonius should spy on the conversation between Queen Gertrude and Hamlet.
...tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
the speech of vantage. (3.3.34-36)
Polonius advises Gertrude how to approach the cause of Hamlet's madness, before Hamlet entered her closet.
...Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with
and that your Grace hath screened and stood between
Much heat and him...(3.4.2-6)
Why does he have to do that? It can only imply that Polonius assumes that Gertrude cannot think for herself. Certainly, Gertrude, as a mother, knows how to treat her own son, but still Polonius, almost a stranger to the family, instructs her what to do.
These two passages from the book show that both Claudius and Polonius think that Gertrude cannot handle her son's madness by herself and that she is not trustworthy. They don't want her to interfere in their plans, lest she might betray them and become their enemy. As a mother, she clearly has more rights to look into her son's seemingly disturbed emotions. However, since the two men have already planned to control everything, Gertrude, as a woman, can do nothing but to remain silent and hope that the two might find the cause and cure for her son's madness.
The scene of Gertrude and Hamlet in her closet is probably the best scene that depicts how Gertrude is being cruelly victimized. After the play of the Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet is asked to go to his mother's closet. When Gertrude tells Hamlet "thou hast thy father much offended" (3.4.12), Hamlet's suppressed anger and hatred burst out. He curses his mother for having committed adultery and marrying so soon to his father's brother. Gertrude is attacked with words that bring up her guilt. Hamlet forces Gertrude in front of a mirror and says:
Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge.
You go not till I set up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you. (3.4.23-25)
What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, ho! (3.4.26-27)
The fear of what her son might do to her in his untamable anger gives her a feeling of helplessness. Hamlet continues to accuse his mother of killing and betraying his father, but Gertrude is confused, which shows that she is innocent of the murder.
What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me.(3.4.47-48)
Gertrude does not understand the uncontrollable emotions of Hamlet. But as Hamlet stops with word playing and accuses her directly, she weakly says:
O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct. (3.4.99-102)
Hamlet has, with his torturing accusations, touched the basest sense of guilt of his mother. She admits her faults, but this does not satisfy him. He continues tormenting his mother. Gertrude begs:
Oh speak to me no more!
These words like daggers enter in my ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet! (3.4.107-109)
The appearance of the ghost puts an end to Gertrude's suffering. The ghost reminds Hamlet to spare his mother of his revenge. Hamlet starts to talk to the ghost, which cannot be seen by Gertrude. She shifts from the victimized woman to a caring mother.
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with th' incorporal air do hold discourse?
...O gentle son...whereon do you look? (3.4.133-141)
After the rude and cruel way Hamlet has treated her, she finds the strength to set aside all the painful words and turns lovingly to her son.
Gertrude is also a character, who tries to settle the men's disputes which she has little to do with. When Claudius was in rage by the play of the Murder of Gonzago, she calls for Hamlet in the hope of easing Claudius anger. At the grave of Ophelia, her brother, Laertes, and Hamlet throw harsh words against each other. Before they meet again for the match, the queen bids Hamlet to "use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play" (5.2.220-221) in the hope of reconciling the two of them. Gertrude is constantly serving and giving way to the male characters. The only time when she refused to obey the order of a man was when she drank from the poisoned cup. Claudius told her not to drink from it because he knew that it will bring her death, but she stubbornly insisted:
I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me. (5.2.218)
A victim that for once chose to follow her own will, finally freeing herself from the control of men, had to face death.
Shakespeare introduces Ophelia as an innocent, simple girl who is easily molded by the more powerful opinions and desires of others. Her situation portrays how men during the 16th century strongly controlled women in a patriarchal society. The three male figures, Hamlet, Laertes, and Polonius show how she seems to be wholly at their mercy.
Before Laertes sets off for Paris, he gives her a grand lecture about her relationship with Hamlet. His long, arrogant and even hypocritical dialogues are replied by plain responds by Ophelia. When he finally comes to an end, Ophelia says:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As a watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven...
...And recks not his own rede. (1.3.49-55)
Laertes' assures Ophelia: "O fear me not" (1.3.56). After Laertes has left, Polonius inquires what they have talked about. When Ophelia confines to him her relationship with Hamlet, Polonius laughs at her as if she couldn't be taken seriously.
You do not understand yourself so clearly...(1.3.105)
Affection, puh! You speak like a green girl
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do yoou believe his "tenders", as you call them? (1.3.110-112)
Polonius ridicules Ophelia assuming that she cannot think for herself. He intimidates her so much that she disregards her own thoughts and finally anwers:
"I do not know, my lord, what I should think." (1.3.113)
Furthermore, he sees his daughter as a mere object, which could diminish in value if she were not as pure as a virgin anymore. Public image was very important during the 16th century as it depicted social status.
...Think yourself as a baby
that you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
which are not sterling...(1.3.114-116)
Laertes, too, warns Ophelia not to engage in pre-marital sex because he fears that the family might suffer financial loss, as they would be unable to marry Ophelia to a man of high social rank.
When Polonius commands her not to entertain Hamlet any longer she does not resist but simply answers:
"I shall obey, my lord"(1.3.145)
Ophelia obeys her brother and her father almost like a dog does it's owner. When Hamlet goes mad, Polonius concludes that his rejected love for Ophelia is the cause of his insanity. He uses his daughter's obedience to enhance his own prestige in the eyes of Claudius. A demure and obedient daughter, she does what she is asked to do and sides with the enemy of Hamlet,
According to the letters of Hamlet to Ophelia, he must have loved her sincerely.
To the celestial,and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia...
...but never doubt my love...(2.2.117 and 127)
When the two meet again he expects Ophelia not to have his mother's shortcomings and to prove him wrong about women. He searches for a sign in her face that will comfort him, but he finds none. He starts to curse her and tells her that he never loved her. "Get thee to a nunnery"(3.1.131), implies that she should go to a brothel. Hamlet sees her as a whore for letting others use her. When he suspects that the two of them are being spied upon by Polonius, he asks her:
"Where is your father?"( 3.1.141)
She untruly responds:
"At home my lord." (3.1.142)
Hamlet now knows that Ophelia is lying to him and concludes: "Frailty thy name is woman!"(1.2.150) Hamlet's obsession against his mother's re-marriage changes his outlook and opinion of women, including Ophelia. She has now lost the man who loved her, and becomes a victim of his confused emotions and a tool in his plan for revenge. However, he remains sexually attracted to her, but has placed on her much of his anger for his mother. He no longer sees her as a person.
In the scene of the Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet's anger turns to perversity. At the start of the play his mother asked him to sit beside her but he responded:
No, good mother. Here's metal more attractive. ( 3.2.116)
Ophelia is seen as a mere object that attracts Hamlets lust.
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?( 3.2.119)
He starts molesting her with words but all Ophelia can say is:
I think nothing, my lord. (3.2.124)
Hamlet is enjoying himself by playing with Ophelia. She, for her part, can do nothing, because she has been brought up in a society where men are given unconditional respect. Ophelia has to swallow all insults and is deprived of expressing and defending herself. Ophelia's silence satisfies the hostile attitude of Hamlet and proves his superiority over her as man.
There is only one scene were Ophelia is free from male influence.
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked honey of his musicked vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason...
....that unmachted form and stature of blown youth
blasted with ecstasy...(3.1.169-174)
Ophelia reveals her inmost feelings about Hamlet. Nobody is pushing her to be something she is not, but this moment of freedom of will and mind will not remain long. Claudius and Polonius approach her and again she becomes a "caged beast" with no real will of her own.
When Hamlet murders Polonius, Ophelia becomes insane. She finds herself in a double realm of guilt, for loving her father's murderer and at the same time being the cause of Hamlet's action. Even though Hamlet did not kill Polonius because of Ophelia, she still blames the miserable events happening on herself. Whether it be by nature or nurture, Ophelia is totally dependent on the men surrounding her. Although she is being controlled by them, she needs man to guide her perception of the world, because her mind has been so "brain-washed" that she is incapable of trusting her own. As the male characters' support diminish so does her state of mind. However, her insanity is, to some extent, a way that frees her from the external pressures. Now that she has become mad, people listen to her.
Her speech is nothing, yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers recollection. They aim at it
and botch the words up fit to their own thoughts...(4.5.9-12)
Even Laertes for once listens to his sister and concludes:
This nothing's more than matter. (4.5.118)
For the first time in the play, the people around Ophelia listen to her. She becomes now free to express her will, but is somehow not used to it and hence uses songs to express her feelings. She utters about the event of romance she had been denied...
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day...
...and I a maid at your window,
to be your Valentine.
The up he rose and donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more...(4.5.53-60)
Her songs reflect the lusts of the outside world, which she has been deprived of.
Ophelia alludes to the flowers in her dialogue in:
There is a fennel for you, and columbines...(4.5.204-209)
These flowers are symbols of innocence, which are emblems of her own youth and her inability to deal with the harsh world in which the play is set.
When Ophelia finally drowns, the people controlling and treating her cruelly confess their caring love for her. At her burial her brother jumps into her grave and says:
Hold of the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms...(5.1.261-262)
Hamlet, hiding behind the thick forest, advances when he realizes that it was Ophelia in the grave and asserts:
I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum...(5.1.284-286)
The two men left, who burdened Ophelia's life, now admit their true feelings, but this is of little use to her now that she is dead. Even though the affections of the characters seem to be touching, in the quarrel that arises between Laertes and Hamlet, Ophelia, even in death, is seen as an object fought over by men. The two of them claim that each one of them would have done more for Ophelia.
Hamlet: 'swounds, show me what thou't do.
Woo't weep, woo't fight, woo't fast, woo't tear thyself,
Woo't drink up eisel, eat a crocodile? (5.1.290-293)
Their arguments can neither flatter nor bring honor to Ophelia. The two of them boast about their love, both of which remained unknown to Ophelia when she was still alive.
Ophelia's obedience and weakness leads to her own destruction. Her fate is an outgrowth of Hamlet's emotional collapse. Her life is not only diminished by his actions but she also is a measure of what Hamlet had lost through his mistaken vision of the world.
Hamlet's treatment of Gertrude and Ophelia shapes and brings life to the two characters as well as their downfall. They are given a chance to free themselves from the "chains" of men-control, but their doing so, either purposely or not, brings nothing good, but instead their death. Shakespeare chose the female characters to be punished for their disobedience, so as to emphasize the inferior and discriminating status women occupy in the tragedy of Hamlet. The two women surrounding Hamlet are innocent victims of other people's wrongdoings.
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