An exploration of femininity i

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An exploration of Femininity in Shakespeare's Tragedies.


In a patriarchal structured society femininity and the female are restricted or defined by the socio-cultural precepts imposed by the male hegemony. Therefore, in order to examine the feminine as presented in Hamlet and other plays, I believe, we must have at the fore-front of our minds the masculine system which surrounds the feminine. For this reason, I propose the most satisfactory means of examining the role of the female is by comparison with that of the male. In order to examine the notion of friendship, bonding and duty between men and women and in purely male relationships, I intend to establish a number of comparisons to demonstrate the importance of the real/ ideal dichotomy in the presentation and social acceptance of women.

The comparisons I shall make are between: Hamlet and Horatio, and Hamlet and Ophelia; Hamlet and his father, set against Hamlet and Gertrude.

These comparisons, I believe, demonstrate the power of male bonding, and show male/female relationships are formulaic in character, defining the woman by categories. Femininity, symbolic of sexual potency and control, must be determined by the male hierarchy.

II Hamlet has an ambivalent relationship with Horatio. Hamlet, at first, distances himself from Horatio, and is wary of placing too much trust in his friend. Indeed, Horatio recognises the individual nature of the Ghost's plight, and implicitly, therein, Hamlet's task: It beckons you to go away with it, As if it some impartment did desire To you alone.

(1.4.58-60) Hamlet also refuses to confide in his friend, believing that Horatio would not be able to comprehend his predicament, that the dilemma presented by the Ghost would not adequately fit into Horatio's "philosophy" (1.6.166-7). However, Horatio has numerous characteristics which endear him to Hamlet: most notably, Horatio represents the Ghost's herald and therefore knows of its significance, while remaining a point-of-contact wholly external to the distressed father-son relationship. This fact is highlighted when Hamlet finally decides to confide in his friend; Hamlet mentions that Horatio is "not a pipe for Fortune's finger/ To sound what stop she pleases" (3.2.70-1). This is echoed in Hamlet's fear that Guildenstern "would play upon me;/[that he] would seem to know my stops" (3.2.373-4). For Hamlet, by the Ghost's commands, has become "easier to be played on than a pipe" (376). Therefore, Horatio distinguishes himself in friendship from that of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, but also Hamlet himself by not being fallible to Fortune's play .

But the bonding between Horatio and Hamlet is not purely defined by the Ghost, or Hamlet's inadequacies. There is also the question of his masculinity. Horatio is let into Hamlet's confidence with the lines: ... Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of hearts, As I do thee.

(3.2.71-4) Horatio acts in very much the same way as Kent in King Lear. Kent devotes himself to restoring Lear's "frame of nature" to "the fix'd place" of "manhood" (1.4.268, 269, 297). For Horatio is a clear example for Hamlet of male rationality, "noble reason", and therefore is the antithesis for the woman within Hamlet, who "must like a whore unpack [his] heart with words" (2.2.585). Hamlet has adopted feminine characteristics, so Horatio maintains some stability. The reversal of the convention distinctions is prevalent throughout Hamlet and King Lear; in particular on the Heath in Lear, where the normal superiority of Civilisation over Nature is overturned. For example, Edgar's and Lear's naked vulnerability is contrasted with the imagined sumptuous clothes of Goneril and Regan ("Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st/ Which scarcely keeps thee warm" [2.4.267-8]).

The intimacy and masculine respect between Hamlet and Horatio is demonstrated in the final scene. Hamlet, referring to Horatio, exclaims "as thou'rt a man", and the power of Horatio's feeling is expressed through his lines on Hamlet the 'sweet prince's' death, as his "noble heart cracks". This is a particular formula used again by Kent upon Lear's death; the intimacy and tender warmth of these lines is unmistakable. Horatio's masculinity is more clearly set in focus when contrasted with Ophelia's femininity.

The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is closely bound up with Hamlet's relationship with his mother; as Hamlet contemplates what he considers to be Gertrude's treachery, so Ophelia suffers his misogynistic rage. Ophelia, the only other woman in the play, becomes an extension of Gertrude (as does the whole of womanhood, "Frailty, thy name is woman" [1.2.146]). This extension is created in Act Three, Scene One, where ironically just Polonius attempts to prove Hamlet's love for Ophelia, Hamlet chooses to deny it. This denial, essentially dichotomous, demonstrates Hamlet's diverging views. At the meeting of Ophelia and Hamlet, the protagonist blames only himself for his loss of love. He refers to "The fair Ophelia", who reminds him of "all of his sins" (88-9), and then tells her: "You should not have believ'd me, for virtue cannot inoculate old stock" (116-8). This self-accusatory tone quickly changes into pure misogyny, as he is reminded of his mother's infidelity: Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me (3.1.122-5) Femininity becomes one: Gertrude's sin becomes Ophelia's. Hamlet's anti-female standards find expression elsewhere: he jokes about Osrick's formality, ("'A did comply, sir, with his dugs before 'a suck'd it" [5.2.187-8]), and says of his hesitation over the duel with Laertes: "such a kind of gain-giving, would perhaps trouble a woman" (5.2.215-6).

However, Hamlet's perception of Ophelia, indeed Shakespeare's presentation, is of Ophelia as a representative of 'Nothingness'. This has particular sexual significance when we consider that 'nothing' was Elizabethan slang for the female genitalia . As R. D. Laing says: In her madness there is no-one there ... there is no integral self-hood expressed through her actions and utterances. Incomprehensible statements are said by nothing.

Ophelia, as 'nothing' therefore, represent both an empty character and sexuality. Ophelia's character works on two levels: the literal, suggested by Gertrude's "Her [Ophelia's] speech is nothing" demonstrating Ophelia's "unshaped use", he lack of self-hood; and secondly, on a metaphorical level, picked up by Hamlet: Ham: That's a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs.

Oph: What is, my Lord? Ham: Nothing.

(3.2.117-9) This form of sexual innuendo is used by the Fool in King Lear. Lear, having given "the rod" (1.4.174) to his daughters, turns his penis into "a sheall'd peascod" (200). The Fool, here, is referring to Lear's empty masculinity, his lack of male control, and is rebuking the King for disordering the gender hierarchy. For now Lear has become a woman: "... thou art an O without a figure ... thou art nothing" (192-3). Now that Lear is female and the hierarchy is in chaos, the Fool can only conclude that he is "better than" nothing, in other words 'male'.

In the same way, Hamlet refers to the sexual inferences of Ophelia's negativity, lack and absence. Indeed, it has been argued that representing Ophelia as 'nothing is a ploy by the patriarchal structure to silence or negate female erotic power, through a 'strategy of containment'. This containment is adequately expressed by Hamlet in his "Get thee to a nunnery" speech, expressing the desire to negate female promiscuity and erotic power by removing it from the male political domain. But, the restriction of female power, the silencing of Ophelia and her sexuality is also clearly demonstrated by her brother and Father. Laertes' advice to his sister is abundant with sexual metaphors. Sexuality and masculinity are symbolise as aggression, (the "contagious blastments" and the "shot and danger of desire"), against Ophelia's "chaste treasure", her "button" and her "liquid dew" (1.3.29-42). Laertes urges his sister to keep her sexuality closed, as Ophelia states: "'Tis in my memory lock'd/ And you yourself shall keep the key of it" (86-7). Laertes has placed a (metaphoric) chastity belt upon Ophelia's "chaste treasure", and "lock'd" her eroticism from the dangers of masculinity.

On the other hand, Polonius' desire to entrap Ophelia is far more misogynistic: he mocks Ophelia's thoughts of love, reducing Hamlet's affection to "many tenders" (2.2. 162), and reprimands his daughter's visibility ("You yourself/ Have of your audience been most free and bounteous" [1.3.93-4]). To avoid being "free and bounteous", "she should lock herself from his [Hamlet's] resort" (2.3.143), or in other words remain closed, locking away her eroticism. Indeed, in Polonius' eyes Ophelia represents little more than a means of catching Hamlet, a pawn in a male political game ("I'll loose my daughter to him [2.2.162]). Hence, Hamlet's reference to Polonius as a "fishmonger" (174), making reference to the Elizabethan slang for 'pimp'.

The culmination of negating Ophelia's eroticism comes in the Graveyard scene, which presents Ophelia as eternally virginal.

... Lay her i' th' earth, And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring.

(5.1.238-40) Laetes' and Hamlet's quarrel is on male terms; Ophelia has lost her erotic power, so all that remains is the competition of male bonding. Hamlet's diction, his use of terms reserved for weight or mass, ("I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ could not with all their quality of love/ Make up my sum" [5.1.269]), shows the squabble to be no more than male bravado. There has been a resurrection of the ideal, distant, powerless Ophelia to be monumentalised for all time, ("This grave shall have a living monument" [5.1.301]), as a mountain "to o'ertop old Pelion" (276). The idealised Ophelia becomes the form of femininity desired by the patriarchal order, and hence the antithesis of Gertrude, as shall be seen.

III The question of filial duty is central to the play. The Ghost's appearance upon the battlement catalyses the tragedy, provoking action with foreboding doom; but also, due to his predicament, the Ghost is also ironically one of the main reasons for Hamlet's hesitation. Hamlet's relations with his parents is paradigmatic of the ideal/real dichotomy within the play itself.

The Ghost's first manifestation demonstrates the idealisation of the father figure in Hamlet's mind, and shows Hamlet senior's image as a warrior and king to his subjects. The Ghost's "fair and warlike form" coupled with his military dress, causes those that see him to reminisce over the "angry parle" with the Polacks. Hamlet's perception of his father is also highly idealised: the Ghost is as an "Hyperion to a satyr [Claudius]" (1.2.140). To Hamlet, his father represented the ideal husband, Gertrude "would hang on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on" (143-5) . However, Hamlet is torn by the speech of his father between this idealisation, and the realisation of his father's shame and need for revenge. Love for Hamlet's world is synonymous with obedience, hence the Ghost's: If thou didst ever thy father love ... revenge his foul and most unnatural murder (1.5.23-5) Yet, there is an ignominious sexual aspect to the Ghost's grievance, which by making the cause embarrassing turns Hamlet's anger impotent. Although this aspect, namely Cuckoldry, is by no means central to Hamlet's revenge dilemma, as far as his bonding to his father and mother is concerned, it is fundamental. The Ghost tries to play down this particular grievance. He refers to the "wicked wits and gifts that have the power/ So to seduce" (1.5.43-4), as though the "witchcraft of [Claudius'] wit" (42) will lessen or explain away the Ghost's cuckold nature. Indeed, Claudius becomes a "serpent" (36), reminiscent of the temptation of Eve; the serpent (an extremely phallic image) symbolising how the Ghost feels he has been penetrated in the garden. When the Ghost actually names the crime, however, he turns it from a personal insult into a political insult, in other words an insult against Denmark: Let not the royal bed of Denmark be A couch for luxury and damned incest (1.5.82-3) The King and the Country can use the same signifier, so the Ghost is making the victim of the crime ambiguous. The notion of cuckoldry is mentioned only the once, by Laertes: That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard, Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot Even here between the chaste unsmirched brow Of my true mother (4.5.115-8) Laertes uses the term, metaphorically, to indicate how if he were not angered he would not be his father's son. Cuckoldry represents a spur to his duty to his father. However, in Hamlet's case, cuckoldry is a reality, which only complicates his duty by adding an embarrassing dimension to his father's death. Although, a blemish on his idealised opinion of his father, the notion of cuckoldry is a bone of contention in Hamlet's relationship with Gertrude. It is here, in the filial relationship with the mother figure in Hamlet that the strains of the charge of cuckoldry can be most clearly seen.

Gertrude's role, in the play, is ambivalent but cannot mirror the dichotomous characterisation established by Hamlet: the ideal father as opposed to the cuckolded father, and the grieving mother as opposed to the incestuous woman. Gertrude, ironically, sponsors marital love throughout the play, particularly between Ophelia and Hamlet: And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish That your good beauties be the happy cause Of Hamlet's wildness.

(3.1.37-9) and, I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife: I thought thy bride bed to have decked, sweet maid, And not have strewed thy grave.

(5.1.247-49) Gertrude's unconventional marital status, her 'incest', coupled with this support of marital love makes Gertrude an ambiguous character. However as T.S. Eliot claims: Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear... Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it: his disgust envelops and exceeds her ... [I]t is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.

(Sacred Wood, 100-1) In representing Hamlet's revenge dilemma, and the problem of the real/ideal distinction, Gertrude is wholly inadequate. Gertrude realises that she may well be the reason for Hamlet's grief, his "wilderness" ("I doubt it is no other but the main,/ His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" [2.2.56-7]). This is partially due to her visibility, which has a curious affect on Hamlet: attraction and disgust. Such a reaction is anticipated by the Ghost's lines: So lust, though to a radiant angle link'd Will sate itself in a celestial bed And prey on garbage.

(1.5.55-7) The diction, here, shows a two-edged response to Gertrude's sin: "radiant angle" and "celestial bed" suggest attraction (attributable to the possible continuing love of his wife), and "garbage" and "lust" suggesting disgust. Indeed, it is just this unnatural "lust" which disqualifies Gertrude from the maternal ideal. For this reason, Hamlet establishes the ideal mother in Hecuba in the Player's scene. Once, Hecuba's maternal identity is established ("her lank and all o'er-teemed loins" [2.2.508]) we are expected to connect her with true grief for her husband ("bisson rheum" [2.2.506]) as opposed to "the salt of [Gertrude's] most unrighteous tears" (1.2.154). For Hecuba, Hamlet would drown the stage in tears at the sight of the ideal grieving wife and mother. Ironically, Hamlet recognises the insubstantiality of his idealisation, commenting (2.2.560 ff) that an actor can produce the grief that his mother cannot. The concept of the meta-tragedy provides the audience with a parallactic view of Gertrude as an actress, and as a mother.

Maternal abandonment also highlights, if negatively, the crucial importance of women for a sane social order. Femininity does have a role to play, but it must remain decidedly virginal or else maternal. King Lear manages to capture both these characteristics in the one character. Cordelia, ever virtuous, holds a maternal ambience (if only in relation to nature). "Our foster-nurse of nature" (4.4.12), referring to the power of Cordelia's tears, idealises Lear's daughter and allows her to usurp the male bonding provided by t he Heath followers.

... All blest secrets, All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth, Spring with my tears; be aidant and remediate In the good man's distress (4.4.15-8) Cordelia, both mother of nature and symbolic of "unpublish'd virtues", Lear believes redeems "nature from the general curse" (4.6.206) and hence she dons unequivocal centrality at the end of the play. She is as much mother as Hecuba, and as much virgin as Ophelia.

In contrast to this idealisation of femininity, Gertrude is railed against for her sins. It is not until the Closet scene, however, that we discover the strain upon the filial relationship. The charges of incest, adultery, female fickleness and the "o'erhasty marriage" injects Hamlet's diction with disgust for the real Gertrude ("Mother, you have my father much offended" [3.4.9] and, "makes marriage-vows/ As false dicer's oaths" [3.4.45-6]). Yet, again Hamlet idealises his father, referring to him as Hyperion, Jove, Mars and Mercury, and describing his countenance in hyperbolic terms ("every god did seem to set his seal/ To give the world assurance of a man" [3.4.63-4]). This exaggeration of his father's stature and status allows Hamlet to blame Gertrude alone. Hamlet, dwelling upon the cuckoldry of the Ghost, turns on Gertrude's sexual appetite: "Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed/ And batten on this moor? (67-8). Indeed, his voyeuristic excitement at the sexual act has led many Freudian interpreters to postulate that Hamlet suffers from an Oedipal complex.

... Nay, but to live In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty.

(3.4.91-4) Hamlet's "almost blunted purpose", which the Ghost has come to "whet", seems to be decidedly one-tracked, as is Hamlet's disgust. The Ghost's return only complicates the issue, as according to the Quarto text he returns "in his night gown" (103). By maintaining the need to leave Gertrude "to heaven" (1.5.86), the Ghost holds tender concern for Gertrude. Ironically, therefore his second appearance represents the Ghost as Hamlet's father in reality, no longer the mighty warrior, but now unarmed as he was in the garden at the "secure hour". The real Ghost still loves Gertrude. Hamlet, ever idealistic, believes he should be disgusted at Gertrude and so the reality of his father only conflicts with this belief and endangers the mother-son relationship in the domestic sphere.

IV The presentation of femininity is inextricably linked to that of the male world; that is to say, as far as bonding and friendship are concerned, the purely male relationships determine the form and depth of the male-female ones.

The idealisation of women as virginal or maternal is coupled with a negation of the feminine (particularly erotic) power. Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia is essentially a negation of her sexual potency, and a rejection of her eroticism which is seen as destructive in the male political world. Misogyny is supported by the crucial importance of male bonding for Hamlet. His close friendship with Horatio, and his idealisation of his father show a desire or need for rationality, as opposed to the fickleness, epitomised for Hamlet in Gertrude.

Gertrude and Ophelia have roles to fulfil. However, these roles are so idealised that they bear little relation to reality. They involve a such a negation of self-hood, such a cultivation of 'nothingness' that in trying to fit into them, Gertrude and Ophelia risk becoming empty characters. Indeed the ultimate role, the virgin until death achieved by Ophelia turns her into nothing more than a monument, a symbol for the male politics to fight over.

On the other hand, when Gertrude deviates from the ideal, and ceases to play 'the grieving mother', she incurs the disgust of her son and jeopardises her relationship with him. The conflict between ideal and real is the tragedy for femininity within such a social order.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Abbe Blum, 'Strike all that look upon with "Mar[b]le": Monumentalising Women in Shakespeare's plays' in, A. M. Haselkova The Renaissance English woman in Print: Counterbalancing the Canon and B.S. Travitsky (pub. Univ. Massechusetts Press, 1990) p. 99-108.

T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood Peter Eriskson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (pub. Uni. of California Press, 1985) R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (pub. London, 1960) David Leverenz, 'The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View' in, Signs, 4 (1978) 291-308.

eds. P. Parker, Shakespeare and the Question of Theory and G. Hartman (pub. London, 1985) Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (pub. Routledge, London 1992)