Even though the female roles in the play Hamlet are given very little lines, they are very important to the plot.
Gertrude and Ophelia are connected all of the main characters, especially Hamlet. Gertrude being the mother of Hamlet and the widow of his father Old Hamlet is very important in the play and it is surprising how little of lines she has. Ophelia, lover of Hamlet, sister of Laertes, and daughter of Polonius also is very important in the play. These characters are often victimized in the play, but not every moment.
Shakespeare’s views of women in Hamlet are seen through how the characters Ophelia and Gertrude are viewed throughout the play and treated by male characters. Even though Gertrude has very few lines in the play Hamlet, we see her character play a vital role in the plot. Gertrude is the mother of the main character, Hamlet, and is seen as a widower of the Old Hamlet who, shortly after her husband’s death, marries his brother Claudius. “Often Gertrude is read as a sensuous female, lacking in any of the qualities of a decent woman of her time or position. Although she seems to not have any part in the death of King Hamlet, she is seen as the root of the problems surrounding rotten Denmark” (Graf, 16). Gertrude’s guilt is based on her marriage to Claudius because the laws of that time forbid a woman to marry her husband’s brother. Many people would accuse Gertrude to be guilty of not properly mourning her husband or of marrying Claudius. We see this guilt through the words of Hamlet and the ghost.
Lisa Jardine explains that she would, “…have no difficulty in understanding the way in which to blame for the incestuous marriage entered into by old Hamlet’s brother, Claudius, is passed across to Gertrude as if she were its instigator” (Reading Shakespeare Historically, 148-149). The ghost tells Hamlet of his marriage that his widow, Gertrude, has with his brother, Claudius. So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling off was there! From me, whose love was of that dignity That it went hand in hand even with the vow I made to her in marriage, and to decline Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor To those of mine (Act 1. Scene 5. Lines 45-52). In this we see how the ghost feels about his wife’s remarrying after his death. Hamlet is another character who talks mainly of Gertrude. Before the play within the play Hamlet speaks rude things of his mother.
He says that she went and married his uncle so shortly, it was only seconds after his father had passed. “We always criticize Gertrude through the interpretations of other characters. She does not have any opportunity to identify herself” (GÜNENÇ, 6).
When we come to the concluding scene, Gertrude keeps her promise to her son, Hamlet, that she will stay by his side and she takes the poison drink instead of Hamlet even though Claudius warns her not to. Her quick death is soon overshadowed by the men and male death after her death. Gertrude is oppressed by the male power enclosing her. She is astonished and ignored.
She is often a victim of oppression and the males’ words in the play Hamlet. The other main female character in this play is Ophelia. Ophelia is valuable to the royal family but cannot act as she wants; “the royal family restricted her actions, attitudes, emotions and thoughts because of women’s roles shaped by the patriarchal society in her time” (GÜNENÇ, 2). This shows how Ophelia is considered as a weak character in the play Hamlet. Ophelia does not deal with anything but men’s rules and has no alternative thoughts. This is also seen when Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, is telling her of how she needs to act.
At the end of this lecture from Laertes, Ophelia remarks that he is being hypocritical. “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles, like a puffled and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede. (Act 1. Scene 3. Lines 47-51).
Ophelia’s madness is different from Hamlet’s madness. Ophelia’s madness is a madness from her love and Hamlet was faking his madness, showing how Ophelia is seen as a weaker character. “On the stage, Ophelia was costumed in virginal white to contrast with Hamlet’s scholarly black, and in her mad scene she entered with dishevelled hair, singing bawdy songs, and giving away her flowers, symbolically deflowering herself. Drowning, too, was a symbolically feminine death (Showalter). Ophelia’s death is seen as her life had no meaning, the other character’s lives went on. Ophelia (nothing) represents weak, silent and passive woman. To Shakespeare, she needs men.
Ophelia’s brother Laertes and her father Polonius treat her as a child who does not have self –awareness, understanding and nervousness about the ways of the world (GÜNENSÇ, 3). Ophelia is seen as an unimportant character and her few lines show how Shakespeare and society saw women at the time. Gertrude and Ophelia are important characters to the play but they are viewed very differently than men in the play Hamlet. While this is true, they are given very few lines and they are viewed through what the male characters in the play say about them. Ophelia is only in five of the play’s twenty scenes and Gertrude is only in nine of the twenty both with very few lines in these appearances. Shakespeare’s view of women in Hamlet are seen in the lines of the male characters of Gertrude and Ophelia and the treatment of the women as well show his views of women.