“Hamlet” by Shakespeare Analysis Poem
William Shakespeare lived and wrote his plays and poems in the Renaissance period, so his plays and sonnets cannot be separated from the features of this important time in worlds history. Moreover, his works and characters allow looking at social viewpoints during Elizabeths reign. One of his plays, the well-known tragedy Hamlet, contains plenty of controversies, the most widely argued of which is feminism. The play has only a few female characters, which is presupposed by the plot itself – the son must avenge the death of his father who has been murdered by his brother, Hamlets uncle. Nevertheless, the images of Gertrude, Hamlets mother, and Ophelia, Hamlets beloved woman, play a very significant role in the tragedy. Through the analysis of these main female characters, one can understand the extent of anti-feminism in Shakespeares Hamlet. Thus, by analyzing the portrayals of Gertrude, Ophelia, and Hamlet in the play, the paper claims that this tragedy reinforces patriarchal stereotypes about women and criticizes them at the same time.
In Hamlet, Gertrude plays the role of Hamlets mother, the Queen of Denmark. Moreover, this woman is married to Claudius, Hamlets uncle and the brother of King Hamlet, her late husband. In this play, she is negatively portrayed as a lesser woman in all aspects that have been shaped by the patriarchal stereotypes of that time. Firstly, Gertrude is shown as a frivolous mother who cannot be a support to her son. Obediently following the instructions of Claudius, she has allowed Polonius to listen to her conversation with Hamlet. Furthermore, she does not make any attempts to prevent her son from being sent to England by her husband. This too na?ve woman believes every word of her husband and she does not even suspect that by sending Hamlet away, Claudius does not want to protect him from the consequences of killing Polonius. Instead, he wants to ruin the life of her son. In this regard, Gertrude also stands as a gullible and simple-minded person who indulges her husband and never doubts in him even for a moment, even though she should.
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The play also reinforces the patriarchal stereotypes of women by making Gertrude a voiceless character. The reason is that she has a limited number of lines in play, which means that her character is shaped by males words and attitudes (G?nen? 167). For example, Hamlet and the Ghost of King Hamlet describe her as having a lustful nature (Bloom 188), which has been undoubtedly accepted many male critics, although Gertrude does not give a sign of possessing such a nature in the play. Her silence is also one of the reasons of Hamlet referring to her as frailty, thy name is woman! (Shakespeare 1.2.350). Finally, this silence is also one of the representations of her weakness.
As for Gertrudes portrayal as Claudius wife, one can see that she is treated unworthily by her husband who not only uses but also neglects her by allowing her to die. Claudius could prevent Gertrudes death, but he did not want to do that. Therefore, when he saw his wife taking with glass of poison, he did try to stop her, but this attempt was very reluctant and sluggish. Consequently, she drank this wine and did. Claudius wished to destroy Hamlet more than to save the life of his wife, so revenge defeated love. Moreover, not only did Claudius allow his wife to drink the poison, but he also presented her agony as fainting. As one can see, such an ending for Gertrude can be viewed as the only possible one because of her frivolous nature and lack of intuition.
Additionally, Hamlet calls his mother perfidious because she has forgotten his father very quickly and married her own brother-in-law. Hamlet calls it incest and laments: She married. O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (Shakespeare 1.2.360). In the Shakespearean time, such marriages were treated as incest and forbidden both for aristocrats and simple people (Rani et al.). Hamlet also calls his mother a beast: O God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason / Would have mournd longer married with my uncle (Shakespeare 1.2.349). According to common norms of that time, Gertrude had to wait for at least half a year, wear mourning clothes for two years, and stay away from the public life for at least one year (G?nen? 168). Instead, Gertrude is portrayed as a bad widow that does not properly grieve her husband. She asks Hamlet to cast thy knighted colour off (Shakespeare 1.2.270) to stop wearing mourning garments and to stop being sad. These words depict the widow as a shallow, guilty woman who only wants to maintain her high status, even though it seems to be an ordinary conversation between the mother and the son in such a situation.
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Furthermore, being the Queen of Denmark, Gertrude is blamed to be the source of the countrys problems because of her marriage. According to Graf, Gertrude is guilty of taking Hamlets heirship away because now, Claudius and his possible offspring appear the first in line for the throne of Denmark. Following the canons of that time, Gertrude had to defend her sons heirship until he inherited the kingdom, although she had chosen love instead of her son and his future (Rani et al.). Here, she is also portrayed as selfish because she would have remained the Queen and the mother of the future king in any outcome of events. Finally, such a behavior of hers provides an example for Hamlet and makes him doubt in the fidelity of all women, specifically of Ophelia, and this doubt poisons his love for her.
At the same time, there are some sexual implication of the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, which makes Gertrude the victim of sexual objectification. Thus, Freud would interpret Hamlets hesitations in exacting exact vengeance on Claudius as follows: by killing his (Hamlets) father and marrying his mother, Claudius has fulfilled the repressed childhoods desire of Hamlets (Carroll). The hatred, which had to lead him to revenge, was replaced by his self-reproach and even remorse because he was not better than the criminal whom he should punish. According to Freud, this was also confirmed by the age of Hamlet and Gertrude, which was near 30 and 50 respectively, since if Gertrude were younger, this might have undermined the incestuous subtext between the son and his mother (Carroll). Moreover, this subtext is considered as the reason of Hamlets sexual disgust towards Ophelia. Additionally, the sexual objectification is seen in the princes references to his mother as he uses many sexually related words. He says: Sense you sure have, / Else could you not have notion (Shakespeare 3.4.2464-65) meaning sexual desire under the word sense. At the same time, he claims:
Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of a inseam?d bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love,
Over the nasty sty (Shakespeare 3.4.2485-90)
These words bear an even clearer sexual context. Thus, one of the two main female characters in Hamlet is portrayed as a voiceless person, frivolous mother, poor Queen, perfidious widow, na?ve, and easy to manage wife, and as a sexual object.
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Ophelia is another main female character in the play. She is the daughter of Polonius, the man who has been killed by Hamlet, and the woman Hamlet loves. Ophelias portrayal seemed to be even more anti-feminist and tragic that that of Gertrude. Firstly, just like in the queens case, Ophelia is sexually objectified. In Western patriarchal society, mens attitude towards women was related to the latters bodies and it was common to perceive them as mens property (Ortiz). Thus, Shakespeare writes such a conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia.
HAMLET. Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
OPHELIA. No, my lord.
HAMLET. Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA. I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET. Thats a fair thought to lie between maids legs.(3.2.1991-99)
At that time, the word nothing meant the female genitalia (Rani et al.). Thus, Hamlet inappropriate jokes with Ophelia have some sexual implication.
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Furthermore, Ophelia is also portrayed as a frivolous, gullible, and simple-minded person. Just like Gertrude, Ophelia does not suspect that anyone might have bad intentions. Thus, she sincerely believes the oaths of Hamlet, which evokes censure from her father, to whom she is deeply attached. However, Ophelia is not capable of either understanding the secret schemes of her father and the king, or comprehending Hamlets mental torments, which is revealed in mocks as well as offensive and cruel words. Despite having warm feelings for Ophelia, Hamlet cannot fully trust her because of her strong obedience to her father. Thus, when reading Hamlet’s letter to Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius says:
This, in obedience, hath my daughter shown me;
And more above, hath his solicitings,
As they fell out by time, by means, and place,
All given to mine ear. (2.2.1221-24)
Moreover, Ophelia is portrayed as a weak person in the play. During her lifetime, powerful men, specifically Hamlet as well as her father and brother, surrounded her, had a strong influence on her, and defined her opinions and actions. Eventually, all three men disappeared, when her brother Laertes departed, Hamlet left her, and her father died. Ophelia is represented in such a way that she loses her sanity when she is unable to make decisions herself without these three powerful men. As the Queen largely depends on her husband in her actions, so does Ophelia depend on her men. As the result of her helplessness, Ophelia dies without a powerful man. Additionally, the anti-feminist nature of Shakespeares play is also represented by the cutting of Ophelias death from the plays climax and adding the speech of Gertrude about the womans insanity, thus reducing her significance.
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Furthermore, the treatment of Ophelia by men and even Gertrude is poor and disrespectful. All male characters, including Hamlet, Ophelias, father and brother, treat her as a child, as someone who has less of a person that they do. In 3.1, Ophelia was even told that she should be in a brothel instead of being a “breeder of sinners.” However, the disrespectful treatment is most vividly seen in Hamlets attitude towards Ophelia. He uses his power of words in order to hurt her. In general, during the play, all men, especially Hamlet, use their words to hurt women. Thus, Hamlet tells Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare 3.1.1814). This was said without a religious sub-context, but it meant to hurt Ophelia and disrespect her. At the very beginning of the play, Hamlet also calls her a sinner and that she should not give birth to a child because they will become the sinner too because of their mother, the sinner. Finally, in this regard, it is also hard to say whether Hamlet has ever truly loved Ophelia. If love between them even existed, this was only as a beautiful and non-incarnate opportunity, scheduled before the beginning of the story and destroyed by Hamlet eventually. Killing his love, Hamlet no longer considers Ophelia a priority, thus making all other things more important than his love to a woman. He makes Ophelia unworthy of love. Thus, another main female character in Hamlet is portrayed as a sexual object, frivolous, gullible, simple-minded, and weak person, highly depended on men, disrespected, and unworthy of love.
Nevertheless, such a portrayal of main female characters in the play is mostly presupposed by Hamlets attitude to them. Moreover, this man is considered to be insane himself. Hamlet is a melancholic, and in the days of Shakespeare, melancholy was considered a mental illness. Shakespeare’s contemporary, physician Timothie Bright, wrote in his book Treatise on Melancholy that melancholics were incapable of action. This exact inability is demonstrated by Hamlet throughout the play quite vividly. However, he replaces it with the ability to make global generalizations, which he shows in relation to Gertrude and Ophelia. According to Bright, melancholics indulge in rage sometimes, and sometimes in fun. Such a state is close to manic-depressive psychosis. Thus, Hamlets behavior can be observed after the appearance of the spirit when he speaks incoherently and strangely in the first Act. Consequently, Shakespeare aimed to portray Hamlet as weak, irresolute, and inclined to neurasthenia. In other words, this a man has been portrayed in the negative light. Therefore, considering that Hamlet was an insane person who treated women badly and who was definitely an anti-feminist, one could suggest that Shakespeares Hamlet had also criticized patriarchal stereotypes about women in such a way.
In conclusion, Hamlet cannot be treated as an anti-feminist play in general. The author places the role of female characters in the play at the same level as mens ones. Talking about Shakespearean women would mean talking about his men because he refused to share their world physically, intellectually, or spiritually. He never divided the world of men and the world of women. Another important thing in Hamlet that contributes to such conclusions is that Shakespeare has portrayed the helplessness and worthlessness of women mainly through the lens of a psychologically ill man, thus undermining and criticizing the patriarchal stereotypes about women. However, at the same time, Gertrude still blindly trust her husband, she is neglected by him, and she has a limited number of lines in the play. Additionally, Ophelia still becomes insane without her men, she is treated by her family as a child, and she has a limited number of lines in the play as well. Moreover, these things are not dependent on Hamlet. They are present in the play unintentionally because of the feminism, existing at the court of Elizabeth. Thus, Shakespeares Hamlet both reinforces patriarchal stereotypes about women and criticizes them.