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A statistician would balk at the idea of analyzing women in Hamlet: as there are only two members of the fairer sex in the entire cast, surely any observations drawn are unreliable. However, when approaching Hamlet, it is best to remember that numbers and statistics can never fully explain the motives of people who are driven more by emotion than by logic. In Hamlet, both women are remarkably weak characters. They show very limited character growth (if any), and seem to exist for the sole purpose of serving as a backdrop for the strength and masculinity of the rest of the cast. A closer read, however, lends more value to these helpless women. On one level, they are still being used as tools of comparison: it is through Hamlet’s interactions with the women in his life that the audience understands that there is a disparity between what Hamlet perceives and what a sound person sees (in addition to the layers of deception that the average person legitimately sees). Additionally, with the entirety of his female cast positioned as damsels in distress (when Shakespeare has clearly created stronger females in other plays), he makes a statement on the danger of weakness.
This is a play of manipulation. When Hamlet’s mother asks why he “seems” to grieve so intensely, he explodes that he does not “seem” to be anything, that unlike others, he “[has] within that which passes show/These but the trappings and suits of woe” (I.ii.78-89). From the beginning, he has declared himself to be the only authentic person in the whole court. He essentially claims that everyone else only fakes their grief when it is socially appropriate, but he legitimately feels it — and this, in his eyes, makes him a better man than those who lie about what they feel. One must note that this claim is quickly invalidated when Hamlet sees fit to fake madness. However, most readers give pause to Hamlet’s treatment of his mother. She may be less intelligent than Hamlet (she lets many of his sly, scathing remarks pass), but she does care about him. She tries to alleviate his suffering by asking after its source, and instead, he attacks her, almost willfully misinterpreting her words so that he can make his point. This brings to the reader’s attention the possibility that a grieving Hamlet may exaggerate people’s misdeeds.
This theory is solidified in the confrontation between Gertrude and Hamlet after “The Murder of Gonzago.” To Hamlet, the play that has so clearly revealed Claudius’ guilt has also incriminated Gertrude, though she pleads innocence: “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me?” she asks (III.iv.47-48). If she had been privy to Claudius’ scheme against the late King Hamlet, then surely she would have confessed — Gertrude is not a strong woman, and her love for her son is overwhelming. Though she is not always truthful, “she lies to protect” (Mabillard). Surely, this is an instance that does not merit a “white lie”; she would tell the truth if there was truth to tell. Instead, she stands ignorant of the crimes of which she is accused, while Hamlet, unable to see this, tears madly on, flinging the most hurtful words he can find at her.
It goes so far that the ghost of the elder Hamlet appears to remind the prince not to be so harsh with Gertrude. Mabillard even makes the case that while “incestuous,” Gertrude is not an adulteress; “Adulterate,” as used by the ghost to describe Gertrude, “by definition, means to change to a worse state by mixing; to contaminate with base matter. And Claudius has indeed, according to the Ghost, contaminated his precious Gertrude, but this does not mean that Claudius did so before Hamlet’s father died.” Despite Hamlet’s wrathful accusations, Gertrude shows no signs of having known that Claudius killed King Hamlet, which makes it highly improbable that she shared Claudius’ bed before King Hamlet’s death. Thus, Hamlet sees a monstrous villain in his mother, where the audience sees only a weak-willed, misguided woman. In Denmark, where nothing is as it seems, this revelation prompts the audience to realize that Hamlet himself is what he claims to be, thereby fundamentally altering their perception of the text.
The audience, however, can understand why Hamlet is prone to overassign guilt to Gertrude. After all, she has “betrayed” his father by marrying her late husband’s brother. Ophelia, however, stands innocent. In their famed “Get thee to a nunnery,” exchange (III.i.131-162), Hamlet repeatedly orders Ophelia to a convent — or, colloquially, to a brothel. The scene can be read in three ways: first, he may be literally willing Ophelia to enter a convent, to prevent her from being “a breeder of sinners” (III.i.131-132) and from corrupting mankind; two, he may be ordering her to a house of ill repute, where he feels she belongs, as she has been “prostituted” out by her father; or three, he may be ordering her to a nunnery to protect whatever virtue she has left. Even in the case of the third, kindest reading, the ambiguity in his statement makes it needlessly harsh. Ophelia has done nothing to merit his ire, nor said anything to so much as offend him.
Yet, like Gertrude, he attacks Ophelia with no regard for her feelings. “The key to the nunnery [scene] lies in the difference between what the audience sees on stage and what Hamlet sees in his mind’s eye. He projects on to the innocent and — as the audience can see — unpainted Ophelia the disgust he feels at his mother’s sexual sins” (Brooks). Here, Hamlet blatantly attacks a woman who has done nothing to him, undermining his self-portrait of a noble, self-sacrificing man who attempts to do only what is right. The audience is again uncomfortably aware that where Hamlet sees a monster (due largely to his interpretation of every woman as as sinful as his mother), they see only a fair maiden. This leads the audience to question Hamlet’s reasoning, and removes some of the validity of his vendetta. How justified is his rampage for revenge, if he cannot even tell a virtuous maid from a corrupt one?
More than innocent, Ophelia is a standard of feminine obedience. When Hamlet declares that he did love her, only to retract the statement a line later, her only response is a quiet, “I was the more deceived” (III.i.125-130). She makes no move to defend herself; she does not question him; she merely nods quietly and accepts what he has to say. Whether he said he loved her or he hated her, the audience sees only the same placid acceptance. Mabillard suggests that “she is incapable of defending herself.” Hamlet toys with her cruelly, at times seeking a rise out of her — he dissolves quickly into shouting and raving, and all the same, she manages to speak without saying anything. Her words are carefully chosen with only the merest substance behind them; if she says nothing at all, then presumably she cannot be accused of any wrongdoing. This logic, sadly, is flawed.
It is her weakness that eventually drives her mad. She has depended on the three men in her life, and now all are gone: Hamlet, apparently mad, has killed her father while her brother was away at school. Incapable of sustaining her own support, she cracks. “Madness gives her the license to say things that in a sane state she would not be permitted to express,” Atwood asserts. Her bawdy songs reveal, perhaps, more than she intended about the extent to which she and Hamlet were involved. She is so subservient that it is only by completely losing her mind that she gains liberation — that is, until her mind collapses under the stress of trying to please so many people (to no effect) and she is reduced to a creature who murmurs, “I think nothing, my lord” (III.ii.124). Her weakness is her undoing. In this tragic character, Shakespeare makes the case that, though an excess of action can lead to one’s downfall (as in Hamlet), so also can a complete lack thereof. Had Ophelia been able to stand up for herself, she would not have felt the suffocating pressure to restrain every aspect of her being; she is weak-willed, and so she breaks.
Gertrude, also, is a victim of her own compliance. Her death comes at the hands of her husband, though unintentionally. When she drinks the goblet despite his order not to do so, it is not rebellion; it is a lack of questioning. She does not drink because she is willfully disobeying her husband (despite some directors’ indication that she knew the cup was poisoned before she drank, there is little textual evidence to support this claim), but rather because she is unaware of what a monster she has married. She does not ask him why she should not drink, because she does not think she has any reason to; she is a good, loving, trusting wife, and that trust is her undoing. Because she is not skeptical enough, and because she is not critical enough, she dies. In Gertrude, as in Ophelia, Shakespeare makes a case against weakness of character. Gertrude is naïve; she does not think to question her husband, even after her son has come to her with murderous accusations. Even if she had thought to ask him why she ought not to drink, society dictated that this was not her place, and so she kept quiet. It is because she is unwilling to think for herself that she falls victim to Claudius’ plot.
Women in Hamlet are drawn so faintly that they must stand for something greater than themselves. Ophelia and Gertrude are the only major characters with so little development that the reader cannot help but stop to seek what deeper meaning they conceal. Through these two wispy women, Shakespeare at once illustrates the break between Hamlet’s reality and the reality for the rest of Denmark, and the dangers of wordless obedience. Had these women been stronger, they would not have met the tragic ends of their men; but had they been stronger, they would not have been a lesson to readers across centuries.
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