Both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet explore the nature of patriarchal values and the responses of female characters to these values. Whilst both male protagonists had similar contexts their personal responses to gender stereotypes were very different. Similarly, both female protagonists also had seemingly similar upbringings – as privileged members of powerful families, yet their ability to love and to hold control over their lives varied. Shakespeare’s imagery in both plays verifies that love is fragile and patriarchal suppression can affect men and women differently. Shakespeare’s vivid descriptions and character development focus the reader on the patriarchal order faced by females and how young males possess a greater degree of power, over their fate. Shakespeare presents us with two women, both shaped by patriarchal beliefs but each character responds differently. Juliet is able to control her life and indeed her fate, whilst Ophelia loses that control and is “incapable of her own distress”. Shakespeare’s heroines allow us to see that he had a complex view of women and understood the unique psychology of each woman. A casual conversation between servants Gregory and Sampson, in which they are discussing the many ways in which they will dominate the Montague castle becomes disturbing, when Sampson callously responds with the following image; “Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads”. Their complete disregard for female sexuality, normalizes rape and sexual assault and establishes a patriarchal world in Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, in Hamlet this world is foreshadowed by Hamlet’s generalisation of all women, “Frailty, thy name is woman”.
Throughout Romeo and Juliet, Juliet develops from a sheltered naïve child into a young woman passionately in love and in control over her life. Yet the constant emphasis on her youth, despite her growing maturity, emphasises her as a tragic heroine. The conversation between Paris and Lord Capulet about Juliet marrying Paris demonstrates the patriarchal order throughout the play. Lord Capulet’s response, “My child is yet a stranger in the world … let two more summers … we may think her ripe to be a bride”, belittles her, with the impression that she is too naïve and young to have control and know what is best for herself. Paris’ quick comeback, “Younger than she are happy mothers made” suggests to the audience that this conversation is a common occurrence, within the world of Romeo and Juliet. Yet, her competence is ‘re-established’ when she tells her mother that marriage is “an honour that I dream not of” rather, “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move”. This demonstrates control over her sexuality, which in turn means she has control over her fate. Similarly, Ophelia’s willingness to stand up for herself when discussing her “chaste treasure” with Laertes suggests she is mature and perceptive. When instructed; “Fear it … And keep you in the rear of your affection”, she responds with perceptive similes; “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven; Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine”, displays her maturity and her ability to perceive the gender stereotypes that surround her. Yet unlike Juliet, when confronted by her father; “You speak like a green girl”, her response shows her inability to confront male authority, stating; “I do not know … What I should think.” When further taunted; “You’ll tender me a fool”, her response; “I shall obey my lord”, shows she is submissive to her father’s power. Her response contrasts with her presumed wisdom and maturity, and displays her inability to control her own life, and in turn her fate. Although both intelligent, witty and sexual characters, the contrast in their abilities to assert themselves when challenging male power, positions Juliet as author of her own destiny, whilst Ophelia is unable to control her fate, due to her inability to act.
When approached by Romeo at the feast, instead of behaving in a coy and subdued manner, she matches his attraction, “if I profane with my unworthiest hand”, responding, “Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, which mannerly devotion shows in this. For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss.”. The juxtaposition of the religious imagery with sexual love, conveys the power of love. Her maturity and sexual forthrightness come as no surprise to the audience, when Juliet takes matters into her own hands and asks Romeo to marry; “If that thy bent of love be honourable, Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow”. Her ability to assume control, despite challenging her father’s decree to marry Paris, and understanding that her father has threatened, “an you will not wed, I’ll pardon you. Graze where you will, you shall not house with me”, further displays her strong sense of identity and self. Shakespeare create an empowered young woman who rejects this commodification. Furthermore, in the balcony scene, when Romeo professes his love; “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear”, Juliet’s quick dismal of his facile comparison, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, That monthly changes in her circled orb, Lest that thy love prove likewise variable” displays her control. Not only was she able to insist Romeo, “swear by thy gracious self” – as he is less likely to change than the moon, but she was able to influence his actions, despite being surrounded by a patriarchal order. Similarly, Ophelia is shown to be capable of matching Hamlet’s sexual repartee, “It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge”, responding, “still better and worse … you are keen, my lord, you are keen”. Her ability to engage and wittily respond to Hamlet’s sexual repartee, establishes Ophelia and Juliet as similarly intelligent and perceptive females. Yet unlike Juliet, Ophelia is completely annihilated by Hamlet. Hamlet’s rage on the duplicity of women, which; “hath made him mad”, leaves Ophelia to intelligently and perceptively reply, “Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”. However, as the scene progresses and Hamlet’s tirade of insults continue, “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another …. Frailty, thy name is woman”, Ophelia is defeated and overwhelmed by the unrelenting savagery of hit attack. Hamlet is laying all his misogyny onto Ophelia, telling her “get thee to a nunnery” to preserve her chastity and avoid bearing children that are sinners. Unlike Romeo and Juliet who are professing their love to each other and committing themselves, Hamlet’s cruelty is so wildly perverse yet Ophelia’s response, “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown … O, woe is me, To have seen what I have seen”, suggests she has no anger or annoyance towards his treatment. This leads readers to understand Ophelia as ‘incapable of her own distress’, which allows for Hamlett’s misogynistic treatment of women to be normalised.
Even before Juliet knows who Romeo is, she is passionately in love with him stating, “If he be married, My grave is like to be my wedding bed”. Her responses foreshadow her death and solidifies the reader’s understanding that Juliet is in control of her fate. When she finds Romeo’s corpse, longing to join him and be beside him she hopes for remnants of poison to be lying on his lips, “Haply some poison yet doth hang on them, To make die with a restorative”. When this is unsuccessful her instant response, “Yea, noise? then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!” demonstrates her complete devotion to Romeo, and her willingness to control her fate and her sexuality. Contrastingly, when Ophelia is shown singing contemporary ballads of her world, we are witness to the effects of patriarchal suppression on a young, innocent woman. Her ability to finally express her innermost thoughts, at the final hour display her loss of identity and inability to control her fate. Her loss of inner strength also demonstrates her complicated psychological state, “tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day … and I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine, then up he rose and donned his clothes … let in the maid that out a maid, never departed more”. Her detailed and descriptive portrait of a world where sexual double standards shape gender relations shows the betrayal she feels and her ability to perceive the gender injustices surrounding her, yet her inability to act.
Through using a short prologue Shakespeare ensures that readers understand that the play is focusing on Romeo and Juliet’s “death mark’d love”, yet although star crossed lovers, the prologue also informs readers that Romeo and Juliet did not die in vain, rather their love, ended their parents’ long feud, “and the continuance of their parents’ rage, which, but their children’s end, nought could remove”. Contrastingly, Ophelia’s tragedy was born through her inability to challenge male oppression. Her tragedy, instigated through her obedience means a loss of identity, as she cannot express her pain until it is too late, and it is this suppression which leads to her tragic death. Both Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, give us insight into the nature of gender relations, and prove to be timeless in exploring the effects of patriarchal suppression.