Social and Gender Roles in Hamlet

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Gender Roles in Elizabethan Society and 'Hamlet'
  2. Victimization of Gertrude and Ophelia Through Love
  3. Patriarchal Dominance and Its Impact on Gertrude and Ophelia
  4. The Degradation of Women in 'Hamlet'
  5. Conclusion: Reflections on Gender Roles and Progress in Society

Introduction to Gender Roles in Elizabethan Society and 'Hamlet'

Although a single woman controlled Europe during Shakespeare's time, the Elizabethan society was quite patriarchal, women were always considered the “weaker sex” and always in need of protection. When women were married off, they had one main purpose, bearing children, as childbearing was considered a great honor at the time. Despite the Elizabethan era being a time of progress, women were still thought to be less than men in almost every aspect of life. In “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, there is a lack of female characters from the start of the play. Gertrude and Ophelia are more notable female characters, and as the play progresses it is clear that they are completely different characters with different motives; however, they both fall victim to the patriarchal society of the time. The social divide between men and women are evident all throughout the play as the patriarchal society of the time forces both Gertrude and Ophelia to show signs of prominent love for at least one other male character in the play, submit to the dominance of the male characters, and the overall degradation of women throughout the play.

Victimization of Gertrude and Ophelia Through Love

Firstly, both women in the play show signs of love for at least one other male character in the play, which might be another factor in their suffering as a victim. As soon as Gertrude and Claudius are introduced, it is clear that Gertrude holds love for Claudius, disregarding the fact that Claudius is a manipulating and a horrible person. She shows this extreme love for Claudius during act four scene four by putting her life into the hands of Laertes and “restraining him” in his attempt to murder Claudius. This evidently shows how Gertrude’s love for Claudius has resulted in her becoming blind to danger, clouded her judgement, and does not see how Claudius is planning to kill Hamlet behind her back. This clouded judgement and perception ultimately leads to Gertrude’s death, effectively proving how Gertrude is a victim of her love for Claudius. Alongside Gertrude, Ophelia is also a victim of her love. Ophelia’s love for her father means she is obliged to listen to and obey his every decision, resulting in her ending her relationship, with Hamlet, which she cherished. Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s relationship was supposedly very strong, as evidenced through their love letters, from act 2 scene 2, where Hamlet says, “To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia—”, unfortunately Ophelia’s response to the letters is,“I did repel his letters and denied His access to me.”, just to please her father’s wishes. Her blind obedience to her father’s wishes shows how she is a victim of patriarchy as she decides to end her relationship with a man she loved and wanted to eventually marry, just because her father wanted that. Ophelia is also a victim of her own love for Hamlet. During act 3 scene 1, Hamlet gives a misogynistic speech in which he tells Ophelia to, “Get thee to a nunnery”, she replies in a lyrical tone, describing his “noble and most sovereign reason” and “sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh”. Ophelia’s love for Hamlet has effectively clouded her judgement resulting in the fact that she is unable to defend herself, and similar to Gertrude, views Hamlet as a “noble man”. The intense love that Gertrude and Ophelia feel towards a male character results in them losing their independence in the process. Both Gertrude and Ophelia actions convey how they are a victim of their love for their corresponding male character, heavily conflicted with their love they only see the positive side of Hamlet and Claudius, which means they are oblivious to the pain and misery that they are dealing with.

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Patriarchal Dominance and Its Impact on Gertrude and Ophelia

Next, the patriarchal society of the time forces both Gertrude and Ophelia to submit to their male characters dominance. Claudius is a character that mentally dominates Gertrude when it comes to any situation, such as in act four scene six when he assures Laertes that, “And for his death no wind of blame shall breathe, But even his mother shall uncharge the practice, And call it accident.”. During this scene, Claudius is attempting to convince Laertes to kill Hamlet, and informs him that everyone wants him dead, including his own mother, even going so far as telling him that everyone will lie and call it an accident. This is a significant scene as it shows Claudius’ immense level of deceit, but also shows Claudius’ power dominance over Gertrude, Claudius is positive that Gertrude will abandon her son, by calling his death an accident, and effectively dominates her feelings towards her son, further highlighting her status as a victim in this plan. Gertrude once again faces male dominance from another character, this time from her own son, Hamlet. During act three scene four, Hamlet uses detailed imagery to explain his feelings towards the relationship of Gertrude’s and Claudius’, pure and utter disgust. He states that they are “stewed in corruption”, revealing Hamlet’s perspective on his mother, that she is just as corrupt, if not more, than Claudius. He then goes on to compare them to animals, “making love over a nasty sty”, disrespecting Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius in any way he possibly can. Gertrude responds to Hamlet’s furious intervention with her own pleas by saying, “O, speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter in my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet!”. Her use of a simile here signifies how Hamlet’s words have the power to hurt her emotionally, this highlights the love she holds for son and how she is the victim of his grief fueled with anger stricken ways. Alongside Gertrude, Ophelia is also victimized because of male dominance throughout the play. Polonius, her father, asserts dominance over Ophelia every chance he gets. For example, in act one scene three, in a brief conversation between Polonius and Ophelia, Polonius says, “Affection, puh! You speak like a green girl”, calling her a “green girl” refers to him thinking of her as nothing more than a “green girl”, and goes on to remind her that she does “not understand herself so clearly. This encounter immediately shows Polonius’ controlling and dominating nature, he tells Ophelia that she is not capable of controlling her own mind, so he can easily control her thoughts however and whenever he wants, resulting in Ophelia having no choice in many situations and just waiting for her father’s word. Furthermore, during act two scene two Polonius utilizes Ophelia’s love letters from Hamlet to further back up his theory about Hamlet going insane to Claudius and Gertrude. Polonius goes on to explain his plot to expose Hamlet, how he will “loose my daughter to him”, he is saying that he will send Ophelia to start up a conversation with Hamlet, enabling Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude to spy on their conversation, once again exhibiting his dominating nature. Ophelia has no choice in this matter and it is decided that she will encounter Hamlet and start a conversation with her, allowing everyone to spy on them, by her father of course. All throughout the play the oppression that Ophelia and Gertrude face gets more and more clear, and explains how they may simply be a victim of their corresponding male characters dominance.

The Degradation of Women in 'Hamlet'

Lastly, a prevalent theme throughout the play is the degradation of women. Back in Shakespeare’s time, women were not given a lot of respect and were treated as accessories to men, and this can be witnessed all throughout the play. Firstly, in act 3 scene 1, Hamlet and Ophelia come in contact and Hamlet tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery”, he is essentially telling her to join a brothel and is implying that she is a whore. Next, in act 3 scene 2, Hamlet uses a series of phrases to disrespect and degrade Ophelia sexually by saying, “I mean, my head upon your lap?”, and, “lie between maids’ legs.”, these phrases suggest specific sexual interactions between the two and Hamlet is saying these to hurt Ophelia anyway he can by degrading her, leaving Ophelia as the victim once again in this situation. As Hamlet finishes venting out on her, Ophelia remains calm and allows Hamlet to finish, as she does not have much of a say in this situation. Furthermore, starting from act 1 scene 3, both Polonius and Laertes tell Ophelia to, “fear it”, from time to time, “it” suggesting her sexual awakening. They want her to keep her to practice abstinence and treat her virginity as a treasure, one of the only things they value about a women.This is the topic of discussion a few time throughout the play and does not accomplish much other than make Ophelia feel bad and degrade her. Ophelia isn’t the only one that is constantly degraded throughout the play, Gertrude also feels the same pain. Such as in act 3 scene 4, Hamlet, her own son, is disrespecting her by first saying, “Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.”, and goes on to say, “This was your husband. Look you now what follows.”. In this scene Hamlet is just expressing the pure anger he feels towards his mother for marrying Claudius after his father’s death. Gertrude takes all his insults and tells him, “O, speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter in my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet!”, she can not say much as Hamlet has exposed all her shortcomings and therefore Gertrude is victimized in this situation. Throughout the play it is clear the two female characters, Gertrude and Ophelia, are no stranger to common degradation, often sexual, and this is clear evidence of them being victimized throughout the play.

Conclusion: Reflections on Gender Roles and Progress in Society

From the points mentioned above, it is evident that in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, Gertrude and Ophelia are completely different characters with different motives but unfortunately, both are mere victims of a patriarchal society. Gertrude and Ophelia are the victims of the society of the time and this is evident throughout the whole play as both female characters show signs of prominent love for at least one other male character in the play, submit to their male characters dominance,, and the prevalent theme of degradation of women throughout the play. The Elizabethan era definitely pushed more free thought than the previous eras, but it was not as progressive as one might think, women were still considered second hand citizens. It is amazing how far we have come. Unfortunately, our society is not perfect and still has various shortcomings such as women making 80.5 cents to every dollar a man makes.

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Social and Gender Roles in Hamlet. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-and-gender-roles-in-hamlet/
“Social and Gender Roles in Hamlet.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/social-and-gender-roles-in-hamlet/
Social and Gender Roles in Hamlet. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-and-gender-roles-in-hamlet/> [Accessed 20 Apr. 2024].
Social and Gender Roles in Hamlet [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2024 Apr 20]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/social-and-gender-roles-in-hamlet/
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