The Importance Of Female Characters In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex And William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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Throughout history, there have been countless stories of women who have the potential to lead independent lives, but due to societal pressures or truly falling in love, they settle in relationships where they live unfulfilling lives or are led astray by their husbands. While these plays are written in different points in history, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet both include a similar narrative of female characters who compromise their beliefs for their husbands. In Oedipus Rex, the male protagonist, Oedipus goes on a journey of self-discovery that has detrimental consequences for his wife, Jocasta. In Hamlet, the death of a King leads his son to seek revenge against his father’s successor. Gertrude, who is the widow of the late King, marries Claudius, the successor of the throne, quickly after her husband's death and gets caught in the middle of the constant discord between the male characters. In Hamlet and Oedipus Rex, Gertrude and Jocasta are queens of their respective kingdoms and fall victim to tragic circumstances. Both women marry their husbands under unusual circumstances, are blind to the truth of their situations, lie to protect those they love, and die as a result of their detrimental relationship choices.

Although they had both been previously married and were left widowed, Gertrude and Jocasta both remarried after the tragic deaths of their husbands. After the mysterious death of her husband Laius, Jocasta married Oedipus, the man who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and saved her kingdom. The period between the death of Laius and her marriage to Oedipus is rather short as Jocasta said herself that, “The heralds no sooner reported Laius dead than you appeared and they hailed you king of Thebes” (Sophocles 813-814). Similarly, Gertrude was also left widowed as her husband King Hamlet was believed to have died bravely during battle. Gertrude then remarried soon after his death to her late husband’s brother, Claudius. Their hasty marriage was a source of contention between the new King and Queen and their son Hamlet, as he believed that “A beast that wants discourse of reason/ Would have mourned longer” (Shakespeare 1.2.150-151). Hamlet feels that Gertrude did not wait an appropriate amount of time between the death of her husband before remarrying. Both Gertrude and Jocasta unexpectedly lose their husbands and remarry in a short period, a choice that leads to their tragic downfalls.

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Furthermore, Gertrude's and Jocasta’s relationships are not only unusual in the abruptness of their unions, but also their familial relationships to their husbands. Before Gertrude and Claudius called each other husband and wife, they were brother and sister-in-law. Claudius is the brother of Gertrude's late husband King Hamlet. Despite their relationship being under such strange circumstances, Cladius comments on it rather than ignoring it, describing Gertrude as “Our sometimes sister, Now our Queen” (Shakespeare 1.2.8). Claudius openly speaking did not quell any of the tension and anger Hamlet felt towards the newlyweds as he viewed their marriage as incestuous and sinful. Hamlet’s opinion of their marriage was not baseless, as according to their religious beliefs at the time, marriage between a man and his brother's widow is considered incestuous according to Leviticus (Rosenblatt 351). While Gertrude married Claudius with the full knowledge that he was her brother in law, Jocasta married Oedipus unaware of her true relation to him. At the beginning of the play, we find out that Jocasta was given a prophecy that “My son was doomed to kill my husband” (Sophocles 945). To avoid this from coming true, Jocasta and her late husband Laius had their firstborn child killed. Unbeknownst to them, their son was never killed and grew up to be Oedipus, who unknowingly killed Laius and fulfilled the prophecy. Although they had different levels of awareness, both Jocasta and Gertrude married within their families, which in the end culminates in the destruction of their lives.

Despite their high ranking and their apparent positions of power, Jocasta and Gertrude are not privy to the truth of their situations. Gertrude is the Queen of Denmark and reasonably she should be aware of everything occurring in her kingdom. This is not the case as she is completely unaware of the true circumstances of her husband's death. Gertrude believes that King Hamlet died valiantly in battle and has found peace with this and moved on, going as far to tell her son to “Cast thy nighted color off,/And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” (Shakespeare 1.2.68-69). Gertrude's attempts to urge Hamlet to move on from his father’s death show how truly in the dark she is, as Claudius is the one responsible for her husband’s death. Gertrude's obliviousness continues through a majority of the play, even though multiple people who are of lower rank than her are aware of the truth and do not report the information to their Queen. Gertrude's high ranking does not seem to make a difference as “Her role in the play is subordinate” (Maxwell). Likewise, Jocasta is the Queen of Thebes and orders given by her should be followed. When she ordered a shepherd to kill her child to avoid the prophecy from coming true, he took the baby without question and Jocasta was led to believe that he obeyed her commands as she insists to Oedipus that “He never had a chance to kill his father. They destroyed him first.”. As it is later revealed, the man disobeyed his queen and spared the child, something Jocasta never found out until it was too late. Gertrude and Jocasta are both kept in the dark about the reality of their circumstances which leaves them both unprepared for the fate that awaits them.

Gertrude and Jocasta were not only ignorant due to information kept from them, but also because of their reluctance to see the truth when it is right in front of them. Gertrude was forced to face her demons when she was confronted by her son. Hamlet accosts Gertrude with all of her sins and reveals to her that Claudius is the one responsible for King Hamlet’s death. Amid his tirade, Gertrude begs him to stop because “ Thou turn’ st mine eyes into my very soul/ And there I see such black and grained spots/ As will not leave their tinct” (Shakespeare 3.4 90-92). Gertrude does not want to face the reality of her marriage to Claudius and the sin that it was based upon. Jocasta also tries to avoid facing the truth by convincing Oedipus that the prophecy that Tireaseas told him could not be true because she received the news that Oedipus’ “father”, Polybus, has died. Despite this news, Oedipus is still doubtful as Tiresias told him that he is the one who killed Laius and fears the second half of the prophecy may still come true because his mother is still alive. Jocasta tries to end his uncertainty by telling him to “Sweep it from your mind forever” and that the prophecy could not be true because “Chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth can see a day ahead” (Sophocles 1070). Jocasta’s eagerness to stop Oedipus from searching for the truth shows that she is still uncertain and does not want to risk what could happen if the prophecy came true. Although she does not know the complete truth yet she is “Beginning to fear Oedipus’ impending revelation and the implications it holds for her” (Scholz). Both of these women who have been blind to who the men they married are still refuse to see the truth when it is right in front of them, a choice that will lead to their tragic demises.

Gertrude and Jocasta are both mothers who love and cherish their children and will do anything, even lie, to protect them. Gertrude witnesses Hamlet murder Polonius and show no remorse for doing it, even going as far as to berate his corpse. Despite seeing his mercilessness first hand, she does not reveal this to Claudius. Trying to defend her son, Gertrude tells Claudius, “O’er whom his very madness, like some ore/ Among a mineral of metals base,/ Shows itself pure. A’ weeps for what is done” (Shakespeare 4.1 25-27). This act shows her devotion to her son and some weakness in her loyalty to Claudius. In like manner, Jocasta tries to protect her children by imploring Oedipus to stop searching for the truth about his past. When the messenger reveals that when Oedipus was given to him as a baby, the shepherd that passed him off was a servant of Laius, Jocasta “turns sharply.” This stage direction indicates that she has realized the prophecy has come true. Instead of acknowledging this, Jocasta immediately tries to stop Oedipus from asking any further questions by saying “Why ask? Old shepherd, talk, empty nonsense,/ don’t give it another thought” (Sophocles 1159-1160). She is trying desperately to stop him because if he looks further he will see that the prophecy has come true and their family will be torn apart. Oedipus and Jocasta's’ children will live their lives in shame if it is revealed that they are products of incest, so she is doing everything she can stop the truth from coming out. In this part, we see Jocasta's role change from “submissive wife” to “protective mother” (Lin). Because both Gertrude and Jocasta are devoted to their families, they will do anything to protect them even if their actions are in vain.

In spite of Gertrude's and Jocasta’s attempts to maintain peace within their lives, they cannot keep control and die tragically. In a plot to kill Hamlet, Claudius plans to have him drink wine that has been poisoned during a fencing match. His plan goes off the rails when instead, Gertrude drinks the wine, despite Claudius telling her not to, she replies “I will my lord; I pray you pardon me” (Shakespeare 5.2.293). Gertrude’s death is a true tragedy as she had no idea the wine was poisoned and died quickly, her last words being “O my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink! I am poisoned” ( Shakespeare 5.2.309-311). Although this was a fatal act, it was also one final act of defiance against Claudius, showing that Gertrude is “Far more than a one dimension, reactive female construct” (Montgomery 102). While Gertrude unknowingly took her own life, Jocasta purposefully did once her life truly fell apart. Jocasta’s final attempts to stop Oedipus from finding out the truth failed, as he sent for the shepherd that would confirm to Oedipus what Jocasta already figured out that he killed Laius and she is his mother, making the prophecy true. However she could not bear to see what this revelation would do to her family. She begs Oedipus to stop the search, saying “No, please– for your sake– I want the best for you” (Sophocles 1170-1171). Her pleas to Oedipus were in vain, so she gave up and made her final words to Oedipus, “Man of agony– that is the only name I have for you,/that, no other– ever, ever ever!” (Sophocles 1177-1179). This serves as her final goodbye to Oedipus as she runs into the castle and hangs herself after saying this. Although they both did not have the intent to kill themselves, both Gertrude and Jocasta died tragically due to reasons out of their control; Jocasta’s fated marriage to her son and Gertrude’s accidental poisoning.

In conclusion, Jocasta in Oedipus Rex and Gertrude in Hamlet are both tragic characters as they both of their downfalls were the result of the choices of their husbands. Jocasta’s husband Oedipus goes on a destructive journey of self-discovery that reveals the prophecy that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother to be true. This revelation drives Jocasta to suicide as it destroys their lives and the lives of their children beyond repair. After losing her first husband, Gertrude quickly moves on and marries his brother, Claudius, a choice that gravely damages her relationship with her son, Hamlet. Once it is revealed to Hamlet that Claudius is the one who is responsible for his father’s death, he goes on a journey of revenge in which Gertrude gets caught in the crossfire. Both Gertrude and Jocasta are protective mothers whose relationship choice have detrimental consequences and ultimately end in their tragic deaths.

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The Importance Of Female Characters In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex And William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 25, 2024, from
“The Importance Of Female Characters In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex And William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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