The Weakness in Hamlet: Discovering Feminism through Gertrude and Ophelia

This piece was written for an honors literature course. I wrote this manuscript during the second semester of my freshman year at Valparaiso University (2011). Exploring numerous texts and scholarly journals, I aimed to demonstrate Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a feminist piece. This is not to say I tried to show Shakespeare himself was a feminist, rather I used Hamlet as evidence that the feminist movement was spurred by such pieces. I argue that works such as Hamlet which have submissive female characters only urged feminism throughout society, and still continues to push equality in the world today. This is a relatively long piece.

In the play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, many controversies arise from the text, one of which is feminism. However, what exactly is meant when the term “feminism” is used to analyze such a text? “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is:  I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute,” admits Rebecca West. (West 219) Feminism in the most general of terms is known as the principle advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. It focuses on the vantage point in which a text is viewed or perceived. Feminists give their literary criticism on countless texts, and show the equality, strength, and determination of the female race. By criticizing texts, a certain respect is gained for women by men and women alike. Feminism requires certain persistence on digging under the surface of the text and finding what the character might truly be thinking. As someone analyzes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, certain distinctions can be made through Gertrude and Ophelia, the only women characters, by their actions and speeches, as well as the exchanges between them and the men in their lives. Within this paper I will draw upon these numerous distinctions to establish that Shakespeare chose to make Hamlet into an anti-feminist text.

Feminism was a largely debated issue in the context of sixteenth century literature specific to many of Shakespeare’s texts. Shakespeare lived during the Renaissance era, but many of his female characters and the plots surrounding them are considered anti-feminist due to either the role that the women played or how they were referred to within the text. Especially in Hamlet, the roots to this notion are that the women, Gertrude and Ophelia, are given demoted opinions and roles within the play, that the play is from a male-centered viewpoint, and that it solely focuses upon the male characters and their experiences instead of integrating the views and impacts of the women as well. This leads to the assumption that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with the need to display male dominance. In this way, Hamlet could be perceived as a feminist test with the thought that Shakespeare wanted to make the world aware of the belittlement of women. I, however, do not believe this the case and will verify my claim within the coming pages. Even after four centuries, Shakespeare’s desire to promote male superiority in a changing world remains the weakness in Hamlet and thus creates an anti-feminist text. Shakespeare fails at representing the feminine perspective within his play and thus demotes Gertrude and Ophelia into mere theatrical balances to the male characters. Evidence will be shown how this decision ultimately weakens Hamlet in the eyes of feminist readers.

A play which began as a plot of revenge turned into a story of betrayal, aiming to downplay the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia. Had aspects of Shakespeare’s society, life views, and gender consciousness not interrupted the play’s plotline, Hamlet would not have become a key component to the fierce criticism of feminism. But how has Shakespeare transformed Hamlet into a work of anti-feminism? And why is the possibility of the playwright being empathetic to women not an option for this text? Feminist critics throughout the centuries have supplied answers for this question, looking specifically at Gertrude and Ophelia. From this point, we will begin looking into the views of feminism on the text from the Renaissance era to modern age and unravel the female characters within the play.

Give the Women a Voice
The traditional texts of Western literature are seen by the feminist movement to define who has the power to speak in Western culture and who does not. However, during the time of Shakespeare, authors were mostly men, and their voices were considered by many to be domineering, largely exclusive, and biased in favor of a male point of view. This becomes apparent in Hamlet when a play, which supposedly deals deeply with human psyche, does not reveal much at all about the two major female characters. Gertrude and Ophelia act either as theatrical balances to the male characters or as an audience to their speeches and actions. Ross Murfin defines feminism in a brief, straight-to-the-point description:

“Feminist criticism comes in many forms, and feminist critics have a variety of goals. Some are interested in rediscovering the works of women writers overlooked by a masculine-dominated culture. Others have revisited books by male authors and reviewed them from a woman’s point of view to understand how they both reflect and shape the attitudes that have held women back.” (Murfin 208)

In this regard, to prove Hamlet is an anti-feminist text will take the latter perspective, discovering how Hamlet has reflected and shaped the image of women from the Renaissance to modern age.

Elaine Showalter uses this approach to the feminist critique by describing the changing representations of Ophelia throughout time periods. Ophelia will be discussed more fully further along in this paper, but it is useful to note Showalter’s interpretation to understand the lengths in which Hamlet is discussed in regards to feminism. Showalter believes the changing face of Ophelia is not only a patriarchal ideology but also a feminist response. Showalter expresses this when she says, “… in exposing the ideology of representation, feminist critics have also the responsibility to acknowledge and to examine the boundaries of own ideological positions as products of our gender and our time.” (Showalter 238)

Therefore, to begin exploration into the writing techniques behind Hamlet, it is most beneficial to start at the beginning: the time of Shakespeare. Women in the time of Shakespeare had certain criteria set upon them which distinguished them. Theresa Kemp describes “the Renaissance appropriations of the ideal woman, which in the Greco-Roman tradition was the obedient, chaste, and modest wife.” (Kemp 2) Hamlet’s women, Gertrude and Ophelia, seem to play off this ideology, though neither hit exactly on the choice for “perfect wife.” However, their attempt to represent women of the Renaissance age is the first noteworthy reference to a feminist critique. Kemp continues to discuss Renaissance women in literature:

“In his dramatic and poetic depictions of women, Shakespeare resembled his literary contemporaries by explicitly and implicitly drawing upon antiquity’s conventional ideas about women. Such ideas are woven, sometimes seamlessly, into the fabric of his plays, as when Hamlet exclaims ‘Woman, thy name is frailty…’ (Hamlet I.2.146)” (Kemp 2)

And though the majority of people in Shakespeare’s time period held strong sexist beliefs, it is interesting Shakespeare shows this sort of sexism when his England was not under a patriarchal rule, but rather under Queen Elizabeth. Had Shakespeare wanted to create an awareness of women’s worthiness, the time would not have been better. Other authors of the time were writing through a feminist perspective, such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa who wrote De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei sexus, which “argues that the contemporary treatment of women is contrary to both divine and natural laws.” (Wood 189) His argument challenged the traditional patriarchal society and suggested a new respect for women. And there were even noteworthy women authors during the Renaissance, specifically Moderata Fonte, writer of The Worth of Women: Wherein is Clearly Revealed their Nobility and their Superiority to Men. This piece is described as an argument “that women have the same innate abilities as men and, when similarly educated, prove their equals… Fonte provides a picture of the private and public lives of Renaissance women, ruminating on their roles in the house, in society, and in the arts.” (Amazon.com) Thus, Shakespeare would not have been ostracized due to a feminist Hamlet, but perhaps set the par for other such authors of his time.

The fact that England was not a patriarch in Shakespeare’s time may have promoted his interest in writing the characters of Hamlet in the way he did, and perhaps this approach to Hamlet was not as threatening as it may seem. Stephen Greenblatt gives an account of a time when “the queen instructed her officers not to permit any ‘interlude’ to be ‘played wherein either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the commonweal shall be handled or treated.’” (Greenblatt 339) Greenblatt also stresses how impossible it would have been to enforce this prohibition in a broad sense without banning theater altogether. The monarch and the ruling elite were uneasy about being represented onstage, and by allowing such representations, they would in effect be giving control to the theater of their own persons. The theater, they feared, would then do as the queen put it, “make greatness familiar.” Therefore theater continued to strive and the plays which inhabited the stage were not completely limited on their storylines. Shakespeare either designed Hamlet to be an intriguing plot with interesting characters or an intriguing plot based on subliminal hints towards real people. Greenblatt supports the latter, as will be shown in the reading of Gertrude, and also by his statement that “Shakespeare continued to be fascinated throughout his entire career by the charismatic power of royalty – the excitement awakened in crowds, the trembling in otherwise strong men, the sense of awesome greatness.” (Greenblatt 46) That England was run by a female further established the anti-feminist movement in Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet, shifting his male desire to be superior into a prominently male-dominated tale. Gertrude and Ophelia ultimately symbolized this desired aspect in Shakespeare’s life which he sought: the need for male domination in a fast-changing society.

Now on the topic of a changing world, it is time to change our highlight from the Renaissance to the modern age. To do so, Virginia Woolf offers a perfect bridge between the two, as she applies modern thinking to the Renaissance period. In one of her most famous essays, A Room of One’s Own, Woolf asks what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister who was every bit as brilliant as he. Woolf answers that the sister would have found it impossible to become a playwright due to the anti-feminist oppression of the sixteenth century. If for Shakespeare, the great plays were veritable miracles, they would have been impossible for this imaginary sister. (Woolf 46)

“That woman, then, who was born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman, a woman at strife against herself. All the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain.” (Woolf 51)

This further suggests that any woman who held a promising talent during the Renaissance age was born to live an unhappy life. Thus the question is asked: does Shakespeare’s portrayal of Gertrude and Ophelia restrict and oppress the ideals of talented, free women of his time? My answer is yes, and Hamlet is an anti-feminist text due to its oppressive constraints on the struggle for women to be human in a world which declares them only female.

However, perhaps the issue reappears that Shakespeare did try to open the door for women to be recognized. Not for their gender, but for their character. Irene Dash argues this point saying,

“The individuality and lifelikeness of Shakespeare’s major women characters are a testimony to his artistry… Generalizations will not do, for against the constants of their environment are the individual backgrounds, endowments, abilities, dreams, and disappointments that give them uniqueness and specificity.” (Dash 255)

But are the two major women characters in Hamlet examples of Dash’s argument? Gertrude’s affair, deceit of her son, and death all give her uniqueness, as does Ophelia’s innocence and madness to her character, yet whether or not Shakespeare wrote their “beauty, variety, strength, and intelligence, as well as their errors of judgment and tragic flaws, [as] insights into our own world” remains in question.

Theresa Kemp, in regards to an answer, tells of a unique case. In 1885 Sarah Bernhardt was cast to play the role of Ophelia in a Hamlet production. She continues:

“Bernhardt claimed the role ‘brought nothing new to me in the study of character,’ preferring the greater intellectual depth to be found in male parts, especially in Hamlet. ‘But,’ she continues, ‘a woman can only interpret a male part when it represents a mind in a feeble body… Generally speaking male parts are more intellectual than female parts. No female character has opened up a field so large for the exploration of sensations and human sorrows as that of Hamlet.’” (Kemp 141)

Here, Bernhardt is responding to the Dash Question. As a critical reader to her acting role, Bernhardt would rather be the part of Hamlet because he explores areas in the human psyche that Ophelia cannot even reach. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Ophelia did not give Sarah Bernhardt an insight into her world, but rather left her feeling that the character offered no new experiences. Thus Dash’s argument for a feminist Shakespeare is mute in the case of Hamlet.

Through a look at the definition of what feminism is, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is anti-feminist. Just as Richard Levin describes, Hamlet is concerned with “opposition between male and female” – between “the world of the fathers,” dominated by reason, public roles, and duty, and the feminine world of emotion and true self. (Levin 125) The play in itself affirms this division. Hamlet fulfills the expected male role; the royal prince (a public role) conceives a plan to avenge his father (his duty) throughout the play. Hamlet sets up the intricate plot of the Mousetrap to find evidence that his uncle killed his father (proof of his reason) and then works towards the final bloody scene. The females in Hamlet, however, do not display such motivated representations. Rather, Shakespeare designed Gertrude and Ophelia as purely emotional beings. A great example is during the Bedroom Scene while Hamlet is raging against his mother and she, instead of reasoning with her son, simply cries out with such passionate declarations as, “O Hamlet, speak no more!/ Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,/ And there I see such black and grained spots/ As will not leave their tinct.” (Hamlet III.4.89-92) It also can be said that these emotional characters portray the ideology of true self within them. In the lines of Gertrude above, she is addressing her wickedness, and even a sense of repentance for it. Nowhere within Hamlet do the male characters come to such revelations about themselves. Hamlet, it may be argued, shows emotion in numerous ways, but in the end there can be different readings as to what the prince’s final achievement was: avenging his father, holding a sort of superiority over his mother, or simply ending his own suffering. As a character, Hamlet never truly reaches a straight-forward goal. In this way, Shakespeare concretes the division between the male and female worlds merely by his characterizations of those in the play. Hamlet creates a division between the sexes which ultimately results into an anti-feminist text. And even with questions such as Irene Dash brings into criticism, the exploration into the femininity of Hamlet through the actual characters of Gertrude and Ophelia, further develop this thesis.

Unraveling Gertrude: Giving the Queen Her Own Dialogue
The interpretations of Hamlet come from the male dialogue, since no knowledge is revealed by the text concerning Gertrude or Ophelia’s actual feelings. In this sense, both female characters are denied a voice for their own defense and representation. However, the fact remains that one of the best ways to explore Shakespeare’s Hamlet as being an anti-feminist text is to begin by unraveling the character of Gertrude.  The queen, a woman of the highest standing in Denmark, is portrayed as both a whore and an adulterer (Hamlet I.2.137-59) throughout Hamlet and finally comes to purification through death. What motive does Shakespeare have behind this portrayal of Gertrude? Is it simply to develop a complex plotline, or does he have a subliminal reason for this absence of self-representation?

Peter Erickson, a feminist scholar, suggests that Shakespeare developed this female character with a secret agenda. Thus, Erickson developed a theory in his book Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves which stated that critics of the playwright should focus their attention on actual women of the Renaissance era rather than on Shakespeare’s female characters. “It cannot be assumed that Shakespeare necessarily assimilated and expressed all the possible political stances open to women.” (Erickson 29) With this thought, one may argue that Shakespeare deliberately placed a narrow range of options available for his characters and therefore produced a restricted view on women of his time. Again, this limited view on women may have been to create awareness of the oppression on women, but I believe it was simply a step taken to be unjust to the female race.

Erickson agrees but proposes that this restricted perspective on Renaissance women was aimed at one woman in particular. “The latent cultural fantasy in Hamlet is that Queen Gertrude functions as a degraded figure of Queen Elizabeth.” (Erickson 86) Gertrude’s powerlessness contrasts so sharply with the actual situation of Elizabeth’s supremacy that critics dance with the idea that Shakespeare may have been gratifying his male imagination by underwriting this gender-role reversal. This is evidenced most suitably by the exchanges made in the bedroom scene. Hamlet first primes himself by drawing a distinction between verbal aggression and physical violence towards his mother when he says, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” (Hamlet III.2.387) Then when Gertrude cries, “O speak to me no more. / These words like daggers enter my ears,” (III.4.94-5) the queen’s submission to her son reestablishes the male dominance within the play; the politically-strong woman has succumbed to her son. However, between these two quotes Hamlet seems threatening to Gertrude, causing her to fear for her life, and ultimately resulting in the murder of Polonius. What was Shakespeare’s reasoning to include this act of violence when he clearly stated Hamlet would only consent to verbal harassment? Erickson believes, “Hamlet’s enactment of literal violence in her presence sets off wider cultural reverberations. The scene briefly calls up the potential for male violence against Elizabeth …”(Erickson 87) Shakespeare may have been using Gertrude as a political symbol since, unlike Elizabeth, she conveniently offers a weak character who invites the male imagination to depict the female nature it can dominate.

In a complete turn-around from Erickson’s critiques, Janet Adelman attempts to persuade Shakespeare’s readers that Gertrude is the strongest character in Hamlet. A scholar specializing in the psychoanalysis of Shakespeare, Adelman blames the queen for Hamlet’s collapse into conflict. She says,

“The son’s acting out of the role of the father, his need to make his own identity in relationship to his conception of his father… becomes deeply problematic in the presence of the wife/mother: for her presence makes the father’s sexual role a disabling crux in the son’s relationship with his father.” (Adelman 256)

In summary, Gertrude ends Hamlet’s search for his own identity through the relationship with his father because the queen’s presence creates a failing in her son’s character. This disability is brought about when the son’s relationship to his father is marred by the power of female sexuality. This is evidenced by Hamlet’s soliloquy which establishes the premises of the play:

“O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t, ah fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden
That grows seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead…” (I.2.129-38)

This speech is given before Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, thus presenting the psychic conditions existing before being assigned vengeance on his uncle. Here Hamlet is telling the audience that he believes the world is stale and contaminated in an image of an unweeded garden gone to seed – a very similar use of language to describe the biblical fall. (Adelman 260) This soliloquy is Hamlet’s attempt to locate a point of origin for this view of the world and he discovers this point in his mother’s body. For he further says that this “fall” has not been caused by his father’s death but by his mother’s remarriage.

The danger of following in his father’s footsteps may be what brings Hamlet’s downfall. For Hamlet to find his identity means he must decide which route he wants to take in life: avenge his father or abide by his uncle. However, as Adelman suggests, the choice is much more difficult for Hamlet because of his mother. Gertrude fails to represent Hamlet’s father’s image by mourning an inappropriately short amount of time after his death. She commits an even deeper failure by being unable to differentiate husband and husband’s brother. “The intensity of Hamlet’s need to differentiate between true father and false thus confounds itself, disabling his identification with his father and hence his secure identity as son.” (257) Gertrude’s failure to remember ultimately shapes a theme in the play: as the queen forgets the true king, Hamlet inherits the responsibility to avenge his father.

Hamlet redefines the son’s position between two fathers by relocating it in relation to an indiscriminately sexual maternal body that threatens to annihilate the distinction between the fathers and hence problematizes the son’s paternal identification…” (258) Adelman goes so far as to suggest that the intrusion of an adulterous mother does not create a solution to the play. Rather, this presence initiates the tragedy. So why does the first mother introduced since Shakespeare’s earliest works hold such a powerful presence and yet is portrayed as adulterous? And why does this presence coincide with the start of Shakespeare’s great tragic period? Adelman pushes her concept because she believes the “mother’s sexuality is literally the sign of her betrayal and of her husband’s death.” (279) This, Adelman urges, sets the stage for Shakespeare’s plays which follow: from Hamlet on, all sexual relationships are tinged by the threat of a mother and all masculine identity problems are directly formed in relation to her.

It is also beneficial to note that this tragic period of Shakespeare’s writing began with an outline of the legendary life of a Danish prince named Hamblet. Erickson and Adelman both fail to discuss this factor, relying on the language of the play and historical politics of the Renaissance era to develop their theories. However, I believe it is necessary to consider the changes to add as evidence of the text’s anti-feminist views.

Specifically, the changes made surrounding the role of Gertrude from the universally agreed history of Hamblet, written by Francis de Belleforest, to the play of Hamlet should be noted. The historical name of the Danish queen was Geruth, and upon witnessing the murder of her husband by his brother, chose to save her own life by committing an adulterous act:

“…the unfortunate and wicked woman, that had received the honour to bee the wife of one of the valiantest and wiseth princes in the north, imbased her selfe in such a vile sort, as to falsifie her faith unto him, and which is worse, to marrie him, that had bin the tyrannous murtherer of her lawfull husband …” (Belleforest 8)

Thus, the character of Gertrude became an adulterous whore within Hamlet. Such a representation is genuine of the queen and Shakespeare remained true to history. However, Shakespeare then took the liberty of changing a crucial part of history; in truth, the murderous uncle had his “counsellor entred secretly into the queenes chamber, and there hid himselfe behind the arras, not long before the queene and Hamblet came thither…” (14) Upon this scene in Hamlet, Shakespeare changes the act to make Gertrude knowledgeable of Polonius’s presence. (Hamlet III.4.6-7) What reasoning, though, does Shakespeare have for such a shift? Even more, in the historical text, it was said:

“[Geruth] wepte and tormented her selfe to see all her hopes frustrate, for that what fault soever she had committed, yet was shee sore grieved to see her onely child made a mere mockery, every man reproaching her with his folly, one point whereof she had as then seene before her eyes, which was no small pricke to her conscience, esteeming that the gods sent her that punishment for joyning incestuously in marriage with the tyrannous murtherer of her husband…nevertheless shee forgot all disdaine and wrath, which thereby she might as then have had, hearing her selfe so sharply chiden and reproved, for the joy she then conceaved, to behold the gallant spirit of her sonne …”           (14-17)

Geruth, when faced with her son’s accusations, repented. She even is quoted as saying, “I will put my trust in you, and from henceforth meane not to meddle further with your affayres.” (19) In history, Geruth honored her oath to Hamblet and disclosed nothing to the uncle. However, in Hamlet Shakespeare designs a conflict in Gertrude as she attempts to be faithful to both her husband, Claudius, and Hamlet. Had Gertrude followed the historical account, Hamlet’s anger towards his mother would have been resolved and Gertrude would be represented in a better light.

These technical changes of Shakespeare and the sense of feminism come into conflict when compared through the character of Gertrude. Overall, Peter Erickson supports the concept that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an anti-feminist text and that he wrote from the standpoint that the male gender should remain superior to female. Janet Adelman also believes Hamlet is anti-feminist. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Gertrude to both scholars is one of condensation and anger. Even the historical Geruth in the end became a virtuous character, repenting of her wrongs and becoming the mother Hamblet needed, and Shakespeare fails to acknowledge this. In a shift from what could have been a comedic and happy ending, Shakespeare uses Hamlet to steer towards betrayal and tragedy. It seems as if the unraveling of Gertrude portrays Hamlet as an anti-feminist text, but does the character of Ophelia also agree with this hypothesis? Perhaps it may be argued that the love between Hamlet and the girl causes a new perspective on the text as a whole.

Diary of a Madwoman: Ophelia’s Representation
As has been stressed before, what greater influential cultural force could there have been in Shakespeare’s time than that of patriarchy? The patriarchal society of Western culture held powerfully negative implications over women. In this way the freedom for women to express themselves was not considered by the psyche of the men in the world. And the male regard for females was, unfortunately, connected with the female body. Thus it was acceptable that the female body was a man’s “property” and the dominance over women was a life goal for men in the Renaissance age. Theresa Kemp advances this notion when she says, “Although marriage was seen as companionate, it was nonetheless hierarchical, with husbands dominant and wives submissive. Indeed, the idea of companionate marriage did not preclude the notion of wives as property…” (Kemp 40) In regards to this mindset, talk of sexuality was a popular topic in conversation during the time, and this concept is recognized in Hamlet.

Therefore Hamlet’s sexual conversation with Ophelia during the Mousetrap would have been acceptable to a Renaissance audience. In their exchange:

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: That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. (Hamlet III.2.110-14)

It appears to a modern day audience that the “noble” prince shares a very inappropriate joke with Ophelia. This is a representation of an anti-feminist dialogue for the point of view in this area is that of a male-dominant culture and not necessarily from the way a culture woman would feel about such humor. However, as the text continues it becomes apparent Ophelia is offended with Hamlet’s crudeness:

Ophelia: Will he tell us what this show meant?
Hamlet: Ay, or any show that you will show him. Be not
you ashamed to show, he’ll not shame to tell you what
it means.
Ophelia: You are naught, you are naught. I’ll mark the
play. (138-42)

To speak to a gentlewoman would require sonnets, not crude jokes. Hamlet’s use of such humor is not appropriate for a woman, but rather only in the company of other males. Thus, this decision of Shakespeare’s demotes Ophelia even below the status of a woman and strictly to an object of Hamlet’s.

In this sense, Ophelia is denied a voice in the text and instead is – as Elaine Showalter refers to the girl as “the object Ophelia” – the object of Hamlet’s male desire. (Showalter 220) Showalter follows this condescending statement with an angry display of a portion of Jacques Lacan’s seminar on Hamlet:

“The etymology of Ophelia, Lacan asserts, is ‘O-phallus,’ and her role in the drama can only be to function as the exteriorized figuration of what Lacan predictably and, in view of his own early work with psychotic women, disappointingly suggests is the phallus as transcendental signifier. To play such a part obviously makes Ophelia ‘essential,’ as Lacan admits; but only because, in his words, ‘she is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet.” (220)

Lacan, like many critics, sees Ophelia as an insignificant minor character in Hamlet, touching only on her weaknesses and madness, and only primarily interesting because of what she supplies to the character of Hamlet. However, as Showalter demonstrates, the character of Ophelia has become more prominent within the past four centuries. But why has she become such an obsessive figure in our cultural mythology? She only shows in five of the play’s twenty scenes! Elaine Showalter suggests that “Ophelia might confirm the impossibility of representing the feminine in patriarchal discourse as other than madness, incoherence, fluidity, or silence.” (222) The exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet, in this sense, can be viewed as a femininity which escapes representation in patriarchal language and rather remains on the side of negativity.

Another sign of this negative attitude towards women is present in comparison between Gertrude and Ophelia. Janet Adelman argues that the female sexuality of his mother distorts Hamlet’s image of women as a whole. (Adelman 257) Gertrude’s weakness contaminates the prince’s view of Ophelia and this is the reason, Adelman rationalizes, that Hamlet cuts ties with his suitor. She even goes so far as to group Ophelia and Gertrude into one being: a mother. This is evidenced when Hamlet pleads, “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (Hamlet III.1.121-2) Marriage is no longer an option for Hamlet; Ophelia is as dangerous to him as his mother was to his father.

Connected to this is the fact that Ophelia is surrounded by powerful men- her father, her brother, and Hamlet- and that they all disappear: Laertes leaves, Hamlet abandons her, and Polonius dies. These three men in her life ultimately twist into the cause of her madness. However, Ophelia’s acts of madness come into an unusual form: song. Leslie Dunn questions this introduction of song into such an intense tragedy, “As female is opposed to male and madness to reason, so song in Hamlet is opposed to speech- particularly the threat represented by Ophelia’s importunate self-expression.” (Dunn 52) Ophelia’s music is not merely the results of an insane girl but an active participant in Hamlet’s larger address on gender and sexuality. Dunn says, “Renaissance debates over the nature and uses of music bore striking similarities to contemporary debates over the nature and place of women. Like women, music was associated with the body and female generativity.” (57) When a man in the Renaissance age made music he was indulging in feminine emotional excess and thus breaking down the social order. Therefore, that Shakespeare would write music for the female character in his play portrays an anxiety to encourage male sexuality.

However, Ophelia is problematizing cultural constructions of women through her songs because:

“Ophelia’s songs are like an inversion of patriarchal speech, a release of repressed psychic energies and unmet emotional needs. But according to the logic of patriarchal narrative, that release can be only temporary: Ophelia’s disruptive feminine energy must be reabsorbed into both the social and the discursive orders of the play.” (62)

Ophelia pays a high price for this self-expression, though: her life.

Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or life a creature native and indued
Unto the elements. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (Hamlet IV.7.173-81)

The fact that Ophelia’s death is not represented on stage, then, renders the image of Ophelia singing less dangerous. This exert of a speech made by Gertrude only recounts the girl’s death and “marks a crucial moment in the play’s response to the threats of excess and disorder embodied in Ophelia’s music.” (Dunn 62) This, Dunn suggests, is Shakespeare’s attempt to restore Ophelia to her original iconic role of a modest and delicate being. In this way the playwright acknowledged the significance in his choice for writing music into Hamlet and also made the decision to dilute her possible feminine representation by cutting her death from the play’s climax and including Gertrude’s patronizing speech about it.

The portrayal of Ophelia in Joseph Papp’s rendition of Hamlet brings a sharp contrast to Leslie Dunn’s interpretation of Ophelia, but it continues to support the proposition of Hamlet’s anti-feminist background. Papp displays Ophelia as the Renaissance audience would have viewed her: as a sexual object. During her Saint Valentine’s Day song, Papp includes the note: “Many people in their desire to think of Ophelia as a sweet young innocent, ignore how bawdy her songs are. Disillusion them. The first time she says ‘Cock,’ she does a bump, the second time she coyly covers the microphone, winks, and only hums the beat.” (Papp 140) This reading of Ophelia’s character comes from awareness of the male dominance in the play. Even A. R. Braunmuller’s footnote in Hamlet recognizes that Ophelia’s use of the word “Cock” may mean either God or penis. (Hamlet 107)

Thus, the character of Ophelia may be portrayed in two senses through her maddening song: an expression of female opposition to male dominance or merely an insignificant sexual object. Either way, Hamlet is primarily about male superiority and Ophelia provides perfect evidence for this statement. No representation of her own character, insufficient lines to explain her own actions and thoughts, and the dilution of her only power (her music) all lead to the conclusion that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as an anti-feminist text.

Adding the Pieces Together
In conclusion, the definition of what feminism in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is is dominated by male reason, public roles, and duty, and the feminine world of emotion and true self is not justifiably represented. Shakespeare’s technical changes and a sense of feminism come into conflict when compared through the character of Gertrude and result in a shift from what could have been a comedic and happy ending, to one of betrayal and tragedy. Even a look into Ophelia’s character shows Hamlet as primarily about male superiority. Neither Gertrude nor Ophelia are allowed to represent their own character but rather are given insufficient lines to explain their own actions and thoughts.

Through these examinations of Hamlet, distinctions have been made using evidence about feminism throughout the centuries and by the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia. These distinctions have now been fused together in this paper to concrete the concept that Hamlet is an anti-feminist text. As I have said, this is not a decision made by Shakespeare to bring awareness to his male-dominant world about the oppression of women. Rather, this anti-feminism makes for an impacting weakness in Hamlet in the respect that the women in the play are not properly representing the women in the time of Shakespeare, thus leading readers to assume their portrayals are accurate in regards to Renaissance women.

It’s interesting to think how different society would have reacted if Hamlet had housed voices of its female characters. Women of the age may have found strength in their own voices had a male of such caliber as Shakespeare deemed them worthy of having a voice in his literature. As it were, many people debate whether women actually experienced the Renaissance during the sixteenth century as men did. Joan Kelly-Gadol believes women did not, and stresses, “To take the emancipation of women as a vantage point is to discover that events that further the historical development of men, liberating them from natural, social, or ideological constraints, have quite different, even opposite, effects upon women.” (Kelly-Gadol 176) She argues that the developments which reorganized society and opened possibilities for the social and cultural expression affected women adversely, so much so that “there was no renaissance for women – at least, not during the Renaissance.” The Renaissance impacted women in different ways according to their different positions in society. Women as a group experienced a contraction of social and personal options that men of their classes did not experience.

Kelly-Gadol also supports my theory that, had women in literature been allowed to represent their own voices, women would have experience the same development during the Renaissance as their male counterparts did. She says,

“Ideas about the relation of the sexes range from a relatively complementary sense of sex roles in literature dealing with courtly manners, love, and education, to patriarchal conceptions in writings on marriage and the family, to a fairly equal presentation of sex roles in early Utopian social theory. Such diversity need not baffle the attempt to reconstruct a history of sex-role conceptions, however, and to relate its course to the actual situation of women.” (177)

Whatever their social status, women suffered new constraints as life began to transition from the medieval society to an early modern state. This shift between ages is shown through “writings on education, domestic life, and society [which] constitute the extreme in this denial of women’s independence.” Kelly-Gadol points to many works which establish the relation of the sexes as one of female dependency and male domination.

However, a renaissance did happen to women sometime between the sixteenth century and present day. Women began to voice their own input, developing the attitude that their “female dependency” was no longer appropriate. In the United States of America, the campaign for women’s rights began during the 1820s and 30s. (History.com) Women began to question the idea that only “true” womanhood was a pious, submissive wife and mother. This ultimately led to a new way of thinking among women. The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848. During the convention most of the delegates agreed that “American women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities.” These movements eventually brought about a sense of equality for male and female citizens throughout the country.

To this day women still strive to achieve true equality with the men in the world. What may have been primarily male careers – engineering, medical doctors, authors – have become infiltrated by the female race. And many of those women dive head-first into such pathways with the want to outdo men. As Clare Boothe Luce wonderfully said, “Because I am a woman, I must take unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, ‘She doesn’t have what it takes.’ They will say, ‘Women don’t have what it takes.” (Quotegarden.com) In this way, the concept of what was (male supremacy) still hangs in the back of the world’s mind and women fight on a daily basis to prove their worthiness to the world. In this regard, perhaps women should thank such literary pieces as Hamlet for pushing their fierceness into motion. Had the voice of women been handed to them, such as Shakespeare attempting to bring awareness of women’s oppression to the world, then the battle for equality would not have taken place and women would have to thank men for allowing their representation to occur. Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition, and with works like Hamlet, the ambition in women has been sparked into existence.

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3 thoughts on “The Weakness in Hamlet: Discovering Feminism through Gertrude and Ophelia

    • Hi Jamie,
      Thanks for reading my essay! When it comes to references, I don’t put my reference lists online in the cases that some people may choose to plagiarize my works as their own. I wouldn’t want to tempt anyone to doubtlessly get caught and failed for a course. Thanks again for your interest though!
      -Ashley

      Like

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