Female Characters in "Hamlet"

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Introduction

Shakespearean tragedy is a story of one, or at most two persons. As a rule, they are male protagonists. But to say that Shakespeare’s female characters are shallow, undeveloped and used just as a decoration on the stage is very wrong. Women in Shakespeare’s tragedies have no leading role and they are, to paraphrase Northrop Frye,[1] not tragic heroines, but heroines in a tragedy.

All female characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies have one thing in common – they end up dead. It is always an untimely, unnatural death. This rule (rather than coincidence) is a theme of many debates among philologists, critics, psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers.

As Hamlet is one of the most reflective Shakespeare’s plays, the characters are developed very carefully and subtly. Although it may seem that Gertrude and Ophelia have no significant part in the tragedy, their characters are masterfully deep and refined. Only a true master of playwriting could give so much personality to the supporting roles. They have got fewer lines from the tragic hero, yet we find to be acquainted with all the subtle character traits of Ophelia and Gertrude.

Ophelia

Ophelia, the lover of Prince Hamlet, is cautioned against believing his professions of love already in 1.3 by her brother Laertes, and her father, Polonius forbid her to see him. Demure and obedient Ophelia returns Hamlet's letters and, under the pressure of revenge and female infidelity, Hamlet turns on her with a seemingly insane revulsion against women in general and her in particular. She reports his behavior in 2.1 and encounters it in even more virulent form in 3.1. After her former lover kills her father, Ophelia becomes insane, babbling about funerals and singing scraps of songs in 4.5. Her death by drowning is reported by the Queen in 4.7, and her funeral in 5.1 - abbreviated by the priest because the death seems a suicide - triggers an encounter between Hamlet and Laertes that foreshadows the play's climax.

As Charles Boyce[2] also notices, although Shakespeare does often create ‘cardboard’ characters (usually for the benefit of the play), Ophelia is not one of them. Ophelia's nature is abundantly affectionate: her wounded but faithful love - for her father and for Hamlet - makes her one of the most touching Shakespeare's characters. However, the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is not a love story, for Hamlet has rejected love. He loved Ophelia before the play opens, as is attested first by her touching recollection of his gifts and words of love, and then by his admission at her funeral. He remains sexually attracted to her - as is shown by the obscene jesting during the mousetrap scene - but he has displaced on her much of his anger with his mother. She has become for him simply a stimulus for his disgust for women and sex, and he no longer sees her as an actual person. Ophelia's faith is thus an outgrowth of Hamlet's emotional collapse; not only is her life diminished - and ultimately destroyed - by his actions, but she is a measure of what he has lost through his mistaken vision of the world.

As Bradley [3] states, Shakespearean literature and the experience of teachers show that there is much difference of opinion regarding Ophelia, and in particular that a large number of readers feel a kind of personal irritation against her. They seem unable to forgive her for not having been a heroine, and they fancy her much weaker than she was. They think that she ought to have been able to help Hamlet to fulfill the task. It was essential to Shakespeare's purpose that too great an interest should not be aroused in the love-story and therefore Ophelia should be merely one of the subordinate characters and, accordingly, she should not be the equal, in spirit, power of intelligence, of his famous heroines. Ophelia was made a character who could not help Hamlet, and from whom, on the other hand, he would not naturally feel a passion...
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