The Role of Women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
During the Renaissance, and beyond, women were often seen as possessions of the men in their lives . In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, women are frequently manipulated by the strong male characters who are closest to them . This manipulation is displayed when examining the relationship between Ophelia and her father, Gertrude and her new husband, and even the Player King and Player Queen . These relationships reveal that behind every strong man in the text, there is a woman who is used to serve that man’s needs, then is quickly discarded . Early in the play, Shakespeare presents a scene in which Ophelia is used as a pawn by her father, Polonius, who seeks King Claudius’s approval . As Claudius seeks to discover the truth about Hamlet, Polonius offers his daughter as bait to the Prince he has recently described as “mad” (2.2.92), stating, “I’ll loose my daughter to him [Hamlet]. / Be you and I behind an arras then, / Mark the encounter” (3.2.162-64). As an advisor to the new King, Polonius seeks to win Claudius’ approval, even if it means “loosing” his daughter to a potential madman, while he stands idly by spying on the pair . Although Polonius claims in places to have Ophelia’s best interests in mind, he is also willing to use her to satisfy his own desires, attempting to gain political power by trading on his daughter’s connection to Hamlet. In addition to her father , Ophelia’s sometime Smith 2
boyfriend, Hamlet, uses Ophelia to his own advantage as well. After raving at her and instructing her to “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.121), he later professes his love for her, though only after her death. When her body is brought to be buried, Laertes leaps in the grave to embrace his sister one last time, and Hamlet chooses this moment to compete with Laertes’s love for his sister, claiming:
‘Swounds , show me what thou’t do.
Woo’t weep? Woo’t fight? Woo’t fast? Woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to wine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I. (5.1.276-281)
As with Polonius’s treatment of his daughter, Ophelia serves only as a means of competition between Hamlet and Laertes, establishing their climatic sword fight that will conclude the play. Ophelia’s grave becomes the literal place of a battle between the male figures who, as they are both in her grave, must be standing on her corpse to further their own heated battle. This is the ultimate rejection of her character as anything other than a device designed to further the male-focussed plot. A similar situation arises between Gertrude and Ophelia where we see a husband also use his wife to make greater personal gains. Claudius’s desire for the throne leads him to murder King Hamlet and grant himself both his crown and his wife… ETC.
Historically , women were often seen as the possessions of their husbands or fathers. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the female characters are routinely used to serve the purposes of the men in their lives, then they are abandoned . Ophelia’s father, Polonius, uses her as a means to win favour with the King, literally giving her to a man he believes is mad, while Gertrude is similarly used by Claudius (her husband to be) who uses her position to gain the throne. For the Player King and Player Queen, once a man has put on the drapery of a woman’s clothes, he is automatically treated negatively simply because of his imagined gender. Despite the negative treatment of women in the play, these women have a power that the men in their lives need; the Renaissance man needed the support of the woman in his life, but Shakespeare suggests that such support would, even still, only result in the woman’s abandonment, rendering her a pawn who is easily disposed of in the chess game of life .
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Folger, 1992. Print. •Sample parenthetical reference: (Shakespeare 3.4.5-7), where “3.4.5-7” is the act, scene, and line number
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print. •Sample parenthetical reference: (Defoe 23), where “23” is the PAGE number
Poem (from an anthology / collection):
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. 2. Boston: Norton, 2007. Print. •Sample parenthetical reference: (Eliot 187), where “187” is the LINE number
Poem (published on its own, longer typically):
- - -. The Wasteland. London: Faber, 1965. Print.
•Sample parenthetical reference: (Eliot, Wasteland 187), where “187” is the LINE number, title included if there are 2+ texts by Eliot
Short Story (unless originally published on its own):
Hemingway, Ernest. “Cat in the Rain.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. 2. Boston: Norton, 2007. Print.
•Sample parenthetical reference: (Eliot 187), where “187” is the PAGE number
Keary, Anne. “Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact.” Canadian Journal of History. 41 (2006): 613-616. Print.
•Sample parenthetical reference: (Keary 614), where 614 is the PAGE number
Website (without & with an author):
“Works of Joyce Wieland.” Celebrating Women’s Achievements: Women Artists in Canada. National Library of Canada, 2000. Web. 29 Mar. 2009.
•Sample parenthetical reference (“Works”)
Wong, Jessica. “Celebrating the Kid Inside.” CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 30 July 2004. Web. 20 Aug.2008.
•Sample parenthetical reference (Wong)
Hamlet. Dir. John Gielgud. Perf. Richard Burton. 1946. DVD. LionsGate, 2012. DVD. •Parenthetical reference: (Hamlet)
"Monster went and ate my red 2." 14 Oct 2011. YouTube. Web. 18 Nov. 2011. •Parenthetical reference: ("Monster")