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The Character of Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’ Essay

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Updated: Nov 12th, 2021

Introduction

Ophelia is not connected in any way with the crime Prince Hamlet of Denmark seeks to avenge. Hamlet is a college student in line to sit on the country’s throne and marry his sweetheart Ophelia. His life and goals totally change when his father dies. He loved King Hamlet so much that his death throws him into deep depression where he even does not feel like living anymore {“Oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt” (Shakespeare 29)}. King Hamlet then appears to Hamlet as a Ghost, revealing that he did not die of snakebite but was murdered by his own brother Claudius, and urges his son to avenge his death {“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (Shakespeare 57)}. Even though Hamlet is killed in the end, he dies happily knowing that he has taken total revenge for his father’s murder. He has not only killed King Claudius with the poisoned sword, but in addition, the death of Gertrude when she mistakenly drinks the poisoned wine a little while earlier, is, to her dying son who never stopped suspecting her of being somehow involved in his father’s death, the completion of total revenge for King Hamlet’s death.

Discussion

Hamlet develops an increasingly callous attitude towards Ophelia, which reaches its peak in Act III, Scene 1. This is because of 2 reasons: Hamlet’s general hatred towards women, and his condemnation of Ophelia’s actions as those that follow the general deceptiveness of womankind. Hamlet hates women in general, convinced that they do not care about goodness and morality, but will do instead do anything to satisfy the sexual needs of their bodies. Therefore, marriage, in his view, is a foolish step that could only lead wise men to disaster. He reveals this by telling Ophelia: “If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Shakespeare 131). The cause of Hamlet’s hatred of women and disapproval of marriage is his mother Queen Gertrude whom he suspects of being involved in King Hamlet’s murder and the suppressive attitude of society in general, finally snaps, plunging her mind into the soothing abyss of insanity. The Elizabethan era during which Shakespeare lived and which forms the background of ‘Hamlet’, was notorious for suppression of women. Men exercised hierarchal power over women, arrogantly believing their needs are their women’s needs. There was a widespread feeling among men that they possessed an ‘innate’ superiority over women (Brown). Women were considered as frail, non-contributing members of society whose sole purpose was to relieve male sexual urges and bear their children. The general male attitude towards women is well elucidated by Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2: “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Shakespeare 29). Women were not considered able to think rationally and cleverly or worthy of being educated, take up employment, vote or hold public office. As a result, women during those days lost their identity by meekly permitting themselves to be manipulated by the men in their lives (Brown).

Ophelia, although very beautiful, is greatly disadvantaged due to the absence of female tradition and the absence of any significant female influence . She is dominated by the men in her life. The hierarchy needed the presence of docile females so that the men could wield roles of power; Ophelia is one such perfect docile foil to the dominant males in her life (Brown). She is weak, not self-reliant and unable to think on her own and arrive at logical conclusions, instead of relying on the men in her life to make decisions on her behalf (Angelfire.com). “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (Shakespeare 47). These are words spoken by Ophelia to her father Polonius in Act I, Scene 3 that show her general helplessness. Ophelia meekly lets her life be manipulated by the three dominant males in her life – Polonius, her brother Laertes and her lover Hamlet.

From the beginning Polonius and Laertes look upon Ophelia’s personal matters as though they were matters of familial significance, and both men took on the task of clearly instructing her on how to conduct herself. Laertes warns his sister against becoming emotionally involved with Hamlet in Act I, Scene 3: “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor, hold it a fashion and a toy in blood, the perfume and suppliance of a minute, no more” (Shakespeare 39). When Polonius questions her about Laertes’ advice, and she tells him it was “something touching the Lord Hamlet” (Shakespeare 45) who claimed he loves her, Polonius praises his son’s advice, adding his own instructions: “You do not understand yourself so clearly as it behooves my daughter and your honor” (Shakespeare 45). By also referring to ‘honor’ and calling her ‘my daughter,’ his words firstly assert his ‘possession’ of Ophelia, and secondly reveal his main consideration, namely, Ophelia behave herself in strict accordance with societal norms and does not let any dishonor besmirch her name . Polonius repeats this again later in the same scene, exhorting Ophelia to “Tender yourself more dearly, or not to crack the wind of a poor phrase. Running it thus, you’ll tender me a fool” (Shakespeare 47).

Conclusion

When the two main influences in her life are irrevocably lost , Ophelia’s identity deserts her and she becomes insane. When insanity frees her from the stereotyped roles of daughter and lover she had been forced to live in her short life, her death by drowning becomes her last brave and rational action as she finally perceives in herself a distinct individual identity (Brown), and deliberately kills herself to confirm and savor that new identity rather than risk it being snatched away from her if she continued living her meaningless life. The character of Ophelia is responsible for projecting an aura of guilt and deception to the role of women in ‘Hamlet.’ She is not treacherous or complicated, but instead weak and insensibly dependent on the men in her life. By portraying her as pathetic and incapable, Shakespeare succeeds in adapting her character to adhere to the stereotypes of women in the Elizabethan era (Angelfire.com).

References

Brown, Heather. “Gender & Identity in Hamlet: A Modern Interpretation of Ophelia.” 2004. Web.

“The Role of Women in Hamlet.” Angelfire.com. (N.d). Web.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” New York: Washington Square Press. 1992.

Soon, Adi. “Madness in Hamlet”. Geocities.com. 2008. Web.

Smith, Nicole. “Character Analysis of Hamlet”. 2008. Web.

Wilson, Alina. 2009. “Literary Analysis: Hamlet, by William Shakespeare”. Helium.com. 2009. Web.

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