Damon Van Leewen
Don’t Discount Gertrude
“Frailty, thy name is woman!”(I.ii.146) Indeed, one common analysis of female characters in Hamlet is that they are frail pawns stuck in the middle of the male characters’ schemes. Feminist critic Elaine Showalter bases her analysis on her belief that the women in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet are passive vessels. Showalter argues that women in Hamlet are not full characters but instead are empty vessels or essentially blank slates from which modern viewers can draw conclusions about representations of women. She discusses this representation of women in the context of “English and French painting, photography, psychiatry, and literature, as well as in theatrical production” (Page 3), and argues that each time period and location’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s characters reveals something about that specific locus. She also stretches this argument to include Ophelia’s creator and discuss his era’s view on women. She focuses her analysis largely on Ophelia, drawing from both modern feminist critique and the contemporary views of women from the era in which her sources were created. Showalter argues that all the women in Hamlet are like Ophelia, but this theory does not apply to every female character in the play. The character Gertrude reveals that Shakespeare did not write all his female characters as passive. Shakespeare’s writing reveals the tension of women trying to navigate sexuality, motherhood, political power, and gender expectations of the time. This throws a wrench into the argument as a whole.
Showalter’s premise that Ophelia is a passive character is certainly true. “We can imagine Hamlet's story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet” (Page 2), feminist expert Lee Edwards argues. Hamlet’s story has many other aspects to it besides being in love with Ophelia, such as his thirst for revenge or his problems with his mother, but the same can not be said about Ophelia’s story as she does not contribute to the plot on her own. Showalter uses this quote to show that Ophelia is a completely passive character created only to define her male love interest. Ophelia willingly becomes a pawn in the plots schemed by the people around her. For instance, Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude use her as a pawn when they to try and discover the root of Hamlet’s insanity. She is unable to form her own thoughts or opinions, and always gives into the will of others. This is evidenced with Ophelia’s love interests. Laertes and Polonius, her brother and father, tell her not to respond to Hamlet’s affection. Ophelia's family members believe that she should “keep in the rear of [her] affection”(I.iii.24) and not give into Hamlet’s advances. They believe this because Hamlet’s “choice depends the safety and health of this whole state,”(I.iii.20) and “the main voice of Denmark goes withal,”(I.iii.28) that Hamlet’s first priority will always be...