Contrast of Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet
Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, the main female characters in Shakespeare’s dramatic tragedy Hamlet, have a variety of contrasting or dissimilar personal qualities and experiences. This essay, with the help of literary critics, will explore these differences.
John Dover Wilson in his book, What Happens in Hamlet, discusses what is perhaps the greatest dissimilarity between Ophelia and Gertrude – their morality:
His [Hamlet’s] mother is a criminal, has been guilty of a sin which blots out the stars for him, makes life a bestial thing, and even infects his very blood. She has committed incest. Modern readers, living in an age when marriage laws are the subject of free discussion and with a deceased wife’s sister act upon the statute-book, can hardly be expected to enter fully into Hamlet’s feelings on this matter. Yet no one who reads the first soliloquy in the Second Quarto text, with its illuminating dramatic punctuation, can doubt for one moment that Shakespeare wished here to make full dramatic capital out of Gertrude’s infringement of ecclesiastical law, and expected his audience to look upon it with as much abhorrence as the Athenians felt for what we should consider the more venial, because unwitting, crime of the Oedipus of Sophocles (39).
Quite opposite the criminality of the king’s wife is the innocence of Ophelia, who might be called a “broken lily” (O’Donnell 241). In the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet, David Bevington enlightens the reader regarding this dissimilarity between the two ladies:
Characters also serve as foils to one another as well as to Hamlet. Gertrude wishfully sees in Ophelia the blushing bride of Hamlet, innocently free from the compromises and surrenders which Gertrude has never mastered the strength to escape (9).
Ophelia is so despondent at the death of Polonius and the alienation of Hamlet that she slips into madness – something that would never happen to Gertrude at the loss of a man. The queen has difficulty empathizing with the masculine point of view, even with that of her own son. She sees him attending the courtly social gathering in black, and refuses to tolerate it:
Dear Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust. (1.2)
Likewise she expresses her wishes that the prince “go not to Wittenberg.” Later, when the hero’s supposed “madness” is the big concern, Gertrude analyzes her son’s condition: “I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage,” and does nothing. When Claudius requests of Gertrude:
Sweet Gertrude, leave us too;
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia [. . .] . (3.1)