Feminine Representation in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Abstract: This essay employs Feminist Criticism, New Historicism, and Marxist Criticism, to analyze the portrayal of Queen Gertrude and Ophelia.
Because Shakespeare's Hamlet centers on the internal struggle of the Prince of Denmark, the reader focuses primarily on his words and actions. An often overlooked or under appreciated aspect of the play is the portrayal of the female characters, particularly Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. There are two scenes in particular that provide insight into this topic. In Act I Scene III, Ophelia receives advice from her father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes. Similarly, Gertrude is confronted and advised by Hamlet in Act III Scene IV. The three most useful and engaging methods of interpreting these scenes include Feminist Criticism, which views literature from the perspective of women; New Historicism, which observes literature in terms of history and culture; and Marxist Criticism, which examines literature within the parameters of social structure and class hierarchy. These schools of criticism provide a unique understanding of the scenes; each one provides a different focus, offering maximum insight from the text.
In both highlighted passages, the theme of feminine representation is explored. In Act I Scene III, both Laertes and Polonius counsel Ophelia on her relationship with Prince Hamlet. They warn her of the implications of her actions and the consequences of even the hint of impropriety. Both men advise her to "keep you in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire" (1.3.33-34). For her own reputation and that of her family, she must not become (or stay) involved with the prince. Similarly, in Act III Scene IV, Gertrude is admonished by Hamlet for her relationship with his uncle. He "speaks daggers to her" and condemns her actions against her true family. Both women are reproached for their relationships and interactions with other men.
These two passages are engaging to the reader because they provide a rare glimpse into the characters of Gertrude and Ophelia. For the most part, Hamlet is a male-centered play; it is interesting to observe the role of women within this structure. Given the small roles assigned to Gertrude and Ophelia, it is imperative to closely examine their descriptions and words, especially in reference to the male characters.
One of the most obvious ways to interpret the scenes where Ophelia and Gertrude receive advice is to use Feminist criticism. First, it is important to note that the playwright is male. Clearly, the author's sex could influence the portrayal of women in the play. Next, examining the role of women within the play, including any stereotypical representations, is key to a Feminist reading. Finally, looking for feminine imagery will enhance the understanding gained from this approach to Hamlet.