Portrayal of Women in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Shakespeare was possibly the first writer to portray women as strong, crafty, and intelligent. However, he has still received criticism from feminists about his representation of women. Some have even accused him of misogyny. There are only two female characters in the play Hamlet - Gertrude, Hamlet's mother and Ophelia, daughter of Polonius. Any debate based upon gender roles must therefore focus upon these two characters.
Shakespeare portrays Gertrude as a woman of power and intelligence - she was Queen for a considerable amount of time - we can safely assume at least 30 years - and she is asked advice on matters by King Claudius - "Do you think 'tis this?" (II.2.152). Gertrude is a woman who married her own brother-in-law; perhaps to remain in her position of power. It is often debated whether or not Gertrude was involved in the killing of King Hamlet - either way, Gertrude seems to have complied fully in her marriage to Claudius - she doesn't seem at all offended by Claudius' presence - perhaps reason to suspect that she was unaware of Claudius' role in Hamlet's death, if she was uninvolved.
The ghost tells Hamlet not to judge his mother, or to seek revenge upon her, telling him "leave her to heaven" (I.5.86). This pours doubt upon Gertrude's 'guilt'. Further, her seeming innocence, when confronted by Hamlet as she exclaims "As kill a king!" (III.4.31) would indicate her lack of guilt in or even knowledge of, the murder of old Hamlet. Hamlet himself is certainly convinced, as he tries to 'win her over', later on in the scene: "Throw away the worser part of it, and live the purer with the other half." (III.4.158-159).
Gertrude's apparent innocence would highlight Shakespeare's belief that there are women of virtue.
Hamlet's attitude towards his mother does change, throughout the play. He scorns the queen's company for 'metal more attractive' (Ophelia) (III.2.119), yet holds a great deal of respect for her - using no daggers when he would speak them to her (III.2.403), and calling her Mother (III.4.214) and 'good lady' (III.4.181). Considering that a son without respect for her would call her 'woman', or even with respect for her standing 'Your Highness', these names are very respectful. It would seem that Hamlet loved Gertrude dearly, and held her in great respect. It would, therefore, be a mistake to brand Shakespeare a 'misogynist'. However, when he dwells upon her marriage to his uncle, he has no respect, whatsoever. He gives her no credit for the marriage - holding the view that she was 'whored' and 'cozened at hoodman-blind' by Claudius. Hamlet's fury at her 'o'erhasty marriage' (II.2.56) makes Hamlet soon forget the respect he had for her, though this seemed to return, once he had judged for himself the fact that she did indeed seem innocent of his father's death. He also used word games with her. These word games are certainly not the way a son would be expected to...