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The Role Of Femininity In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Othello, And King Lear

2331 words - 9 pages

The Role of Femininity in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear

Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear similarly experience an "unhooking" (Tompkins) in the eponymous plays. These tragic figures struggle with internal and external femininity: after realizing their emotions and labeling them feminine, they identify women as the source of this negative femininity. Their inability to deal with the female gender in any form destabilizes their masculinity, causing an unhooking/unlatching within them. The origin of Hamlet's psychological decay lies in his anger towards Gertrude and his inability to adjust to her marrying Claudius. From Hamlet's perspective, Gertrude giving herself to a new husband signifies her failure to honor his father and her abandonment of Hamlet; he is figuratively orphaned, and he resents his sole living parent. Additionally, Hamlet's emotional confidence has been significantly damaged: seeing his mother with another man substantiates the possibility that his future wife could leave him for another man and cause him serious pain. This realization compels Hamlet to mask his feelings for Ophelia with madness, a defense mechanism intended to conceal his vulnerability. Ophelia reports that he appeared "with his doublet all unbrac'd,/No hat upon his head, his stockins fouled,/Ungart'red, and down-gyved to his ankle" (2.1.75-7), but as Hamlet is well-aware of the dress code, he likely intended for his behavior to be viewed as unacceptable and thus mad.

Throughout the play, Hamlet has difficulty reacting to his feelings and the women who cause them. Because he wishes he could act instead of speculating, Hamlet curses his own femininity: "Fie upon't, foh!" (2.2.584-7). Secondly, his anger towards Ophelia is likely towards all women, especially his mother, as indicated by "Get thee to a nunn'ry, why wouldst thou/be a breeder of sinners?" (3.1.120-1). This contempt of womanhood could also be directed to his feminine characteristics of emotions and inaction. In asking Ophelia if she is honest (3.1.102), Hamlet raises suspicion of her, Gertrude's, and his own sexual fidelity; by telling her "Marry/A fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters/You make of them" (3.1.137-8), and referring to himself as a male whore by calling himself "a stallion" (2.2.587), Hamlet implies that none of them are moral. Hamlet is probably not directly addressing Ophelia here, but rather his doubt of all women's abilities to be faithful wives with his use of "you" and "monsters." The importance of sexuality in the play is shown shortly hereafter, when Hamlet opts to sit at Ophelia's feet instead of by Gertrude. Hamlet's decision is not simply the more accessible woman, but his sexual partner of choice, as he notes "Here's metal more attractive" (3.2.109). His actions are probably intended to emphasize his feelings for Ophelia that cause his madness, as Polonius points out to Claudius; however, his remark also implies that Gertrude is no longer...

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