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The Role Of Women In Hamlet In William Shakespeare's Play

2427 words - 10 pages

The Role of Women in Hamlet in William Shakespeare's Play

Gertrude and Ophelia, the only two women in Hamlet, reflect the
general status of women in Elizabethan Times. Women were suppressed by
the males in their lives (brothers, fathers, and partners) and were
always inferior. Ophelia and Gertrude have little or no power due to
restricted legal, social and economic rights that were found in
Elizabethan society. The male characters in Hamlet reflect this sexist
view point, represented by Hamlet’s judgement that “frailty, thy name
is woman”. This view was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s time and
heavily influenced Shakespeare to present women the way he does in
Hamlet. In a critical essay, Judith Cook[1] noted that in many of
Shakespeare’s plays major women characters ‘die because of direct
association with the fate of a tragic hero’. This could be seen as
Shakespeare trying to convey women’s fate being a ‘by-product’ of the
fate of men- men are superior.

On the other hand, Ophelia is crucial in understanding Hamlet as a
character and gives an insight into different motifs of the play. Some
may argue that Ophelia is one of the causes of Hamlet’s ‘madness’ and
his recoil from love. The reaction Hamlet has to Ophelia, at the play
for example, allows us to watch Hamlet’s disintegration- he is crude
and sexually offensive towards Ophelia which allows us to see the way
Hamlet is changing throughout the play.

Gertrude is also arguably crucial in displaying motifs of the play.
Hamlet sees his mother as a representation of how weak and frail women
are-she is the reason he views women in this way. This shapes Hamlet’s
opinion of women during the play, and alters his behaviour towards the
blameless Ophelia.

Shakespeare presents Ophelia as innocent and naïve. This is emphasized
by Laertes’ and Polonius’ concern to protect Ophelia. Ophelia tells
her father of Hamlet “he hath importuned me with love in honourable
fashion”. Polonius insists that Hamlet will only use Ophelia for sex
which Laertes supports. He describes her virginity as a ‘chaste
treasure’. Ophelia is viewed by her father, brother, and consequently
the audience as a virginal naïve girl.

Her innocence is emphasized when Shakespeare makes a link between
Ophelia and flowers, a common symbol of sexual purity. When Polonius
is killed Ophelia’s madness develops. She starts carrying and
spreading flowers; this is the first connection between Ophelia and
flowers in the play. A second link is when Gertrude scatters flowers
on her grave. Laertes refers to her as ‘rose of May’ and imagines
violets growing from her ‘unpolluted flesh’. Flowers traditionally
represent new birth and therefore innocence and naivety. Shakespeare
puts Ophelia forward as the innocent, naïve overprotected girl that
wouldn’t be uncommon in Elizabethan times...

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