- Shakespeare often uses female characters to make subtle (or not-so-subtle) assertions about the roles assigned to women in their society and the ways in which they are treated. What does Shakespeare say about women through Gertrude and Ophelia?
In a largely patriarchal society of the 17th century, women have little power. This social norm is reflected within Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, in which there are only two female characters present. Gertrude, a seasoned queen, contrasts sharply against Ophelia, an innocent and young woman. Together they represent the different types of women in the society.
As a queen who stays on the throne by marrying the dead king’s brother, Gertrude takes on the role of a greedy strumpet in many audiences’ eyes. We will never know for sure whether Gertrude keeps her status as a dutiful royalty, power hungry ruler, or protective mother. Probably a combination of all these roles since, once she commits herself to Claudius, her conscious will justify her act with decent reasoning until the audience and the queen herself lose track of her original motive. Despite King Hamlet’s effort to try to make Hamlet make peace with Gertrude, the prince still condemns his mother savagely. Hamlet asserts that her mother has committed an act “that blurs the grace and blush of modesty, calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose from the fair forehead of an innocent love, and sets a blister there, making marriage vows as false as dicers’ oaths” (III.iv.43-46). Hamlet has no respect for his mother and even laments her decisions and lack of virtue. Gertrude’s status as a queen further emphasizes the little power women have against men, for she cannot stop her son at dominating her life choices. Hamlet’s words also underlines the double standard in the society, in which women are often the ones being frowned upon even when men, like Claudius, are not blamed for their lack of virtue when it comes to sex. When Gertrude insists on drinking the wine in the end by politely asserting “I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me”, she is immediately poisoned and died (V.ii.293). The queen’s death may reflect the idea that women should be subordinate to men, for unfortunate consequences will ensue as soon as a woman defies a man. On the other hand, even though there is no concrete evidence as whether Shakespeare is a feminist, the playwright may also be mocking the society’s norm by letting his female characters die as soon as they gain self-respect. All in all, the complexity of Gertrude’s characterization makes her a highly plausible and relatable figure in real life.
In contrast to Gertrude, Ophelia is the symbol of purity and virginity. Interestingly, as the character who only appears in a few scenes before she dies, Ophelia is among the most discussed person in the play. The lady follows everything the men order her to do, like an ideal woman in the time period. Ophelia allows her father and brother to control her relationships even though she is an adult woman, and she takes Hamlet’s rude insults such as “get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” without a retort (III.i.121-122). She submits to the society’s expectations in every way possible, and yet what good fortune does she receive in the end? After turning insane, the lady commits a potential suicide by drowning. Seconds before death, Ophelia’s famous death scene is portrayed as beautiful as her innocent soul, but then her clothes are subdued by water and “pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death” (IV.vii.181-183). Ophelia’s fall from grace as she is devoured by mud forms a parallel with her life, in which her innocence is destroyed by Hamlet’s verbal abuse and her father’s death. Yet which of the gentlemen will and can take full responsibility for her tragedy? From this we can see that society often corrupts women and in the end women themselves often take the blame for being too weak or immoral.
Despite Gertrude and Ophelia’s differences, they both lost their lives in the end. Women are the sacrifices in the conflicts of society. They are the supporters and followers of men, and most of them will remain this way for the centuries to come.