In ‘Hamlet’ the predominant female characters are indeed the only female parts in the entire play, one being the strong regal Gertrude the Queen of Denmark and the other, weak, insecure Ophelia, daughter of Polonius and Hamlet’s uncertain lover.
Gertrude can be viewed both as a confident, powerful figurehead and as a loving mother, although in saying this, I may create the illusion that she has a split personality which is not the case. The truth is superbly demonstrated in her relationship with Hamlet, as it is not that of a stereotypical mother and son, but more as an incestuous lover’s relationship. Shakespeare was by no means the first to touch upon the idea of incest in his works, as it had been a popular theme widely used since the ancient Greek tragedies, such as ‘Oedipus Rex’. Their relationship is very like that of two lovers, it has its passionate highs and numb lows, its violent turmoil and gentle, intimate moments.
Every aspect of their unusual interaction is portrayed graphically in director Franco Zefferelli’s interpretation of Act 3 Scene 4, which is staged in Gertrude’s chamber and at its opening sees Hamlet and his mother engrossed in a passionate argument, which through Gertrude’s effort is soon defused into a gentle intimate, more platonic exchange of comforting words in Gertrude’s effort to heal the emotionally scared Hamlet. The peace, however is soon disturbed again when Hamlet launches a verbal attack on his mother, questioning her morals and the reasons she could possibly give for marrying his uncle so soon after the late king’s death as he describes his disgust at her actions:
‘Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From fair a forehead of an innocent love,
And sets a blister there,’
The aforementioned ‘verbal attack’ is demonstrated with immense force in the very violent and somewhat sexual grapple that takes place between Gertude and Hamlet, underneath the canopy of the grand and luxurious four-poster bed. Due to the abuse Hamlet so vexingly administers to his mother, toward the end of the scene the usually invulnerable Gertrude is reduced to a quivering wreck, filled with remorse and self-pity she begs Hamlet to stop,
‘Oh Hamlet speak no more,
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
as will not leave their tinct.’
In my opinion a reasonable explanation for Gertrude’s actions and her haste to marry again so soon after King Hamlet’s death may be that she craves sexual fulfilment, the royal status of Queen, the continuation of the royal line and, to a lesser extent, stability and succession for her son. I arrived at this conclusion after Hamlet’s profuse insistence that his mother should remain abstinent and not engage in any voluntary intimacy with Claudius, which leads me to believe that Gertrude’s exuberant libido and greed for a luxurious lifestyle is her greatest weakness. Gertrude’s hastened remarriage could also help to paint her in a new light, as a vulnerable woman devoid of any obvious male protection following her husband’s death.
Her aforementioned re-marriage as a monarch to the deceased king’s brother, would not have been much of a taboo to the Elizabethan audience, who had witnessed a similarly quick royal marriage in recent history, when the Tudor, king Henry VIII married his late brother’s widow; Catherine of Aragon less than 100 years before in 1503. This also gives substance to the stereotypical Elizabethan woman as however strong Gertrude may appear she is still slave to the standards of the age as she has to derive all of her power from her husband the King, and can only find ways to satisfy herself through him.
This is apparent in the setting of a bedroom for Act3, Scene4, which may be viewed as a metaphor for Gertrude’s private and public persona, with everything that happens behind its heavy wooden doors emulating her softer, weaker side. This aspect of her character appears to be very upset by her son, Hamlet’s unwillingness to accept her actions and his naivety regarding the political implications of her position. He chooses instead to view the actions taken by his mother as immoral and an insult to his father’s memory, Gertrude seems weakened by his emotional response, this is demonstrated in Act3 , Scene1 , when during the play he has staged in an attempt to prove his mother and uncle’s guilt, hamlet says:
‘Me thinks the lady doth protest
In stark contrast everything outside of the private chamber represents the hard, ice queen public facade which she uses to disguise her apparent insecurities.
My initial opinion of Gertrude that was originally established in the opening of the play, was a view of a cold hearted, twisted and conniving woman. Although, after reading Act3, Scene4, I feel that I warmed to her in her admission of weakness and now, if anything, I have developed a strong sympathy for her, as she is obviously in the grip of her own over ambition, greed and vulnerability.
Ophelia differs from Gertrude, both in the way she deals with her emotions and insecurities, showing naivety, weakness and sensitiveness, and in her representation throughout the play, as she is in the main, is sonly given single lines in answer to questioning by Laertes and Polonius. This is an implication of Shakespeare’s unwillingness to allow her the opportunities to express her self to the audience. Shakespeare’s bemusing and unfathomable reluctance to give the character of Ophelia greater depth is, in my opinion a clever device to further instil the idea of Ophelia’s passivity in the minds of the audience. Her submissive and subservient attitude is encapsulated in the line:
‘I shall obey my lord,’
which is delivered in an interrogative conversation with her father, Polonius regarding his attitude to the affections that Hamlet expressed toward her.
Due to the oppressive circumstances Ophelia and her contemporaries had to conform to in the Elizabethan era it is hard to draw parallels with Shakespeare’s more liberated female characters like Juliet Romeo & Juliet, who defied her parents so blatantly, or to regard Ophelia in the same light when questioning her submissiveness. As with Gertrude when viewing Ophelia you have to appreciate the very different political climate that existed in Shakespeare’s time and, more importantly, as I have mentioned, the very disregarded role women played in society.
Her weakness, which eventually leads to her dementia, could be viewed as a result of a number of collaborating factors, including the absence of her mother, the recent death of her father, years of serving the stronger male members of her family and her mistreatment by Hamlet. An example of this mistreatment can be found in Act2 Scene1, when Ophelia, clearly distraught, abruptly enters, following her fathers conversation with Reynaldo and talks of a visit she had just received from an unusually dishevelled Hamlet ‘doublet all unbraced’. She is clearly disturbed by her encounter as she agitatedly reports:
‘O my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted.’
When Polonius enquires as to what misdemeanour Hamlet has committed, Ophelia describes his misconduct in her presence, his physical aggression and his apparent madness as she recalls:
‘He took me by the wrist, and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such persual of my face
As ‘a would draw it. Long stayed he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being; that done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turned,
He seemed to find his way without eyes,
For out a-doors he went without their helps,
And to the last bended their light on me.’
Hamlet’s ‘madness’ can be viewed as nothing more than a ploy to avoid the affections of the sexually innocent Ophelia and in affect reject her, in this way as well as inflicting physical pain he leaves emotional scares which lead to Ophelia’s eventual madness
Ophelia’s suicide only being implied suggests to me that Shakespeare has introduced a clever underlying sub-plot filled with suggested ideas of conspiracy within the royal court. My interpretation of this sub-plot is that, opposed to the more predominant theme, which suggests Ophelia’s mumblings and apparent insanity resulted in her untimely death, her sudden explosion of passionate anger was in reality the release of pent up frustrations brought about by years forced to be a ‘non-individual’, moulded very much of her father and brother’s design. Her build up of aggression may not have resulted in madness but in the release of her own opinions and her rebellious questioning of the civilised royal society. This build up of aggression can be interpreted from her quick-witted exchange with Hamlet in Act3 Scene2 as she is disconcerted by and retorts to Hamlet’s sexual backchat using quick and abrasive replies:
‘I think nothing my, lord’
‘Ay my lord.’
It is apparent that she may have inclinations to make a stand against the morals of her superiors as within her twisted and encrypted ramblings she makes profound statements regarding amongst other things disgust at the treatment of her father’s death as she bitterly retorts
‘ I would give you some violets,
but they withered all when my father died,’
In response to this, I think the members of the court decided that the chance of any more damaging comments should be stopped, and Ophelia silenced. Such a conclusion may seem very far fetched and not evidentially based in the text, but further reading into the subsequent scenes following Ophelia’s death, show that many aspects of her death, the discovery of her body and her eventual burial are shrouded in mystery. This mystery is apparent in the conversation that takes place between the two gravediggers in Act5, Scene 1, as the two men question why, Ophelia, who supposedly committed suicide and in turn disobeyed God should be buried on sanctified ground:
‘Is she to be buried in christian burial when
she wilfully seeks her own salvation?’
Later in their conversation the two further question whether in fact her death was a suicide at all and even imply that she may have been drowned:
‘If the man go to this
water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes, mark you that. But if the water come to him,
and drown him, he drowns not himself; argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death, shortens not
his own life.’
In conclusion, I think that however different Ophelia and Gertrude may appear from the outset, they both cannot help but to conform to the ideas of the different social standings for men and women of the age. Ophelia being under the control of her father, brother and the chauvinistic Hamlet and Gertrude, although she makes great efforts to appear strong, under the control of King Claudius.
In this way, Ophelia like Gertrude is very stereotypical of the age in the way she serves and is oppressed by the men in her life. This is apparent throughout her relationship with Hamlet, of which Hamlet is definitely in control. Also, she is obviously been under the control of her father and brother since her mother’s death.