There are in fact only two female characters in the play Hamlet. These are the characters of Queen Gertrude of Denmark and the character of Ophelia who is Prince Hamlet’s love interest. It seems as though the character of Ophelia is always being told what to do, both by her father and her brother. An example of this would be when her farther Polonius tells her to stop seeing Hamlet: I would not in plain terms from this forth Have you so slander any moment leisure As to give worlds of talk with the Lord Hamlet1.
Here Ophelia is told that she is not allowed to continue seeing Hamlet because her father sees it as inappropriate. There is no argument against her father’s orders; ‘I shall obey, my lord. ‘2Ophelia replies that she will obey her father’s instructions, even though it seems to us that she loves Hamlet. Her doings are based on what other people say. In Act one, in the third scene Laertes (Ophelia’s brother) is leaving for France. Before he leaves he tells Ophelia that the ‘best safety lies in fear’3 Ophelia is expected to follow Laertes judgment on safety and fear.
Orphelia is motherless giving her more male dominance in her life, her character relies on others as ‘her whole education is geared on relying on other people’s judgments’4 and due to this ‘Ophelia has no chance to develop an independent conscience of her own, so stifled is she by the authority of the male world’5 Ophelia’s character has no identity of her own, she is dependant on her father’s rule and her brother’s judgment. So basically ‘her identity is constructed always in reference to another. ‘6 After the death of Polonius, Ophelia loses her sanity.
Her life before her father’s death was so reliant on his rule that she ‘becomes incapable of coping with a world in which he has no part. ‘7 This is what drives Ophelia to her insanity. There is irony when later Claudius the King says: In Hugger-mugger inter him; poor Ophelia Divide from herself and her fair judgment Here the irony is that Ophelia was never actually allowed to have any judgment of her own. Ophelia’s situation shows that ‘Freedom of conscience for women was still a new concept. Women had not been educated to form independent moral judgment. ‘8
Ophelia comes across as a stereotypical, subjective, weak female character. She represents the type of strong emotions that Elizabethan society thought of as ‘unmanly and typically womanish. ‘9This is illustrated in Act four, in the seventh scene after Ophelia’s death when Laertes cries for his sister. He is ashamed of weeping and refers to his tears when he says: Let shame say what it will. When these are done The woman will be out. ’10 Here he is saying that the shame and femininity of his nature will be gone. Furthermore in addition to this Ophelia dies from drowning herself.
This way of death ‘was associated with the feminine, with female fluidity as opposed to masculine aridity. ’11 This therefore highlights the weakness in the female gender. David Leverenz believes that the suicide of Ophelia: becomes a little microcosm of the male world’s banishment of the female, because “woman” represents everything denied by reasonable men. 12 Ophelia is a representation of the dual nature of women. Her character is used to show the innocence of women next to Hamlet’s view of women as sex predators and whores. Prince Hamlet feels betrayed by his mother.
The use of Ophelia highlights the extent of which Hamlet feels betrayed by his mother. 13This betrayal gives him a low opinion of women as a whole and a bad attitude towards them. Due to his anger towards his mother’s quick marriage to his uncle he makes a condemnation of women in general. This is made when he says ‘frailty; thy name is woman’14 Hamlet directs some of the anger he has for his mother towards Ophelia, ‘who in his estimation, is hiding her base nature behind a guise of impeccability. ’15 Due to the feelings and attitude towards women that this betrayal stirs up in Hamlet he can be described as someone who:
Changes into a man convinced that all women are whores; that the women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desires. 16 The chastity of women is an issue that the play Hamlet deals with. Chastity was seen as an important virtue in women. With the changing society t could be seen ‘as a private ideal in which men and women adopted not the standards of social etiquette but standards of truthfulness dictated by their own consciences. ’17The chastity of Ophelia is mocked by Prince Hamlet because she involves herself in Claudius’s and her father’s deception of Hamlet. Hamlet asks her: ‘are you honest?
’18 Here the word ‘honest’ means chaste. The other female character in Hamlet is the fair Queen Gertrude. As mentioned before, due to his anger Hamlet says ‘Frailty; thy name is woman. ’19 This opinion of woman in general was sparked off by his anger towards his mother. This view can be seen as an adequate way to describe Gertrude’s character. Queen Gertrude seems as though she is morally frail: She never exhibits the ability to thin critically about her situation, but seems merely to move instinctively towards seemingly safe choices. 20 This highlighted when she turns to tell her husband after a confrontation with her son, Hamlet.
In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s ethics show that he sees man and wife as one whole. This is apparent when he says addressing Claudius before he leaves for England: ‘My mother- father and mother is man and wide, man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother’21 Here it shows an absence of identity similar to the absence of identity with the character of Ophelia. It shows that unmarried women were dominated and shaped by the views of their father until marriage. Then when they are married, ‘the union of man and wife meant loss of separate identity for the woman’22.