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Quratulain Khan



July 27, 2018

Hamlet essay

At the beginning of Hamlet, Hamlet is reprimanded by Claudius because of grieving for his father,
King Hamlet. Claudius calls Hamlet unmanly ‘Of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief.’
Claudius’ use of the word ‘Unmanly’ suggests Hamlet is frail like a woman, this shows
in Hamlet not just women are weak in this play but men also display forms of frailty. Claudius’
use of the word ‘unmanly’ surely suggests Hamlet is feminine, and if Hamlet is feminine surely as
a man, that also makes him weak. The phrase ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ appears in Hamlet’s
first soliloquy. Here Hamlet condemns Gertrude, his mother, for having a swift remarriage to his
uncle, Claudius. In ‘Hamlet’ Shakespeare presents women as the weaker sex, used for the purpose
of men’s satisfaction sexually. For a woman to consider, or commit a sexual deed, it is seen as
corruption. Today, a modern audience may see Hamlet’s, Polonius’ and Laertes’ actions toward
Gertrude and Ophelia as a form of sexual abuse. Women were the victims of a Patriarchal society,
corrupted by sex and hated by misogynistic men. Patriarchy describes a social structure where the
behaviour and ideas of men and boys are overriding over those of women and girls. This situation
of male authority is reflected in correlative unfairness throughout the society and in the
play ‘Hamlet’. The Shakespearean era was a patriarchal society where women were seen as
powerless to the extent that in the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays; women were not
authorized to act on stage, which meant that boys were required to dress up as the female characters
in plays. Frailty can be a condition of being frail, whether it is being mentally frail, physically or
morally. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ is a statement, which at the very least could infuriate a
feminist critic who may view Shakespeare’s opinion of women misogynistic because he frequently
displays women as being dependant on men.
Hamlet criticises his mother for incestuous relations with his uncle, Claudius. He says, ‘Almost as
bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother.’ Hamlet believes his mother to be
morally frail as she has an apparent refusal to control feelings to how a woman should be and has
committed a sexual rebellion ‘Rebellious hell.’ Hamlet’s disgust towards his mother’s ‘incestuous’
relationship comes to a climax ‘Stew’d over corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty
sty!’ Here, Hamlet refers his mother making love over a pig sty, once again referring to women as
victims of sexual corruption and as dirty as pigs.
Hamlet stated ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ he refers to by his mother, Gertrude, being a woman,
she displays moral frailty in being vulnerable to the act of seduction by Claudius. This provides
the audience with a model of women's infidelity in Hamlet. For Gertrude to give into this, Hamlet
felt his mother was morally frail. An audience would believe Gertrude was frail to a degree from
giving into her brother in law and accepting his hand in marriage. To a Shakespearean audience,
Gertrude disobeys patriarchal boundaries by marrying her brother in law, so soon after her
husband’s death would be frowned upon. Henry the VIII married his brothers widow, Catherine
of Aragon, because this was frowned upon in the Tudor times, he used it as an excuse when he
later wanted to divorce her. Hamlet says ‘But two months dead,’ the essential association of
incestuous desire takes place between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, Hamlet appears fixated
on the disgust of his mother’s sexual welfare with Claudius, from this Hamlet appears to become
cynical about women in general and perceives a connection between the female sexuality and
moral frailty. The concept of misogyny continues to occur throughout the play and is a significant
constraint in Hamlet’s relationships with his mother and Ophelia. Hamlet also refers to his
mother’s incestuous sexuality with Claudius in Act One Scene Two; Hamlet says ‘O most wicked
speed! To post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!’ suggesting Gertrude moved into bed with
Claudius too quickly. A theme of incest is repeated several times throughout the play and is
frequently insinuated by Hamlet and the ghost, who says ‘So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust
to the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.’ Referring to how Claudius won Gertrude over
with his lustful charm.
Gertrude is the mouthpiece for the description of Ophelia’s death to Laertes and Claudius, at the
end of Act four Scene seven. An audience may see by Gertrude being the representative for this
description, as solidarity and uniting of women. She was ‘As one incapable of her own distress
and indued unto that element.’ Her description is full of pathos, reflecting Ophelia’s innocence
and beauty. Gertrude’s portrayal suggests Ophelia was one with nature and native to the water.
This suggests her death could have been caused by physical frailty ‘incapable of her own distress’,
Gertrude explains how Ophelia was ‘Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy
death.’ Her ‘Melodious lay’ suggests to the reader, she was calm and at ease around the water.
When Gertrude says ‘Her clothes spread wide, and awhile they bore her up,’ which shows the
reader a powerful image of Ophelia struggling and drowning and eventually dying, it suggests due
mourning over her father and the love of Hamlet, she became physically weak enough to let life
defeat her therefore Ophelia is presented as a weak victim. If Ophelia’s death was suicide, it could
suggest Ophelia was morally frail to want to take her own life, going against what was right. Today,
a modern audience would look upon victims of suicide, supposedly Ophelia, with empathy for the
desperation that must have preceded their demise. An Elizabethan audience however saw suicide
to be such a hideous form of murder.
Ophelia in Act four Scene five says ‘We must be patient. But I cannot choose but weep to think
they would lay him I’th’ cold ground.’ Ophelia appears mad and weak over Hamlet’s misogyny,
the death of her father and rejection of her. Ophelia goes into a double realm of remorse, believing
herself to be to blame for both Hamlet's madness and her father's death. Ophelia here is showing
an appearance of being physically and mentally frail. Ophelia sings songs concerning chaos, death,
and unrequited love. As she is singing Claudius and Queen both try to reason with her, but she
replies only incomprehensibly. Claudius says ‘Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?’
Ophelia’s rogue line breaks of poetry, disrupts the prose of the other characters in the scene, the
audience is distracted by Ophelia’s deep thoughts, emotions and feelings. By Ophelia doing this,
we can link it to Shakespeare’s portrayal of women as mentally frail when around others, unable
to hold a sentence or communicate.
Hamlet offers copious amounts of evidence to the audience of his madness; however there is a lack
of evidence to Ophelia’s madness apart from the death of her father and rejection by Hamlet. The
audience can see she displays a form of insanity in Act Four Scene Five. Ophelia shows a method
to her madness in which she is suffering over the loss of her father, and all she can do after learning
of the death of her father is sing. Ophelia also suffers the heartbreak of rejection by Hamlet which
causes her to sing a happy love song, which therefore shows us there is more evidence in there
being a method to her madness as she is singing over the love of Hamlet. Ophelia’s supposed
madness shows method, which contradicts Hamlet’s argument ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ as
there appears evidence to why women appear frail. The madness of the female mind is said to be
caused by the women’s faults mentally, physically and morally.
In Act one scene three, Polonius says ‘Think yourself a baby that you have ta’en these tenders for
true pay which are not sterling.’ Immediately, we recognise Polonius’ patronizing tone towards
Ophelia; he talks in terms of money, as if she is something to be sold. Her weakness mentally may
not be her fault as she is constantly undermined by her brother Laertes and Polonius ‘Pooh, you
speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his tenders, as you
call them?’ Polonius criticises Ophelia for being inexperienced and naïve, giving the audience the
impression she is victim of Polonius’ status above her. Ophelia uses ‘Tenders as an expression of
love ‘He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me.’ However Polonius uses
it meaning an offer to buy something which shows the audience, Polonius references Ophelia to
that of a whore, corrupted by sex, shows us a reflection of Polonius’ ownership of Ophelia.
Ophelia replies to Polonius ‘I shall obey my lord.’ Ophelia responds as a victim of a patriarchal
society, having no choice over her father’s opinions. This shows Ophelia is impressionable and
not strong enough to disobey her father. By her quick and victimised reply, she appears rehearsed
and trained into obeying her father. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia alternates between protests of
eternal love and brutality such as his cruel and critical speech in the 'nunnery scene', it could be
argued Hamlet uses Ophelia in his revenge plot instinctively because she is a woman, and because
she is a woman he knows her as the weaker sex therefore easier to persuade, ‘To a nunnery, go –
and quickly too.’ It appears it is not just the male sex who end up seeing women as lesser and as
faulty beings, but after how they have been treated, also the women in ‘Hamlet’ resort to
subordinating themselves to the men in the play like when Ophelia says ‘I shall obey my lord’ as
they see it as right as it is how they are used to being treated and it is how they feel expected to
Hamlet says to Ophelia in Act three Scene two, ‘That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs’
Hamlet is unreserved when showering Ophelia with innuendoes, however Ophelia appears to
understand him therefore showing depth to her character, ‘You are merry, my lord.’ which suggests
to us maybe Ophelia was not as naïve and weak as we had previously thought in Act one Scene
three. Ophelia, it would appear, entirely at the mercy of the male figures within her life, could be
seen as a victim figure. Ophelia replies to Hamlet in short prose ‘Ay, my lord’. It appears she is
denied a voice in her own defence or representation which coincides with the idea of being a victim
of a patriarchal society. Within the patriarchal structure, women were forced to remain within the
boundaries, including their compliance, reticence and chastity.
Both Ophelia and Gertrude’s reputations are questioned in ‘Hamlet’ which results in further
discrimination. If either Gertrude or Ophelia mention any sexual desire, immediately it appears
they become devalued, Polonius calls Ophelia a fool for a daughter for thinking expressions of
love ‘You’ll tender me a fool.’ Polonius and Laertes, advise Ophelia to save her virginity as once
she is ‘spoiled’ she would be worth nothing ‘Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain is
with too credent ear you list his songs, or loose your heart, or your chaste treasure open to his
unmastered importunity.’ Because of the commanding tone of her brother and father, Ophelia
appears incapable to fully think for herself due to the governing temperament of Polonius and
Laertes. This position Ophelia is put into enforces the purpose of the patriarchal structure in which
women are bound to their submissive roles.
The character of Hamlet supposedly goes mad due to the mental stress over his mother’s swift re-
marriage and the apparitions of his father’s ghost. But throughout ‘Hamlet’ the women’s cause for
madness are unremittingly associated with their bodies and their sexual desires, Laertes and
Polonius regularly comments on Ophelia’s sexual wellbeing ‘the chariest maid is prodigal enough
is she unmark her beauty to the moon.’ Suggesting, if she was to commit a sexual deed, she would
become corrupt and dirty.
To conclude, both sexes in ‘Hamlet’ commit unorthodox deeds, suggesting moral frailty; Claudius
shows moral frailty by murdering his brother for the crown of Denmark and Gertrude betrays
Hamlet and her late husband by a quick ‘incestuous’ relationship with a relative. Both sexes
in ‘Hamlet´ show a form of physical weakness, Ophelia suggests to an audience she was physically
weak through drowning and Claudius suggest Hamlet is frail by appearing ‘unmanly’. Hamlet
feigns madness to suggest to others around him of his mental instability and Ophelia is classed
mad over the mourning of her father. Despite the female sex being classed as frail, in ‘Hamlet’ the
women show hidden depths, Ophelia shows method to her madness, if she was mentally frail this
wouldn’t be possible, Ophelia also understands what Hamlet is saying through his sexual
innuendoes which suggests she was not as naïve as Polonius deemed her to ‘be you speak like a
green girl.’ Gertrude also shows depth when she describes Ophelia’s death, Gertrude being the
mouthpiece for the description of Ophelia’s death suggests solidarity between the women of the
play. The repeated use of the word ‘incest’ when used to describe Hamlet and the Ghost’s
perception of Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius and the undermining of Ophelia’s knowledge
by Polonius and Laertes, considers women as naïve and sexually disgusting which is a typical form
of misogyny. It would appear there is no difference in frailty depending on the sex; both sexes
experience the same bereavement when losing a loved one therefore would seem madness in itself
to class one sex frailer than the other. To an audience in the Shakespearean era, how the women
of ‘Hamlet’ are treated, would be no different to how women were perceived due to the standards
of the patriarchal society. However to a modern day female audience, the discrimination to
women’s sexuality and mental state could be seen as somewhat offensive.