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Essay: The role of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: July 16, 2019*
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  • The role of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
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The tragedy of Hamlet is a play written by William Shakespeare in the late 1500s. Shakespeare was born in a time where women were considered inferior to men in society. Over the years, there have been many adaptations of his story which subsequently maintain the sexist undertone of his time period as well. As a result, many of the woman in his works are often portrayed in this manner. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines sexism as prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex. Ultimately, the role of women in both the original text and Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation (1996) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be examined through their general inferiority to men, depiction of innocence, as well as the manner in which the scenes were dramatized.

The women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are generally portrayed as inferior to men. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines inferior as of lower rank, status, or quality. There are only two women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Gertrude and Ophelia. Gertrude is the mother of Hamlet, and wife to the King. Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius and brother of Laertes. Ironically, the name Gertrude is the name of a Germanic root. “Ger” meaning spear and “Prup” meaning strength (Behind the Name Gertrude, 2017). The name Ophelia is the feminine root of the Greek name Ophelos meaning helper (Kapa). Though these names represent prominent characters, Shakespeare created both characters with multiple flaws to maintain male dominance in the play. Each flaw was shaped to highlight the superiority of the male figures in the play. Due to the heavy expectations set on women during this time period, Gertrude, although recently widowed, needed to find a husband which she found in Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius: her departed husbands’ brother. This is an example of the male dominance over women at this time: they were treated like objects being passed around. This subsequently demonstrates his dominance over women. Ophelia had the flaw of being dependent on a male figure which ultimately contributed to her overall mental instability. Polonius, her only brother, left her and to go to France. Hamlet abandoned their love, and her father Polonius was murdered. Without the male figure, Ophelia went mad and it led to her inevitable death. During the 14th and 15th century, women were suppressed by male figures. Women had little to no social, lawful, or economic rights. Therefore, it was only natural that Shakespeare followed this view throughout the play. Hamlet expressed to Ophelia “Frailty, thy name is woman” which belittles the female gender with superficial stereotypes that the men of that time viewed. In both the play and the novel, it was evident there was a superiority to men because not just the script of the play made it clear. In the movie, the male actors buffed their chest and had their heads held high while the females often looked down and away from the scene to show their lack of contribution to society. Therefore, it was clear that the women were inferior in both works.

Shakespeare’s play Hamlet often depicted woman with innocence and purity. They often have a lack of guile or corruption from outer influences in their lives. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is a reoccurring connection made between women and flowers which appears throughout the play. This is because flowers are often used as symbol of purity: especially that of sexual purity. Flowers represent new birth; innocence and naivety. For example, Polonius refers to Ophelia as “A violet in the youth of primary nature” (1.3.7). Polonius compared Ophelia to a violet because he believes she is a soft fragile girl that has feelings that and quick to bloom and quick to die, much like a violet. Later in the play, Laertes referred to Ophelia as a “rose of May” and continued on to say that she had flowers growing from her “unpolluted flesh” (5.1.10). Here, Laertes is implying that a lack of purity would ruin her. Shakespeare also made this connection between Ophelia and flowers when Polonius died. At the site of his grave, she spread flowers where he was laid. Women were compared to flowers frequently due to their similarities of being fragile and weak. Ophelia laid her flowers on her father’s grave to represent giving a piece of herself to her father. Ophelia laying flowers is also a representation of her forever giving herself to a man. The idea of women in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet was executed through works of the play, and the Hamlet Film by Kenneth Branagh (1996). This was shown through quotes that were included in both works, as well as scenes in the movie. The movie included the women looking petit and pale often to give the visual effect of them looking fragile. Therefore, there was a clear image of the women being fragile, pure and innocent in both works.

The film Hamlet by Kenneth Branagh (1996) influenced scenes using the actors to add drama to the film, which continued to play a part in revealing the role of women. In Hamlet, Women were already clearly belittled in the play, but the play had more scenes to create more drama and excitement. The play Hamlet is a tragedy. Every event that happens, whether it is a murder, a betrayal, or a suicide, is tragic. The film however does not portray this vibe. Hamlet in the play is a very dark, depressed man. In the film, Branagh’s actor created the character Hamlet as a bizarre, obnoxious man that simply lived in his own world. Also, the constant butting relationship of Claudius and Hamlet as seen in the film could have been interpreted in the play, but it was not implied. Another example of this in the film is when Hamlet is in a room with Gertrude. To add drama to the film scene, the actor screams and jumps around across the bed, flailing his arms in every direction. To add to this scene, Hamlet dramatically slaps his mother with a loud noise effect. This portrays a different vision for the scene in the film contradicting the play because just reading and argument you don’t picture a son being aggressive and hands on with a woman. In the film, it provides a visual of the abuse on Gertrude from a son. Therefore, the actors in the film used dramatic additions which therefore affected the role of women in the play by using voice, tone, and physical actions.

Conclusively, the role of women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet was evident in not only the play, but Kenneth Branagh’s film (1996) as well. Because of the time period that the play was written in, the unequal idea of women was only natural in society at that time. Shakespeare influenced his idea of women in the play through showing how women had a general inferiority to men, how men had a depiction of innocence towards women, as well as the manner in which the scenes were dramatized to affect the view of a woman.

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William, and Harold Jenkins. Hamlet. London: Methuen, 1982. Print.

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