The current research paper is based on the Shakespearian play, “Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark”. The work is quite complex and controversial. Hamlet is a character that searches for himself and the truth among deceit and intrigues. Every other personage present in the play helps the Prince in one way or another to attain the deeper understanding of who he really is and the desired truth about his father’s murder. Women characters are among the meaningful personages, who impact Hamlet’s destiny.
The first woman in Hamlet’s life is his mother – Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark. According to Carolyn Heilbrun, this character is underestimated and not fully analyzed by critics (Heilbrun, p. 9).
Gertrude is, by no means a woman, who contributes to the plot of the play. On the one hand, she is a mother of Hamlet, who is considered to be a hero; the widow of Hamlet’s late father, the Ghost, who is visible only to the Prince; and the wife of the new King of Denmark – Hamlet’s uncle. These features make her magnificent and deprived of any faults. However, on the other hand, the Queen of Denmark has more imperfections than any other character in the play. She is weak, fragile, unwise, and careless. Gertrude did not only blindly agreed to make incest by marrying the brother-by-blood of her deceased husband, but also did it as soon as possible, without taking into account the opinion of her son or anyone else.
To Hamlet, her only son, she is a mirror, the opposite of his own philosophy. While he desires to have answers for the most obscure questions in the world and cares least for his mortality, she prefers various life pleasures and cares mostly about her body. This way, Gertrude is shallow and narrow-minded. Her lust for delight makes her childish. Although she is a fine sexual woman, Hamlet turns against her.
In addition, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father tells his son the truth about the Queen,
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,-
O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce!–won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen (I.V.42-45).
Notwithstanding Gertrude’s life preferences, she cannot be accused of being in collusion with Claudius, as her adultery is pure. She was not involved with Claudius during her husband was alive, and intended to marry him only due to her self-deception. Most of the time the Queen pretends that there are no negative consequences to her actions because she has done no wrong. She lies both to herself and the ones that surround her. Perhaps, this is the only way she can protect herself and her noble name.
Analyze her motherly feelings towards Hamlet, there is no doubt about her devoted love, desire to protect and take care of her son. However, these feelings are hidden underneath of her shallow mask. Living in her white lies the Queen merges with them lying herself. That is why, at first, Gertrude cannot believe why Hamlet despises her. What is more, the Queen is capable of thought if someone pinpoints her wrong deeds,
O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn’st my very eyes into my soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct (III.IV.88-91)
According to professor Bradly, whose description of the Queen is mentioned in Heilbrun’s article, she was not a bad woman, but reminded a happy sheep. This sheep wanted to incur no worries, thought about events and actions superficially, wished to see the smiling faces around her and enjoy the state of peace and pleasure (Heilbrun, p. 10).
One more disturbing fact about Gertrude is her sense of loyalty. She betrayed the vow of love and loyalty to Hamlet’s father; however, she remained loyal to the new King, protecting him from the crowd. She was loyal to Hamlet as well, protecting him from her King. This situation is a vicious circle, which directly shows that the Queen knows her duties to the people of Denmark, but tries not to forget that she is a mother.
The second woman in Hamlet’s life is Ophelia. She is the love of his life, a young girl, who relies on her sentiments. According to Jameson, Ophelia is exquisite and delicate and, by no means, very attractive (Jameson, p. 190). She enchants everyone around her. This girl is pure and knows nothing about corruption and lies. Therefore, her father Polonius uses her as a decoy and as a means to allure information from Hamlet. Thus, her personality has two sides. One side remains delicate and pure, and the other is won by her manipulative circle and deceit. Ophelia is weak, for she cannot protect herself, she is helpless and this feature destroys her essence.
On the one hand, Ophelia resembles Gertrude in her childish beliefs and naive disposition. The way, she understands the world around her, makes her live in her own special delusion. However, on the other hand, unlike Gertrude, Ophelia is unaware of what is real and what is not. Her love for her father and brother is so big that she obeys them even if it contradicts her own feelings. Every goodness and love she receives from her family is returned a hundred times bigger to them. Jameson believes that “in Ophelia we recognize as distinctly the pensive, fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the north, whose heart seems to vibrate to the passion she has inspired, more conscious of being loved than of loving…” (Jameson, p. 193).
Ophelia’s character is lovely, filled with beauty and is quite delicate in relation to Hamlet’s. He is the power and intellect. However, she loves the Prince not for his mind or strength, but for his attitude towards her, which is gentle and affectionate. Although Ophelia loves Hamlet and this feeling is mutual, she has never but once in the course of the play told him so or acted so. Her love is hidden, her words have a certain duality, and there is no directness in them.
Finally, every action and every lie contributes to Ophelia’s becoming insane. She cannot bear lying to Hamlet for she loves him, and she cannot stand to obey her father, who puts her against her love. Her men (Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes) play with her like a toy in order to get the desired result.
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The first step towards losing sanity is Hamlet’s confession that he had never loved her. Ophelia’s utopia-like world of love crashes after the Prince says,
You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
So inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not (III.I.117-119).
The second reason for Ophelia’s madness is the death of her father, responsibility of which is on Hamlet. Poor young girl cannot cope with corruption, and with one trauma going right after another. Her inner state of mind betrays her, and she kills herself.
Among the lines uttered by Hamlet there is a sentence, with which he describes his attitude towards women. One of them claims, “Frailty thy name is woman!” (I.II.146). According to Sue Tweg, by saying these words Hamlet shows how disgusted he is with females’ frailty of mind and vanity of soul (Tweg, p. 58). Like Eve in the Christian legend with the apple, the Prince is seduced and betrayed by the two most important women in his life. In his opinion, both his mother Gertrude, and his love Ophelia are two fragile women, who cannot suppress being manipulated, who are narrow-minded, sexual, and too unaware of the real dangers. Hamlet truly loves both of them, but the desire to find his father’s murderer takes over and makes him merciless.
What concerns Gertrude, Hamlet is very angry with her and dissatisfied. She made a hasty decision of marrying his uncle right after his father died. Her spontaneous action makes the Prince believe that she is adulterous and is involved in a crime. He truly loves her, but Gertrude’s actions speak stronger than Hamlet’s love towards her.
Ophelia is the girl, whom the Prince has once loved, but, according to Wright, denies his affection (Wright, p. 40). She betrays Hamlet and he no longer sees her as pure and admirable as she was before. He does not care about Ophelia. What is more, Hamlet uses her the same way as the King and her father do. Thus, he does not respect her and thinks she is not worth of being loved.
Hamlet has a very controversial personality. He is wise, a philosopher of a kind. He puts himself very deep questions and searches for the deep answers. He is the strength and the power. Women play the direct role in shaping his character. His mother, for instance, is the image of a woman, an example to follow. However, due to Gertrude being the slave to her body and pleasure, he cannot follow that instance. Hamlet becomes angry with the woman he loves. Another impactful lesson that his mother teaches him is her betrayal of his father and quick remarriage with the uncle. Gertrude not only betrays him, she also destroys his belief in a woman’s virtue, turning it into a vice. Due to the Queen, Hamlet tries to search for the truth he lacks. He loses respect for her, despises her actions and accuses her of being a part of the murder.
Ophelia, the second love of his life, is disguised as an angel, but is full of flaws and deceit. She makes Hamlet’s character go through an evolution, after which he becomes disappointed with the women gender in general. Ophelia is the second woman betraying him. She tries to uncover the needed information and lies that her father is at home even though he is eavesdropping somewhere near. Understanding this fact Hamlet becomes cruel and ill-natured. His love for her vanishes leaving an unpleasant taste of grief.
Being both so important in Hamlet’s life, Gertrude and Ophelia made him stronger, introverted, sharper, more aggressive, and revengeful. Love, once occupying the heart of the Prince, turned into rage. That is what makes his character tragic.
To conclude, the role of each woman in the play “Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark” written by Shakespeare is very significant.
Gertrude, the widowed Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother, is the first component of the Prince’s personality development. She remarries Claudius – her late husband’s brother – right after the funeral. This completely absurd action distresses Hamlet, who believes his mother to be callous.
Ophelia, the love of Hamlet, is a decoy throughout the whole play. Her role is to uncover the truth by acting fair and trying to disclose the reasons of Hamlet’s “pretending” mad. Both her father, the new king of Denmark, and Hamlet’s friends use her to obtain information while her own dignity remains under question.
While answering these questions it was found out that the most notable things about Gertrude and Ophelia were their frailty of mind and weakness. Both women loved Hamlet, but betrayed him in a blink of an eye. Deep down inside, the Queen and the young lady knew they were doing wrong, but they lost their inner fight with truth and fairness. The presentation of each woman is according to her character. They are not ideal, even more, they are full of flaws. These imperfections reveal their true identity. It seems that women are depicted in the likeness of Eve, who betrayed her man by seducing and telling him lies.
Hamlet’s character, which is the third question, has developed upon the attitude of the two women towards him. Cruel betrayal, general weakness and faulty behavior of Gertrude and Ophelia made him merciful and full of rage. He did not only become more self-protective, but more closed inside and his search for truth became a life creed.