In the play Hamlet, Shakespeare, the author, creates female characters that occupy very different roles than in his other plays. In this play, Hamlet plays opposite two women who are used by the men around them in order to further their own interests. One woman is named Ophelia. In many of Shakespeare's other plays, he creates women that are very strong and play a very real role in the life of the protagonist. In Hamlet, however, Ophelia occupies a very different role-- she exemplifies a pawn of the men around her. She is used not only by her father and his associate the King, but also by her supposed lover, Hamlet. This is a very different role for a woman in a Shakespearian play. Also, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, also plays a very frivolous role in the novel. Hamlet continually criticizes her incestuous liaison with his uncle, her brother-in-law, and uses her connections with his uncle in order to further his plan to have revenge on his uncle. In other Shakespearian plays, the male characters usually have respect for the women that they are associated with; in Hamlet, however, Shakespeare chooses to instead portray women more realistically. At the time when this play was written, it was very common for women to be used merely as pawns for either their fathers, brothers, husbands, or lovers. This shows Shakespeare's deviation in this play from his characteristic style of writing-it questions that very style in which his other plays were written.
Ophelia, as the protagonist's love interest, generally occupy a role in which the main character would be openly obsessed with her. In Hamlet, rather the opposite is true. Ophelia's character is very obviously in love with Hamlet; however, her father and brother counsel her to stay away from Hamlet and scorn his advances. This in itself is an example of the way in which the men in her life will try to criticize Ophelia and use her feelings to their advantage. Ophelia's father, Polonius, wishes to keep his family's honor intact, and fears that Ophelia's open regard for Hamlet will diminish his honor. Both Polonius and Laertes, Ophelia's brother, believe that Ophelia's preference for Hamlet will only end in disgrace for their family, as Hamlet would never marry her due to her lower social standing; therefore, they counsel her to break off any understanding with Hamlet. As a woman, Ophelia realizes her duty to her father and her brother, and therefore decides to disregard her own feelings about Hamlet and do as her father and brother wish.
Hamlet also uses Ophelia as a pawn, perhaps more than her family. Hamlet uses the court's knowledge of his relationship with Ophelia in order to draw attention away from his real purpose of killing his uncle. In Act III, Scene I(2002), Ophelia approaches Hamlet in order to return his letters and other pledges of affection for her, according to her father's wishes. Hamlet appears to be very distraught, and accuses Ophelia of lying to him and being prostituted by her family. This outburst, however, is used solely to camouflage his real purpose: to have revenge of Claudius, his uncle, for killing his father. Hamlet is aware that Polonius and Claudius are watching this encounter between him and Ophelia, and uses the situation to his benefit- he can pretend to be heartbroken by Ophelia's supposed disregard for his affection, but in reality can use this as an excuse to act as if he were crazy. Hamlet completely abuses Ophelia's love for him, selfishly using her part in his life as only a cover-up for his real intent- that is, to deceive Claudius enough so as to make him comfortable with the situation. Hamlet's ultimate plan is to attract Claudius into a false sense of security, in order to kill him to avenge his father's death. He thinks that this supposed lover's quarrel will lead Claudius to think that he is crazy, and therefore not to be feared. In this scene, Hamlet completely disregards Ophelia's feelings for him, and uses her to his benefit. He accuses her of whoring herself to her family; however, he uses her in the same way that she is used by her family.
In response to the contradictions between her family's interests, Hamlet's and her own feelings about Hamlet, Ophelia feels trapped. Both her family and Hamlet wish Ophelia to break off her relationship with Hamlet, though for different reasons, but her own feelings dictate her true love for Hamlet. As a result of being caught in the crossfire of all the men in her life, Ophelia goes crazy, unable to cope with the stress and contradiction. Finally, she kills herself finding no place in the situation for her own feelings.
Gertrude also is found in a position where she is conflicted by the roles different men wish her to play. Her son Hamlet, believes that she should remain loyal to the memory of his father the king, and resents her for marrying Claudius so quickly. Gertrude feels somewhat guilty about her son's disappointment in her, but feels that she can do nothing about the situation due to her relationship with Claudius. Claudius also has expectations of her, including his wish that she disregard her son and remain loyal only to him. Gertrude finds herself in a similar situation to Ophelia, in that the most important men in her life expect differing things of her. Therefore, she also finds herself caught in the middle of a male feud.
In addition to that, John P. McCombe (1997) and Samuel Crowl (1998) both examine Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and find that it focuses heavily on the mother-son bond between Hamlet and Gertrude. McCombe charges that Zeffirelli is overly concerned with this relationship and its dysfunctional nature, to the point that the play's political issues are ignored. Crowl takes a more favorable view of Zeffirelli's somewhat narrow focus. He praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered on Gertrude.
Ophelia and Gertrude's positions are typical of the positions that women were placed in at the time Shakespeare wrote the play. Hamlet is a play in which Shakespeare somewhat criticizes his own style of writing. In this play, he attempts to depict the emotional aspect of the play in a more realistic way. He especially does this with the roles of the women, by making them more typical female characters of the era. This lends more legitimacy to the story, in that the audience is better able to relate to the characters.
Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson, Shakespeare's Heroines: Characteristics of Women (1889), AMS Press, New York, 1967.
The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
By Victor L. Cahn
Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001
Hamlet, (1990) Directed by Kevin Kline, starring Kevin Kline
Hamlet, (1990) Production by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Mel Gibson
Hamlet, (2002) Directed by Michael Almereyda, starring Ethan Hawke
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: The Folger Shakespeare's Library, 1992.