Gender Themes in Hamlet

2040 words (8 pages) Essay in English Literature

08/02/20 English Literature Reference this

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Novelty, conflict and scandal

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Elizabeth I of England’s poetry and prose contain a wide variety of themes, yet the most prominent is that of gender. Through exploring the characters and context of the play Hamlet alongside the specific language chosen for Elizabeth’s poetry and prose the theme of gender is clearly identifiable within all aspects. There are multiple extracts from Hamlet which will be explored and Elizabeth’s speech to the ‘Troops at Tilbury’ and her poem ‘doubt of future foes’ to reiterate the theme of gender.

Hamlet, being set in the Danish court creates the atmosphere and society in which the context of the plot is based. The Danish court being a patriarchal society creates an image of gender inequality that will develop throughout the text. One must take into consideration that gender roles in Hamlet do not differ greatly from that of the gender roles in Elizabethan England at the time in which Shakespeare wrote the text. Queen Elizabeth I was the reigning monarch of England. Questions must be considered when discussing the theme of gender in Hamlet, the main one being why are the women viewed so negatively and are these views justified?  Looking at the relationships between the male and female characters can answer many of these questions. Secondly one must look at the different gender roles held by the males throughout the play and their significance throughout the plot.

As a result of her gender Ophelia is experiences various abuses in her life. Being young and innocent and often seen as the vision of sweetness she is manipulated. Dominated easily by both her brother and father, her fathers support of the kings use of Ophelia, and abused by the man she loves. Due to her innocence Ophelia obeys her father without doubt, fulfilling each of his duties. At the time when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet fathers had absolute control over their daughters thus is its unsurprising that Polonius has such dominant control over Ophelia. Ophelia is dismissed as a ‘green girl’ (hamlet I iii 102) throughout the text, usually when speaking of Hamlet and his lingering affection for her. Subsequently, due to increased pressure from Polonius, Ophelia surrenders and agrees to submit to her father’s requests, ‘I shall obey my lord’ (hamlet I iii 139). After this episodes Ophelia begrudgingly returned the letters to hamlet and rejected his love, all as a consequence of her fathers complete and utter dominance over her simply as a result of gender.  Thus, Ophelia is manipulated by all of the men in her life. Later in the play by permitting both Polonius and Claudius to listen to her private conversation, she is used as an enticement to trap hamlet in act once scene three. Unaware of the results of her actions Ophelia becomes enmeshed in the deceitful nature taking place within the Danish court. Hamlet inflicts his hatred for women on Ophelia, showing his profound distain for love, marriage and preproduction; ‘get three to a nunnery. Why would thou be a breeder of sinners?’ (hamlet III I 115). Hamlet bitterly rejects Ophelia because he associated her with his mother. One would have recognised the impossibility of Ophelia behaving otherwise in order to disobey the male figures in her life. To have defied her fathers’ commands was unthinkable, especially for a high-born girl in her position.

Yet contrastingly looking at Hamlets relationship with Gertrude it is obvious where his hatred for women developed. Upon first meeting Gertrude in the Court Scene in Act one, it is clear that behind this gorgeous spectacle is the ‘foul contagion’ of corruption. Claudius owes his thrown to the ‘murder most foul’ (Hamlet I. V 28) while the queen has shown little love or respect for her recently deceased husband. Hamlet is disgusted with his mother. However, worse is to follow. In his meeting with the ghost of his dead father, Hamlet is shocked to discover that his ‘seeming virtuous’ (Hamlet I. V 46) mother had an adulterous relationship with Claudius while her husband was alive. Her wrong doing was rendered more reprehensible because her lover was the Kings brother, the affair was regarded as incestuous at the time. Gertrude is insensitive to Hamlets grief and concerned only that he gets along with her new husband. She is a morally blind character being either unwilling or unable to see Claudius for the villain that he is. Even after hamlet has revealed Claudius as a villain, Gertrude remains loyal to him. Although Gertrude shares many similar qualities to Ophelia being that she is weak and subservient to the men in her life allowing herself to be used in a plot to destroy her own son, she differs from Ophelia greatly in that she does not feel remorse for her actions.

Alternatively looking at the theme of gender within the male characters there is vast disparity. Hamlet is unburdened with the responsibility of avenging his fathers ‘foul and most unnatural murder’[1](hamlet I.V 25). Hamlet promises to avenge his father hastily, yet without questionable doubt Hamlet is not equipped to fulfil his promise due to his nature being passive and a man of conscience, overrun with doubts; ‘O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right’ (hamlet I.V. 190-191). Hamlets soliloquys highlight his reflective, philosophical disposition. Thus, due to his anxious doubtful personality hamlet desires concrete proof against Claduis before taking arms. Throughout act one to four Hamlet greatly lacks a well-adjusted personality, presenting the audience with two extremes both in passion and madness, and hesitation and reflection. Often Hamlet acts on a whim as in the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, yet he also ponders the information for such an extended time he is unable to act. In act five hamlet is presented in a new light, a man developed with the balanced personality, proving capable of clear and rational thought and acting decisively.

Like Hamlet, Laertes has compelling reasons for seeking revenge; ‘a father killed, a sister driven to desperate terms’ (hamlet IV.VII). However, where the pursuit of revenge is concerned, he differs fundamentally from Hamlet in his personality. While conscience means that he is reflective and slow to act, Laertes deliberately sets his conscience aside and is impulsive. The intensity of Laertes’ desire to be ‘revenged most thoroughly’ (Hamlet IV. V) for his father is such that it destroys his finer instincts. Laertes allows himself to be fooled by Claudius. Similar to both Hamlet and Laertes, Fortinbras wants to avenge a father’s death. He also wants to regain lands lost. Like Laertes, Fortinbras acts a foil to Hamlet. While Hamlet is a thinker Fortinbras is very much a man of action. However, Fortinbras can be reckless in his actions. Each male character differs greatly, while only concerning the characters who seek the revenge of a father it is clear they possess different gender roles.

In the sixteenth century there was an unprecedented number of female rulers yet is was still not popular among the public. Elizabeth and other females’ rulers such as Mary queen of Scots faced the wrath of men like John Knox. Elizabeth worked hard to maintain the face of authority regardless of these challenges posed to her rule. She remained single yet used her gender and marital status as a bargaining chip. She emphasised not only how learned she was but her quality with her male counter parts.

One of the biggest threats to Elizabeth’s throne was Mary Queen of Scots. Once Mary was in England, she captured her and kept her as a prisoner for nineteen years until Marys execution. Looking at ‘The Doubt of Future Foes’, this was clearly written about Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth is undoubtedly concerned about her future. This poem is an explicitly political statement and warning when taking into account the final couplet. ‘my rusty sword through rest shall first his edge employ/ to poll their tops that seek such change or grape for future joy’ (doth of future foes) as it was published many years after it was written it is seen as a boastful poem about the execution of her foe. ‘Elizabeth emphasizes that although by nature she is a woman and therefore the weaker sex, divine right has made her a ‘Prince’’(Damrosch et al.). In her public dealings throughout her reign she used her gender as a bargaining chip. In doing so she used the fact that she was a woman as a strength. (Damrosch et al.).

Queen Elizabeth I poetry and prose contain a strong theme of gender for a variety of reasons. In Elizabeth’s address to the troops at tilbury the queens use specific language to address again and again her own readiness and ability to fight alongside her troops if it is deemed necessary. Gender is a factor that may instil concern in subjects and troops, she assures them that she is not only as good as a male but better as she poses the qualities of both a male and female ruler in one. Queen Elizabeth ruled with an Iron fist and a strong heart throughout her reign and it can be seen through her address. Most significantly, proves she possesses she has the heart and stomach of a king of England regardless of her gender.  ‘I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,’ (speech to the troops at tilbury) she embodies the idea of power. She inherited the inherent power of the king once her father died. As Mary Beth Rose states ‘Elizabeth privileges male subjectivity, in her speeches she also constructs a position for her- self outside the male dynastic system and that this position, which relies on what I term a female rhetoric of legitimation, is equally responsible for the effectiveness of her self-creation as a ruler’ (Rose 1077). Elizabeth is saying she is not just as powerful as a man, but she is greater as she has the best of both qualities of a male and a female. She is the monarch of all monarchs when comparing herself to all other princes of Europe. Elizabeth assures her troops and loyal subjects that she is not only prepared and able to lead from a distance, but she will fight alongside them in battle. Elizabeth speaks for the first time in an overtly military context this changes all elements that were of defining importance in Elizabeth’s self-representation.

Hence, within Hamlet the theme of gender is a key factor in the development of the plot and the diversification of the characters. Ophelia being the innocent easily manipulated female fearful of the overbearing male figures in her life lead her to an untimely death. Gertrude was a weak character who submitted herself to manipulation to please her lover and disregarded her son made her a weak submissive character. Hamlets pondering and inability to act on a whim creates a more effeminate male role in compassion to Laertes and Fortinbras. Each of these different uses of the themes of gender are comparable to Queen Elizabeth’s poetry and prose. Elizabeth uses the theme of gender to show her strength and dominance as a ruler over a forty-five-year reign. Without the use of the theme of gender the message of the writings would be lost.

Bibliography

  • Damrosch, David et al. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.
  • Rose, Mary Beth. “The Gendering of Authority in The Public Speeches Of Elizabeth I.” PMLA 115.5 (2000): 1077. Web. 8 Oct. 2018.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Dublin: Folens Publishers, 2009. Print.
  • https://genius.com/Queen-elizabeth-i-of-england-speech-to-the-troops-at-tilbury-annotated
  • https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44219/the-doubt-of-future-foes

[1] Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, edited by Hilda O’Sullivan, Dublin 2009, act one scene five line 25

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