The classical and world-renowned Shakespearean play Hamlet has two very prominent and important female characters as the main roles, Ophelia and Gertrude. As to a surprise, they are similar in many ways. This essay will inform the reader about their similarities or likeness.
It is quite obvious that both Gertrude and Ophelia are both motivated by love and a desire for quiet familial harmony among the members of their society in Elsinore. Out of love for her son does Gertrude advise:
Dear Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust. (1.2)
Likewise does she ask that the prince remain with the family: “Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, / I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.” Later, when the hero’s supposed “madness” is the big concern, Gertrude lovingly sides with her husband in the analysis of her son’s condition: “I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” She confides her family-supporting thoughts to Ophelia: “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet’s wildness,” thereby attempting to keep a loving relationship with the young lady of the court, even though the latter is of a lower social stratum. When Claudius requests of Gertrude, “Sweet Gertrude, leave us too; / For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,” Gertrude responds submissively, “I shall obey you.”
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Familial love is first among Gertrude’s priorities. When, at the presentation of The Mousetrap, she makes a request of her son, “Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me,” and he spurns her to lie at Ophelia’s feet, Gertrude is not offended; her loyalty to family overrides such slights. She considers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be friends of her son, and only for that reason sends them to learn about him; she would never use them as Claudius later does in an attempt to murder Hamlet. And even at the moment of her death, her last words include, “O my dear Hamlet.” Yes, Gertrude is pro-family.
Ophelia manifest great familial affection
In similar fashion does Ophelia manifest great familial affection, agreeing to comply with the advice of her brother Laertes: “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep / As watchman to my heart.” When her father, Polonius, makes inquiry regarding the “private time” which Hamlet has been giving to Ophelia, she replies unreservedly, “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me,” and elaborates mightily on the subject. Polonius insists that she “from this time forth” not “give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet,” and Ophelia dutifully complies with his wishes: “I shall obey, my lord.” She later even gives him her love-letters from Hamlet. When she acts as a decoy so that Polonius and Claudius can observe the prince, resulting in Ophelia’s chastisement by the protagonist, she nevertheless keeps him as the main focus in her life: “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” Her love for brother, father, boyfriend, and others generally, override her love of self. Her respect for the opinions of immediate family is greater than her respect for her own opinions even in the matter of her courtship.
Bonds of family and friends
Another similarity between these two lady-characters is that they suffer from a severing of the bonds of family and friends. Gertrude is displeased with Hamlet when, with The Mousetrap, he upsets King Claudius: Guildenstern says to Hamlet, “The Queen, your mother, in most great affliction of spirit, hath sent me to you.” And when the hero meets with his mother, her concern is: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” Of course, Gertrude’s grief over the king’s upset is soon upstaged by her son’s killing of Polonius behind the arras: “O me, what hast thou done?” and “O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!” Gertrude, unaware of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, probes the prince for the cause of the disturbance within him: “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?” and “Ay me, what act, / That roars so loud and thunders in the index?” Even when Hamlet has afflicted his mother’s soul with great distress, she still tries to preserve the mother-son relationship by referring to him as “sweet”: “O speak to me no more! / These words like daggers enter in my ears. / No more, sweet Hamlet!” Even after Hamlet has done considerable emotional damage (“O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.”) Gertrude still tries to keep the familial bond from being totally severed by asking “What shall I do?” and by not revealing to Claudius that her son mistook Polonius for his uncle.
Similarly, Ophelia suffers from the severing of the bonds of family and friends. She is traumatized by Hamlet’s visit after the ghost’s appearance, when he has assumed the “antic disposition,” with “his doublet all unbraced; / No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d,” and other aspects which make him appear as one “loosed out of hell.” Frank Kermode says that this “antic disposition” is a foil to Ophelia’s coming madness (1137). Polonius asks, “Mad for thy love?” and Ophelia responds, “My lord, I do not know; / But truly, I do fear it.” This is a time of uncertainty for her, for she has invested herself heavily in “the love for Hamlet, and her filial love” (Coleridge 353). When she later agrees to be a lure for Hamlet so that her father and the king can study his conduct in her presence, she feels the full loss of the prince’s affection for her:
“Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? [. . .] We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.” The severance of the ties with Hamlet cause her to pray for help: “O, help him, you sweet heavens!” and “O heavenly powers, restore him!” and “O, woe is me, / To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” Later, as the Mousetrap begins, Ophelia readily consents (“Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”) to Hamlet’s resting his head on her lap: “Ay, my lord,” hoping to somewhat restore a dying relationship along with the hero’s sanity. And she cannot be too agreeable in her efforts with him: “You are as good as a chorus, my lord,” and “You are keen, my lord, you are keen.”
Both Ophelia and Gertrude are victimized by male influences in the play. Ophelia is interfered with in her love-life by her brother Laertes, her father Polonius and by Hamlet himself. She is presented “almost entirely as a victim” (Boklund 123).Gertrude is intruded upon in her relationship with Claudius – by Hamlet, by Laertes and by Claudius. The rejection of Ophelia by the prince, plus the loss of her father at Hamlet’s hands, brings about madness in Ophelia, and later indirectly her death. The devious machinations of Laertes and Claudius effect the accidental death of Queen Gertrude, who imbibes the poisoned cup.
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Both Ophelia and Gertrude die incidental, unostentatious deaths of no special moment. Hamlet’s death and royal burial by Fortinbras is in sharp contrast to the passing of these ladies. Ophelia’s demise is publicized by the queen: “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, / So fast they follow; your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.” That Laertes should respond with the question, “Drown’d! O, where?” seems out of place, since the most logical question from a loved one would be, “How?” or “Why?” The queen replies that “her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.” Laertes says briefly, “Alas, then, she is drown’d?” and the queen even more briefly, “Drown’d, drown’d.” Until the reaction of Laertes and Hamlet in the grave, Ophelia’s passing seems to go almost unnoticed. Likewise, when Queen Gertrude later drinks from the poisoned cup on the occasion of the Laertes-Hamlet contest of foils, she experiences a quick, quiet death: “No, no, the drink, the drink,–O my dear Hamlet,– / The drink, the drink! I am poison’d.” And there is no more to the matter, possibly because everyone else is dying at the same time.
Another experience which both Ophelia and Gertrude have in common is that they are both attacked verbally by Hamlet. When the prince suspects that Ophelia is a lure (Coleridge 362), he lambasts her with: “Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.”
The queen also bears the brunt of Hamlet’s melancholic mood. After the “play within a play” Gertrude asks to see her son, who comes immediately – but not in a good humor. At one point he is so aggressive that she thinks perhaps he is going to murder her: “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,/As kill a king and marry with his brother.” This alarms the queen, who blurts out, “As kill a king!” in her appalled mental state, shortly followed by “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me?” Hamlet leaves the queen in an emotionally spent condition: “I have no life to breathe / What thou hast said to me.”
Both Ophelia and Gertrude possess complex temperament and motivation, thus qualify as rounded, not flat or two-dimensional, characters (Abrams 33). Also both women have a delicacy about them. In recognition of this delicacy, the ghost asks the protagonist to disregard revenge on Gertrude: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught.” Ophelia’s delicacy is revealed in the appearance of her insanity and later death resulting from the loss of her father and the affection of her boyfriend.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Boklund, Gunnar. “Hamlet.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Burton, Philip. “Hamlet.” The Sole Voice. New York: The Dial Press, 1970. N. pag. http://www.freehomepages.com/hamlet/other/burton-hamlet.htm
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets. London : George Bell and Sons, 1904. p. 342-368. http://ds.dial.pipex.com/thomas_larque/ham1-col.htm
Kermode, Frank. “Hamlet.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html No line nos.
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