Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and she was once said that “A gender line… helps to keep women not on a pedestal, but in a cage” (Find Cite). This gender line that she speaks of is what exists in our society even though there have been immense advances in civil rights. These advances still lead us to a world where sexes remain strongly segregated. This segregation can be seen in the lives of many men and women in our society ranging from the times of Shakespeare to even now in the modernized world. Shakespeare had his own interpretations of how women should act and behave in his time. In one of his most famous plays, Hamlet, Shakespeare portrays women as very dependent on men. Women in Hamlet appear to the readers as minor characters; however, they truly add a form of definition to the story that brings out and unfolds the events in the play. Their roles are key to the story and progress of the play. Without these women many of the characters would not even interact with each other with they did not have these women to connect them. They add romance and tie many of the characters together, when in other circumstances without these women much of the play would not occur. Women in Hamlet play a big role in the storyline of the play however, Shakespeare portrays them as delicate females that constantly depend on the ability and thinking of a man along with complete obedience to their demands, this portrayal can very much be connected with to a negative connotation of women.
There are not many women in Hamlet, however the two that play a considerable role in the play come up often. One major woman in this play is Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and the love of Hamlet. Ophelia is a young and innocent girl, who deeply obeys her father and her brother. She is very dependent on men to inform her on how to behave and act, due to this obedience she contains, Ophelia falls to Polonius’s schemes and gives in on keeping an eye on Hamlet and his actions. One of the biggest turns in the play could possibly be when Polonius and Laertes inform Ophelia that she should stop seeing Hamlet, and in the end, she obeys to her father and brother. She says, “I shall obey, my lord” (Act 1, Scene 3). In this line Ophelia is talking to her father, who just said to her that she should not be seeing Hamlet anymore. She does not argue or even have second thoughts about this order she has been given. Ophelia instantly complies with her father’s orders and leaves her lover without a second thought.
She stops talking to Hamlet all together and Hamlet sees what is going on in this situation. He uses Ophelia to his own advantage in order for him to obtain his revenge on Claudius, so Hamlet pretends to go insane. In this brief moment of false insanity Hamlet convinces Ophelia that he is insane, and just as Hamlet wanted, she goes and informs her father of the scene she has just witnessed. Hamlet knows of the obedience that Ophelia has for her father, and he knew that once Polonius heard if this “insanity” that Hamlet was under he would certainly inform the king. This all plays into the fact that Hamlet uses Ophelia during this time in order for him to grow closer to his final goal of avenging his late father. Ophelia is very dependent on her father and this dependence leads to Ophelia having very different interactions with Hamlet. Another example of this obedience is when she says “No, my good lord, but, as you did command, I did repel his fetters and denied his access to me” (Act 2 Scene 1). She still does not even argue the fact that her father is denying her the right to see her lover. This is just another example of how compliant women in this play are to men in their lives. One factor that could be contributing to the obedience she shows is that in the play she has no mother figure in her life, so she has no one to look up to on how to act like a lady other than her father. Due to not having a mother figure Polonius is very much a substantial character in her life. Ophelia is very much controlled by the orders of her father and the obedience she contains. Not once does she act for herself in any manner of making her own judgement, other than the time of her suicide.
The other woman in Hamlet that plays a key role in the storyline is Gertrude. Gertrude is the queen of the kingdom, mother of Hamlet, and was previously a widow to the late King Hamlet. Gertrude is portrayed as a woman who very quickly moved on from her late husband only to marry her late husband’s brother. This fairly quick marriage is the main reason Hamlet wants to get back at Claudius. Gertrude is also another example of a woman who is completely obedient of the men in her life. She obeys Claudius and Hamlet when either one of them ask something of her. One prime example of her obedience is when Claudius orders Gertrude to leave when Claudius and Polonius hide in order for them to spy on Hamlet when he encounters Ophelia in Act 3. Gertrude is swift to obey to her husband, even though she is the most distraught over the insanity that Hamlet has gone under. Gertrude’s outright obedience to any man allows for her to be taken advantage of throughout the play, this lack of her own actions and thoughts leads to an interesting plot for Shakespeare to exploit. This obedience is very relevant to how women during this time were supposed to act. The dependency factor in these women can be seen in Gertrude when she clearly uses Claudius in order for her to overcome her previous marriage with King Hamlet. Hamlet says “frailty, thy name is woman” (Act 1 Scene 2), and this is a prime example of how women in the play are portrayed.
Gertrude has no time to lament for her previous husband’s death, because she must find another man to rely on. Gertrude’s act of marrying Claudius so soon after the death of King Hamlet clearly speaks to the readers that she is so subservient for a man that she is willing to forfeit true love in order for her to have a man in her life again. Gertrude even though she is a queen, along with being a woman of power, is most definitely not treated as such. She is always listening to what her man tells her and is not treated with the utmost respect that a woman of her class is entitled to. Ayub states that “Prince Hamlet calls his mother the most pernicious woman, a damned smiling villain. Nowhere else such titles and labels are given to a man for re-marriage after the death of his wife. This is nothing, but the double standards patriarchy upholds and reinforces” (Ayub). This lack of respect for the queen symbolizes how Shakespeare portrayed women during this time. Even the queen could not get away with what she has done because of her title. This double standard still lives on today just as it did centuries ago. Shakespeare definitely saw women as to be obedient to men in this play. The one and only time that Gertrude acts for herself and goes against the King Claudius’s orders is when she ignores his warnings about drinking the drink that Claudius had just poisoned for Hamlet. This one simple act of independence of just wanting to drink out of a cup ends out to be Gertrude’s major downfall. If she had been obedient to her king like she was during the whole play, then she most likely would not have died in the end of this story. Shakespeare is trying to convey to the readers that women should be obedient to their men during this play, and clearly if not, their situation will not end up well.
In conclusion, Shakespeare created this thoughtful image of Gertrude and Ophelia as their tragic deaths were the outcome on the issues of gender inequality in this story. These women were used as a form on manipulation, they were shown as weak individuals that could not survive without the reliance of a man in their life, women that were obedient to the level that they would not even argue with their men, and also these women were definitely taken advantage of by the men in this play in order for them to obtain what they wanted. Gertrude and Ophelia both pass away without knowing what was really happening in their lives. These two women died as a result of the men in this plays actions and never did they find out what was truly going on in their lives. Gertrude and Ophelia ended up being collateral in this twisted game that the men were playing against each other. The power that the men had on the women in this play symbolizes the comparison of the two genders. The women are portrayed as delicate females that are weak and need the guidance of a man to assure them. The men in this play have all the power of the women and with this power that they have they use it in order for them to accomplish their individual goals. In the time that this play was set this sort of behavior from the women would be completely fine with the audience as it was the way that those people lived during the seventeenth century and no one at the time would go up against the values and ideals of the society. However though in the 21st century, there is no longer this phase of complete and uttermost dominance over women in most relationships. Women have advanced in their civil rights and no longer tolerate such ideals. In our present day society women have overcame many challenges and hardships in order for them to be where they are today.
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