The Mistreatment and Oppression of Women in Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The treatment of women has always been a familiar topic in literature. More often than not, literature shows women in a negative light. The cruelty and abuse that women all over the world experience in a male-dominated society have often been reflected in literary pieces. This is the reason why throughout many different texts, female characters have been depicted as oppressed and mistreated by their male counterparts. One literary piece wherein women are negatively portrayed is the play “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” by William Shakespeare.
In this text, the female characters Ophelia and Gertrude were exposed to the ridicule, mistreatment and oppression of the male characters. Ophelia and Gertrude are the play’s two main female characters. Between the two of them, Ophelia was most subjected to male domination, as she was the one who experienced intense maltreatment from the most number of male characters. In fact, the maltreatment of her character began from her own family. Ophelia was remarkably oppressed by both her brother Laertes and her father Polonius.
The oppression of Ophelia was grounded on the fact that her own life was beyond her control as Laertes and Polonius dictated what she should or should not do (Acquaro 2-3). It was they who made the decisions for Ophelia, making her seem like a puppet in their mercy. Ophelia’s oppression by her own family was generally associated with her connection to Prince Hamlet. It was Laertes who first oppressed his sister, as he discouraged Ophelia from having a relationship with the prince.
In Act 1 Scene iii, he told Ophelia that while Hamlet claims to have affection for her, his love is just “forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting” (Shakespeare 39). Laertes used the argument that Hamlet is bound by his fate as the heir to the throne of Denmark, and that his decisions and choices would eventually prioritize the state above all else. Laertes then threatened Ophelia by saying: “Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister,/ And keep you in the rear of your affection,/ Out of the shot and danger of desire” (Shakespeare 41).
As a result, Ophelia did not need to assess her relationship with Prince Hamlet, as her brother already made the decision that he was not good for her. Polonius oppressed Ophelia the same way that Laertes did. However, Polonius was more aggressive and insistent compared to Laertes. In the beginning, he simply dissuades her daughter from believing the promises of the prince. He said, “Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers” (Shakespeare 47). However, the oppression became more apparent when Polonius had forbidden Ophelia from speaking to Hamlet.
Polonius told Ophelia: “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth/ Have you so slander any moment leisure/ As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet” (Shakespeare 49). Rosenberg notes that influence of Polonius over her daughter is much greater than that of Hamlet, affirming the strength of the said oppression (488). Because of Laertes and Polonius, Ophelia became a woman who was not capable of thinking or deciding for herself. In the words of Hogle, she “accepts the patriarchal order and dictates of her culture so completely that she attempts to be all the things her father, brother…load upon her” (108).
Hence, she was forced to live her life based on the limitations created by her oppressors. Ophelia was not only a victim of oppression in the play. She was also subjected to mistreatment. Just as Polonius was responsible for her oppression, he also contributed to her mistreatment. Polonius was guilty of mistreating Ophelia in the sense that he used his daughter as a means to achieve an end. He used her as bait to witness for himself the madness of Hamlet. In Act 3 Scene i, Polonius called on Ophelia to walk about while reading a book. She would be used as an accomplice in their plan to observe Hamlet.
He ordered, “Ophelia, walk you here…read on this book” (Shakespeare 125; 127). It seemed that he placed greater value on his own pursuits that his own daughter. Therefore, Polonius’ decision to objectify Ophelia for the sake of his personal ends is considered as mistreatment in his part. Aside from her father, Ophelia also experienced mistreatment from Prince Hamlet. In an attempt to show and convince Ophelia of his supposed madness, Hamlet had physically maltreated her. The facade of madness caused the rude and almost brutal treatment of Ophelia (Rosenberg 489).
The proof of the maltreatment can be found in Act 2 Scene i of the play. During a conversation with Polonius, she revealed in detail the physical mistreatment she was subjected to. Ophelia narrated, “He took me by the wrist and held me hard/ Then goes he to the length of all his arm” (Shakespeare 79). Hamlet’s mistreatment of Ophelia continued, as she said that “he falls to such perusal of my face/ As he would draw it” (Shakespeare 79). Hamlet’s violence toward her eventually ended after he shook her arm. Indeed, Hamlet used Ophelia as a means to demonstrate his insanity, and she ended up being maltreated in the process.
Throughout the story, Ophelia was also ridiculed by male characters in the play. One of these characters was Prince Hamlet. He had not only subjected Ophelia to physical maltreatment, he also subjected her to much ridicule. In his encounter with Ophelia, he used “hurtful language” in their conversation and eventually revealed his misogyny (Rosenberg 490). Hamlet began ridiculing Ophelia when she tried to return the gifts he had given. In Act 3 Scene i, he denied giving her anything, saying “No, not I. I never gave you aught” (Shakespeare 129).
This denial is in itself ridicule, as it presupposed that Ophelia was lying about the gifts. He had already made fun of her by making her appear mistaken. However, the gravity of Hamlet’s derision toward Ophelia was best illustrated by his suggestion. He told her, “Get thee <to> a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? ” (Shakespeare 131). When Hamlet spoke of the nunnery, he meant that Ophelia must proceed to the convent. Such comment can be analyzed from two different perspectives. Hamlet’s suggestion to Ophelia can first be interpreted in terms of his opposition to married life and breeding.
According to Muir, Hamlet’s hatred towards women had prompted him to desire the end of marriage and child bearing (82). This desire may initially seem noble, as it would imply that Hamlet cared enough for Ophelia to want her to live a better life away from the evils of the world (Rosenberg 532). The suggestion also has another interpretation. During the time when Protestant England was in conflict with the Catholic Church, the word “nunnery” was used to mean a brothel (Rosenberg 532). Therefore, when Hamlet told Ophelia to go to the nunnery, he wants her to put herself in a brothel and become a prostitute instead.
Both interpretations are ridicules directed at Ophelia, as the end of breeding and the insinuation of a brothel were insults to her female nature. Hamlet was not the only character in the play who ridiculed Ophelia. She was also made fun of by strangers when she died. First, she was ridiculed by the grave diggers who were tasked to dig her final resting place. In Act 5 Scene i, one gravedigger asked, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial, when she wilfully seeks her own salvation? ” (Shakespeare 239). The other gravedigger responded that the coroner had performed an autopsy and decided that Ophelia deserved a Christian burial.
The first gravedigger was not convinced, as he continued to maintain that the death was a suicide and considered her remains unfit for a churchyard burial. The gravediggers showed no respect for the dead by continually questioning if she deserved to receive proper burial or not. In addition, they insulted Ophelia by saying that had she not been a woman of privilege, her suicide would not be justified and her remains would be brought somewhere else. The ridicule can be summed up in a statement by the second grave digger: “If this has not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial” (Shakespeare 241).
The act of ridiculing Ophelia in her death continued with the priest. Just like the gravediggers, the priest also considered her Christian burial as a matter of influence as opposed to a matter of religion. When the priest said that “Her death was doubtful,/ And, but that great command o’ersways the order,” he meant that the king’s orders overshadowed the rule of the Church that the remains of someone who committed suicide must not be buried in the churchyard (Shakespeare 253). Then the priest again ridiculed Ophelia by saying that by giving her a Christian burial, they “profane the service of the dead” (Shakespeare 253).
Even in death, the male characters undermine Ophelia’s rights as a woman. Just like Ophelia, Queen Gertrude was also subjected to mistreatment, oppression and ridicule. The male character who subjected her to maltreatment was none other than her second husband, King Claudius. Throughout the play, it was evident that Claudius had more love for the throne and power which came with it than love for Gertrude. He had the capacity to manipulate her, and he did. Hamlet was aware of this manipulation, and he tried to warn his mother about it.
In this passage from Act 3 Scene iv, he enumerated to Gertrude the things that he wished she would not do: Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed, Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers Make you to ravel all this matter out (Shakespeare 183). Hamlet’s warning against Claudius demonstrated how Gertrude could easily be controlled by Claudius through expressions of supposed affection. If the king wanted the queen to do anything he wanted, he would simply be affectionate.
In this case, affection can be treated as a means of maltreatment. Claudius mistreats Gertrude through the false display of affection because in reality she was being controlled for his own ends. Similarly, Gertrude was also subjected to the control of Polonius. Polonius had oppressed Ophelia by dictating what she should or should not do in relation to Hamlet. Polonius did the same thing to the queen. He was so preoccupied with Hamlet’s madness that he undermined the capacity of the monarch to decide for herself. In Act 3 Scene iv, Polonius gave the queen certain orders to follow. He told her, “Look you lay home to him.
/ Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with/ And that your Grace hath screened and stood between/Much heat and him” (Shakespeare 169). One would think that as the Queen of Denmark, Gertrude was in a high position that would shield her from the oppression of others. However, she proved to be another female puppet character of Polonius. The monarch’s decisions and actions were imposed on her by a councillor of the king. Though Gertrude suffered under the hands of both her husband and his councillor Polonius, she experienced the most intense abuse and criticism from her own son Prince Hamlet.
Prince Hamlet was so filled with hatred towards her mother that he had ridiculed her multiple times throughout the text. In Act 3 Scene iv, Gertrude asked the question that clearly indicated the ridicule that she experienced under Prince Hamlet: “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue/ In noise so rude against me? ” (Shakespeare 173). The source of misogyny of Prince Hamlet was Gertrude. According to Muir, Hamlet’s distrust of women stemmed from the “faithlessness” of Gertrude (82).
The disgust that Hamlet felt for Gertrude can be summed up in this passage: “A bloody deed—almost as bad, good mother,/ As kill a king and marry with his brother” (Shakespeare 171). Hamlet’s negative feelings against his mother began when she married Claudius immediately after his father died. He believed she disgraced his father by marrying Claudius only a month after her first husband’s demise. This prompted Hamlet to compare Gertrude to an irrational creature such as a beast, who in his opinion, would have mourned longer over King Hamlet’s death (Shakespeare 31). Such comparison is already ridicule towards Gertrude.Sample Essay of BuyEssay.org