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Women in Hamlet and Death of a Salesman

In both Hamlet and Death of a Salesman it is the fates and problems of the central male figures that necessarily dominate our attention in the theatre. But the role of the women in both tragedies is central to their subject matter, themes, and narrative development. T. S. Eliot summarized Hamlet as “a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son” (Eliot, 1951, 143), which, although not the whole truth, is a useful guide to understanding the play’s deep concerns.

Linda in Miller’s play carries values that perhaps might save Willy Loman and her sons, but it could be argued that her actions and attitudes paradoxically have the effect of hastening their destruction and demoralization. Guilt is difficult to locate precisely in Linda, Ophelia and even Gertrude, and yet their behavior is closely linked to the self-destructive urges in the male figures. D. H. Lawrence writing about Hamlet argues that the character is difficult to like, “based on self-dislike and a spirit of disintegration” (Lawrence, 75), which he relates to the historical context.

He says that the play “is the statement of the most significant philosophic position of the Renaissance” (76), which he identifies as “the convulsed reaction of the mind from the flesh, of the spirit from the self, the reaction from the great aristocratic to the great democratic principle” (76). Figures like Claudius, Fortinbras and Laertes (and Hamlet’s own father) live by the “aristocratic principle”, which one can interpret as a very masculine code of behavior, based on honor, power, ritual, revenge and the like. Such a code has little use for the feminine other than to exploit it.

One critic has said that the play “examines the role of the female in a masculine world overturned by its own establishments of marriage and inheritance as well as the function of the subversive feminine” (www. academon. com), though the women in Hamlet do not get much opportunity to be subversive. Hamlet himself cannot live by the “aristocratic principle”; he is far too complex to accept such rigid and ossified values – and yet, inexplicably, at the end he welcomes the succession of Fortinbras, the embodiment of unthinking “heroic” action, and certainly no harbinger of modernity.

Hamlet teeters on the edge of neurosis at the beginning of the play because he is horrified by his mother’s behavior in marrying Claudius so soon after the death of Hamlet’s father. He begins his first soliloquy with a wish to escape from the flesh, to avoid the horrors of inevitable decay. The world he sees as nothing more than “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (I, ii, 135-6). And the horror of decadence finds a particular expression in sexual horror. He is defiled by his mother’s action: “O most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! ” (156-7).

The very sound of the last line conveys the fastidious loathing in his voice. Hamlet is sick. He speaks frantically and the broken verse lines suggest how near he is to losing self-control. Here he is not a heroic sight. His raging against the unchangeable, against in fact the reality of human appetite, is futile and pathetic. Gertrude’s conduct is in bad taste but not criminal (setting aside the technical question of incest, though no-one else in the court seems to make anything of this). How far Shakespeare means us to see Gertrude as guilty, or complicit in Claudius’s crime, remains impossible to determine.

Hamlet’s father calls her “my most seeming-virtuous queen” (I, v, 45), as if he is not sure himself. He tells Hamlet to take no revenge action against her, but to “Leave her to heaven, / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/ To prick and sting her” (86-8). Those thorns seem to trouble her often. Rather than accept Polonius’s explanation of Hamlet’s weird behavior as the consequence of Ophelia’s rejection of him she feels in her heart that it is really “His father’s death and our o’er-hasty marriage” (II, ii, 57).

When Hamlet finally confronts her in III, iv, her “As kill a king? ” (III, iv, 30) sound genuinely bewildered, but some acknowledgement of guilt comes in her plea O Hamlet, speak no more. Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct. (88-91) When Ophelia goes mad Gertrude sees it as another punishment for her own guilt, and speaks of “my sick soul” and of her “sin” (IV, v, 16). But it is her heartlessness over her husband’s death which seems the issue, rather than any involvement in his murder.

There can be no doubt of her love for her son. Claudius tells Laertes that she “Lives almost by his looks” (IV, vii, 12), and she dies paying tribute to him: “The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” (V, ii, 292). She emerges finally as a not particularly intelligent woman, femme moyenne sensuelle, perhaps, hardly villainous, but unaware of the consequences of her actions on her son, and indeed quite unable to understand his complexity. Far more obviously a victim is Ophelia. Her undoubted sweetness and charm make her a helpless pawn in other people’s plans and devices.

She does not argue seriously with her brother’s advice in I, iii, (though one of her few shows of independence is to tell him to mind his own conduct too), nor with her father, “I shall obey, my lord” (I, iv, 207). One would like to see her more rebellious (as Helena Bonham-Carter is in the Mel Gibson film), but there is no trace of it in the text. Her subsequent rejection of Hamlet’s advances has consequences beyond what she, or her father, could have expected. The last possible remedial force for Hamlet’s mind, romantic love, is removed from him at the most critical time.

His love of Ophelia might have saved him from the sadness of mind that his father’s death and mother’s faithlessness have generated. Its removal unhinges him completely, confirming for him that “Frailty, thy name is woman” (I, ii, 146). She is then caught, alongside Gertrude, in the storm of his frantic horror at human sexuality. “He tortures both of them because he once loved them” (Wilson Knight, 26). One can hardly see her as a fit partner for Hamlet. Just as serious rebellion against the rules of her world seems absent, so her language rarely rises above the conventional.

In the nunnery scene she can make nothing of his wild attack on her. Perhaps it is the courtly triviality of Ophelia’s language that sets him off on his cynical course: “for to the noble mind/Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. ” (III, i, 100-1). Afterwards the King and Polonius rather comically take not one jot of notice of her distress. She is a pathetic pawn in this momentous conflict. “How now, Ophelia! / You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said; /We heard it all. ” (III, i, 180-2).

In the play scene he embarrasses her with a leering hint of obscenity, playing on the very failing in her which is both most irritating and also most beyond her own control: “–Do you think I meant country matters? –I think nothing, my lord. ” (III, ii, 115-6). Exactly. Ophelia collapses relatively easily. Her innocent simplicity, and the sort of uncomplicated mentality that we saw in her obedience to her father, and in her conventionality of behavior and language, concealed no heroic strength which might have made her a fit companion for Hamlet.

Her madness is deeply pathetic, mainly because of the grotesque absurdity of her words, and the fact that her innocence has been distorted into bawdy and cynical songs. David Leverenz writes Everyone has used her: Polonius, to gain favour; Laertes, to belittle Hamlet; Claudius, to spy on Hamlet, to express rage at Gertrude; and Hamlet, to express his feigned madness with her as a decoy. She is only valued for the roles that further other people’s plots. Treated as a helpless child, she finally becomes one, veiling her perceptions of falsehood and manipulation in seemingly innocent ballads. (Leverenz, 142).

Linda in Death of a Salesman seems equally to be a victim of those around her. She is “the eternal wife and mother, the fixed point of affection both given and received, the woman who suffers and endures” (www. revision-notes. co. uk). She is an endless source of support for Willy and for the integrity of her family. She cares for her husband, and is all love and selfless devotion. “Well, you’ll just have to take a rest, Willy, you can’t continue this way” (9). She believes forcefully in the idyll of the family: “It was so nice to see them shaving together, one behind the other. And going out together” (10).

Biff “admires you” (11) she tells Willy. If the weather is good on Sunday “we’ll drive in the country. And we’ll open the windshield” (13). She assures Willy that “Few men are idolized by their children the way you are” (29). The examples are endless, but the problem is of course that the family is not in fact like this. Willy is indeed failing in his life’s work, and has always been incapacitated by having “the wrong dreams” (110). Happy is a damaged individual who can make nothing of human relationships, particularly with women, and Biff is permanently scarred by his knowledge of Willy’s infidelity.

In the light of all this we might reasonably ask if Linda is not simply evading reality and longing for a fantasy quite as much as Willy is with all his self-deceiving dreams. Realism is no unknown to her though. Willy is “the dearest man in the world to me” (43) but she knows that “he’s not easy to get along with” (43). She reprimands Biff for his failure to contact his father, and is aware of his deep failure in adult life (though she never knows the real cause of it). “Biff, a man is not a bird, to come and go with the springtime” (43).

She can see that “a terrible thing is happening” to Willy (44) as his abilities decline and he reaches exhaustion. The firm have treated him badly, but “Are they any worse than his sons” (44) who have neglected him? Happy, she says, in a tone quite different from that of the family idyll, is “a philandering bum” (45). The truth is one that must be recognized without any comforting illusions – “He’s dying, Biff” (46), and she talks about the rubber pipe. She pretends to believe him about the borrowed $50 “because she will not rob him of his remaining dignity by informing him she is aware of his petty deception” (Nelson, 112).

Further realism is apparent in her close knowledge of their financial situation: “A hundred and eight, sixty-eight. Because we’re a little short again” (56). She distrusts Ben’s stories of fabulous wealth in Alaska, sensing the chimerical goldrush unreality of this particular dream; perhaps one man made a fortune out of it! When Willy listens to Ben’s stories she is “frightened of Ben and angry at him” (67). However, some critics have argued that her behavior is ultimately destructive because she never acts on her knowledge of Willy’s weaknesses to divert his attention from dreams to reality.

She goes on believing in him, or pretending to, when the damaging forces in the lives of the family members need confronting and coping with. Brian Parker writes of the “essential stupidity of Linda’s behavior. Surely it is both stupid and immoral to encourage the man you love in self-deceit and lies” (Parker, 107). At Willy’s graveside she says to him “Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it” (112), but it is difficult to believe that she really does not understand the reason for his suicide.

She understands his failure too well, but chooses to ignore vital aspects. She will not face the whole truth about him or her own responsibility to him. She has been content to construct a fantasy family image, in spite of her own realistic knowledge. She has “extended her devotion to an extreme that has become destructive, not only to her husband but to her sons, who have also become victims of her gingerbread house” (Nelson, 113). Her sons have unlimited admiration for her. Happy wants a girl “with character, with resistance!

Like Mom, y’know” (19). But the Loman household is a place without any female sexual dimension. Linda’s wifehood expresses itself in terms of consumption and housekeeping: “I got a new kind of American-type cheese today. It’s whipped” (12). Nelson writes of her “well-meaning prudery and naivete” (113) (“Willy, it’s not nice” (31)) which might go some way to explain why Willy seeks adulterous comfort, why Biff is so damaged by his discovery of Willy’s insult to his mother’s purity, and why Happy cannot find emotional fulfilment.

All three women examined here are examples of individuals who are confined and restrained by the societies they live in and the roles they must play in those societies. They are all very limited in their freedom to act, Gertrude and Ophelia by their place in a patriarchal world, and Linda perhaps because she chooses to show love and affection rather than beginning the immensely difficult task of challenging the follies of the males in her world. Both male worlds are shown to be faulty and crumbling.

It is only in recent years that women have had the economic and political power that has enabled them to pose real challenges to failing hierarchies. A modern woman might well be as limited in her understanding as Gertrude is, but would be unlikely to accept Ophelia’s role which so denied her her own individuality. Linda is a character in a modern tragedy, and what she represents of the archetypal feminine role of carer and bestower of love is unlikely ever to become outdated.

The question of whether it is better to love without reservation, or to challenge the destructive forces in one’s life, is a part of the human lot which social change will not affect.

Works Cited

Death of a Salesman. Retrieved October 2, 2006, from http://www. revision-notes. co. uk/revision/16. html Gertrude in Hamlet. Retrieved October 2, 2006, from http://www. academon. com Lawrence, D. H. Twilight in Italy. London: Duckworth, 1916. Penguin edition, Harmondsworth: 1960. Miller, A. Death of a Salesman. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961. Leverenz, D.

“The Woman in Hamlet”. In Coyle, M. (ed. ). Hamlet. Contemporary Critical Essays. pp. 132-153. London: Macmillan, 1992 Nelson, B. Arthur Miller. Portrait of a Playwright. London: Peter Owen, 1970. Parker, B. “Point of View in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman”. In Corrigan, R. W (ed. ). Arthur Miller. A Collection of Critical Essays, pp. 95-110. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1969. Wilson Knight, G. The Wheel of Fire. London: Methuen, 4th edition, 1949. Shakespeare, William. The Arden Shakespeare: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Jenkins. London: Methuen, 1982.

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