“Feminist Criticism and Its Integration in Hamlet” In the play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, many controversies arose from the text, one of which was feminism. Feminism in the most general of terms is known as the principle advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men. Feminism was a largely debated issue in the context of eighteenth century literature specific to many of Shakespeare’s texts. Feminist Criticism is similar in content but is more specific and pertains to the “lens” through which a text is viewed or perceived.
During the era of Shakespeare’s existence, many of his female characters and the plots surrounding them were considered antifeminist due to the role that the women played or even just because of how they were referred to within the text by him or other characters. Some assumptions that go along with the analysis of Hamlet through the feminist lens is that the women, such as Gertrude and Ophelia, are given marginalized opinions and roles within the play, that the play is from a male-centered viewpoint, and that it solely focuses upon the male characters and their experiences instead of integrating the views and impacts of the women as well.
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A specific example of marginalization of a woman character within Hamlet is in Act III where Gertrude is told to leave the men to their plans even though they should include her and what opinions that she might have had over how to fix the situation. (Sweet Gertrude, leave us too…Act III-1, pg 136). When this scene is read by a person through the feminist lens, it can be seen as her being dismissed due to an opinion of Claudius that she is unnecessary and that he knows what is best when it comes to important matters.
When focusing on the feminist view, readers may also look at Gertrude’s response to Claudius as being submissive and lacking forethought which brings to mind that this sort of dismissal is common between the two and that Gertrude is constantly undermined. (Fienberg, Nona). Another scene that brings forth similar analysis, of a woman character as aforementioned, is when Ophelia is mourning her dead father and the songs that she sings “introduce the protesting voice of oppressed women in society through the veils of a ballad culture”.
Ophelia “is not understood by her male audience but her rebellion against the double standard and its oppression of women arouses fear in Gertrude, who understands”. (Fienberg, Nora) When Ophelia mourns her father, people instantly think that her weak mind must have “shattered” and her only escape from insanity is death. In Act V, after Ophelia’s death/suicide, the scene starts with Hamlet spying upon Laertes during his sister’s burial.
When Laertes speaks in wonderment over his sister’s death, he surmises that she must have killed herself in an attempt to escape the madness that some man must have caused. He believes that in her weak feminine state that a man must have taken advantage of her and destroyed her mind. (Oh, treble woe, Fall ten times treble on that cursed head, Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense deprived thee of! , Act V-1 pg 294). Through the feminist lens, this scene is portraying the ultimate possessive action that men believe that they have the right to have.
Hamlet and Laertes both lay claim to Ophelia’s mind and then use the fact that she is female as a way to push her already frayed reputation over the edge as a subservient and unwittingly innocent girl. An example of a female versus a male role in Hamlet is introduced throughout the middle of the play. Hamlet and Ophelia “are threatened with mental breakdowns, rendering their need to define their experiences and re-define themselves particularly acute. Hamlet attempts a ‘self cure’ to deal with his mental instability.
He uses his control over the written word to empower himself in emotionally disturbing situations, examples of which include the letters to Ophelia, his forged orders to England, and his rewriting of The Murder of Gonzago”. Yet at the hands of a similar insanity, Ophelia “does not have the same means for elaborating a delirium as a man. She possesses very limited access to any verbal communication with which to unpack her heart before her father’s death”. After his passing, Ophelia is confronted with an opportunity to express herself in a similar way to Hamlet through her songs.
These songs are in the same style as Hamlet’s variation of ‘The Mouse Trap’. In the context of other renaissance women dealing with similar touches of insanity, “Ophelia’s experience of trying to find a voice in the play seems a model for the difficulties facing renaissance women” characters and writers alike. (Findlay, Alison). When it comes to Gertrude and her son Hamlet, the feminist lens gets clouded because he both treats her as a true being with thoughts/opinions and yet is constantly demoralizing her for her actions.
In Act III, Hamlet is confronting Gertrude about her mistakes with Claudius. Hamlet goes on to desexualize his mother and even goes as far as calling her a whore in a subtle way. In an attempt to force her into repenting, he rants on about how all of what has happened wouldn’t have had she been able to resist being a slave to the sexual desires that he believes women must fall victim to. In other words, he is simply saying that she is a weak female who couldn’t think past her need for pleasure long enough to seek the possible consequences of her actions. Proclaim no shame, When the compulsive ardor gives the charge, Since frost itself as actively doth burn, and reason panders will. Act III-4, pg 200) Through the feminist lens, this can be seen as an attack on the female gender under the fallacious thought that all females are programmed to serve, be used for sex, and bend to the will of all men due to their innate need for a man by their side at all times. (Kusunoki, Akiko).
In one last attempt to expunge even a remote possibility of a feminist hold on the play, Shakespeare uses Gertrude’s guilt to manipulate her character. What seems to jump start this journey for her is the aforementioned “lecture” that she receives from Hamlet. During this argument, Gertrude begins to “recognize her sin in an incestuous marriage, as well as her inadvertent responsibility for the murder of Hamlet’s father and all subsequent events such as Polonius’ death and Ophelia’s madness”. Oh, stop…Act III-3, pg 201). While Polonius’ murder suggests her association between guilt and death, The Mousetrap guarantees consequential guilt. Along with such guilt comes the desire for her own personal death which is marked in her description of Ophelia’s drowning. When she is familiar with these occurrences as results of her own misdeeds she consciously makes the decision to drink the cup of poisoned wine “after being denied virtually any other independent action from the beginning of the play”. (Shand, G. B. When reviewing this character manipulation through the feminist lens, readers can glean an undercurrent of preordained weakness from Gertrude in order to give her a reasonably climatic ending of which saves her character from being overlooked entirely. In the play Hamlet, feminism grabs hold and leaves the reader with a need to analyze the actions of Shakespeare and his motives for writing such a play that attributes traits like weakness and innocence, in the context of being taken advantage of, with the common female gender.
In the play, the characters Gertrude and Ophelia are given subservient roles and only serve a purpose as “fluff” for the main (male) characters and their experiences within Hamlet. Feminist criticism was distinctly integrated in Hamlet through the actions and dialog of the male characters when either addressing directly or indirectly the female ones. Works Cited Fienberg, Nona. “Jephthah’s Daughter: The Parts Ophelia Plays. ” Old Testament Women in Western Literature. Ed. Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcit. Conway: UCA, 1991. 128-43.
Findlay, Alison. “Hamlet: A Document in Madness. ” New Essays on Hamlet. Ed. Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning. Hamlet Collection 1. New York: AMS, 1994. 189-205. Kusunoki, Akiko. “‘Oh most pernicious woman’: Gertrude in the Light of Ideas on Remarriage in Early Seventeenth-Century England. ” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Ueno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 169-84. Shand, G. B. “Realising Gertrude: The Suicide Option. ” Elizabethan Theatre XIII. Ed. A. L. Magnusson and C. E. McGee. Toronto: Meany, 1994. 95-118.