Female Power in Hamlet I. Introduction William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is characterized by its tragic conclusion and its memorable cast. As a reflection of the time period in which Hamlet was written, the predominately male cast views the female characters as inferior. What the men do not realize is that the women have more control than what is initially predicted. Throughout the play, Gertrude uses her influence over Claudius to gain political ground while Ophelia uses her sexuality to have control over her relationship with Hamlet. This sense of female power also has a lasting effect on the theme of sexuality and corruption in the play.
II. Gertrude A. Governmental Influence During the course of the play, Gertrude uses her status as a woman to establish herself as a capable and superior ruler. At the beginning of the play Hamlet chastises his mother for not only for her willingness to remarry after the untimely death of his father but for her marriage to Claudius, the brother of the recently deceased. Hamlet views this as incestuous; as did many others during the time the play was written (Pressley). We should keep in mind that she is the Queen of Denmark and has to make decisions that would best benefit her nation.
Gertrude’s motivations were more political than unholy. Her marriage to Claudius gave the throne a more stable base of power which would make the people of Denmark feel more secure especially when facing a possible invasion by Fortinbras (Lenz). This union would also prove to the people that she was emotionally secure enough to be rule the state. King Hamlet also felt that Gertrude was strong enough to run the country because he made her the recipient of the throne after his death and not his eldest son which was traditional (Pressley).
Gertrude uses her influence as a powerful woman to help make her country and her life more secure. III. Ophelia A. Sexual Power Many critics find Ophelia to be a pawn to the men in her life, but throughout the play she proves “herself to be neither silent nor merely obedient” (Fisher 130). This statement is only disproved in regards to her father. She does obey him when he tells her to stay away from Hamlet and when he asks her to be involved in a plan to determine Hamlet’s state of mind. She does not have the same submissive tendencies towards her brother and Hamlet.
When Laertes tries to warn Ophelia about the dangers of pre-marital sex, she just rebukes him as a hypocrite and establishes the existence of a double standard surrounding the issue. While there is little doubt that Hamlet and Ophelia loved each other, sex was not involved in their affection. If they were to have a child out of wedlock then both of their reputations along with the reputations of their families would be ruined and the heir to the throne would be in question. She had a certain loyalty to her family and the status they held and Hamlet had certain expectations as the prince of Denmark.
This restrain on their endeavors does not limit the power of Ophelia over Hamlet. She still uses the fact that they could be together one day to her advantage. They were playful with each other and at timely highly suggestive but this only shows the passions built up from their inability to act on their feelings (Neeley). Hamlet respects this silent sexual power when he tells her “get thee to a nunnery” in the hope of keeping her safely away from his madness (Shakespeare, 3. 1. 131). This conversation, though one sided, proves that Hamlet really did love and respect Ophelia enough to protect her from himself.
IV. The Effect of Female Power on the Themes of Sexuality and Corruption in the Play Throughout the play, any sign of female power is portrayed as sinful or somehow connected with the fall of Denmark. Hamlet blames his mother more for his suicidal thoughts than his father’s death. This is shown through his preoccupation with his mothers “incestuous sheets” and his lack of action to avenge his father’s murder (Shakespeare, 1. 2. 162). Hamlet views female sexuality as the single cause of corruption in Denmark leaving it no more than an “unweeded garden” (Shakespeare, 1. . 139). More specifically this moral corruption can be seen in Gertrude. When her political power is threatened by her son’s lover, she has her killed and stages it as madness induced suicide. Gertrude is the only person who describes Ophelia’s death and she repeats the word “drown’d” multiple times almost as if she is convincing herself that it is true. She also calls Ophelia a “mermaid”, originally another name for a siren, which was known for unintentionally drowning young men (Shakespeare, 4. 7. 201).
Gertrude meets her death from the poisoned wine, drowning in a sense on the poison, meant for her own son. Sometimes you have to think outside the pages, but the effects of female power on the theme of sex and corruption cannot be ignored. V. Conclusion While the women in Hamlet have few lines, they have a tremendous amount of influence over the men in the play Hamlet. Gertrude uses her influence to establish herself as an adept matriarch. Ophelia uses her power to keep her relationship with Hamlet despite their trials.