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Woman Roles in Hamlet

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Essay title: Woman Roles in Hamlet

Shakespeare incorporates several different, reoccurring themes throughout his well-known play Hamlet. Misogyny, the hatred of women, is one of these themes. The only two female characters, both of significant importance are mistreated and disrespected by several male characters. Queen Gertrude is mostly under attack from Hamlet and Ophelia is mostly controlled by Polonius. However, Ophelia does receive ill-treatment from her brothers Laertes and Hamlet, as well as her own father, Polonius. All of these men contribute to her weak female character individually and on different levels. They also appear to influence Ophelia’s later developed insanity and suicide.

The opening act of the play introduces all important characters, tells much of the plot and projects an important, lasting image of Ophelia. In act 1, scene 3, Laertes is biding farewell to his sister Ophelia and he offers her advice, or rather gives her orders, disguised as advice. Laertes tells her that she should not love Hamlet or be with him because he is Prince of Denmark. Due to his royal blood and status, Laertes tells Ophelia that Hamlet will not choose who to marry: “Perhaps he loves you now,/And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch/The virtue of his will, but you must fear,/His greatness weighted, his will is not his own,/For he himself is subject to his birth” (1.3. 14-18). Laertes does not, as Polonius will later do, tell Ophelia that her feelings are false, but rather tells her that she should realize that Hamlet may love her today, but that he will never marry her. Although Laertes might be right in advising Ophelia to be cautious, this advice was unsolicited by Ophelia. Laertes simply assumes that position of power over his sister because of gender. This is the first unequal relationship that Ophelia is a victim of.

Polonius’ treatment of his daughter is much harsher and occurs much more frequently then Laertes’ throughout the play. The first encounter between this father and daughter comes about right after Laertes departs for France. Polonius walks in, demands to know what Ophelia and Laertes were talking about and when informed, he starts to distribute his own, also unsolicited, orders. Polonius does not only tell Ophelia that she is to end the relationship with Hamlet and no longer speak to him, he also attacks her own emotions. He tells her that her feelings are wrong and imprudent. She is apparently foolish to think that Hamlet actually loves her:

OPHELIA: He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders

Of his affection to me.

POLONIUS: Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl,

Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.

Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

OPHELIA: I do not know, my lord, what I should think. (1.3. 99-104)

Polonius’ response to Ophelia’s description of her relationship with Hamlet is very hurtful and harsh towards her. Although this does contribute to a belittling image of women by Shakespeare, Ophelia’s answer supplies a much more convincing image. In reply to Polonius’ comment about Ophelia’s mistaken thinking, she says that she does not know what she should think, as though her father, or other men in general, are to be the ones to tell her how she should act and what she should think.

Later in the same act, Polonius orders her to stay away from Hamlet. She obeys these orders throughout the rest of the play except when Polonius organizes a scheduled and supervised encounter between the two in order to observe the nature of Hamlet’s madness. This planned

meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia is one that draws severe negative emotions from Ophelia. She ends up getting pushed around by Hamlet and told that he loves her, only to be told otherwise at the same time. After this mad conversation, Ophelia is understandably distraught and troubled. As for Polonius, he is the one to blame for this emotional distress, as he was the one to set up the meeting at the expense of his own daughter’s well-being. This says a lot about the degree of control

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