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Frailty thy name is women: Pervasiveness of male power and limiting conception of women

                               Abstract

 

This paper analyzes the under- representation of women, pervasiveness of male power, the limited roles of women and limiting conceptions of women held by the male characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The research paper will explore in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the portrayal of Gertrude and Ophelia being entirely depended on the point of view of male characters since the play fails to provide individual voice to the motives, desires and defense of each. The works and research conducted on Shakespeare’s tragedies in the feminist paradigm raise similar questions about the above mentioned text and therefore can be referred to, to provide some revelatory findings on the subject.  Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare appeared on the scene as an identifiable “movement”, with the publication of Juliet Dusinberre’s Shakespeare and Nature o f Women in 1975, with its primary aim being “rectifying sexist misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s female characters”.(1)

Other feminist such as Julia Kristeva, Elaine Showalter and Carol Thomas Neely also seem to have spoken exhaustively on the subject. The aim of this research, however, is to explore and question the motives, desires and male portrayal of the two underrepresented female characters in Hamlet through bringing resolution to the findings of both the feminist critics and the canon defenders.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet as the name suggest the “frailty” of the female characterization and female voice to defend their portrayal through a male point of view, limited roles and the limited conception on women reflect the dominance of male power and Renaissance attitude towards women and marriage clearly. The tragedy of Hamlet therefore as David Leverenz will put it only reflect  “the opposition between male and female” between “the world of fathers” dominated by reason, public roles, duty and feminine world of emotion and true self"(2)

The male characters seem to dominate women by showing possession of them or associating their identities through their female bodies. Denying them, an individual voice or representation of their thought, desires or motives or autonomy as an individual. Also the male conception of these female characters is stereotypical and controlling making the tragic deaths of the both a trifling echo in the background as compared to that of Hamlet.

Owning Women:

The male regard for the female characters in the play is interminably connected with their female bodies. Therefore it seem only acceptable that the female body as their ‘property’, and its sexual objectification be an open topic of conversation. Laertes can warn Ophelia not to:

“lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it”

While he, like “ungracious pastors”, “himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede”

Also, to Polonius a little womanizing by his son Laertes is acceptable but cannot endure Ophelia entertaining any hopes of receiving affections of Prince Hamlet. He too seems to be obsessed about guarding Ophelia’s chastity and remarks:

“Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl…

And Ophelia has seemingly nothing to add except to consent to his father’s orders by saying :

“I shall obey you my Lord”

The audience is aware of the concerns each of these men have yet being entirely ignorant of the motives and reaction of the subject of the conversation herself.  Polonius exhorts from her in short sentences uttered in bashful reluctance, the confession of Hamlet’s love for her, but not a word of her love for him. Is she disappointed by his father’s denial of her any further correspondence with Hamlet? Does she believe in Hamlet’s professed affections? Does she herself entertain tender passion for the Prince? We don’t know she simply coyly answers:

“I do not know my lord what I should think” since she is probably not allowed to think or to exhibit her desires to the audience through any aside or soliloquy.  We notice Shakespeare in this scene does not grant Ophelia more than six speeches, none of them more than two lines in length- Since her brief speeches “explain so little of what is happening beneath the surface of her mind”(3)

what the audience perceive is :

“the portrait of a submissive and rather characterless young girl; what was once called an ‘unformed character’; a being without vivid interests  or enjoyment, strong or eager impulses; content to do as she is told”(4). Since her brief speeches “explain so little of what is happening beneath the surface of her mind”(5)

Similarly we see Ophelia’s sexuality being a topic of open debate even for Hamlet. His sexual innuendo in the Mouse Trap play scene in his dialogue with Ophelia would have been transparent to the Renaissance audience or apparently acceptable: “That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs” (3.2.111) this seems a tawdry joke for a “noble” prince to share with a young woman of the court, however, Hamlet is not reticent to speak it and Ophelia herself seems not at all offended upon hearing it. Or is she? We do not know.

Hamlet displays the same stark consciousness of his mother’s sexuality. In  the Closet Scene, Hamlet begins to give her orders, Gertrude embodies Ophelia’s dependence on male opinion and submission by asking “What should I do?” (3.4.181) Yet despite her passivity, her sexuality is threatening to both Hamlet and his father who imagine it as violent, excessive and contaminated:

“Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,--“ (3.4.9295)

Gertrude seems unaware of the cause behind of her son’s penetratingly painful words and questions Hamlet:

“What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?”

Gertrude too like Ophelia is denied of an individual voice and the interpretations regarding her apparent sexual infidelity comes from the male dialogue. She is denied a voice in her defense or representation. Nowhere in the play do we find textual evidence substantiating her involvement in King Hamlet’s murder, merely marrying a second time with indecent haste owing to her aggressively lusty nature. This notion is ascertain by the fact that she is not represented as an adulteress in the “Murder of Gonzago” and that there is no sign of her being moved by the representation of King Hamlet’s Murder scene. In fact when Polonius is startled and starts from his throne she innocently questions him “How fares my lord”. Even in the private conversation of her and King Claudius she shows no sign of knowledge of the murder. Nor does she seem to display any signs of guilt and remorse like Claudius. Thus her representation as a woman of “exuberant sexuality” is entirely based on the male point of view.

Though transparent to the audience is that Gertrude is not self willed, she makes no suggestions, she is quick to fall in with the plan of others. Gertrude so tractable a wife to her second husband logically must have been no less compliant as the widow of her first. “The virtue of female submissiveness proves itself a two-edged sword when the ideological goal is marital fidelity undaunted by husband’s death. Gertred’s behavior throughout the play beckons us to read her acquaintance to a questionable and sudden marriage as the corollary of an otherwise praiseworthy habit obedience to male authority.”(6)

Also in other instances expression of male dominance and possession of female bodies we find the examples of Hamlet, Polonius and Laertes referring to Ophelia as ‘property’ or ‘object’ of affection, more concerned resolving whom she belong to then Ophelia herself. On Ophelia’s funeral Hamlet and Laertes fight over Ophelia’s dead body as to who of the two loved Ophelia more. Even Ophelia’s turns out to be a point of power struggle and competition between the two men exercising power over her instead of honoring her memory. Hamlet claims:

“I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?...

woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?”

The audience may still not be convinced entirely of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia because of his prior lack of interest in the subject. As A.C. Bradley confesses “I am not satisfied that the explanation  of Hamlet’s silence regarding Ophelia lies” in his melancholy. He raises several curious questions.

 “How is it that in his first soliloquy Hamlet makes no reference whatever to Ophelia?...In what way are Hamlet’s insults to Ophelia are necessary either to his purpose of convincing her of his insanity or to his purpose of revenge?...in speaking to Horatio Hamlet never alludes to Ophelia and that at his death he says nothing of her” (7)

Later we see sexton at the graveyard insisting Ophelia must have killed herself. The cleric who presides at Ophelia’s funeral asserts that she should have been buried in an unsanctified ground as she has committed suicide, but he doesn’t say how he knows facts about it. Apparently nobody could, not even the two men who claimed to “outface” each other in Ophelia’s love, could be Ophelia’s Horatio to tell all:

“the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited”

They are as ignorant of the cause and nature of Ophelia’s death as the clerk and the sexton themselves

Stereotypical representaion:

Feminist Critics point out that “often literary representations of women repeated familiar cultural stereotypes” further reinforcing the feminine standard expected and exerted by the patriarchal society. Women were portrayed to be belonging to the either of the two dominant categories: the strongly negative fast immoral seductresses or self-sacrificing angelic unworldly women who are essentially helpless renouncing desire and ambition.(8)

This we see holding true in case of representation of Gertrude and Ophelia, with Gertrude of course falling in the former category, Ophelia latter. Since many critics such as Samuel Johnson define Ophelia as “beautiful, harmless and pious” while Harold Bloom points to the fact that “Queen Gertrude…requires no apologies. She is evidently a woman of exuberant sexuality, who inspired uxorious (sic) passion first in King Hamlet and later in King Claudius”.(9)

Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (1996) review the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet, commenting that many critics have echoed Hamlet’s own misogynistic attitudes towards the women in the play. Thompson and Taylor ultimately contend that the play has “relatively simplistic views of women as angels or whores” (10)

The attitude towards marriage and virginity in Hamlet is reflective of the Renaissance belief of the time. Marriage was a Renaissance institution that largely determined and shaped a women’s life. The defining characteristics of maids being their virginity, which they were to defend against their own desires, male deceits and possibility of slander. The best protection was to stay home as Vives an influential Spanish humanist argues in “Instruction of a Christian Women”(11).  Quiet analogous to it is the Leartes’s warning to Ophelia to guard against her own credulous weakness and Hamlet’s aggressive desire.

Hamlet’s rant in the nunnery scene too roots to his anxiety about his mother’s sexuality and a hyperbolic extension of Vives advice. Hamlet exaggerates the inevitability of male deceit:

“We are arrant Knaves all; believe none of us”, the degree of protection needed “go thy to nunnery” and the vulnerability of Women’s reputation:

“If dost thou marry,

I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry

Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow,

Thou shall not escape calumny”

(3.1.129,130,136,137)

Renaissance wives were expected to be sexually faithful, obedient and sexually loving as Edmund Tilney in his “Flower of friendship” mentions that “both divine and human laws in our religion giveth the man absolute authority over the women in all places”(12)

Gertrude stands as such an example by displaying absolute obedience towards Claudius “I shall obey you”. Yet still she is perceived as aggressively lusty since being a widow she is not a virgin and not under control of a man. Therefore Gertrude’s “over hasty” marriage seems to Hamlet and his father confirm her as a stereotype. Denying Gertrude a voice to reflect her motives behind her marriage with Claudius.

Lack of Power-Torn between Loyalties

Both the women: Gertrude and Ophelia we see torn between loyalties of two opposing men-with Ophelia’s funeral manifesting a physical display of her conflict. Ophelia is torn between his brother Laertes, his father Polonius and Hamlet. Gertrude is torn between her husband Claudius and son Hamlet.

These Women despite being obedient exercise no influence on the men in their lives and are but used as pawn of the drama. Ophelia especially is inferior to male characters, particularly to Polonius and Laertes. Ophelia depends so entirely upon this relationship to male characters that beyond it she can not think or act or exist. Both Gertrude and Ophelia we see being victims of what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would term as “Social Castration” deprived of any influence or power

In A Room of one’s own , Woolf creates a metaphor likening women to mirrors that further assists the reader in interpreting Ophelia’s character as a source of sympathy for her lack of identity. She asserts that:

“Women has served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size” (Woolf 36)

Similarly Ophelia’s character serves a critical importance by “reflecting men” that determines her identity. She is Polonius’ pawn to win King’s favour, Laertes chaste sister and Hamlet’s lover-once these influences are removed Ophelia loses her identity.

“There is no 'true' Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak, but perhaps only a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more than the sum of all her parts.”(13) Ophelia exerts no individual identity of her own only serving as a plot or explained in relation to Hamlet. Jacques Lacan further comments:

“I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia, and I'll be as good as my word.”(14)   and again:

 

“What is the point of the character Ophelia? Ophelia is obviously essential. She is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet.” (15)

 

The life of Ophelia we would notice has no purpose once Polonius is dead, Laertes is gone and Hamlet denies ever to loved her and so it has to come to an end. An aimless death, neither suicide nor accident is a fitting symbol of her aimless lives. She is “beautified” rather than beautiful.

The same we find true of Gertrude. Despite being the queen is manipulated by Claudius and Polonius for acting out their designs. Gertrude is told to leave the men to their plans: “Sweet Gertrude  leave us”(3.1.136).Polonius too, to win Claudius’ favor instructs the queen and use her as a bait as he has used Ophelia before, placing himself nearby to eaves drop the conversation :

“My lord, do as you please…Let his queen mother all alone entreat him to show his grief”(3.1.190-195)

She too comes to a pitiful, falling short of tragic, end when she falls dying but muster all her strength to warn Hamlet:

“No,no,the drink, the drink-O my dear Hamlet-

The drink, the drink! Iam poison’d” (Dies.)

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Hamlet to Ophelia Author(s): Harold C. Goddard Source: College English, Vol. 16, No. 7 (Apr., 1955), pp. 403-415 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/371501

Reviewed work(s): The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature by Juliana Schiesari Source: Italica, Vol. 72, No. 3, Theatre (Autumn, 1995), pp. 393-395 Published by: American Association of Teachers of Italian Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/479733

Feminist Thematics and Shakespearean Tragedy Author(s): Richard Levin Source: PMLA, Vol. 103, No. 2 (Mar., 1988), pp. 125-138 Published by: Modern Language Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/462429

Online Articles Referred:Hamlet through a lens: Freudian and Feminist Approaches
http://theresalduncan.typepad.com/witostaircase/2006/11/herb_grace_osu.html

Peterson, Kaara. Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition. Mosaic (Winnipeg) Vol 31.1998.http://www.azete.com/view/4486Mabillard, Amanda.

Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Dec 2000.http://www.Shakespeare_online.com/opheliachar.html

Elaine Showalter’s representing Ophelia
http://www.123Helpme.com/view-asp?id=4486          

 

 

 

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