What in your view is the importance of the characters Gertrude and Ophelia?
The women of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” appear to be frail, passive figures used as pawns and dying prematurely after the mistreatment of men. Women during the year 1600 had no role in society. They were expected to be completely obedient to their husbands, to do all the housework and raise the children. In Hamlet the characters Gertrude and Ophelia reflect this truth, both are disrespected, insulted and are manipulated by the leading male characters, and both die due to tragic circumstances. The role of Ophelia is presented as a gentle, loyal, obedient, and young woman who is meant to be the love of Hamlet’s life, even though he rarely thinks of her or considers her in his plans. She is also the example of a perfect daughter however this leads to her being easily exploited by her father. The character Ophelia clearly portrays the corruption of the world she lived in. Gertrude’s role in Hamlet is one that is a loving mother that does care for her son but also raises her selfish ambition above everyone else and tries to reconfigure her family around her new husband Claudius.
Ophelia is the epitome of innocence. She is living in a world dominated by men. Throughout the play, Ophelia is a victim of men. We see this when she is forced to endure a lecture from Laertes before he leaves to France. He lectures her about the ways of men and of the world. “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour hold it a fashion and a toy in blood”. He explains political realities to her that even if Hamlet loves her he may not be able to marry her. “Perhaps he loves you...but you must fear his greatness weighed, his will is not his own”. He questions her ability to be Hamlet’s wife. Laertes does not hesitate to think about Ophelia’s feelings. He then continues on to warn her about preserving her virginity, “your chaste treasure”. This warning is condescending and a form of domination. Laertes gives her advice and Ophelia is expected to obey it. Her feelings are not taken into consideration.
She is also dominated by her father, Polonius. Polonius pries into her emotional life. We can see this when he vigorously questions her about her relationship with Hamlet. “What is between you? Give me the truth”. He also destroys her confidence in her own judgement. Polonius gives her orders to stay away from Hamlet and as a dutiful daughter, she listens. Both her father and Laertes do not take Ophelia’s feelings into consideration. She is a victim of male dominance. Polonius also exposes Ophelia’s private love letters from Hamlet in front of the whole Danish court. He not only reads out her letters but openly expresses his disgust. “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia- That’s an ill phrase; a vile phrase”. He does not seem too concerned about his daughter when he humiliates her in front of the King and Queen. Polonius’s main priority is to succeed in his position, however, Ophelia suffers the consequences of his actions.
Ophelia is victimised by Hamlet. Polonius exploits his own daughter as sexual bait. He orders her around as if she were no more than a mindless creature, “walk you here- read on this book”. This leads to Hamlet brutalizing Ophelia with his cold harsh rejection in the nunnery scene. He taunts Ophelia first proclaiming, “ I did love thee once” then later stating, “ I loved you not”. Ophelia faces Hamlet’s harsh dismissal. Hamlet had relationship issues and tarred images of women due to his mother’s relationships. Hamlet’s mother got remarried to his own uncle. This caused Hamlet to not be able to show his love towards Ophelia properly. He was tainted towards women in general because he was disgusted by their actions and he viewed them as a whole, not individuals. All these contributing factors led to his poor treatment of Ophelia. Ophelia becomes the victim of Hamlet’s bitter attack towards women.
Ophelia is a symbol of weakness. She is conditioned to be a subordinate to her father and never defies him or challenges his authority. Ophelia is unconditionally obedient to her father, this leads to her being easily manipulated and exploited.
We see this when Polonius manipulates his own daughter to find out the truth about Hamlet’s behaviour. He takes advantage of her obedience for his own selfish reasons. “ I will leave him and suddenly contrive the means of meeting between him and my daughter”. He uses Ophelia as bait and she does not show the strength to object.
Ophelia is also easily manipulated when Polonius forces his cynical outlook on to his daughter. He dismisses any possibility of Hamlet’s expression of love for Ophelia. “Do not believe his tenders”. When Ophelia tries to defend hamlet saying he has not touched her and has been completely respectful, he replies “Ay, springes to catch woodcocks”, claiming its a trap. Polonius orders Ophelia to dismiss Hamlet and she is unable to defy her father, “I shall obey my Lord”. Ophelia’s lack of strength is costing her possible happiness.
Ophelia’s innocence leads to her inability to cope with the harshness of the world which she inhabits. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself drawn into a world of corruption and violence that is the Danish Court.
Her father’s death at the hands of the man she loves proves too much for her sensitive mind and she loses her sanity. After her father she is described as “Speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing”. The servant informs Gertrude that she has lost her mind. Ophelia was unable to handle the loss of her father.
The song Ophelia sings about unrequited love suggests that Hamlet’s treatment of her is partly responsible for her breakdown. She is a pitiable figure at this point, “She is importunate, indeed distract. Her mood will needs be pitied”. Ophelia is a classic example of a tragic victim. The corruption of her world became too much for Ophelia.
She is the victim of forces beyond her control and of events over which she has no influence. Ophelia is the guiltless victim that pervades the Danish court. At her graveside, Laertes hopes that violets will spring from her “fair and unpolluted flesh”. Laertes’ comment displays Ophelia’s innocence.
There is little dignity for Ophelia. Her burial becomes the subject of cheap comedy for gravediggers. They discuss Ophelia’s death with absolute indifference, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial, that willfully seeks her own salvation”. The gravedigger can’t understand how Ophelia can be given a Christian burial if she drowned herself. Her grave then becomes the scene of an undignified squabble between two males, each trying to assert his ego, “Dost thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave?”.
Both Laertes and Hamlet are trying to prove they are more upset than each other. This disgraceful behaviour conveys the corruption of the world Ophelia was unable to handle.
Gertrude is a symbol of weakness. She lives in the shadow of two kings and is incapable of being independent.
According to Hamlet “she would hand on him as if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on”. She is similarly dependent on Claudius whom she remarried within weeks following the death of King Hamlet. Though Claudius refers to her as “the imperial jointress” of the state, it is clear she has little influence and power.
Gertrude is seen as weak when she automatically accepts the advice from Polonius. Gertrude knows Polonius is a rambling fool, Gertrude’s poor character can be seen we she accepts advice on how to deal with her son. Her clipped instruction to Polonius to speak with “more matter with less art” identifies Polonius as a pretentious rambling old fool while at the same time asserting her authority and intelligence. So to take advice from Polonius, it contradicts this. Polonius says to her “look you lay home to him...pray you to be rounded with him”. Gertrude does not hesitate to question him but instead replies with, “I’ll warrant you. Fear me not”. Her decision to listen to Polonius conveys her weakness.
She also does not object to Polonius’s plan to spy on Hamlet. Gertrude is aware that Polonius is hiding behind the arras when Hamlet comes to confront. This has become the norm and the Queen sees no wrong in invading her son’s privacy. Hamlet is trying to convey his feelings but the Queen does not seem to care much about her son. We see this when Hamlet says, “Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge.You go not till I set you up a glass. Where you may see the inmost part of you”. She replies with, “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?”. This is a childish comment to make especially when her son was trying to have a conversation with her. This shows her falseness and weakness.
Gertrude is a shallow woman. She is a false and an adulteress according to the ghost. Hamlet frequently mentions his mother’s sexuality, and obsesses about her physical relationship with Claudius, describing their marital bed as ‘incestuous sheets’ and ‘an enseamèd bed, / Stewed in corruption’.
She has betrayed her husband. The ghost describes King Hamlet as a good husband to Gertrude, “From me, whose love was of that dignity/ That it went hand in hand even the vow I made to her in marriage”. She claims she loved him, “She would hang on him” and she followed his coffin “like Niobe, all tears” and yet two months later she has remarried. According to the ghost, she was unfaithful to him even when he was alive, we see this when he refers to Claudius as “that adulterate beast”. The ghost also says, “ Claudius won to his shameful lust my most seeming virtuous queen. Gertrude’s infidelity displays her shallow character.
We see a poor reflection of Gertrude when she is insensitive to Hamlet’s grief.
Gertrude’s hasty marriage is the cause of her son’s deepest anguish. She displays insensitivity by asking Hamlet to set aside his mourning, “ Good Hamlet cast thy nighted colour off”. She is only concerned about Hamlet getting along with his new step-father. Her insensitivity shows her lack of strength and morals. Her lack of good qualities shows weakness.
Gertrude seems to possess some redeeming quality. Despite her failings, she remains loyal to Hamlet.
Gertrude is Hamlet’s shield. She protects him as a hawk would protect its babies. If Gertrude was not Hamlet’s mother or of royalty, than Hamlet would be dead. Laertes and Claudius are having a private discussion when Laertes asks why he has not murdered Hamlet yet, Claudius answers “The queen his mother lives almost by his looks; and for myself—my virtue or my plague, be it either which—she’s so conjunctive to my life and soul”.
In act 3 scene 4, Hamlet confronts his mother. Gertrude is is brutally verbally assaulted, “What devil was’t that thus cozen’d you at hoodman-blind”. Gertrude pleads for her son to stop, she is unable to handle it all. “Oh Hamlet ! speak no more”. Hamlet tears apart his mother with extremely brutal words. However, at the end of the scene, Hamlet reveals to her the truth about his madness.” that I essentially am not in madness but mad in craft”. He asks her to not tell her husband, Claudius. Gertrude pledges loyalty to Hamlet. “Be thou assur’d, if words be made of breath and breath of life, I have no life to breathe what thou hast said to me”. Gertrude never reveals the secret of Hamlet’s
antic disposition. Here we see her loyalty to her son.
Another point in the play where we see Gertrude’s loyalty is when she tries to protect Hamlet from blame after he kills Polonius, even though Hamlet felt no remorse. “Thou wretched rash intruding fool, farewell”. Gertrude tries to protect Hamlet by attributing the killing to Hamlet’s madness. Her maternal instincts to protect her son displays her loyalty.
Gertrude’s loyalty can also be seen in the final scene of the play. She willfully disobeys Claudius by drinking the poisoned wine. She dies with cries of “the drink! the drink! I am poisoned”, and in so doing identifies Claudius as her killer. This, then, gives Hamlet the clarity of purpose, and the means and motive for revenge, which he has soliloquised over and struggled with throughout the play. In the final moments of her life, she performs an extraordinary act that gives Hamlet motive and cue for killing the King. Her willingness to defy Claudius in order to protect her son clearly shows her loyalty.
Both Ophelia and Gertrude play positions typical of women at the time: easily manipulated to the point where women become tools for men and tend to be weak in character. Both Ophelia and Gertrude were weak characters who were totally obedient to the males in the play, with Ophelia being totally controlled by her father and Gertrude being manipulated by her husband, Claudius. They show a lack of strength and are unable to be independent. Ophelia’s innocence help clearly portrays the dominant male society she lived in. Ophelia’s innocence and sensitivity clearly show the corruption of the world. She was manipulated and exploited by everyone in her life. Ophelia’s perfection also becomes her downfall, unfortunately, she has no “voice” nor does she seem to have any obvious heroine qualities.