The Hamlet Site
[The essay below, posted here with permission of the student, refines the thesis question to show how the women inspire change without actively causing change during the play.]
When reading the play Hamlet, it sometimes seems that everything occurs because of a woman. However, there is a problem with that assumption: the women are a little too passive to cause anything. Certainly, the men’s feelings towards the women shape the events of the play, but that’s not exactly because of the women. Instead, it’s the basic relationships between the men and women, the relationships of husband and wife, of brother and sister, father and daughter, and especially mother and son, that are pivotal to the tragedies that occur.
The first relationship that affects the play is that of Gertrude and Hamlet’s father. The strengths and weaknesses in this relationship are the first cause of drama in this story. There is subtle evidence that Gertrude and the king did care greatly for each other – or at least he cared for her. Even his ghost tells Hamlet “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught” (233). However, the weakness in the relationship may be the downfall of everyone. Her quick marriage seems to cause more anger in Hamlet and his father than the actual murder.
Actually, Gertrude’s “o’erhasty marriage” (242) seems to be the catalyst for every thing. It enrages the ghost of the king, and influences Hamlet’s apparent low opinion of women, his mother in particular. It is never stated or implied in the play, but it stands to reason that there was some sort of intrigue between Gertrude and Claudius before the murder, and even that she may have been the thing that pushed Claudius to murder his brother. After the marriage, she and Claudius seemed to be very united and happy together. Whether or not she knew about the murder is debatable, but in my opinion doubtful. Deep in her mind, she may have had suspicions, but it seems she would have been more afraid for her son if she had really known for sure. Her reaction, upon learning the truth, is to say “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct” (278).
Of course, Gertrude is not the only woman pivotal to the play. Ophelia’s effect on the events is much more subtle, but most definitely there. Her relationship with Hamlet is tainted not only by her father and brother’s disapproval, but Hamlet’s low opinion of women (a result of his mother’s actions). As sweet and innocent as her and Hamlet’s seem in the beginning, she is close enough to her brother and father to listen to them when they advise her to stay away from him and deny his advances. Also, when her father wants her to deceive Hamlet by letting Claudius and himself listen in on her conversation with him, she readily agrees.
This shows the complexity of Ophelia – as weak and malleable as the women in Hamlet seem, her relationships with these men are so powerful that they influence the course of the entire play. Her spoiled courtship with Hamlet comes to a head not because of her betrayal, but with Hamlet’s murder of her father. The combined stress of Hamlet’s distance and her father’s death is what causes her drowning: interestingly enough, the relationship between Ophelia and Laertes, her brother, seems to have the most effect on the outcome of the play. His anger and grief at her death is what causes him to take up the poisoned sword against Hamlet. While Ophelia doesn’t act much in the play, the feelings that tie her to Hamlet, Laertes, and Polonius shape the tragedy. They are all connected to Ophelia by love, and when she dies, everything falls apart.
The play Hamlet depends on the relationships between the men and the women, however, none is as strong and destructive as the relationship between mother and son. Despite Gertrude’s union with Claudius, in the end, her bond with her son proves stronger. She accepts Hamlet’s murder of Polonius. She takes her lead from him when confronts her about Claudius, asking “what shall I do?” (280). He is the only one from whom she will accept the truth about her husband.
In the play, Shakespeare makes it an accident that she drinks the poisoned wine intended for Hamlet – but this action fits in well with his portrayal of the most primed relationship between human beings, of a mother protecting, and even giving up, her life for her child. Hamlet certainly has mixed emotions when it comes to Gertrude – he feels love, but also anger, contempt, and regret. Her marriage with his murderous uncle Claudius wounds him, and motivates his rage toward Claudius more than his father’s death does. Despite his anger, he tries to save Gertrude, even to forgive her, so long as she doesn’t “let the bloat king tempt you again to bed, pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse, and let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, or paddling in your neck with his damn’d fingers, make you to ravel all this matter out” (281). And because of him, she is at least pacified, or even set against her husband . In the bitter end, when her husband is set against her son, she calls out against Claudius to Hamlet, crying ”the drink, the drink! I am poison’d” (318).
In the play, Hamlet can’t bring himself to kill Claudius while he is praying, or even after his mock play, but then his mother lay dying, and he finally finds it within him to strike down his enemy. His mother’s poisoning not only drives Hamlet to stab Claudius, but also forces on him the poisoned drink, urging him to “follow my mother”(318).
The tragedy of Hamlet doesn’t depend merely on the women. Gertrude and Ophelia don’t guide the movement of the play. But Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius and her former husband and Ophelia’s relationship Laertes and Polonius, and both of their relationships with Hamlet, cause everything that happens. This is a play of relationships – of husband and wife, of brother and sister, of father and daughter, and mother and son. The power of the tragedy is that it strikes on the feelings and connections that all people are familiar with and can relate to.
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