Study Guide

Hamlet Gender

By William Shakespeare

Gender

Act I, Scene ii
Claudius

KING
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,
   Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father.
[…] but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled:
(1.2.90-92; 96-101)

Translation: stop acting so ridiculous about your dead dad. According to King Claudius, Hamlet's excessive grief for his father is "unmanly." Why? Bereavement, says Hamlet's new stepdad/uncle, makes him appear weak, unreasonable, and without discipline —all things associated, in Claudius' mind, with women. Gee, with a role model like this, it's no wonder Hamlet's so messed up.

Hamlet

HAMLET
That it should come to this:
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was, to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth.
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on. And yet, within a month
(Let me not think on 't; frailty, thy name is woman!)
(1.2.141-150)

Hamlet may start with his mom, but he ends with all women. He's disgusted by his mother's sexual "appetite," and blames that for her treacherous remarriage. Ergo, somehow, all women are "frail." He doesn't say "Frailty, thy name is Gertrude!"; he says, "Frailty, thy name is woman."

Act I, Scene iii
Polonius

LORD POLONIUS
[…]From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence.
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley. For Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him, that he is young,
And with a larger tether may he walk
Than may be given you. In few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds
The better to beguile. This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to 't, I charge you. Come your ways.
OPHELIA
I shall obey, my lord.
(1.3.129-145)

After a lengthy speech about why Ophelia can't trust anything Hamlet says or promises (including any and all "vows" of love), Polonius orders Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet. As an unmarried daughter, Ophelia has no choice but to "obey," and she does. We soon learn that Ophelia rejects all of Hamlet's letters and refuses to see him—until she gets used as bait to spy on Hamlet. Essentially, Ophelia is powerless —over her own body, over her relationships, over her activities, and even over her speech. It's no wonder that she cracks.

Ophelia

OPHELIA
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
(1.3.49-55)

After Laertes warns his little sister to keep her legs closed, Ophelia points out the double standard at work in Laertes's advise. In other words, our girl's not afraid to tell her bro that he's got no room to talk about chastity, especially given that he's been running around like a "puff'd and reckless libertine." Ophelia's remarks here also demonstrate that she's not necessarily the wimp some literary critics paint her to be. Here, she gives as good as she gets. So, why does she end up drowning in a brook?

Laertes

LAERTES
[…] Then, if he says he loves
   you,
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed, which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.
Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
(1.3.27-39)

Laertes tells her to guard her "chaste treasure" —not because he's interested in chastity as a moral issue (this isn't about Promise Keepers), but because he believes Ophelia's virginity is literally valuable. It'll determine what kind of marriage offers she'll get, and what kind of family she—and he—can align themselves with.

History Snack: In Shakespeare's day, there were plenty of handbooks on this matter, including Juan Vives's Education of a Christian Woman, which says a maid "hath within her a treasure without comparison." (Vives's handbook was translated from Latin and published in English in 1592.) Another handbook called A Godly Form of Household Government (1603) says that a woman's virginity is "the best portion, the greatest inheritance, and the most precious jewel" of her dowry. Why all this talk of treasure? Well, in the 16th and 17th centuries, eldest sons inherited all their fathers' wealth, titles, and lands (this is called "Primogeniture"). Marrying a virgin insured (theoretically) that a man's children were legitimate and that the family wealth could be passed on from generation to generation. So, literally, marrying a virgin was like insuring your fortune: just good business.

Act II, Scene ii
Hamlet

HAMLET
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A stallion!
(2.2.611-616)

Hamlet seems to think that not avenging his father's murder makes him a coward and, therefore, like a woman—and not a nice, respectable woman: a "whore," a "drab," and a "scullion." Nice.

Act III, Scene i
Hamlet

HAMLET
I have heard of your paintings too, well
enough. God has given you one face, and you
make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and
you lisp; and nickname God's creatures and make
your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no
more on 't. It hath made me mad. I say, we will have
no more marriages. Those that are married already,
all but one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are.
To a nunnery, go.
(3.1.154-162)

Here, Hamlet uses the artificiality of cosmetics ("paintings") as an analogy for women's deception. Hamlet says fake behavior (playing dumb, walking, talking, and dancing in an affected way) is like makeup that covers a "face" —it makes a woman appear to be something she's not. In other words, Hamlet agrees with decades of teen magazine advice: just be yourself, girls! (Only, something tells us that Hamlet wouldn't actually dig that.)

HAMLET
If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague
for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry,
marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what
monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and
quickly too. Farewell.
(3.1.146-152)

This is seriously mean. Here, Hamlet tells Ophelia that women make husbands into "monsters," which is allusion to the idea that cuckolds (men whose wives cheated on them) grew horns. In other words, he assumes that all women are unfaithful and all wives cheat, which is why he orders Ophelia to a "nunnery" (a convent for unmarried women but also a slang term for "brothel"). But why does he flip out like this? Does Hamlet know that Claudius and Polonius are using Ophelia as bait to eavesdrop? If so, does he view Ophelia's participation as a betrayal? Does Ophelia's seeming betrayal remind Hamlet of his mother's betrayal of his father?

Act IV, Scene v
Ophelia

OPHELIA
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
   Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do 't, if they come to 't;
   By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me,
   You promised me to wed.'
So would I 'a done, by yonder sun,
   An thou hadst not come to my bed.
(4.5.63-71)

We'll let literary critic Carol Thomas Neely handle this one: when Ophelia goes mad, her disturbed language sounds a lot like patriarchal oppression (the oppression of women by men) (source). Take this son: it's about the loss of a maiden's virginity (she's "tumbled") and a broken promise of marriage. Just like girls in almost any historical era, she's stuck: if she doesn't have sex with the guy, he'll dump her for being a prude; if she does, he'll dump her for being—well, not a prude.

Act IV, Scene vii
Laertes

LAERTES
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears. But yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,
The woman will be out.—Adieu, my lord.
I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze,
But that this folly drowns it.
(4.7.211-217)

When Laertes learns that Ophelia has drowned, he associates his watery tears with the "too much water" Ophelia has inside her. But grief doesn't appear to be very manly —he says that as soon as his tears dry up "the woman will be out" of him. Does that mean Hamlet has been acting like a woman this whole play? And is that maybe one reason he seems to have such a bee in his bonnet about them?