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Examine how Shakespeare explores the role of women in Hamlet. What might the response of a modern audience be to this aspect of the play?

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Introduction

AS English Literature Coursework: Examine how Shakespeare explores the role of women in Hamlet. What might the response of a modern audience be to this aspect of the play? Gertrude and Ophelia, the only two women in Hamlet, reflect the general status of women in Elizabethan Times. Women were suppressed by the males in their lives (brothers, fathers, and partners) and were always inferior. Ophelia and Gertrude have little or no power due to restricted legal, social and economic rights that were found in Elizabethan society. The male characters in Hamlet reflect this sexist view point, represented by Hamlet's judgement that "frailty, thy name is woman". This view was not uncommon in Shakespeare's time and heavily influenced Shakespeare to present women the way he does in Hamlet. In a critical essay, Judith Cook1 noted that in many of Shakespeare's plays major women characters 'die because of direct association with the fate of a tragic hero'. This could be seen as Shakespeare trying to convey women's fate being a 'by-product' of the fate of men- men are superior. On the other hand, Ophelia is crucial in understanding Hamlet as a character and gives an insight into different motifs of the play. ...read more.

Middle

Shakespeare, again, takes a sexist attitude to something Ophelia does. Showalter also suggested that 'Ophelia represents the strong emotions that the Elizabethans as well as the Freudians thought womanish and unmanly". Women were seen as weak and frail. Cook said 'Ophelia is not guilty of showing a dangerously strong mind of her own' and 'her own personal tragedy is that she has insufficient strength to sustain her after Hamlet's inexplicably harsh treatment and her father's murder'. Shakespeare explores Ophelia's weak-mindedness through her lack of control and ability to stand up for herself. Since the rise of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s the interpretation of Ophelia's madness has changed. It is now viewed by some as a rebellion to her oppression and is seen as the exact opposite of the weak-mindedness we had seen in Ophelia before. Some feminists view Ophelia as a heroine, "a powerful figure who rebels against the family and the social disorder". Ophelia's madness empowers her by enabling her to go against the social constraints she would have experienced and she was able to regain the freedom she had lost, or arguably never had, to the men in her life. ...read more.

Conclusion

However, the fact that most women roles were played by boys in Shakespearian times is overlooked. This limited the experience and range of talent the actors had and, therefore, Shakespeare would have had to restrict the roles women had in his plays to enable boy actors to play them. Word Count: 1786 1 Judith Cook, 'Women in Shakespeare', Harrap Ltd. 1980, Page 101 2 Jacques Lacan (1982) 'Desire and the interpretation of desire in Hamlet' in 'Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise' Shoshana Felman (ed) (Baltimore 1982) in Elaine Showalter 'Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilites of Feminist Criticism' page 113 in Martine Coyle (ed) 'New Case Books: Contemporary Critical Essays" (C Palgrave 1992) 3 Elaine Showalter 'Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilites of Feminist Criticism' page 114 in Martine Coyle (ed) 'New Case Books: Contemporary Critical Essays" (C Palgrave 1992) 4 Vieda Skultans, 'English Madness: Ideas on Insanity 1580-1890' (London, 1997) in Elaine Showalter 'Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilites of Feminist Criticism' page 118 in Martine Coyle (ed) 'New Case Books: Contemporary Critical Essays" (C Palgrave 1992) 5 Rebecca Smith, 'A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude' page 82 in Martine Coyle (ed) 'New Case Books: Contemporary Critical Essays" (C Palgrave 1992) ?? ?? ?? ?? Charis Trehearn 12Toii 1 ...read more.

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