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'Frailty Thy Name is Woman' How does Shakespeare present women and sex in Hamlet?

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Emma Porter                Hamlet Coursework


                AS Level English Literature

‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’ How does Shakespeare present women and sex in ‘Hamlet’?

At the beginning of Hamlet,  Hamlet is reprimanded by Claudius because of grieving for his father, King Hamlet. Claudius calls Hamlet unmanly ‘Of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief.’ Claudius’ use of the word ‘Unmanly’ suggests Hamlet is frail like a woman, this shows in Hamlet not just women are weak in this play but men also display forms of frailty. Claudius’ use of the word ‘unmanly’ surely suggests Hamlet is feminine, and if Hamlet is feminine surely as a man, that also makes him weak. The phrase ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ appears in Hamlet’s first soliloquy. Here Hamlet condemns Gertrude, his mother, for having a swift remarriage to his uncle, Claudius. In ‘Hamlet’ Shakespeare presents women as the weaker sex, used for the purpose of men’s satisfaction sexually. For a woman to consider, or commit a sexual deed, it is seen as corruption. Today, a modern audience may see Hamlet’s, Polonius’ and Laertes’ actions toward Gertrude and Ophelia as a form of sexual abuse. Women were the victims of a Patriarchal society, corrupted by sex and hated by misogynistic men. Patriarchy describes a social structure where the behaviour and ideas of men and boys are overriding over those of women and girls. This situation of male authority is reflected in correlative unfairness throughout the society and in the play ‘Hamlet’. The Shakespearean era was a patriarchal society where women were seen as powerless to the extent that in the time that Shakespeare wrote his plays; women were not authorized to act on stage, which meant that boys were required to dress up as the female characters in plays. Frailty can be a condition of being frail, whether it is being mentally frail, physically or morally. ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ is a statement, which at the very least could infuriate a feminist critic who may view Shakespeare’s opinion of women misogynistic because he frequently displays women as being dependant on men.

Hamlet criticises his mother for incestuous relations with his uncle, Claudius. He says, ‘Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother.’ Hamlet believes his mother to be morally frail as she has an apparent refusal to control feelings to how a woman should be and has committed a sexual rebellion ‘Rebellious hell.’ Hamlet’s disgust towards his mother’s ‘incestuous’ relationship comes to a climax ‘Stew’d over corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty!’ Here, Hamlet refers his mother making love over a pig sty, once again referring to women as victims of sexual corruption and as dirty as pigs.

Hamlet stated ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ he refers to by his mother, Gertrude, being a woman, she displays moral frailty in being vulnerable to the act of seduction by Claudius. This provides the audience with a model of women's infidelity in Hamlet.  For Gertrude to give into this, Hamlet felt his mother was morally frail. An audience would believe Gertrude was frail to a degree from giving into her brother in law and accepting his hand in marriage. To a Shakespearean audience, Gertrude disobeys patriarchal boundaries by marrying her brother in law, so soon after her husband’s death would be frowned upon. Henry the VIII married his brothers widow, Catherine of Aragon, because this was frowned upon in the Tudor times, he used it as an excuse when he later wanted to divorce her. Hamlet says ‘But two months dead,’ the essential association of incestuous desire takes place between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, Hamlet appears fixated on the disgust of his mother’s sexual welfare with Claudius, from this Hamlet appears to become cynical about women in general and perceives a connection between the female sexuality and moral frailty. The concept of misogyny continues to occur throughout the play and is a significant constraint in Hamlet’s relationships with his mother and Ophelia. Hamlet also refers to his mother’s incestuous sexuality with Claudius in Act One Scene Two; Hamlet says ‘O most wicked speed! To post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!’ suggesting Gertrude moved into bed with Claudius too quickly. A theme of incest is repeated several times throughout the play and is frequently insinuated by Hamlet and the ghost, who says ‘So to seduce! – won to his shameful lust to the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.’ Referring to how Claudius won Gertrude over with his lustful charm.

Gertrude is the mouthpiece for the description of Ophelia’s death to Laertes and Claudius, at the end of Act four Scene seven. An audience may see by Gertrude being the representative for this description, as solidarity and uniting of women. She was ‘As one incapable of her own distress and indued unto that element.’  Her description is full of pathos, reflecting Ophelia’s innocence and beauty. Gertrude’s portrayal suggests Ophelia was one with nature and native to the water. This suggests her death could have been caused by physical frailty ‘incapable of her own distress’, Gertrude explains how Ophelia was ‘Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.’ Her ‘Melodious lay’ suggests to the reader, she was calm and at ease around the water. When Gertrude says ‘Her clothes spread wide, and awhile they bore her up,’ which shows the reader a powerful image of Ophelia struggling and drowning and eventually dying, it suggests due mourning over her father and the love of Hamlet, she became physically weak enough to let life defeat her therefore Ophelia is presented as a weak victim. If Ophelia’s death was suicide, it could suggest Ophelia was morally frail to want to take her own life, going against what was right. Today, a modern audience would look upon victims of suicide, supposedly Ophelia, with empathy for the desperation that must have preceded their demise. An Elizabethan audience however saw suicide to be such a hideous form of murder.

Ophelia in Act four Scene five says ‘We must be patient. But I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him I’th’ cold ground.’ Ophelia appears mad and weak over Hamlet’s misogyny, the death of her father and rejection of her. Ophelia goes into a double realm of remorse, believing herself to be to blame for both Hamlet's madness and her father's death.  Ophelia here is showing an appearance of being physically and mentally frail. Ophelia sings songs concerning chaos, death, and unrequited love. As she is singing Claudius and Queen both try to reason with her, but she replies only incomprehensibly. Claudius says ‘Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?’ Ophelia’s rogue line breaks of poetry, disrupts the prose of the other characters in the scene, the audience is distracted by Ophelia’s deep thoughts, emotions and feelings. By Ophelia doing this, we can link it to Shakespeare’s portrayal of women as mentally frail when around others, unable to hold a sentence or communicate.

Hamlet offers copious amounts of evidence to the audience of his madness; however there is a lack of evidence to Ophelia’s madness apart from the death of her father and rejection by Hamlet. The audience can see she displays a form of insanity in Act Four Scene Five. Ophelia shows a method to her madness in which she is suffering over the loss of her father, and all she can do after learning of the death of her father is sing. Ophelia also suffers the heartbreak of rejection by Hamlet which causes her to sing a happy love song, which therefore shows us there is more evidence in there being a method to her madness as she is singing over the love of Hamlet. Ophelia’s supposed madness shows method, which contradicts Hamlet’s argument ‘Frailty, thy name is woman,’ as there appears evidence to why women appear frail. The madness of the female mind is said to be caused by the women’s faults mentally, physically and morally.

In Act one scene three, Polonius says ‘Think yourself a baby that you have ta’en these tenders for true pay which are not sterling.’ Immediately, we recognise Polonius’ patronizing tone towards Ophelia; he talks in terms of money, as if she is something to be sold. Her weakness mentally may not be her fault as she is constantly undermined by her brother Laertes and Polonius ‘Pooh, you speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?’ Polonius criticises Ophelia for being inexperienced and naïve, giving the audience the impression she is victim of Polonius’ status above her. Ophelia uses ‘Tenders as an expression of love ‘He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me.’ However Polonius uses it meaning an offer to buy something which shows the audience, Polonius references Ophelia to that of a whore, corrupted by sex, shows us a reflection of Polonius’ ownership of Ophelia.

Ophelia replies to Polonius ‘I shall obey my lord.’ Ophelia responds as a victim of a patriarchal society, having no choice over her father’s opinions. This shows Ophelia is impressionable and not strong enough to disobey her father. By her quick and victimised reply, she appears rehearsed and trained into obeying her father. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia alternates between protests of eternal love and brutality such as his cruel and critical speech in the 'nunnery scene', it could be argued Hamlet uses Ophelia in his revenge plot instinctively because she is a woman, and because she is a woman he knows her as the weaker sex therefore easier to persuade, ‘To a nunnery, go – and quickly too.’ It appears it is not just the male sex who end up seeing women as lesser and as faulty beings, but after how they have been treated, also the women in ‘Hamlet’ resort to subordinating themselves to the men in the play like when Ophelia says ‘I shall obey my lord’ as they see it as right as it is how they are used to being treated and it is how they feel expected to respond.

Hamlet says to Ophelia in Act three Scene two, ‘That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs’ Hamlet is unreserved when showering Ophelia in sexual innuendoes, however Ophelia appears to understand him therefore showing depth to her character, ‘You are merry, my lord.’ which suggests to us maybe Ophelia was not as naïve and weak as we had previously thought in Act one Scene three. Ophelia, it would appear, entirely at the mercy of the male figures within her life, could be seen as a victim figure. Ophelia replies to Hamlet in short prose ‘Ay, my lord’. It appears she is denied a voice in her own defence or representation which coincides with the idea of being a victim of a patriarchal society. Within the patriarchal structure, women were forced to remain within the boundaries, including their compliance, reticence and chastity.

Both Ophelia and Gertrude’s reputations are questioned in ‘Hamlet’ which results in further discrimination. If either Gertrude or Ophelia mention any sexual desire, immediately it appears they become devalued, Polonius calls Ophelia a fool for a daughter for thinking expressions of love ‘You’ll tender me a fool.’ Polonius and Laertes, advise Ophelia to save her virginity as once she is ‘spoiled’ she would be worth nothing ‘Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain is with too credent ear you list his songs, or loose your heart, or your chaste treasure open to his unmastered importunity.’ Because of the commanding tone of her brother and father, Ophelia appears incapable to fully think for herself due to the governing temperament of Polonius and Laertes.This position Ophelia is put into enforces the purpose of the patriarchal structure in which women are bound to their submissive roles.

Female hysteria was once a frequent medical diagnosis which was made mostly in women. The source of the name Hysteria originally is from the Greek word for uterus, Hystera. Hysteria was an illness that was supposedly caused by sexual withdrawal in particularly passionate women and the illness was quite often seen supposedly in virgins, nuns, widows and occasionally married women.

The character of Hamlet supposedly goes mad due to the mental stress over his mother’s swift re-marriage and the apparitions of his father’s ghost. But throughout ‘Hamlet’ the women’s cause for madness are unremittingly associated with their bodies and their sexual desires, Laertes and Polonius regularly comments on Ophelia’s sexual wellbeing ‘the chariest maid is prodigal enough is she unmark her beauty to the moon.’ Suggesting, if she was to commit a sexual deed, she would become corrupt and dirty.

To conclude, both sexes in ‘Hamlet’ commit unorthodox deeds, suggesting moral frailty; Claudius shows moral frailty by murdering his brother for the crown of Denmark and Gertrude betrays Hamlet and her late husband by a quick ‘incestuous’ relationship with a relative. Both sexes in ‘Hamlet´ show a form of physical weakness, Ophelia suggests to an audience she was physically weak through drowning and Claudius suggest Hamlet is frail by appearing ‘unmanly’. Hamlet feigns madness to suggest to others around him of his mental instability and Ophelia is classed mad over the mourning of her father. Despite the female sex being classed as frail, in ‘Hamlet’ the women show hidden depths, Ophelia shows method to her madness, if she was mentally frail this wouldn’t be possible, Ophelia also understands what Hamlet is saying through his sexual innuendoes which suggests she was not as naïve as Polonius deemed her to ‘be you speak like a green girl.’ Gertrude also shows depth when she describes Ophelia’s death, Gertrude being the mouthpiece for the description of Ophelia’s death suggests solidarity between the women of the play.    The repeated use of the word ‘incest’ when used to describe Hamlet and the Ghost’s perception of Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius and the undermining of Ophelia’s knowledge by Polonius and Laertes, considers women as naïve and sexually disgusting which is a typical form of misogyny. It would appear there is no difference in frailty depending on the sex; both sexes experience the same bereavement when loosing a loved one therefore would seem madness in itself to class one sex frailer than the other. To an audience in the Shakespearean era, how the women of ‘Hamlet’ are treated, would be no different to how women were perceived due to the standards of the patriarchal society. However to a modern day female audience, the discrimination to women’s sexuality and mental state could be seen as somewhat offensive.


Hamlet Shakespeare – Oxford University Press – 1992

Wikipedia – www.wikipedia.com , Female Hysteria

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