Compare & Contrast The Way Women Are Portrayed In Hamlet, Wuthering Heights and A Dolls House.

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Abena Pascoe-Apaw

Unit 4: Extended Essay & Shakespeare Study

3,092 words.

Compare & Contrast The Way Women Are Portrayed In Hamlet & Other Chosen Texts

“[The play Hamlet has] relatively simplistic views of women as angels or whores.” -Thompson & Taylor

The play 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare is argued amongst academics to be one of the greatest playwrights in history. The play boasts themes such as passion, betrayal and revenge, but a central and important theme in the play is the way women are portrayed within Hamlet. The quote above is from critics Anne Thompson and Neil Taylor who reviewed the shifting critical attitudes to the female characters in Hamlet [1]. I disagree with these critics and this quote and believe that there is a lot to explore within the portrayal of women within Hamlet. Up until recent history, women have been seen as passive and obedient by a patriarchal society where men have the say in almost everything. Women had no voice and were seen as weak and submissive, which is shown in Hamlet and my other chosen texts, Wuthering Heights, a novel by Emily Bronte and A Doll’s House, a play by Henrick Ibsen. In all my chosen texts, women are the centre point of male emotions and play vital roles in the downfall of male characters. The women in Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude are shown in the lowest light which may be due to the time period it was written in, the Elizabethan era where women had no rights ad were see as objects rather than human beings. It may also be to the fact that many critics, such as Sharon Ouditt (1996) [2] see author Shakespeare as sexist, but whilst some academics argue that he was not, some argue that the society in a whole showed misogyny. Similarly, the main female characters in Wuthering Heights, Catherine, Isabella and young Cathy are all viewed differently but overall are seen as dependent on males and at the mercy of Heathcliff whether it is physically or emotionally. In A Doll’s House, women are seen in a stronger light than the other texts; however, some people may suggest that Ibsen shows women as less important than men as they have to sacrifice their integrity within the play.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the women as tools and to emphasise key themes such as betrayal, revenge and also to enable the audience to gain a deeper understanding of how the male characters view women and how they are used as a dramatic devices in order to contribute and highlight main themes in the play. Shakespeare uses Gertrude and Ophelia as tools to the main character, Hamlet, which highlights the two females as objects implicitly through form as well as explicitly, as shown in their characters. Ophelia is manipulated by her father Polonius and also King Claudius for their own gain when they ask Ophelia to spy on Hamlet for them,   ‘Ophelia is a card that can be played to take several sorts of tricks’ Gertrude, Hamlets mother is also used as a tool to highlight the betrayal Claudius had for Hamlets father, King Hamlet. The fact that his deceased brother has only been dead two weeks, and he takes his wife really shows the fact that Claudius was more than capable of killing King Hamlet and is using Gertrude to show off his new found power as King. Women are also not seen as the object of love in Hamlet. This idea of women being tools is also the similar in Wuthering Heights and A Doll’s House. In Wuthering Heights, Isabella is used as a tool by Heathcliff to get back at Edgar by marrying her, even though he did not love or even like her, which is similar to Gertrude and Claudius' situation, although in Hamlet it is not clear as it is in Wuthering Heights. In A Doll’s House, Nora is also used a tool by Mr Krogstav, who blackmails her into helping him keep her job. Christine, Nora’s old school friend is also used as a tool to show how Nora’s façade towards her husband. The fact that Nora portrays herself as an ignorant little girl to her husband, and then a well-spoken woman to Christine shows the audience how Nora really is.

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Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, eds. 2006:  Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare. 3rd Series. London: Thomson Learning.

“Explaining Woman's Frailty: Feminist Readings of Gertrude,” in Hamlet, edited by Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood, Open University Press, 1996, pp. 83-107.

The sexuality of female characters in Hamlet is a favoured topic amongst critics, especially feminist ones. Feminist critic Valerie Traub explores the sexuality in Hamlet stating the following “in this vile and seductive garden, sexually threatening women poison vulnerable and unwitting men” [3] which I believe to be sarcasm as the male characters in Hamlet are seen to be far more dominant over the female characters, however, ...

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