“Frailty, thy name is woman?”

When writing my blogs, I usually stay away from the topic of gender roles, either because it doesn’t interest me, or because I find it more interesting to merely sit back and listen to others’ discussions of the subject. However, the first act of Hamlet particularly intrigued my interest in the topic because it seems such a departure from the norm for Shakespeare. Within even the first act of the other plays we’ve read, we’ve seen examples of typical Elizabethan era female stereotypes, and the subtle twists Shakespeare includes to contradict them. For instance, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and The Tempest, Shakespeare presents us with women who are bold and courageous enough to defy their fathers in regards to finding their own happiness. In Twelfth Night and Richard III, this undermining of stereotypes is even more apparent as we are presented with strong-willed characters such as Olivia, Maria, and Viola, or Lady Anne and Queen Margaret, who use sharp language and engage in practices that would be considered shocking for women of the period. However, within the first act of Hamlet, I was surprised to find two female characters we have been introduced to thus far—indeed, I believe the only female characters in the play—to be sadly lacking in the wit and wisdom displayed by their predecessors of this semester.

Queen Gertrude receives the most allegations in Act I, and it is difficult to tell if any of them are true or not, or the extent to which they might be true. However, a good part of the reason for this is that Gertrude hardly gets to speak! Upon her first entrance into the play, Claudius gives his version of their marriage story in his lengthy speech: “…our sometime sister, now our queen,/Th’imperial jointress of  this warlike state,/Have we…With one auspicious and one dropping eye,/With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,/In equal scale weighing delight and dole,/Taken to wife” (1.2.8—14). Claudius describes his own feelings upon the marriage, but we are given no hint of Gertrude’s. Likewise, Claudius is the first to address Hamlet—who is actually a closer relative to Gertrude than he is to Claudius—and he even cuts off Gertrude from replying to her son. Hamlet clearly addresses Gertrude in two speeches (“Seems, madam?” (1.2.76) and “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” (1.2.120)), but each time, Claudius jumps in and pronounces “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, /To give these mourning duties to your father” (1.2.87) and “Why, ‘tis a loving and fair reply” (1.2.121) despite the fact that he was not the party addressed. The comments that Gertrude does manage to insert are both brief (she speaks only 10 lines) and merely echoes of Claudius’s position.

Ophelia, though she gets more lines than Gertrude, is subjected to a similar treatment. It is from her brother, Laertes, instead of Ophelia herself, that we first learn of her budding possible romance with Hamlet, and both Laertes and Polonius lecture her lengthily on the dangers of it, as well as her inability to handle the situation: “The chariest maid is prodigal enough/If she unmask her beauty to the moon” (1.3.36—37) and “You do not understand yourself so clearly/As it behoves my daughter and your honour” (1.3.96—97).

I think there is slightly more spirit shown in Ophelia, made apparent by the fact that she gets exactly twice as many lines as Gertrude, as well as what she says in those lines (i.e. her witty comeback to Laertes that he should practice what he preaches (1.3.46—51) and her beginning of a protest her father’s invectives (1.3.110—111 and 113—114)),  but the thing that struck me most about these depictions of Gertrude and Ophelia is that they are spoken to, spoken about, and spoken for, more than they ever speak themselves. How do we know how Gertrude really feels about Claudius and what he’s done? How do we know she didn’t marry him and back him up because she was afraid, and wanted to protect her life? How do we know that Ophelia won’t be able to navigate the world of romance, if she isn’t given the chance to try? Since, in Shakespeare’s time, all the women’s roles were played by men, I can’t help but wonder if seeing men in these roles helped the audience to view things in a new light. Perhaps men appearing weak and powerless in these roles helped them to see that women appeared just as weak and powerless when given those roles in real life.


One thought on ““Frailty, thy name is woman?”

  1. taylordomenick

    For some reason, I frequently find myself considering gender roles when I’m reading Shakespeare for this class. For me as well, gender roles were never really something I was interested in. However, thinking about them in the way that Shakespeare poses them has been thought provoking for me. When you ask the question, “How do we know she [Gertrude] didn’t marry him and back him up because she was afraid, and wanted to protect her life?” I can’t help but think back to Lady Anne in Richard III. Much like Lady Anne, Gertrude may not have even wanted to marry Claudius. She could have done it out of fear of losing her title and status. I think the fact that this is a second occurrence in the few plays the we have read so far says something about how women must do anything they can in order to have power that is similar to that of a man’s (even if it means marrying your brother-in-law or the man who killed your previous husband).


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