In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the two main female characters, Gertrude and Ophelia, are portrayed as weak and irresolute women. However, one is forced to ask whether these women are as weak as they seem, or whether they are subordinated by their male counterparts and unable to break free of their stereotype. The gendered relationships in Hamlet impact the plot in that the unbalanced distribution of power leads the women into un-winnable situations. If Gertrude and Ophelia were stronger individuals, the likelihood of them encountering such situations would be decreased, as they would not be subordinated by the men. Their relationships with the men, particularly Polonius and Hamlet, demonstrate that the treatment of women as less-significant individuals is a serious and prevalent issue within the society of the play. This type of gendered relationships affects each character as an individual, and also the plot of the play as a whole.
Though ostensibly Ophelia and Polonius’s relationship is just a father/daughter interaction, it is actually a prime example of female subordination. After Ophelia tells her father of Hamlet’s odd behavior towards her, Polonius simply responds:
“That hath made him mad.
I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him. I fear’d he did but trifle
And meant to wrack thee. But beshrew my jealousy!” (II, i, 111-114)
This demonstrates Polonius’s complete control over Ophelia; he even feels as though her actions are his own. He realizes that she acts precisely how he instructs her to act, and capitalizes on this sad reality. Ophelia, meanwhile, knows that her father governs her behavior, but is not strong enough to confront her father and be and independent person. This affects Ophelia understandably, but it also affects her father: because he is so convinced that he is capable of handling his daughter’s life, he fails to realize that Hamlet may have an alternate agenda, thus playing into Hamlet’s scheme. Indirectly, Polonius’s control over Ophelia also affects Hamlet as well. Though Hamlet’s sanity is debatable, it seems as though his spurned relationship with Ophelia drives him to kill. If he were satisfied with at least one major aspect of his life, perhaps he would have stopped short of absolute revenge.
Despite Polonius’s best efforts to keep his daughter away from Hamlet, the prince still manages to gain control over Ophelia. Though never specifically explicated, Ophelia and Hamlet’s sexual relationship is strongly implied. Throughout the play, he uses subtle innuendos such as, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” (III, ii, 108) to remind her that he has control in their relationship; in the society of the play, it would be considered much worse to have intercourse out of wedlock for a woman than for a man (yet another gender stereotype). When she confronts his innuendo, Hamlet laughs off her remarks, saying, “Do you think I meant country matters?” to which Ophelia replies, “I think nothing, my lord,” (III, ii, 112-113). This shows Ophelia’s willingness to submit to Hamlet. She realizes that she is not in a position to contradict the prince due to the potential for damage to her reputation if their relationship became public, so she allows Hamlet to behave in an impolite manner. Another example of Hamlet’s control over Ophelia is when Hamlet says to her, “Get thee to a nunnery. Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (III, i, 121-122). While possible that Hamlet is encouraging her to live a life of celibacy, it is more likely that he is suggesting that she associate with people like her – in a brothel. Hamlet’s blatantly rude remark bewilders Ophelia, but she does not seem as shocked as would be expected, implying that their relationship tends toward this track of subordination.
Perhaps the most interesting relationship of all, though, is the relationship between Queen Gertrude and her husband’s advisor Polonius. Gertrude is technically above Polonius socially, yet he still manages to control her, both directly and indirectly through Claudius. Because the king trusts Polonius, he is willing to take his words at face value, and pass them on to Gertrude. Claudius says, “[Polonius] tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found \ The head and source of all your son’s distemper,” (II, ii, 54-55). Gertrude objects, saying, “I doubt it is no other but the main, \ His father’s death and our o’er-hasty marriage,” (II, ii, 56-57). Though Gertrude is almost certainly right about the cause of her son’s supposed madness, Claudius disregards her view in favor of the less reliable (but decidedly more masculine) opinion of Polonius. Though it would be unacceptable for Polonius to contradict the queen directly because he is of a lower social standing, he still manages to control her by controlling the ear of her husband. In addition to his indirect control, he also realizes that she will do his bidding, and abuses this in an attempt to garner information against Hamlet. He says,
“’A will come straight. Look you lay home to him,
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with
And that your Grace hath screen’d and stood between
Much heat and him. I’ll silence me even here.
Pray you be round,” (III, iv, 1-5).
Although Hamlet proves too cunning and Polonius pays for his plot with his life, if the prince had not been inclined to murder it is likely that Polonius would have gathered the information he needed in order to send Hamlet out of Denmark forever. Therefore, Gertrude is a tool for Polonius, a means to an end, even though she is above him in the social hierarchy. If it were not for her gender, Polonius would not be able to manipulate the queen in this manner.
The lack of power of the female characters is primarily due to subordination by their male counterparts, but their lack of strength must not be ignored. If Gertrude and Ophelia were stronger individuals, they would not be forced into submission by the men, but rather would be able to defend themselves. The male characters in the play compel Ophelia and Gertrude into a lower position because they are not able to assert themselves. So, while the lack of feminine authority partially the fault of the men, the women must take part of the responsibility as well. Until Gertrude and Ophelia can assert themselves and break their gendered stereotype, and until Hamlet and Polonius learn to encourage strength instead of preying on weakness, absolute equality will never be achieved. Both genders will have to change in order to attain balance between masculine and feminine power.