Women were unique in Shakespearean plays as they were not capable of being casts as women during this time period. The roles were rarely leading roles as they were played by men portraying women per the social norms of the times. When Shakespeare chose female roles, he was careful to put as much into one particular character as possible to avoid the necessity of multiple female characters. For example, there were only two primary female characters within the play. These were Gertrude and Ophelia. Although each signified various female roles, Gertrude was used to show a much wider span of female roles both in the play and as viewed within society. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, this author chooses to explore the various roles that can be examined in the primary character of Gertrude, the mother of the protagonist, Hamlet. In William Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Gertrude represents the female roles of lustfulness, weakness, and maternal loyalty.
Gertrude, the mother of Hamlet, shows the role of lustfulness in that she seduces Claudius the uncle of Hamlet, “Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven, So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d, O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power So to seduce!–won to his shameful lust The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen: O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!” (1.5). Hamlet’s father appeared as a ghost and told Hamlet of the event that took place. Hamlet was still mourning the death of his father and felt it to be lustful on his mother’s and uncle’s part. Hamlet spoke his peace about this to his mother, “Will sate itself in a celestial bed, And prey on garbage” (1.5). Hamlet is raged over his uncle marrying his mother. These scenes represent women as being lustful and a mere object of sexual desire. This was representative of the era which was viewed through the manner that women were not to even be cast in the plays. Women were objects, rather than individuals. Portraying Gertrude as an object of lust and sexual desire justifies, or mocks, the social norms of the era.
The weakness of Gertrude is within her reach in that she needed another husband to fill the place of her dead one. Hamlet ask, “Why are you here, Horatio? Horatio replied, “My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral. Hamlet said, “I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student; I think it was to see my mother’s wedding” (1.2). When Gertrude married Claudius, the brother of her dead husband, King Hamlet, it is not sure if she knew that he killed Hamlet or not. Hamlet, the dead father of Gertrude’s son Hamlet appeared as a ghost and spoke this to Hamlet. The weakness of Gertrude wanting to remarry so soon may have blinded her from this awful murder. The weakness was also shown because Gertrude could not see that Claudius was after money and power. This was typical during the Shakespearean era. Women were dependent on their husbands for status and protection. This showed that women were too weak to be on their own and therefore would take a husband despite what they may have done or intend to do.
Gertrude’s maternal loyalty out shines all of her roles when Hamlet was going to drink the poison. Hamlet, being told by his father’s ghost to revenge his murder, started plotting how to carry out these wishes. He confronted his mother and accidently killed Polonius’s thinking him to be Claudius. Claudius plans an act upon which Laertes was to sword fight with Hamlet. Laertes is putting poison on both swords, and a drink of poison is to be made also in case Hamlet wins. “Or with a little shuffling, you may choose A sword unbated, and in a pass of practise Requite him for your father.” “I will do’t: And, for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword.”(4.7). Knowing that her son is in danger, Gertrude made the ultimate sacrifice. Gertrude shows her maternal love when she starts to drink the poison even after Claudius told her it was poison. This was a typical female role in the era whereas the women were considered to be the primary caregivers and nurturers for the children. Bearing and raising children was their true claim to the Shakespearean society. To outlive their own child, when they could take their place instead, would be neglectful of this role.
William Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, portrayed typical roles of women in an era where women were not able to portray themselves on the stage. He encompassed as many typical roles within one female character as possible to exaggerate these roles. For this purpose, Shakespeare used the character of Gertrude as her involvement in numerous relationships offered him the ability to show many sides of the female character. By showing multiple roles within one female character, Shakespeare was able to show the extremities of these gender roles to be widely varying. For example, Gertrude’s lustfulness show that men view women as an object of sexual desire. Her need to take a husband immediately after her husband’s death shows that women were considered to be weak and needy. However, despite their shortcomings, Gertrude’s willingness to die in the place of her son shows that women were respected in their role of maternal loyalty. After all, no greater role could be played than that of a loyal mother.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 1999. Web. 21 Sept 2015.