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Frailty thy name is Woman, in relation to Hamlet
Hamlet’s bitter generalisation:
“Frailty thy name is woman”
has aroused much interest from critics, particularly those who take a feminist approach to the play. The accuracy of his comment must be examined to understand how vindicated he is - whether his prejudice against women is warranted or not affects our opinion of his treatment of female characters in the play. In general, women are shown as weak in Shakespeare - in Macbeth for instance; Lady Macbeth goes mad after taking on a man’s burden (killing). In the play therefore, the female characters conform to this ideal. The typical Tudor or Stuart woman had very little freedom in society. John Knox, in a book of 1558, announced “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man.”(1) Their standing was such that their only use was considered to be the production of heirs to the family line. Most of this strictness was due to the influence of the church; it maintained that women were the servants of the devil and that they were cursed due to Eve’s original sin. This attitude helped to shape Shakespeare’s portrayal of women in his plays; as a result there were no actresses in Shakespearean theatre; child actors and men in drag were used instead. Hamlet’s views therefore, reflect contemporary feeling, and it would be sensible to observe that Hamlet’s statement is Shakespeare’s way of respecting the Church’s views. It seems that this quote is a reference to the Church’s belief at the time that women were God’s only imperfection. We must therefore consider the actions and portrayal of women in Hamlet and compare them to this standard, whilst examining their role as a recurring weakness throughout the play. The quote:
“frailty thy name is woman”
is found in 1.2.145/6 (Act, Scene, Line) and is directed at Gertrude, voicing Hamlet’s disgust at his mother’s remarriage soon after his father’s death, whom he compares to Claudius as like:
“Hyperion to a satyr” (1.2.140).
However, the description is equally applicable to Ophelia, who seems to embody all of the ideals that Shakespeare is reflecting in his comment. Her reaction to power, particularly Hamlet, but also Claudius, is one of complete obedience and respect. Her father also indulges in manipulation, as shown in 2.1.109/110 with Ophelia’s reply:
“As you did command, I did repel his letters, and denied his access to me.”
Ophelia’s intelligence is also called into question as we observe with her confusion with Hamlet during the Mouse-trap (3.2.113-118):
HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap? OPHELIA: No my lord. HAMLET: I mean my head upon your lap. OPHELIA: Ay my lord HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters? OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.
Her behaviour is definitely portrayed as weak; she responds to Hamlet’s love:
“he hath importuned me with love in honourable fashion” (1.3.110/111)
even though she knows that royal marriages are arranged political alliances, and commits suicide after being driven mad. This illustrates her lack of strength, best summed up by her response to Polonius’ advice in 1.3.136:
“I shall obey my lord.”
Gertrude is also shown as weak, although far more scheming than Ophelia. She provides the weak link between the old and new regimes - the connection is tenuous as Gertrude’s changing loyalties show; this is Shakespeare’s example of the frailty of a woman. Her subservience to Hamlet shows her weakness; she is lambasted by Hamlet in the closet scene, changing her angle from:
“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended” (3.4.9)
to a meek:
“What shall I do?” (3.4.182).
Her pliability and loyalties are shown by this scene; we see her switch alliance from Claudius to Hamlet.
“Frailty thy name is woman”
illustrates the fragility of Shakespearean female characters; it requires little to tempt them into a change of opinion, like the snake in the Garden of Eden - the ease with which they can be converted shows a female Achilles heel. Finally, Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death:
“Her clothes spread wide…they bore her up…she chanted snatches of old tunes” (4.7.177-179)
conjure an image of a vulnerable woman who dies a tragic death. Other characters show the futility of their female counterparts. Polonius’ reference to Ophelia and currency demonstrates this:
“You have ta’en these tenders for true pay which are not sterling” (1.3.106) and “Set your entreatments at a higher rate” (1.3.122).
He also uses her as a spy on Hamlet so the King can observe them. Laertes treats Ophelia in simple terms, presuming she lacks the intelligence to understand him; this lack of respect is compounded after her death, where Hamlet and Laertes argue over who had loved her more. Hamlet says:
“forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum” (5.1.271-273)
even though he rejected her love. Hamlet holds himself in higher stead than Gertrude as he acts like her confessor in the closet scene e.g. referring to:
“enseamed bed” (3.4.92)
with disgust. His opinion of Gertrude changes from:
“frailty thy name is woman”
in his initial soliloquy to:
“a queen, fair, sober, wise” (3.4.190)
by the end of the closet scene, showing her malleability and therefore weakness. The Ghost tells Hamlet:
“leave her to heaven” (1.5.86)
which is a reference to how her conscience will destroy her - a weakness we see mirrored in Lady Macbeth; a feminine weakness of mind. Mrs Jameson, in her essay of 1832, asserts that Shakespeare has, in the female characters of the play “portrayed two beings, in whom all intellectual and moral energy is in a manner latent”(2) and refers to this as the makeup of a woman! This view is completely dated, whilst being patronising and insulting. The essay focuses principally on the character of Ophelia, stating “Ophelia – poor Ophelia! Oh, far too soft, too good, too fair, to be cast among the briers of this working day world.” This statement shows clearly the opinion of Jameson, who takes Ophelia to be gentle, innocent, mild; as a result we can look at these sentiments in detail. Ophelia never had to experience the working world; she remained at Elsinore in the company of royalty and nobles - to become the lover of the heir apparent proves that Ophelia’s nature was nowhere near as pathetic as Jameson suggests. She declares “whenever we bring her to mind, it is with the same exclusive sense of her real existence”, but I totally disagree. I feel that Ophelia is badly constructed as a character, taking fragility to the extreme, although she is not as two dimensional as my initial quote suggests. The extravagant portrait of Ophelia, painted by Millais (3), supports Mrs Jameson’s view; she lies silent and drifts unconsciously into death. The way in which the picture is constructed inspires metaphors of sexual passivity and silence; not only do I contest this, but so does the play - Gertrude recounts:
“she chanted snatches of old tunes”
as she drowned.
The same Ophelia discusses:
“country matters” (3.2.117)
with Hamlet; though perhaps she was never sexually involved with Hamlet, if we take intimacy and love as sexual traits, she was certainly not sexually passive. What is important is that both hint at female frailty; Millais with Ophelia’s hand failing to hold the flowers, Jameson “the frail texture of her existence.” Rebecca West (4) provides an interesting, strongly opposing view to the one set out by Jameson and Millais. West supports my previous point “there is no more bizarre aspect of the misreading of Hamlet’s character than the assumption that his relations with Ophelia were innocent.” She acknowledges that contemporary belief no longer embraces the Jameson theory, attributing its tenacious hold over many to “the popularity of the pre-Raphaelite picture by Sir John Millais.” The fact that Ophelia lived for Hamlet confirms the weakness with which Shakespeare burdened her; marriages at the time were made for political alliance, thus making Polonius’ comment:
“you speak like a green girl” (1.3.101)
particularly pertinent. West asserts that her “tolerance of Hamlet’s obscene conversations” show that she was the opposite of Jameson’s claims, a “disreputable young woman” who may have sacrificed her virginity for love. This would have been the ultimate example of frailty on her part; the surrender to the lustful Hamlet would render her worthless for any subsequent arranged marriage. Her suicide at the end of the play is perhaps another example of female weakness that Shakespeare heavily overplays in Hamlet; suicides were said to go to hell, and so her escape from life would have been frowned on. The 1st Clown identifies this:
“Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?” (5.1.1/2)
showing that society resented her burial inside sanctified (Church) grounds, as opposed to the usual practice for suicides; of burial outside consecrated ground. Carolyn Heilbrun (5) remarked that “(Gertrude is) intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech” but she is also “passion’s slave.” Her adultery, considered to be so because the Ghost could not rest, or, as Phillip Edwards (6) perceives 1.5, before old Hamlet’s death, is an example of weakness on her behalf. The Ghost’s statement:
“Leave her to heaven”
also shows feminine fragility; Gertrude doesn’t warrant earthly punishment. This is possibly because Shakespeare (through the Ghost) is pointing out that women are too weak to destroy, and while Claudius can be killed without harm to Hamlet’s soul, to kill Gertrude would damn him because the low value of a woman would make it seem wanton murder. A theatre production of Hamlet would see Ophelia and Gertrude played in different ways between contemporary and modern day plays. The contemporary version, featuring male actors as the women, would almost certainly have reflected public opinion of women as weak characters. In a modern day play however, interpretation of the roles is more varied, to the extent that the parts could be played from any of the critical standpoints suggested. Objectively:
“frailty, thy name is woman”
is vile and unfair as a general descriptor. Ophelia does appear, perhaps overly and therefore unbelievably so, whilst Gertrude vacillates. Salter (7) disagrees, arguing that “because of her (Ophelia’s) position at court and the general position of women at the time, she was unable to do anything.” She regards her situation as being “the innocent pawn who is sacrificed during the course of the larger drama.” Gertrude has moments of weakness, for instance her:
“o’erhasty marriage” (2.2.56/57),
that she acknowledges, but also times when she is strong; she shields Hamlet from Claudius, she attempts to diffuse Laertes’ wrath with an effusive description of Ophelia’s death, and possibly, as Adelman claims, she commits suicide to protect Hamlet. The prince, however, doesn’t see any of the redeeming features of Gertrude; it is convenient that she switches her loyalty to him, for Gertrude provides Hamlet with an ideal excuse to make him feel better and vindicate his actions; he blames frailty on woman partially to conceal his father’s, and his own, inadequacies. The female characters in Hamlet often seem weaker than they are as they have a lack of responsibility, for instance, Gertrude is totally dependent on Claudius, though he deflects this dependency, calling her his:
I think that Ophelia is the perfect example of Hamlet’s statement, whereas Gertrude, with her slightly more balanced personality, is Shakespeare’s exception which proves the rule. In conclusion, I believe that the extract sums up contemporary feelings about women, however sexist it would be seen as today. Shakespeare was fully aware of this and brought it into his plays, because people could relate to it, and providing more dominant female roles would create uproar. The extract therefore reflects the opinions and interactions of male characters with the female ones, as Shakespeare echoed the opinion of the time to keep his tragedy as accessible as possible. Not all the female characters are weak in a conventional sense, but we do see their obvious frailty, fragility and weakness in one sense or another during the play. The ease with which the women are casually thrown aside in Hamlet is illustrated in one comment to Ophelia:
“I did love you once” (3.1.115).
(1) John Knox, from www.tudors.crispen.org (2) Mrs Jameson, from ‘Shakespeare’s Heroines: Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical and Historical’ (3) Sir John Millais, Portrait, ‘Ophelia’ 1852 (4) Rebecca West, from ‘A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption’ (5) Carolyn Heilbrun, from ‘The Character of Hamlet’s Mother’ (6) Phillip Edwards, from ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ (7) Mary Salter, from Untitled essay on Ophelia