After reading Act 2, scene 2, part 1, how do you feel about the accuracy of the representations of Ophelia and Gertrude?  Do you believe that feminists are correct in their reading of these women?...

After reading Act 2, scene 2, part 1, how do you feel about the accuracy of the representations of Ophelia and Gertrude?


Do you believe that feminists are correct in their reading of these women? Why or why not?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, perhaps one of his best works (and certainly one of the most quoted), the women of the play are used by the men that surround them when the play opens. I would assume this is the premise on which feminists view these women, and I have to agree.

During Shakespeare's time, it was not at all unusual for women to be used as bargaining chips in prearranged marriages that joined noble houses together. Women generally took all they had into a marriage but were not independent. There was little work open to a woman to keep her and her children alive if she did not have the financial support and protection of a man.

Hamlet is quick to censor Gertrude's hasty marriage to her brother-in-law Claudius upon the death of Old Hamlet. Hamlet states that the food from the funeral could have been used for the wedding feast, the marriage was that quickly conducted. (An exaggeration, at best.) However, we see Hamlet's sense of loss more clearly in this than we do Gertrude's, but he is an independent man, and she is a widow with limited options in terms of survival.

Hamlet himself describes the marriage of his father and mother as a joyful one: two people who adored each other. With this said, it is important to note that when Old Hamlet dies, Gertrude's future is imperiled. There is no guarantee that Claudius will care for the widow. She has no belongings other than what has been given her, and undoubtedly no land of her own or family to return to. Claudius offers her a way to remain in her home, live as she is accustomed to, and perhaps still provide a place for her son, who though older, is still at the university studying.

Gertrude's options are limited and life was harsh for women at the time: she took the only avenue available to her, and I believe, savvy as she is, she makes the best of it, even seeming to care for her new husband, who the audience (and Hamlet) develop only contempt for. It may seem as if she is prostituting herself, but I would suggest she is simply trying to survive in a man's world.

Ophelia suffers in much the same way, but she is younger and not as familiar with the ways of the world. The men in her life use her as well, while treating her like an inferior. Laertes, her brother, is full of advice as to how she should behave with Hamlet (behaving in a chaste way), and she is quick to remind him to follow his own advice. Obviously, her character has reason to believe that he will preach one thing to her, while following a very different, hypocritical path himself. This is important in viewing how men treated women in general during that time.

Claudius, and Polonius (her own father), use Ophelia to their own ends in trying to get a "bead" on Hamlet. Polonius does so to solidify his position with a new king: for him, the move is politically-centered to protect his "career." Claudius wants to know what Hamlet knows and is trying to remain unsuspected of his murder of Old Hamlet.

Claudius will use Ophelia as bait to glean information from her about the man she loves, and Hamlet, having no faith in Ophelia, and failing to trust her and take her into his confidence, confuses and alienates her. She does not feel safe with any of these men.

Ophelia is a pawn in their manipulative games. Hamlet uses her, pretending to be insane, and insulting her at every turn based upon his inability to trust her, not on anything she had done to him. She is an innocent. She is fragile and unprepared to make her way in the male-dominated society in which she lives.

When her sweetheart (Hamlet) kills her father, she cannot handle how this act tears her in two, pulling her between the two men that matter most to her; she goes insane and takes her own life (we think...we cannot be sure).

The women in Hamlet are used in a sophisticated way that moves the plot expertly along, but they are used by the men that surround them; one survives, while the other does not. And in the end, everyone dies because of the machinations of these men.