Discuss how women are treated by the men in this play, and how women support or contradict the view that we have of them during this period.
In Hamlet, the relationship between Hamlet and his mother shows how women were treated during this time period. Hamlet had the idea that women were weak:
Weakness, your name is woman.
In his private, inner most thoughts, he did not respect his mother for she had married too soon after his father's death. Hamlet accused his mother of wickedness for marrying so soon after his father's death:
Within a month,
Before the salt of the most wicked tears
Had left the redness in her bitter eyes,
Hamlet also treated Ophelia disrespectfully. He treated her like a child. He insisted that she become a nun and live in a convent. In bitterness, Hamlet added insult to injury as he rudely commanded Ophelia:
Go to a convent, go.
Goodbye. Or, if you will marry, make it a fool, by Mary,
for wise men know well enough what monsters you make
of them. To a convent, go, and quickly too. Goodbye.
Truly, men felt superior to women and in charge during Hamlet's life time.
In Hamlet's day, women were truly dependent upon men. Ophelia's father treats Ophelia as a child. In Act I, Scent 3, Ophelia claims that Hamlet has shown her affection, but her father Polonius makes light of it and considers his daughter an ignorant girl:
Affection! Pooh! You speak like a green girl,
Ignorant in such dangerous circumstances.
Do you believe his “offers,” as you call them?
Polonius orders his daughter to not see Hamlet. She cannot make choices of her own. He is worried that he will look like a fool if Hamlet does not choose Ophelia:
By Mary, I’ll teach you. Think that you are a baby,
That you have taken these offers for true love,
Which are not true offers. Consider yourself more dearly,
Or, not to keep harping on that poor phrase,
Doing harm to it, you'll “offer” me a fool!
Clearly, Polonius cares more about his own reputation than he cares about his daughter and her feelings.
Ultimately, Opehlia takes her own life because she cannot live without her father. Ophelia's worth comes from trying to please her father.
Also, Laertes, Ophelia's brother, did not see his sister as a woman who had a mind of her own. Although Laertes seems to have the best intentions, he preaches to his sister about how she should not love Hamlet. While he may have been concerned with what is best for his sister, he did not trust her to make her own decisions. He gives her a lesson on love, indicating that Hamlet does not truly care for his sister. While his message seems to be genuine, Laertes proves that men felt they had the right to tell women what to do. Men like Laertes felt women should act morally pure while men could sow their wild oats. Even Ophelia comments that her brother does not practice what he preaches:
I shall keep the purpose of this good lesson
As watchman to my heart. But, my good brother,
Don’t, as some insincere ministers do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
While, like a proud and reckless wild man,
Preaches against the primrose path of sin
And does not practice what he preaches.
Ophelia is saying that her brother is treating her as a weak, immature woman. From Ophelia's comments, it is as if she resents her brother telling her how to live her life while he lives his life as he pleases. During this time, women were treated as the weaker sex. They had no voice of their own. Women were expected to be pure and innocent while men could be as immoral as they so desired.