How is the female body represented in Hamlet, and what is the significance of this representation?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The female body in Hamlet is viewed primarily through male eyes and seen primarily as site of sexuality or potential sexuality, and the sexual female body is represented most often as diseased, corrupt, or as the body of a whore. 

Hamlet views his mother through a sexual lens, which has led more than one critic to an Oedipal reading of the text, in which Hamlet is reluctant to kill Claudius because Claudius has enacted Hamlet's own unconscious desire to murder his father and marry his mother. In any case, Hamlet represents his mother as a loose, unclean, impure woman for her marriage to Claudius. Hamlet condemns her for her "wicked speed" in heading "with such dexterity to incestuous sheets," meaning that, in Hamlet's opinion, she married and jumped into bed with Claudius far too quickly after the death of her husband. He also sees her sexuality as a disease or "blister," saying that her marriage to Claudius "takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love / And sets a blister there." In other words, Hamlet finds it corrupt and disgusting that his mother would remarry and have sex with another man.

Polonius understands his daughter Ophelia as a love/lust object for Hamlet and warns her to steer clear of him, for he sees Hamlet's "love" language as simply a deceptive ploy to get his daughter into bed without marrying her. He calls Hamlet's love language "unholy suits" and says "do not believe his vows." Hamlet himself casts Ophelia as a sex object, telling her to "get thee to a nunnery." Since this is a double entendre, nunnery meaning both a convent, where a woman would be kept sexually pure, and slang for a house of prostitution, Hamlet is casting Ophelia into the virgin/whore dichotomy, which seems to be how he views women.

In the same scene he also tells Ophelia that women use sexual deceptions to lure men and then pretend they don't know what they are doing:

God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance.

(In contrast, Gertrude understands that Ophelia is "pure." Gertrude says: "I hope your virtues / Will bring him to his wonted way again / to both your honors.")

In general, in the eyes of the men in the play, the sexual woman represents the corruption of Denmark. Claudius likens his own deceit to "the harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art" and says the harlot's real cheek is "not more ugly" than the reality behind his "painted words." In other words, he is equating the deceptions involved in prostitution with the lying words of a murderer.

This way of representing the female body is significant because we are shown Denmark as a place of rot and corruption and the "impurity" (i.e., the possibility of more than one sex partner) of the woman is part of what builds up the sense of Denmark as a diseased or "rotten" state.

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Hamlet

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