How are Gertrude and Ophelia strong characters in Hamlet?I need 2 solid arguments proving that Gertrude and Ophelia are not frail but rather seen as frail because of the male conception of self. It...

How are Gertrude and Ophelia strong characters in Hamlet?

I need 2 solid arguments proving that Gertrude and Ophelia are not frail but rather seen as frail because of the male conception of self. It would really help if you can also provide some examples of quotes to help explain and support the 2 arguments.


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munarriz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gertrude and Ophelia can definitely be viewed as strong characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet. While they have no back story and limited lines, they prove through their words and actions that they are indeed important characters in and of themselves.

Queen Gertrude seems to be a passive character, but close inspection of her presence in specific scenes tells another story. When Polonius delays in telling King Claudius what he thinks is bothering Hamlet, she tells him to use “less art.” She is similarly not afraid to suggest both Polonius and King Claudius are wrong about lovesickness being the cause of Hamlet’s melancholy, instead stating that it is his father’s death and her own “overhasty” marriage. Perhaps most importantly, at the end of the play after she realizes she has been poisoned, she tells Hamlet. At that moment, after having been confronted with the truth of Claudius’s actions and understanding the impact of the events in her son, she chose to let him know the extent of Claudius's corruption to liberate him to at last take action. Since there is no soliloquy for Gertrude, we don’t know her true innermost thoughts. Her actions, however, suggest she was not passive.

In Ophelia we also have evidence of strength. When her brother tells her to protect her chastity, she responds quickly that he should not behave like the priests who tell their congregations to be virtuous while they themselves lack virtue. She could have easily accepted his advice, or responded with respect as she does later to her father (“I shall obey, my lord,”), but she chooses instead to call him out, however gently, on his hypocrisy.

When Hamlet berates her and curses her and openly mocks her at the play, Ophelia holds her own and doesn’t break down or back off. It isn’t until Hamlet kills her father that she begins to go mad, and even then, she manages to sing songs that serve as her own story, and distributes flowers with symbolic meanings.  Her madness frees her somewhat to step out of the confines of her female role, and allows her to express her feelings openly. Her suicide, while tragic and seemingly weak, is her own choice. After spending the play being told what to do by her father and brother, she makes her own decisions as to when to exit the story.

The Renaissance and its patriarchy would not allow for Gertrude or Ophelia to be overtly strong characters—yet they are strong nonetheless, as is seen in their limited words and actions.


lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is evidence that both Gertrude and Ophelia are stronger characters than they might be given credit for if one only gives their character roles a cursery reading.  If you look at Gertrude, it is easy to assume, like Hamlet and King Hamlet do, that she was too easily won over to Claudius by "the witchcraft of his wit... that has the power so to seduce."  But that logic assumes that Gertrude doesn't have anything to gain from the marriage.  While it is not stated directly in the text, it is possible that Gertrude married Claudius to maintain herself as Queen of Denmark -- a position I would assume she loved having.  She may have married Claudius because it was a good political move, preserving the throne for her son to take over eventually, while maintaining the power of Denmark with a smooth transition of leadership.  Perhaps she married Claudius because she still felt like a sexual, sensual woman who wasn't ready to wear widow's clothes and be cast aside into a lonely room in the castle for the rest of her life.  All of these possibilities suggest a powerful woman, not a weakling.  If you read Gertrude's character with that sense of self-determination and putting Hamlet as a foremost concern, then you can see another side of her.

As for Ophelia, she is in a slightly more tenuous position in society.  She is an unmarried lady who should protect her reputation, and must remember that she is a unmarried woman still living in her father's home.  She obeys her father's command to put aside Hamlet's affections, but she doesn't have much of a choice.  During his questioning of her she does her very best to defend and explain her relationship with Hamlet, but he cuts her off at every chance and insults her intelligence and her feelings.  Even though she acquiesces to her father, she still tries to be there for Hamlet.  She is devastated at his seeming craziness.  She seems to play into (or she staunchly rejects) his bawdy flirting at the play-within-a-play (depending on how you read it.)  She does end up committing suicide, but she has been through so much senseless tragedy.  With Ophelia, you must remember that her position in society makes her weak -- not her personality alone.