In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, how are the women treated by the men in the society and what do men want from women?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When discussing women in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia obviously come to mind. Both women are manipulated by the men in their lives, to do for them what they can't do for themselves. Women of the time period were bound to either their fathers or their husbands and weren't expected to do much more than to be of service, look pretty, and not speak; hence, women tend to be treated as pawns in men's political and social games. Gertrude allowed herself to be manipulated by Claudius to help in killing her husband and marrying him soon after the deed. Ophelia was more easily manipulated because she was a child doing what she thought was right by her duties as a maiden; therefore, she should not be held as responsible for her part in setting up Hamlet to be spied upon as Gertrude is for her husband's death. Ophelia is also manipulated by Hamlet and used to get back at her father. Polonius and Hamlet use Ophelia as a puppet messenger between them which drives her insane. (And, as far as insanity is concerned, Ophelia is considered to have truly lost her mind whereas Hamlet seemingly pretends to be mad and asks his mother to keep his secret in the fourth act.)

A woman who is still under her father's care must do what he says and marry whom he chooses. A woman under a husband's care should be loyal to him in all ways considered under a marital contract. Hamlet, for example, and as with all men of that time,  would doubtless believe that a woman should not plot to kill her husband and marry his brother! Women were to be the epitome of gentleness, nourishment, and tranquility. Ophelia tries to live up to those standards and Gertrude seems to have forgotten her wifely role, thereby confusing Hamlet's understanding of the reality of women.

In Act III, scene i, Hamlet tells Ophelia that women seem to make for themselves two faces. Hamlet realizes that the women in his life present themselves to him in an innocent way, but they are truly misbehaving behind his back. This scene reveals Hamlets disappointment in women and declares that marriage should be done away with. In fact, he states, that Ophelia would be better off to become a nun than stay on the course she is on currently (working with her father).

In Act III, scene iv, Hamlet begs his mother to repent of her sins by not sleeping with his uncle and by also keeping the secret that his is not truly mad, but knows exactly what he is doing.

"Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds
To make them ranker" (III.iv.164-167).

Here again, Hamlet tries to tell his mother what her role should be as a woman, and as a human being, by making what went wrong right again. (Sadly, she cannot bring back his father.) But as Hamlet seems to be the teacher, it seems that he cannot be taught of how to finalize his situation in the correct manner that obeys the law while also appeasing his father's ghost. Either way, the women of the story seem to be held to a higher standard than the men hold for themselves.