Frailty Thy Name Is Woman

What does the line, "Frailty thy name is woman," in Act 1 of Hamlet mean and how might it foreshadow events to come?

Expert Answers
Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Renaissance thinking was that women were "hot," that is to say they were ruled by their passions (emotions) that would run amok if not kept in constant check (under constant control). 

What the phrase means is that women, to Hamlet's mind, represent all that is frail (breakable, delicate, weak) in human nature; all weakness is bound up in, epitomized in women, and Gertrude is the epitome of this womanly weakness and frailty.  So Hamlet is referring to his mother's weaknesses: morally, spiritually, and physically.  Morally she is "frail" because she betrayed her husband by marrying Claudius and had the indecency to do so a mere one month after King Hamlet's death: "and yet, within a month—". 

HAMLET. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married.

Spiritually she is frail because (in Hamlet's mind, as are all these judgments) she has committed an unforgivable sin by marrying Claudius.  Physically she is "frail" because she is a woman and less strong and robust than a man, though this obviously is the least of Hamlet's concerns.

If you could do some research on this Renaissance idea of women, it would help you to explain Gertrude's "frailness" and round out your paper.  I've included a link below to get you started. 

The line about frailty might be said to foreshadow coming events because, with Hamlet's emphasis on frailty, he is proved to be himself frail by his own inability to understand the nature of the Ghost (Is it his father's true ghost or a demon sent from hell to ensnare him in evil?) and his inability to understand the role of revenge regicide (king killing; Claudius is now King) in a Protestant Prince's royal role and personal choices. These inabilities preventing coming to an understanding of complex events around him is what causes his famous inaction, hesitation, indecision.

It also might be said to foreshadow the frailty shown later by Ophelia when she is dumbfounded and driven to madness by the combination of complex events around her that she is unable to understand starting with Hamlet's strange behavior and ending with Hamlet's blind-sighted murder of her father, Polonius.

dbralexander eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Shakespeare's plays in general, female characters in the comedies are the protagonists, the stronger, clever ones. In the tragedies, they are the weaker characters, the frail ones (there's a topic for an essay: what is Shakespeare suggesting about life in general by this conceit? Was Shakespeare the first feminist in English literature?).

In Hamlet Act I, Hamlet is speaking directly about his mother whose "O'erhasty marriage" offends him to his core and causes him to think her frail, or weak in all regards. It most directly foreshadows Ophelia's betrayal of Hamlet in Act III. "Where's your father?" \ "At home, my lord".

Hamlet knows he is being watched and he confronts Ophelia. In her moment of truth, she decides to side with her father (somewhat understandable considering Hamlet's treatment of her for the previous two acts). But in Hamlet's eyes, this is just one more betrayal by one more frail woman: "Frailty, thy name is woman."

rtandon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although this quote is spoken by Hamlet in reference to his mother's betrayal and adultery, this quote can be equally applicable to Ophelia as well. 'Frailty' can be interpreted as a weakness in women, women who are fickle-minded or who have no strength of character. In a society dominated by Patriarchial rules, women like Gertrude and Ophelia can certainly be seen as weak and frail because the play remains quite ambiguous about Gertude's role in the murder of King Hamlet. They are merely pawns in the ambitious mechanisations of men like Claudius, Polonius, Laertes and to a certain extent Hamlet himself.    

sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hamlet utters this phrase in reference to his mother.  It means that he believes that her quick marriage to his uncle is a sign of her weakness.  He actually indicates that nothing good can come of this action.  This does foreshadow a few things.  One is the death of Ophelia, who succumbs to her own grief and confusion and is drowned.  Also, the death of Gertrude herself.  Her marriage to Claudius did bring this about, as she mistakenly drank the cup he poisoned for Hamlet.

zumba96 | Student

While Hamlet cannot cry even though he is sad about his fathers death, women are supposedly okay if they cry because it is weak to cry just like women are weak. This showcases the sexism found in Elizabethan times among men towards women. He is also calling his mother frail since she married his uncle soon after his father died without much crying. This could later refer to when Ophelia becomes crazy and loses her mind or senses when she learns Polonius died.  

prof-c | Student

Your answer lies in the lines following that statement:

A little month, or ere those shoes were old

With which she follow'd my poor father's body,

Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--

O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,

Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle

He's angry that his mother's emotions were so fickle. 

How could she so quickly marry after burying her husband? 

And that she married her husband's brother makes it not just 

improper, but immoral. 

My father's brother, but no more like my father

Than I to Hercules: within a month:

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears

Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,

she married. O, most wicked speed, to post

With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!

Again, he focuses on the speed of the marriage and makes his 

disgust for the immorality of it clear to the audience. 

It is not nor it cannot come to good

He's doing more than foreshadowing the tragic ending of the 

play, it's almost as if he's committing to himself to make sure it 

will end tragically.