What is Shakespeare *saying* about the issue of "women" in Shakespeare's play, Hamlet?
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet speaks the line that summarizes his view of the women in his play. In Act One, scene two, Hamlet is disgusted with his mother. Gertrude and Old Hamlet had seemed extremely devoted to each other for many years. Yet after his death, she remarries quickly—and not just with anyone, but with her dead husband's brother, who also becomes King of Denmark.
Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on't—
Frailty, thy name is woman!—
"Frailty, thy name is woman" sums up Hamlet's attitude with the two women in this play. It is not because he hates women that he makes this statement about women in general.
What does the quote mean? It translates to "Weakness, your name is woman," or that "woman" is synonymous with "weakness." Hamlet believes that Gertrude turned to Claudius because she was weak. He is very critical of her actions. Towards the end of the play, when Hamlet finally confronts his mother, he is extremely harsh in sharing how he feels about her "incestuous" behavior with Claudius. Hamlet says to Gertrude to sit still and listen as he tells her the harsh truth about her actions—if she is still has any common sense. Hamlet says:
Peace! sit you down,
And let me wring your heart; for so I shall,
If it be made of penetrable stuff; (40)
If damned custom have not braz'd it so
That it be proof and bulwark against sense.
When Gertrude asks what she has done to make him so mad, he shows her a picture of Old Hamlet—a "product of the gods." Then he describes Claudius, saying he is like a "mildewed ear of corn." Hamlet says:
Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers. (60)
See what a grace was seated on this brow…
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildew'd ear (70)
Blasting his wholesome brother.
He asks her if she has eyes. How could she love someone "like a mountain" but then marry a man more like a "swamp?" Next, he informs her that Claudius killed Old Hamlet. She is devastated; Hamlet might have said more, but Old Hamlet's ghost appears and tells him to leave her judgment to heaven. She has seen herself in a new light, and promises to support Hamlet.
Hamlet is also disappointed in Ophelia, who he believes has turned her back on him to spy for Claudius and Polonius. So he tells her that she should not marry, but go to a nunnery—that she should not have children because people—like himself—are wicked. And when he asks where her father is, she lies—and he knows it.
Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a (130)
breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, (135)
or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where's your father?
Sadly, Hamlet believes that Ophelia is also weak, which is unfair since she cannot stand up to her King or father, but he rejects her, implying that she is weak and dishonest.