What was the role of women in the Elizabethan era, as portrayed in Hamlet.

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lsumner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Hamlet, the role of women was an inferior role. Women were inferior to men. Men dominated. Women had no voice. They were expected to tend the home and care for the children. Women were not considered equal to men. 

Ophelia is an example of an inferior woman. Hamlet did not show her the respect she deserved. He toyed with her emotions. He made her think he was interested in her. Then he insisted she go and live in a convent and become a nun:

Go to a convent, go.
Goodbye. Or, if you will marry, make it a fool, by Mary,
for wise men know well enough what monsters you make
of them. To a convent, go, and quickly too. Goodbye.

Cruelly, Hamlet insults Ophelia, insisting that she and her kind make monsters of men. He blames women for men's own flaws.

Women in the time period of Hamlet were not considered equal to men. They had to submit to men. Men were totally in control. Women were considered objects of beauty. They were not considered intellects with their own credible opinions. 

Hamlet continues to insult Ophelia. He is bold and abrasive. He tells her she is a loose woman. He is cruel. He has no concern for her feelings. Furthermore, he has no idea how pure Ophelia truly is. Hamlet spits out his fury in hurtful words:

You make...your looseness your ignorance...To a convent, go.

Hamlet has no concern for Ophelia's feelings. When she returns his gifts, he denies having ever given her anything: 

Hamlet denies having given her anything and subjects her to several vehement and disjointed statements commenting on the falseness of women....

No doubt, women were considered the weaker sex. Hamlet insists that women are weak. He is disgusted with his mother Gertrude for marrying so soon after his father's death. He quotes that women are frail:

Frailty, thy name is woman.

This is the image that men had of women during Hamlet's time. Women had no rights. They were considered weak and dependent upon men. Hamlet was not the only man who had the opinion that women were weak. Ophelia's father and brother treat her as if she were a child. Truly, Ophelia is dependent on men, particularly her father and brother. She was brought up to be obedient, but at the same time dependent. Polonius reveals Ophelia’s dependence when he challenges Hamlet’s love for her. He asks her, “Do you believe his tenders, as you call them(I iii 103)?” All Ophelia could muster is “I do not know, my lord, what I should think(I iii 104).”

Clearly, Ophelia is an example of a woman who did not know how to think on her own. She was used to depending on her father, even asking him to think for her. No doubt, women in Hamlet's day were dependent on men because they had never been given the opportunity to think for themselves. Men loved having it this way. It gave them power over women.