ENGL 305: Literary Theory and Writing

This essay was written on April 27th, 2018 for ENGL 305: Literary Theory and Writing, taught by Dr. Drew Scheler. This essay comments on gender themes as seen in William Shakespeare’s, “Hamlet.” The possibility of understanding one’s own gender identity to be fluid or different from what a person was born as wasn’t recognized during the time “Hamlet” was written. With that being said, there are many instances throughout where Hamlet and other characters are faced with struggles that came with complying with societal gender norms.

Gender as Seen in Hamlet

Gender as a societal issue, within today’s world, has made great progress towards gaining equality for all forms of identity. Within a Shakespearean era, accepting different gender identities was not something of the norm. During this time, males were the dominant creature over all other forms of gender and gender expression. In looking at claims made by Judith Butler within her article, “From Gender Trouble,” parallels can be drawn to Hamlet in understanding different gender struggles that Ophelia, Gertrude, and Hamlet were faced with. It can be found that these characters were faced with different struggles that would have been similar to the conflicts faced by many people within an Elizabethan society. 

To understand some issues surrounding gender, it is important to look to Judith Butler’s article, “From Gender Trouble.” She explains that the issue of accepting all genders began when “the sudden intrusion of the unanticipated agency, of a female ‘object’ who inexplicably returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position” (Butler 2489). This means that as men began to be viewed as more authoritative figures, they were seen as more important over women and men that do not identify as “masculine.” This trend in society begins to put heterosexual men at a higher rank in the gender hierarchy in comparison to women and other identities. The inequality for women and other gender identities that was present within Shakespearean times is reflected through characters within Hamlet

During the Elizabethan era, women were held to high, strict standards in the realm of their sexuality, but this was not necessarily the case for men. Women were expected to be pure creatures. This societal expectation that women were needed to repress their sexual desires is seen as Laertes instructs Ophelia not to act upon these desires. Ophelia responds in saying:

 I shall the effect of this good lesson keep

As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, 

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

And recks not his own rede. (1.3.49-55)

Ophelia tells Laertes not to think of her in the same ways as society does. She reminds him that she is strong and intelligent, contrary to what society at this time thinks of women. She also points to a double standard that Laertes gives her as he criticizes her romantic relationship yet, he is running around like a “puffed and reckless libertine.” This standard allows men to act upon their desires but scolds women for doing the same. Ophelia is directly affected by the double standard in a society where men can act freely and women are held to strict ideals.

Since women were viewed as the lesser sex, they were often scapegoats as it was easier to assume a woman acted poorly and were easier to blame. Gertrude has taken a lot of backlash for her actions, from Hamlet especially. Although Gertrude has made some mistakes within the play, the way her own son treats and speaks to her is still very unacceptable. This is seen as Hamlet says to his mother:

That it should come to this:

But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.

So excellent a king, that was, to this

Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother

That he might not beteem the winds of heaven

Visit her face too roughly. 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!) (1.2.141-150)

Hamlet is expressing his anger towards his mother in her decision to remarry within just two months after his father’s death. Although this would be understandably difficult for anyone, he points fingers at different stereotypical issues society has with women. He blames her growing appetite for sexuality for causing him so much pain. This shows that Gertrude’s sexuality, as a woman, is considered taboo. He shows his anger towards all women and their sexuality and that it is considered dangerous in saying “thy name is woman!” Instead of continuing to be angry towards Gertrude, he shows his anger towards the sexuality of all women. This passage shows the struggles women faced in being able to express their sexualalities. Men were able to act freely while women were looked down upon for their behaviors. This leaves women to be faced with many inequalities within society. 

Acting “manly” and having “masculine” behaviors was a high societal expectation for men during this time. To portray actions that were stereotyped as “womanly” was seen as weak and cowardly to others. Hamlet struggles to keep up his manly front in dealing with the death of his father. He admits to acting in a way that would be considered socially unacceptable because he is grieving the loss of his father. This is seen as Hamlet says:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,

A stallion! (2.2.611-616)

The norm for the time would be for men to repress their feelings and act in a way that would cause them equality in the situation. Hamlet, understanding this, is feeling regretful that he has not gotten revenge on Claudius for killing his father. He believes that since he has been allowing himself to grieve, he is acting “womanly” or “cowardly.” Men who allowed themselves to feel their feelings were viewed as more feminine. Because being highly masculine was the expectation for men, many would act aggressively and irrationally to make up for improperly dealing with their emotions. This also put men who were more emotional on a lower place in the social hierarchy as they were not considered as tough as others. This shows that many were also hit with backlash if they did not meet society’s standards of masculinity.

Equality for all gender types was not a priority for those living within Shakespearean times. These inequalities are reflected through the characters within Hamlet. Though before they are understood, Judith Butler assists in explaining that these injustices started when society began to view men as more authoritative and higher up in social hierarchies due to their masculinities. Because of this, women and other gender identities suffered in equal treatment and less respect from society. Ophelia, Gertrude, and Hamlet all fall victim to the male dominant culture. This amplifies the struggles they faced as it will be more difficult for them to gain their justices when viewed as lesser than masculine males. 

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