Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay: Comparison of Gertrude and Ophelia
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Shakespeare developed 126 female characters in his dramas. In his tragedy Hamlet there are Ophelia and Gertrude. This essay will explore the similarities or commonality of these two characters.
One obvious feature which both Ophelia and Gertrude have in common is that they are both recipients of Hamlet’s ill-will. T.S. Elliot in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems” explains how Gertrude is the object of the protagonist’s disgust:
Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. (25)
L.C. Knight in “An Approach to Hamlet,” agreeing with T. S. Eliot, comments on the “obsessive passion” which the prince exercises in his chastisement of Gertrude:
I am of course aware that what Hamlet says to his mother in the Closet scene may be regarded as part of a necessary and proper attempt to break the alliance between her and the smiling murderer; but through it all runs the impure streak of the indulgence of an obsessive passion.[. . .] If with genuine, even with passionate, concern, you want to help someone in great need, someone in desperate ignorance of his true condition, do you, I wonder, say, “This is what you are: see how ugly you look”? Well, perhaps you may; but certainly not in such a way that you seem about to make an aggressive attack. (70)
In similar fashion, Ophelia is verbally abused by the hero; and this episode is elaborated on in detail later. In the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet, David Bevington enlightens the reader regarding the similarities between Gertrude and Ophelia as the hero sees them:
Yet to Hamlet, Ophelia is no better than another Gertrude: both are tender of heart but submissive to the will of importunate men, and so are forced into uncharacteristic vices. Both would be other than what they are, and both receive Hamlet’s exhortations to begin repentance by abstaining from pleasure. “Get thee to a nunnery”; “Assume a virtue if you have it not.” (9)
As Bevington says, both Gertrude and Ophelia are “tender of heart,” motivated by love and a desire for quiet familial harmony among the members of their courtly society in Elsinore. At the first social function in the play, Gertrude is motivated out of love for her son to advise:
Dear Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust. (1.2)
Likewise does she ask that the prince remain with the family: “Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, / I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.” Later, when the hero’s supposed “madness” is the big concern, Gertrude lovingly sides with her husband in the analysis of her son’s condition: “I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” Later she confides her family-supporting thoughts in Ophelia: “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet’s wildness,” thereby attempting to keep a loving relationship with the young lady of the court, even though the latter is of a lower social stratum. When Claudius requests of Gertrude:
Sweet Gertrude, leave us too;
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia. (3.1)
Gertrude responds submissively, “I shall obey you.” Familial love is first among Gertrude’s priorities. When, at the presentation of The Mousetrap, she makes a request of her son, “Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me,” and he spurns her to lie at Ophelia’s feet, Gertrude is not offended; her loyalty to family overrides such slights. She considers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be friends of her son, and only for that reason sends them to learn about her son; she would never use them as Claudius later does in an attempt to murder Hamlet. And even at the moment of her death, her last words include, “O my dear Hamlet.” Yes, Gertrude is pro-family and friends.
In similar fashion does Ophelia manifest great familial affection, agreeing to comply with the advice of her brother Laertes: “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep / As watchman to my heart.” When her father, Polonius, makes inquiry regarding the “private time” which Hamlet has been giving to Ophelia, she replies unreservedly, “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me,” and elaborates mightily on the subject. Polonius insists that she “from this time forth” not “give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet,” and Ophelia dutifully complies with his wishes: “I shall obey, my lord.” She later even gives him her love-letters from Hamlet. When she acts as a decoy so that Polonius and Claudius can observe the prince, resulting in Ophelia’s chastisement by the protagonist, she nevertheless keeps him as the main focus in her life:
O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down! (3.1)
Her love for brother, father, boyfriend, and others generally, override her love of self. Her respect for the opinions of immediate family is greater than her respect for her own opinions even in the matter of her courtship.
Both Ophelia and Gertrude suffer from a severing of the bonds of family and friends. Gertrude is displeased with Hamlet when, with the The Mousetrap, he upsets King Claudius: Guildenstern says to Hamlet, “The Queen, your mother, in most great affliction of spirit, hath sent me to you.” And when the hero meets with his mother, her concern is: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” Of course, Gertrude’s grief over the king’s upset is soon upstaged by her son’s killing of Polonius behind the arras: “O me, what hast thou done?” and “O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!” Gertrude, unaware of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, probes the prince for the cause of the disturbance within him: “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?” and “Ay me, what act, / That roars so loud and thunders in the index?” Even when Hamlet has afflicted his mother’s soul with great distress, she still tries to preserve the mother-son relationship by referring to him as “sweet”: “O speak to me no more! / These words like daggers enter in my ears. / No more, sweet Hamlet!” Even after Hamlet has done considerable emotional damage (“O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.”) Gertrude still tries to keep the familial bond from being totally severed by asking “What shall I do?” and by not revealing to Claudius that her son mistook Polonius for his uncle.
Similarly, Ophelia suffers from the breaking of relationships with family and friends. She is traumatized by Hamlet’s visit after the ghost’s appearance, when he has assumed the “antic disposition”:
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me. (2.1)
Frank Kermode says that this “antic disposition” is a foil to Ophelia’s coming madness (1137). Polonius asks, “Mad for thy love?” and Ophelia responds, “My lord, I do not know; / But truly, I do fear it.” This is a time of uncertainty for her, for she has invested herself heavily in “the love for Hamlet, and her filial love” (Coleridge 353). When she later agrees to be a lure for Hamlet so that her father and the king can study his conduct in her presence, she feels the full loss of the prince’s affection for her:
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
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, 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. (3.1)
The severance of the ties with Hamlet cause her to pray for help: “O, help him, you sweet heavens!” and “O heavenly powers, restore him!” and “O, woe is me, / To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” Later, as the Mousetrap begins, Ophelia readily consents (“Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”) to Hamlet’s resting his head on her lap: “Ay, my lord,” hoping to somewhat restore a dying relationship along with the hero’s sanity. And she cannot be too agreeable in her efforts with him: “You are as good as a chorus, my lord,” and “You are keen, my lord, you are keen.”
Both Ophelia and Gertrude are victimized by male influences in the play – “submissive to the will of importunate men” as Bevington says. Ophelia is interfered with in her love-life by her brother Laertes, her father Polonius and by Hamlet himself. She is presented “almost entirely as a victim” (Boklund 123).Gertrude is intruded upon in her relationship with Claudius – by Hamlet, by Laertes and by Claudius. The rejection of Ophelia by the prince, plus the loss of her father at Hamlet’s hands, brings about madness in Ophelia, and later indirectly her death (Gordon 127) (Pitt 45). Michael Pennington says that she is not so much mad as “unacceptably sane” (75). The devious machinations of Laertes and Claudius effect the accidental death of Queen Gertrude, who imbibes the poisoned cup intended for the protagonist.
Both Ophelia and Gertrude die incidental, unostentatious deaths of no special moment. Hamlet’s death and royal burial by Fortinbras is in sharp contrast to the passing of these ladies. Ophelia’s demise is publicized by the queen: “One woe doth tread upon another's heel, / So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes.” That Laertes should respond with the question, “Drown'd! O, where?” seems out of place, since the most logical question from a loved one would be, “How?” or “Why?” The queen replies with a description of Ophelia’s ignoble death:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (4.7)
There is no lengthy lamentation or grief-stricken reaction from anyone. Laertes says briefly, “Alas, then, she is drown'd?” and the queen even more briefly, “Drown'd, drown'd.” Ophelia’s passing is truly of minor consequence, it would seem, at this point in the play. Likewise, when Queen Gertrude later drinks from the poisoned cup on the occasion of the Laertes-Hamlet contest of foils, she experiences a quick, quiet death: “No, no, the drink, the drink,--O my dear Hamlet,-- / The drink, the drink! I am poison'd.” And there is no more to the matter, possibly because everyone else is dying at the same time. So thus it is seen that both Ophelia and Gertrude fade out of the play with little fanfare.
Another experience which both Ophelia and Gertrude have in common is that they are both attacked verbally by the protagonist Hamlet. When the prince suspects that Ophelia is a lure, he lambasts her with:
If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for
thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs
marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough
what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go,
and quickly too. Farewell. (3.1)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets comments on Hamlet’s change during this contrived encounter between the protagonist and Ophelia:
"Ham. Ha, ha! are you honest?
Oph. My lord?
Ham. Are you fair?"
Here it is evident that the penetrating Hamlet perceives, from the strange and forced manner of Ophelia, that the sweet girl was not acting a part of her own, but was a decoy; and his after speeches are not so much directed to her as to the
listeners and spies. Such a discovery in a mood so anxious and irritable accounts for a certain harshness in him; - and yet a wild up-working of love, sporting with opposites in a wilful self-tormenting strain of irony, is perceptible throughout. (362)
The queen also bears the brunt of Hamlet’s melancholic mood. After the “play within a play” Gertrude asks to see her son, who comes immediately – but not in a good humor. At one point he is so aggressive that she thinks perhaps he is going to murder her: “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,/As kill a king and marry with his brother.” This alarms the queen, who blurts out, “As kill a king!” in her appalled mental state, shortly followed by “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue/In noise so rude against me?” Hamlet just wants to carry out, “in the largest sense, the ultimatum of the Ghost’s charge: ‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest’ (1.5.82—83) (Jorgensen “Hamlet”):
What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax,
And melt in her own fire: proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn
And reason panders will. (3.4)
Hamlet leaves the queen in an emotionally spent condition: “I have no life to breathe / What thou hast said to me.”
Both Ophelia and Gertrude possess complex temperament and motivation, thus qualify as rounded, not flat or two-dimensional, characters (Abrams 33). Also both women have a delicacy about them. In recognition of this delicacy, the ghost asks the protagonist to disregard revenge on Gertrude: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught.” Ophelia’s delicacy is revealed in the appearance of her insanity and later death resulting from the loss of her father and the affection of her boyfriend.
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Boklund, Gunnar. “Hamlet.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Burton, Philip. “Hamlet.” The Sole Voice. New York: The Dial Press, 1970. N. pag. http://www.freehomepages.com/hamlet/other/burton-hamlet.htm
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets. London : George Bell and Sons, 1904. p. 342-368. http://ds.dial.pipex.com/thomas_larque/ham1-col.htm
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Gordon, Edward J. Introduction to Tragedy. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Co., Inc., 1973.
Jorgensen, Paul A. “Hamlet.” William Shakespeare: the Tragedies. Boston: Twayne Publ., 1985. N. pag. http://www.freehomepages.com/hamlet/other/jorg-hamlet.html
Kermode, Frank. “Hamlet.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
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Pennington, Michael. “Ophelia: Madness Her Only Safe Haven.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of “Hamlet”: A User’s Guide. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996.
Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Excerpted from Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html