Female voices in classic literature are rarely allowed to be heard as they should, especially in a society like Shakespeare’s, where women are expected to make children and hot meals and not much more than that. While Shakespeare does take drastic steps forward in allowing such prominent female characters as Gertrude and Ophelia, he fails to make them strong or independent, and therefore an example for women everywhere.
If it were not for the horrible mistreatment of Ophelia and the horrible misunderstanding of Gertrude, these women could have been powerhouses of feminine pride and women to look up to as equal members of an otherwise misogynist society. However, the reactions of those around Gertrude and Ophelia to their behavior and emotions make it extremely difficult for them to be heard over the cries of “Frailty, thy name is woman! ” Ophelia is one of the most used and abused characters in Shakespeare. She is walked on by everyone in her life, except for her brother.
Laertes is the only man who seems to truly love Ophelia, no matter what. Her father, Polonius, takes advantage of the fact that Ophelia would do anything for him. When he instructs her to never see Hamlet again, she obeys. When he commands that she show Claudius and Gertrude the secret notes she exchanged with Hamlet, she brings them forth. When he tells her to confront him indirectly about his “love” for her while she reads a prayer book, she does so without question. Even though she probably knows that he is blatantly using her for his own personal gain, she mourns his death hysterically and it even drives her mad.
Hamlet also uses Ophelia as a pawn in his scheme to avenge his father. When her love is no longer of importance to him, she is forgotten. In some cases, however, she is used to illustrate Hamlet’s madness, like at the play when his attitude and speech is so vulgar and unexpected. While it may be true that Hamlet only tells Ophelia he doesn’t love her to protect her from his plans to destroy his family, it only hurts her more. She gave him everything, and she was tossed aside. However, because she loves Hamlet so much, she does not confront him or question his actions or even try to change the situation.
She simply lets herself be trampled under the feet of the strong masculine characters around her. She eventually kills herself in a passive way that reflects her passive personality in life: she doesn’t drown on purpose; she simply lets the brook take her away. Gertrude seems to be sorely misunderstood by most of the people around her. For the majority of the play, she is only seen as an adulterous whore, however, it is also a point that marrying her husband’s brother may have been her only option. She was completely alone after the surprising death of her husband, and she may have had nothing else to do.
She probably just wanted to keep her home and her family together and marrying Claudius may have been a knee-jerk reaction. She is faithful to King Hamlet until his death, and faithful to Claudius, even after she finds out he murdered the man she loved: she stands between him and Laertes’ blade. She also honestly loves Hamlet. Her concern for his sanity is genuine and obvious, and he repays her by questioning her motives for marrying Claudius, calling her a whore, and debating whether or not to kill her. For this reason, he misses out on Gertrude’s love and dedication to her son.
If Hamlet had realized sooner what kind of women he had in his life, he could have saved a few lives and several relationships. However, because the voices of these women were not strong enough to be heard over the din of their male-oriented lifestyle, they were wildly underestimated and tragically mistreated. They both died as shells of the women they could be and were shamelessly used by the men around them. Their presence as main characters is an obvious step in the right direction, however their submissive natured and quiet thoughts leaves something else to be desired.