The Sacrificial Female

by Tiana Urey

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia function as political and social stabilizers to the male characters, and their treatment speaks to the kingdom’s declining health. Their shared literary role demonstrates not that these women are passive, but that female maltreatment is a barometer of instability as the men sink deeper into political turbulence. However, Gertrude and Ophelia are greatly individualized characters who cope with this mediatory responsibility in distinct ways. Gertrude is a highly rational matriarch who effectively weathers belittlement by men. Ophelia, a younger and more vulnerable woman, cracks under the strain of her involuntary duty and falls into self-destruction. These separate coping mechanisms contribute to both their deaths. In this fashion, the actions of the male characters indirectly lead to the demise of both females, and the progression of their abuse evinces the state’s gradual collapse. The women’s shared stabilizing function and unique ends present them as individualized characters who indicate the health of the kingdom as men stop listening to them.

Gertrude, unlike Ophelia, pragmatically and reliably leverages her power to ground the state. Following the death of Hamlet’s father, the kingdom falls into turmoil as Fortinbras threatens to strike revenge, and Denmark lacks a clear leader. Gertrude unites the royal family and grounds the kingdom by marrying her brother-in-law, Claudius. To introduce the play’s circumstances, the king applauds Gertrude and calls her “our sometimes sister, now our queen, / Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state” (I.ii.8-9). Here, Shakespeare uses parallelism to emphasize the unity of Gertrude’s past and present roles in the family; and by labeling her “th’imperial jointress,” he names the political implications of this interfamilial marriage. However, the question of Gertrude’s innocence centers around the motivations for this union. Rather than serve as an example of lustful frailty, as Hamlet imagines (I.ii.150), Gertrude’s decision prioritizes the stability of the “warlike state” over her own grief or romantic preference. By interrupting the line of succession and preventing Hamlet from becoming king, Gertrude uses her best judgment to place the realm in mature hands. She becomes a ballast for the kingdom out of duty and sacrifice, using the only power at her disposal: marriage.

Nonetheless, Gertrude endures scorn for her efforts, thus indicating the declining condition of the state as the men abuse and ignore women for fulfilling the only role allowed to them. Following the play mimicking his father’s murder, Hamlet confronts his mother about her betrayal of the late king. In reaction to her marriage to Claudius, Hamlet attacks his mother:

Oh, 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 (III.iv.82-86).

Hamlet illustrates Gertrude’s sinfulness by transforming his older mother into a lustful youth. Shakespeare uses simile to compare Gertrude’s virtue to wax, which melts due to her sexual immorality and leaves her to burn in her own sin. These devices strengthen Hamlet’s condemnation and emphasize his misplaced anger at his mother’s perceived promiscuity. His verbal abuse of Gertrude signals the larger breakdown of the royal order. Even when Gertrude attempts to settle political unrest with her marriage, her son ignores her sacrifices and maltreats her. She demonstrates that women are unable to complete their function as reconcilers when men do not listen. Therefore, his brutality towards his mother indicates the kingdom’s impending failure without women to ground it. Ignoring women is both a litmus test and a cause of the state’s deterioration.

Even as this volatility escalates within the royal family, Gertrude’s role as a stabilizer makes her the only character able to accurately assess its sources. Gertrude reasonably diagnoses the issue when Hamlet’s madness pitches the court into disorder. While the men speculate that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is the source of his distemper, Gertrude objects to Claudius, “I doubt it is no other than the main, / His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.56-57). Shakespeare juxtaposes Gertrude’s direct language with the typical layered meanings within the men’s dialogue as evidenced by the litany of figurative devices in Hamlet’s dialogue above. Hamlet’s unpredictable behaviors sow the seeds of unrest among the royals, but Gertrude attempts to pacify them with accurate knowledge of her son. However, her wise evaluation falls upon deaf ears as the men move forward with their plan of surveillance. Gertrude is one of the only stabilizing forces as the male characters lack her straightforward sense of reason and clear motivations. This disregard prevents Gertrude from quelling further instability and thus demonstrates the overall shakiness of the royal foundation.

Ophelia also acts as a mediator for the men but suffers disregard and abuse for her efforts. After discovering that Hamlet had written affectionate letters to Ophelia, Polonius orders her to cease her correspondence with him. Then, to discern if this rejection is the source of his madness, the men use Ophelia as bait to judge his reaction as Claudius and Polonius watch in secret. Prior to the scheme, Gertrude tells Ophelia:

And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness. So shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honors (III.i.ll.42-46).

Here Shakespeare uses alliteration liberally throughout the passage to emphasize the phrase “wonted way” and the women’s ability to return disorder to normalcy. Ophelia acts as a mediator, using her “good beauties” to accomplish this task. With this phrasing, Gertrude implies that a woman’s virtue lies in this ability to find resolutions. Ophelia does her part to pacify the kingdom’s discord by complying with the men’s scheme. They sacrifice Ophelia by disregarding her own affection for Hamlet and forcing her to betray him. Ophelia’s role as an expendable woman highlights the growing discord in the state. As opposed to the queen who chooses this duty, the family imposes the role of peacemaker onto Ophelia without taking her input into account. By helping to cast Ophelia in her position as stabilizer, Gertrude’s complicity mirrors her own disregard by men as she contributes to female oppression in order to quell the upheaval. This distinction between an experienced matriarch and sensitive young woman makes the two characters respond differently to their stabilizing duties and the dismissal that follows.

Similar to his treatment of Gertrude, Hamlet relentlessly insults Ophelia and reflects the realm’s increasing unsteadiness. Per her father’s orders, Ophelia returns Hamlet’s letters only to meet derision. Hamlet, seeming to echo his rage towards his mother, scorns Ophelia and denies his past love for her. Hamlet disparages: “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, farewell” (III.i.135-137). Shakespeare uses repeated similes, such as “chaste as ice” and “pure as snow,” to emphasize the parallels between light and dark in the passage. The concepts of marriage, dowry, ice, and snow create a bright and virtuous image in contrast to Hamlet’s dark curse of calumny and plague. He orders Ophelia “to a nunnery” to correct her non-existent sexual offenses against God. These devices converge to generate a brutally scathing tone seemingly incongruous with Hamlet’s prior behavior. His claims of broken chastity are entirely unfounded, and his abuse indicates the breakdown of the state as his erratic behavior expands beyond gender-based violence and into the kingdom’s political foundations. When Ophelia proclaims, “Heavenly powers, restore him!” (III.i.141), she seems to also beg for a restoration of order in the kingdom where this mistreatment is abnormal. For her, Hamlet was a beloved suitor, not a son. Therefore, Ophelia and Gertrude cope with his insults differently, though Ophelia destabilized to a much greater extent. Although both women attempt to ground the kingdom, they meet disparate demises which individualize them as characters.

The men of the play ultimately sacrifice the women, mirroring the complete deterioration of the royal state. However, the circumstances surrounding their deaths prove significant to their representation in the play. Gertrude remains stalwart in her stabilization of the kingdom until her death. However, as the men go forward with their schemes without warning her, Gertrude becomes unable to complete her grounding role effectively. When Hamlet and Laertes duel, she remains ignorant of the fatal trap Claudius sets for her son. Nonetheless, she supports Hamlet despite his mistreatment and remains a loyal mother to calm the growing tensions. Moreover, she celebrates and encourages his success: “Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows. / The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” (V.ii.261-262). Shakespeare invokes dramatic irony as the queen drinks from the poison cup to show support for her son. Symbolically, this unwavering commitment to preserve the family kills her; the men’s plots and deceptions unwittingly sacrifice the women. Throughout the play, the men purposefully ignore the women with ever-growing unintended consequences until their ultimate ruin. This accidental manslaughter perpetrated by her husband leads to the absolute death of the kingdom.

Ophelia suffers a similar end. In contrast to Gertrude, who remains steady despite men’s abuses, Ophelia becomes unmoored after Polonius’ death. Her tragic descent into madness and subsequent suicide demonstrate the breakdown of the function of women in the play and thus the kingdom’s collapse. Shakespeare places a much greater stress on her downfall than on Gertrude’s: hers is one of the first deaths and foreshadows the massacre to come. Ophelia wanders into the throne room singing nonsense as she scatters flowers. Laertes laments, “Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! / O heavens, is’t possible a young maid’s wits / Should be as mortal as a poor man’s life?” (IV.ii.158-160). This analogy compares female sanity to the uncomplicated end and dispensability of a poor man’s life. Implicit in this comparison is that Ophelia’s destruction is not incidental but the indirect result of human action. She is caught in the crossfire of the male characters who leave her voiceless with their coercion, leaving Ophelia’s only mode to express herself that final, mad speech that excludes men. Her suicide comes soon after, proving that she was unable to cope under the crimes and exploitation as the men reject female roles of meditation. With Hamlet’s verbal abuse and the death of her father, Ophelia internalizes the tragedy and turns it against herself. As a symbol of female goodness and purity in the play, her suicide is emblematic of traditional female roles falling apart. This terminal choice ultimately allows her to assert herself in her own terms. Ophelia’s sacrifice by men reflects the eventual sacrifice of the kingdom and women’s stabilizing roles.

As abuse towards women progresses in the play, female characters are unable to carry out their function as stabilizers and mediators. The moral and political health of the state crumbles because the men stop listening to them. Gertrude and Ophelia’s different reactions to their mistreatment render them individualized characters. Women act as lightning rods for displaced criticism, and their treatment shows not only the sexism rampant in the play but the overall malfunction of human interaction. In an environment where trust is broken and authenticity becomes scarce, women absorb the toxicity of the kingdom until it kills them. The poor treatment of women illustrates the rupture of human connection which pervades the play and eventually leads to the court’s mass decimation. Therefore, the function of women in Hamlet is the bedrock of the characters’ society, and when that foundation cracks, the entire structure follows suit until the entire kingdom is rubble.

Works Cited:

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Second ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.