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For many years in the past women played a small role socially, economically, and politically. As a result of this many works in literature were reflective of this smaller role of women. In Elizabethan theaters small boys dressed and played the roles of women. In contrast to this trend, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet the women in the play are driving factors for the actions of many other characters. Both Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and Ophelia, Hamlet’s love, affected many of the decisions and actions done by Hamlet.
Gertrude influenced Hamlet significantly throughout the course of the play. Hamlet was very angered by his mother’s remarriage. A few months after his father’s death, Gertrude married Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. He was driven mad when his father’s ghost appeared to him and revealed that Claudius was responsible for the death of Old Hamlet. Hamlet even termed the marriage as incest. Hamlet’s fury is displayed when he throws his mother on the bed and says, “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Act #. Scene #. Line #). This shows his extent of anger because he makes a generalization that all women are weak. As a result of his mother’s actions, Hamlet strives to seek revenge against Claudius for the death of his father. In order to marry Gertrude, Claudius kills his brother. Therefore, Gertrude is the driving factor for the whole setup of the play.
Another significant female character is Ophelia, Hamlet’s love. Hamlet’s quest for revenge interferes with his relationship with Ophelia. There is much evidence to show that Hamlet loved her a great deal, but his pretense of madness drove her to her death. Ophelia drowned not knowing what was happening to her. This can be deduced by the fact that she flowed down the river singing and happy when in truth she was heartbroken. Ophelia was very much afraid when she saw Hamlet “with his doublet all unbraced; No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d, Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle” (Act #. Scene #. Line #). She described him as being “loosed out of hell” (Act #. Scene #. Line #). In addition to that he scared her when he left the room with his eyes still fixed on her. She is especially hurt when Hamlet tells her that he no longer loves her and that he is opposed to marriage. He advises her to go to a nunnery and avoid marriage if she can. “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” (Act #. Scene #. Line #). Hamlet says, “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her” (Act #. Scene #. Line #). His true love for her caused him to stand up to Laertes and fight for her. He is willing to be buried with her in the grave as well.
These two women in the play were the two dominating figures that were the basis for the play. The play could not have been developed if Gertrude had not married Hamlet’s uncle. This was the factor that provided Hamlet’s motives for killing Claudius. The play would not have been as effective if there was no consequence to Hamlet’s actions. Hamlet’s loss of Ophelia was a result of Hamlet’s actions. The role of women in this play sets up a system of cause and effect