We found that women in these works of Shakespeare, on the whole, are winning and charming. They occupy a dominant position in the action of the play and are almost always in the forefront. Ruskin’s remark is amply justified in respect of these two works of Shakespeare as well as for his other comedies: “Shakespeare has no heroes, but only heroines.”(56) It is certainly not justified for his tragedies and histories. This sort of dominance of women is nearly absent in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. The tragic heroines or female protagonists are helpless, pathetic figures, and play comparatively low profile roles as compared to the towering personality of the hero.
Shakespeare’s characterization of Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet is paradoxical as it challenges as well as complements the contemporary social traditions and norms. Gertrude is the best example of this paradox that is manifested through her extraordinary supremacy over all the major characters of Hamlet, her influence in the court matters and state affairs and her blind obedience to Claudius. Ophelia is also active in her domestic domain but her interest are restricted to amorous and matrimonial maters only and they are further directed by his father Polonius and brother Laertes. She is an epitome of traditional feminist expressions of the age that require chastity, compliance and acceptance of male dominancy from women.
Gertrude influence is wide ranging as it encompasses the domestic as well as the state affairs. Simultaneously she manifests the behaviour that is in consonance with the contemporary traditional view. She has the ability to captivate, fend off, or manipulate all important male characters for her own interests. Act 2, scene 2, clearly manifests how Gertrude behaves authoritatively with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and with Polonius. This scene further depicts her interaction with Claudius and influence she possesses over Claudius. But she further exhibit the behaviour hat is an embodiment of Elizabethan socio-cultural milieu and its values. She is subservient to Claudius when she agrees to Claudius’ plan to trap Hamlet, ‘I shall obey you,’ (3.1.37). Again in the closet scene, she is in compliance to Hamlet’s orders; ‘What should I do?’ she asks (3.4.181).
Furthermore, despite Gertrude’s conformist female acquiescent behaviour, her excessive sexuality and lust makes him a non-traditional woman. This portrayal of Gertrude clearly challenges the social and ethical norm of Elizabethan society. Her sexuality is intimidating for both Hamlets, father and son, who consider it brutal, extreme, and tainted:
‘Nay, but to live/ In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/ Over the nasty sty’ (3.4.92-95);
Again it is said; ‘ So lust, though to a radient angel linked,/ Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.’ (1.5.55-57).
These lines are not in conformity with the woman image of contemporary society where woman’s chastity was the first condition for her social recognition. The relation of Hamlet and Gertrude is marked with oedipal connotations. Hamlet is placed in a situation his unconscious incestuous inclinations are juxtaposed with the apparent incestuous relationship of Gertrude and Claudius who is a new father figure to him. This juxtaposition and presence of Oedipal feelings plays an important in changing Hamlet’s behaviour toward his mother. Jones, 76-77)
Gabrielle Dane (1998) writes, “Motherless and completely circumscribed by the men around her, Ophelia has been shaped to conform to external demands, to reflect others’ desires” (406). Contrary to this psychologically realistic criticism, this characterization of Ophelia is influenced by the cultural tradition of the male-dominant Elizabethan society.
Ophelia is a typical character that is a mirror image of contemporary society. She remains passive in the domestic and emotional domain. Ophelia has no identity of her own and all her domestic and amorous matters are directed by her father. Polonius endeavours to fashion the life and attitude of Ophelia according to his own wishes. He considers his desires as her desires and try to tailor her approach by various means.
So right from the very start, Ophelia is under the sway of Laertes and Polonius. So her character is in complete conformity with the traditional values of that time. Polonius always responds from a position of authority over Ophelia, emphasizing his power as the decision-maker for her. Both her father and brother have a self assigned task of directing Ophelia how to act properly in every domain of her life. Although Shakespeare has characterized Ophelia as inferior to male characters, but characterization of Gertrude has dual characteristic. Sometime it challenges the traditions of the conformist society and sometime it itself become conforms to the values of the society by acting passively.
So women characters in these plays are an epitome of traditional feminist expressions of the age that require chastity, compliance and acceptance of male dominancy from women. Additionally Shakespeare further induced a spirit of individuality in them by inculcating certain behavioural competencies and habitual formations in them i.e. intelligence, witticism, frankness and a passion to move ahead in life. Furthermore, women are portrayed with glowing colors and not negative terminology or abuses are attributed to them. Shakespeare’s characterizations of females in these plays are paradoxical as it challenges as well as complements the contemporary social traditions and norms.