Assigned by Society
Gender; a topic of discussion that has been at the forefront of minds for decades. This topic often goes hand in hand with equality but also assignment. It has been philosophically debated, scientifically tested and psychologically observed to come to a final answer whether gender is truly assigned by society or assigned before birth. This is a very controversial issue in culture and there is never one right answer that comes from any of the debates. Gender is a large theme in Hamlet and by reading Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble there is a better understanding of society assigning gender and behaviors to Hamlet’s characters.
Judith Butler is a feminist philosopher and gender theorist who wrote Gender Trouble, a piece that questions societies impact on gender and identity. Her argument is clear, yet complete in that gender is an improvised performance forcing both men and women to inhabit roles. This does not go against the biological assignment at birth which is referred to as sex not gender, commonly a gray area that readers misunderstand with Butler’s theory. Gender is the socially created roles and feelings that are deemed appropriate for men and women in society. Butler argues that everyday actions such as speech, gestures, dress and representation all produce what is an essential male and female identity. Butler deconstructs this notion of a stable identity that has been established and pressured on all of society, rather, she encourages an inner identification of identity and break away from society. Butler claims that there is no link between sex and gender but instead social conventions such as dress and behavior give a natural looking link between the two. Butler claims that there is no such thing as masculinity and femininity but when men and women act as expected according to those terms it makes it exist. This acknowledgment of the masculine and feminine roles are seen clearly in Hamlet.
This concept of masculinity and femininity is seen in Hamlet clearly in the actions and expectations of Ophelia and Hamlet. It is seen as Hamlet mourns the loss of his father, confronts his mother, and when Ophelia is confronted by her brother these all show society assigning their gender. Hamlet is a play that is analyzed for many social theories but a strong one is the gender construct. Butler’s gender theory can be applied to many scenes and the time period as a whole. During this time period there were limited conversations of gender and constructs but that does not mean that gender was non existent. There were strong gender conformations for male and females but also men who began to cross dress as women in theatre. Butler’s theory of gender being assigned by society is strong, even when applied to Hamlet’s plot and characters, such as Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude.
As Hamlet returns from his schooling to begin the mourning process of his Father, King Hamlet, the social construct of gender became clear. As men of any class in this time had clear expectations of what their emotional state could be and when it could be expressed. Claudius approaches Hamlet on his mourning process and says the following;
‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,
To give these mourning duties to your father.
[…] but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled:
Males who are labelled men by society are supposed to be strong and masculine If there is anything less than that they are considered to have feminine features and frowned upon. Naturally Hamlet is mourning but the social assignment of masculinity catches him and expects him to mourn how the rest of male society mourns. Butler claims that “discrete genders are part of what “humanizes” individuals within contemporary culture; indeed we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right” (2500). This is applied to the scene of Claudius and Hamlet because as Hamlet begins to mourn in the way his body naturally wishes he is punished verbally by society.
Hamlet was confronted for expressing himself the way he naturally would, before society pressured with the “correct” masculine emotions. This however did not stop Hamlet from confronting his mother and her actions. As his mother had married Claudius two months after his father’s death, Hamlet became distraught over such treachery and needed to remind his mother of her place. Hamlet says the following to his mother reminding her of her role:
But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was, to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth.
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on. And yet, within a month
(Let me not think on ‘t; frailty, thy name is woman!)
Gertrude is expected as a feminine female in society to marry and remain loyal to her husband. When King Hamlet died and Gertrude quickly remarried, Hamlet quickly saw a flaw in this. He thought she should not rightfully be marrying another man but remain loyal to her husband and mourn longer. Hamlet then goes to say “frailty, this name is woman!” meaning that women as a whole are frail and weak and cannot stand for themselves. This could be a stab at what it means to be a woman and how Gertrude should be strong and independent but society had forced her to be weak and in need of a man because of what it means to be a woman. A woman is expected to be dependant on men and feminine and Hamlet sees that clearly in his mother. Hamlet is obviously guaranteeing that his mother pursue the “correct” female role that has been assigned to her by society. Gertrude was not able to pick which gender she would live but instead expected and told to mourn and live a life society is told. In this scene as Hamlet approaches his mother he takes on a clear role as a member of society by assigning her gender as she started to digress.
Finally Ophelia is confronted by her brother and her actions as a woman seeking a husband:
[…] Then, if he says he loves
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed, which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.
Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster’d importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
By Laertes confronting Ophelia of her chastity, he is reminding his sister of her rightful place and that is to follow all gender expectations. If she does not follow those expectations she and he will not find a rightful and worthy family. The idea of confrontation is common as seen between various characters. Laertes had seen how Ophelia may bend the gender roles and needed to understand her place in a male dominant society to avoid putting her future at risk. A woman in society is to be feminine and attract a male in all relationships and according to society means a preferably heterosexual. This is another clear example of a male acknowledging a females roles thus strengthening the existence of it.
In conclusion Judith Butler had created a theory that was reflected greatly in Hamlet. Gender was chosen by society for Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia. Society had forced Hamlet to mourn in a masculine way, Gertrude to remarry, and Ophelia to remain a product of marriage. By these characters acknowledging this and not following their natural feelings masculinity and femininity continuing to exist.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet: A Case Study in Contemporary Criticism, ed. Susanne Wofford, 1994.