Honor and Excess Pride: Harmful Gender Expectations in Hamlet

In Hamlet, the motivation of many male characters is to regain their honor, specifically through violent actions. To them, honor is more important than anything, even more than staying alive. When pride is on the line, they are willing to die. Keeping their honor and acting violently to regain their honor is an expectation of men enforced by society. However, honor means pride, not its actual definition. When pride becomes excessive, it becomes harmful. This excess of pride is seen in Hamlet through the men’s violent actions to reclaim their honor. Because men are expected to be violent when they regain their own pride, it leads to death and destruction. Gender roles are exemplified in Hamlet through the male characters’ quests to keep their honor intact. This need to keep their honor results in the deaths of almost all of the characters, indicating that the expectation that men must be violent is harmful.

In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler explains that biology does not determine gender. Rather, gender is influenced by cultural practices, institutions, and discourses. Gender is performative, meaning that gender norms expressed by people are formulated and maintained through society’s belief that gender and biology are the same. There is no single origin of gender; it is socially constructed. Butler believes that the gestures, words, and acts of the body are performed because society and government regulate how people use their own bodies; if someone was to fall outside of the norm, there are consequences. These performances of the body indicate the false thought that women and men are inherently different at their core. Gender is also imitative, and one thing that helps us to see this is drag. Drag queens see how women express their gender, and exaggerate that in shows. The meaning of gender being imitative is that when a little girl sees a woman wearing pink, the little girl will wear pink, and when a little boy sees a man wearing blue, he will wear blue, because the kids recognize that their role models share the same biology. Because gender is imitation, every expression of gender is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy and so on; there is no ideal or real gender roles. If there are no ideal gender roles, than how can we expect people to achieve them? Everyone is under pressure to adhere to something that doesn’t exist. We are trying to do the impossible, and because no one can be the ideal, no one can succeed. Basically, gender roles are harmful to everyone.

In many works form the time that Hamlet was first performed, a man’s honor rests in women’s purity. If a woman became impure, or in other words lost her virginity, than the honor of any man associated with her would be insulted. One poem that gives insight to the attitude towards sexuality and honor during this time is “A Rapture” by Thomas Carew, which is an attack against the personification of Honor. Written in 1640, “A Rapture” was written around the time that Hamlet was first performed. In this poem, the speaker is astonished at the things that Honor makes men and women do:

If thou complain of wrong, and call my sword

To carve out thy revenge, upon that word

He bids me fight and kill; or else he brands

With marks of infamy my coward hands.

And yet religion bids from blood-shed fly,

And damns me for that act. Then tell me why

This goblin Honour, which the world adores,

Should make men atheists, and not women whores? (Carew 159-166)

In the view of the speaker, honor causes him to “fight and kill,” and if he does not act violently for honor, then he will be a “coward.” Furthermore, the speaker notes that religion is against violence. However, because honor forces men to act violently, the men go against their religion. Because of this, the speaker questions why honor does not make men “atheists,” but makes women “whores,” as women who do not remain virgins lose honor. Based on this poem, we can infer that honor influences the way the characters act, from sexuality to violence, during the time period of Hamlet.

In order to keep their honor, the male characters in Hamlet control the actions of the female characters because their honor rests partly on the women. Because of this, both Laertes and Polonius regulate Ophelia’s actions. In their eyes, a man’s honor rests in women’s chastity. When Laertes warns Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, he tells her not to lose her virginity:

Laertes: 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 unmast’red 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.

The chariest maid is prodigal enough

If she unmask her beauty to the moon. (Shakespeare 1.3.29-38)

In these lines, Laertes shows his fear that Ophelia will become impure. Even though he talks about Ophelia’s “honor” and “fear,” what he is really talking about his own fear of losing his honor if Ophelia was not chaste.

In the same scene Ophelia’s father Polonius also tells Ophelia what to do because of his wish to keep his honor and his belief that a woman’s value is in her purity. First, when Polonius is trying to find out what is going on between Hamlet and Ophelia, he says, “As it behooves my daughter and your honor,” thus connecting honor and staying pure (1.3.97). Then, like his son, Polonius cautions Ophelia against spending time with Hamlet, because Hamlet doesn’t really love her:

Polonius: … These blazes, daughter

Giving more light than heat, extinct in both

Even in their promise, as it is a-making,

You must not take for fire. From this time

Be something scanter of your maiden presence,

Set your entreatments at a higher rate

Than a command to parle. For Lord Hamlet,

Believe so much in him, that he is young,

And with a larger teder may he walk

Then may be given you. In few, Ophelia,

Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers… (1.3.119-127)

Polonius is warning of Hamlet’s bad intentions because he says “these blazes” are more like “light than heat,” meaning that there is no real love behind Hamlet’s pursuits. Polonius tells Ophelia to meet with and talk to Hamlet less in order to make her time with him more valued. Because Polonius says “maiden,” he reveals that he is worried that Ophelia will not remain pure if she continues to spend time with Hamlet instead of being worried that Hamlet will hurt Ophelia through false intentions. The phrase “Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers” implies that Hamlet’s love is more of a business deal than anything else. Both Laertes and Polonius monitor everything Ophelia does. If their female relatives somehow becomes unclean, than Laertes and Polonius lose their honor. If they lose their honor, then they have to get it back‒ usually through violent means. For example, another man in the play who regains his honor through violence is Fortinbras, who marches to Poland to reclaim a small piece of land, intending to battle for it. To them, honor is everything, so Laertes and Polonius will do anything to keep it. If a man’s honor was not tied to women’s sexuality, then men would not be as controlling of women. The men’s actions are performed, because they know that if they lost their honor, they would be looked down upon in society.

The need to act violently in order to get revenge centers around Hamlet and his need to prove Claudius as the murderer. Hamlet believes the only way for him to win back his honor is to kill Claudius. Time after time, Hamlet seems hesitant to kill his uncle; unlike Laertes, who wants revenge right away, Hamlet takes his time. However, Hamlet knows that he should act violently. He is performing his own gender, or how he thinks his gender should be expressed. After Hamlet orders the Players to perform “The Murther of Gonzago” and sends them, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, away, he criticizes himself for not killing Claudius right away:

Hamlet: Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear [father] murthered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A stallion. Fie upon’t, foh! (2.2.562-567)

The use of the words “whore” and “drab” are mostly aimed towards women. In this passage, Hamlet reveals his disdain for handling things with words, like women, unlike with violence, like men. Hamlet believes he must act violently to win back his honor because he believes that acting violently is just what men do. In this way, Hamlet’s actions exemplify Butler’s point that gender is performative.

Gender’s imitative nature is shown when Hamlet first sees Fortinbras and his army marching towards Poland:

Hamlet: Witness this army of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,

But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

When honor’s at stake. How stand I then

That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep, while to my shame I see

The imminent death of twenty thousand men… (4.4.47-60)

In this passage, Hamlet expresses his belief that honor should be regained “even for an egg-shell.” He believes honor is essential to life. Then, he criticizes himself for hesitating to kill Claudius when Fortinbras immediately takes action. Hamlet sees Fortinbras, recognizes that both him and the other prince are male, and knows that because of this he should imitate what Fortinbras does. Hamlet identifies what he believes a man should be in Fortinbras, and Hamlet wants to be what a man should be. Because of this, he realizes he should take back his honor like Fortinbras is: quickly and forcefully.

Both Laertes and Hamlet strive to regain their honor, but their actions only result in the death of everyone. If the expectations of gender only results in death, then how can it be possible to adhere to these standards? Hamlet seeks to regain his honor and seek revenge for the murder of his father through violent means, albeit very, very slowly. Thinking Polonius to be Claudius, Hamlet kills Polonius through the tapestry. Polonius’s death leads to Ophelia killing herself. Later, the confrontation between Hamlet and Laertes regarding Polonius’s death incites the duel between the two, which is where the majority of the characters die. In order to protect his honor, Laertes insists on a duel between Hamlet and himself:

Laertes: I am satisfied in nature,

Whose motive in this case should stir me most

To my revenge, but in my terms of honor

I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement

Till by some elder masters of known honor

I have a voice and president of peace

To [keep] my name ungor’d. (5.2.226-231)

In order to keep his “name ungor’d,” Laertes believes he has to get revenge for the murder of his father. By fighting Hamlet, Laertes will reclaim his honor. However, we know this does not end well. Laertes and Claudius’ plot to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword backfires, somehow ending up in Hamlet’s hand causing Laertes to die. Gertrude drinks the wine the king poisoned to ensure Hamlet’s death, and dies. Then, realizing Claudius’s treachery, Hamlet kills Claudius. Hamlet dies because he was stabbed by Laertes with the poisoned sword. Each character’s quest to regain their honor results in death for everyone, indicating that the expectations society places on them are incredibly harmful.

The gender expectation that a man must retain his honor, or in this essay an excess of pride, in Hamlet is damaging to all of the characters. This reinforces the fact that gender expectations are incredibly harmful to people of all genders, including those who follow gender norms and those who reject them. The men in Hamlet also evoke toxic masculinity, in that traditional gender roles restrict a healthy expression of emotions. Instead of expressing their emotions and dealing with problems healthily, the men act violently because they do not know how to handle emotions. Given that everyone dies at the end of Hamlet, repressing one’s emotions is bad. From this, we can see that gender roles must be done away with; everyone should be able to have emotions and power simultaneously, regardless of gender.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 2485-2501.

Carew, Thomas. “A Rapture.” Luminarium, Aniina Jokinen, web.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. Edited by Susanne L. Wofford, Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2009.