Hamlet’s Grief: Subconsciously Testing Performative Gender

Hamlet’s use of feminine gender roles in his grieving process is more than what Judith Butler would call a parody. The boundaries between his performance of feminine grief and actual madness cause the connection between gender and biology is called into question entirely. If we use Laertes and Ophelia’s grieving process to understand the way men and women are expected to grieve based on Butler’s concept of performative gender, we realize that Hamlet disrupts the order by using both feminine and masculine methods to react to his father’s death. Hamlet initially takes on madness in order to carry out a revenge plan. Yet, as he does this he becomes more aware of the true nature of his grief, thus discovering the lack of societally instituted order within himself. This loss within himself prompts him to act out against the women in his life, thus revealing the dangers of coming to terms with the performance of gender.

Gender and the way that people should act according to their biology are a social order that is disrupted throughout the play. Judith Butler points to the ways in which society’s necessary connection between biology and gender fall apart. Throughout history, masculine and feminine gender roles have arbitrarily attached themselves to a person’s biology. According to Butler, these systems render out bodies, “a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated” (2499).  People’s bodies are a gateway between what society expects them to act and the reality of their actions. For example, society expects some people to be nurturers while others are expected to be protectors. Social norms dictate that those who are born with a vagina should be nurturers, and those who are born with a penis should be protective. The actual biology makes no indication that this should be the case, yet, according to Butler, there is no distinctive “gender” that should dictate how we act. Humanity’s conception of gender is nothing but an arbitrary fragments of cultural pressure. Since gender is construction that does not actually exist, it is impossible for anyone to actually embody “femininity” or “masculinity.” Any performance of said roles is strictly performative.  Butler points to Drag as a method which society becomes aware of and calls attention to the performance of gender. In other words, Drag is a parody of the structures society creates. It calls into question the extent to which we can take someone who embodies a gender role which does not even exist.

Throughout the play, Ophelia recognizes that she is pressured to act in a certain way because of her biology. Ophelia is aware of both the existence of performative gender roles and the ways in which those roles influence her actions. Ophelia calls out these gender roles after her brother confronts her about her relationship with Hamlet. In this discussion Laertes warns Ophelia that Hamlet is unable to marry her because of his soon-to-be kingly status. He advises Ophelia to:

Then weigh what loss your honour 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.

Laertes is attempting to protect Ophelia’s chastity, or “honour.” The Oxford English Dictionary claims that “honour” used in the context of chastity is a strictly gendered term: “With reference to a woman: virtue as regards sexual morality; chastity; virginity; a reputation for this, one’s good name. Now arch. (frequently somewhat humorous).” Because of Ophelia’s biology she is pressured to remain sexually passive in light of Hamlet’s advances. In being expected to remain passive in relationship to Hamlet, she is indirectly receiving the message to generally apply her emotions in a passive manner.

Ophelia’s need to apply her feelings in a passive way surfaces in a dangerous when when she faces the loss of her father. To seek revenge would be to take action against Hamlet, which she has been taught not to do according to the feminine concept of honour she is subjected to. Instead she reacts passively, as she has been told to do based on her biology. She responds to the situation passively, by allowing her emotions to fall back onto herself, thus leading to madness. As she faces the king and queen upon her brother’s arrival, she makes a show of her madness by singing songs as giving symbolic flowers to each person present. She expresses her passivity in saying, “ I hope all will be well. We must be patient; but I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him i’ th’ cold ground” (68-70). At one point during this exchange she says of her own madness, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (IV.v.43). Even in madness she is aware of the way her actions are dictated by the expectations of others. She speaks to a person without pressures to act performatively, “what we know,” that is overcome by the need to be performative“what we may be.” Amongst other things, these established a structure between biology and everyday actions such as grieving. Ophelia is not free to express her grief as she would like, so she loses her sense of identity all together.

In grieving his father, Laertes adapts performative masculinity by seeking revenge for his father’s death. He reacts to the instance instantly, with thought only of the physical actions he would take to get revenge on his father. Upon learning the news he says:

“How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with.

To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.

He neglects passive responses to his father’s death such as “allegiances,” “vows,” “grace and compassion” in lue of revenge. If we approach masculinity as active and femininity as emotional, as it has been throughout history, we see that Laertes is rejecting the feminine reaction to his father’s death and instead accepting a more masculine role.

Like Laertes, Hamlet also feels pressure to take action and find revenge in order to express his grief. After learning that Poland is willing to take action to defend worthless land from Fortinbras Hamlet calls into question his own masculinity:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused. (IV, iv, 35-42).

Hamlet makes reference to the biological difference between “beasts” and men: that they should be able to use reason to determine how they should act. Since Hamlet has been unable to kill Claudius, he has become subject to passivity that puts him outside of the performative category of “male.”

As Hamlet encounters grief, he holds himself to the same performative expectations as Laertes, yet he finds himself unintentionally abandoning these standards. When Hamlet decides not to kill Claudius at the end of act two, he refers to himself derogatorily as a woman:

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

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

Prompted me to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

Stallion. (II.ii.562-567)

He accuses himself of acting like a “whore” because he chose to grieve passively by showing mercy rather than grieving by achieving revenge as he planned. In choosing not to kill Claudius he had chosen a passive, emotional, and therefore feminine response rather than an active, violent, and therefore masculine response. In this moment Hamlet discovers that the complexity of his gendered grieving process extends beyond the madness he has chosen to adapt. He has found within himself an emotional grief that extends mercy and takes a passive outlook on the situation as a whole.

By subconsciously combines his performative search for revenge with the madness that Ophelia finds in performing passivity. His bending of performative gender calls into question the necessity of applying connections between behaviour and gender. The outcome of this performative shift brings light to the darkside of parody: it leads one to discover truths about the self. For Hamlet, he realized that he was susceptible to the “grace” that was only supposed to be felt by women in times of grief. He began to understand that the order that he grew up with did not apply to him in the ways that he expected. While gender roles are performative, and this can be oppressive especially to those like Ophelia, coming to terms with the discovery of the performance can lead to confusion, overcompensation, and violence.

Works Cited

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

“honour | honor, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/88227.

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