Investigating Hamlet through the lens of gender brings up many different ideas and concepts. One stands out is how characters are supposed to act according to their gender especially seen in Hamlet and Ophelia. These characters are of the opposite gender and therefore are supposed to act differently due to that gender. Butler would describe this as “performing”; playing a part which in this case is gender. Throughout Hamlet, both Hamlet and Ophelia act inside there gender but what is interesting to examine is what happens when they act out of their gender and who is watching them act out these actions.
In her essay titled Gender Trouble, Judith Butler examines what gender really is; her main point is that gender is not determined by biology but instead by imitation, institutions, and discourses. So if that is the case gender is then something that people performing meaning that there is a certain way each gender is suppose to act; boys are suppose to act a certain way as well as girls and those actions are different between the genders. Boys plays sport while girls play with dolls and many other examples but this actions are just copies of copies that have been going on for years. Butler also goes on to say that if all of that is ture than their is no origin of gender but gender is something that was socially constructed. Society is what created gender so society is also what keeps gender in line; everyone is watching everyone else to see if they are behaving the way their gender should. Butler’s ideas can be seen not just in today’s world but can help us understand what is happening with gender in Hamlet.
One spot where acting out of gender is seen in Hamlet is when Claudius is speaking to Hamlet:
King:”‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature,
Hamlet, 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:”
At this point, Hamlet is still mourning over the loss of his father to which Claudius is sweet but in the end his actions are not how he should be acting.Crying and grieving in this context is seen as something that women should be doing not men;Claudius even states that Hamlet is acting unmanly and that he is acting against how God wants him to act. So by Hamlet acting out of his gender, he was being watched by Claudius who saw what Hamlet was going and scolded him for his actions.
Another place where gender is being examined is in the conversation between Ophelia and her brother, Laertes:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede. (1.3 45-51)
Here Ophelia is responding to the advice that Laertes has given her about Hamlet; that advice being that Hamlet’s duties lay to his country and family so in the end, they will ultimately make the decision of who he will marry. He also states that she should keep love under control;Ophelia is acting like a young naive women who does not know how to handle her feelings. Her response to him is that she will listen to him and keep her feelings at bay. But then turns the tables on him and says that he must also do the same; meaning that the good words is preaching he should follow as well. What Ophelia is showing here is that there is a double standard present; women are told to keep to themselves while men can go off and enjoy themselves with shame. Going back to Butler, this double standard can be explained as a result of the idea that gender is socially constructed. Society, here in Hamlet, turns a blind eye of the questionable actions of men while keeping a very sharp eye on the actions of women; Ophelia is bring that to the foreground in her response to her brother but she does not go any further with the idea; she returns to how she should act as a woman just like Hamlet did after his scolding from Claudius.
Hamlet after the conversation with Claudius partakes in an action that is seen as manly in the eyes of society:
Ghost:Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther.(1.2 25)
Hamlet is going to get revenge for his descent father by killing Claudius; revenge and vengeance is seen as a very manly action. Ophelia also conformed back to how she as a woman is supposed to act; after the loss of her father Ophelia restore to madness. Society played a part in changing how both of these characters act and in the end both of these characters end up dying in a way that there gender should die.
Gender is the world today is very different from the world of Hamlet. Gender fluidity is very common today which blurs the line of gender to something that is almost not there. Today there is also more acceptance of acting out of gender ie drag, dressing out of gender and so on. There are still people who believe that gender is binary but that number is shrinking.Would Hamlet and Ophelia have acted any different if there were set in today’s world? I don’t think Hamlet would have but I feel like Ophelia’s story might be different. Gender still has a long way to go but there is progress being made.
Wofford,Susanne. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: William Shakespeare Hamlet
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2488-2501