Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Victimization of Female Characters in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Measure for Measure"

Jessica Mason
ENG 310 Later Shakespeare
Dr. David Willbern - University at Buffalo
March 8 2005

Out of the Womb and into the Silence:
The Victimization of Female Characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and
Measure for Measure
Just as common patterns of oppression against women exist today, so too were there few options available for white, upper-class women living in England in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A woman’s place was determined by standards created by men. Unmarried women were often subjected to the tyrannical authority of a male, father-figure, only to be given away by the father to a husband. Once married, a woman did not suffer or gain any definitive changes in her status, she merely moved from one style of oppression to another one strikingly similar. As described in “Shakespeare’s Life and Times,” the subordination of women was justified by hierarchal religious conceptions, thus allowing the husband to assume the role of head of the household and moral director and the woman to willingly obey (Best). Female characters in Shakespeare’s plays are victims to a patriarchal culture, as well as to the abusive behavior of male characters supported by the male-dominated culture. Ambiguous female characters are often unfairly judged by readers who do not recognize or acknowledge the tyrannical environment that the female characters live within. Because the female characters are unable to freely exercise choice, their choices are difficult to understand. Not only are Shakespeare’s female characters victims within the context of the plays, but they also fall victim to unjustifiable scrutiny on the part of the audience.

Rationalizing Ambiguity and Filling the Silences: Judging Gertrude

In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Gertrude may appear to have a great deal of power over the Ghost of Hamlet, Prince Hamlet and Claudius in their attraction, obsession, and loathing of her, but her own intentions and feelings are not included in Shakespeare’s play. If she possessed power, it would exist in her agency (ability to make decisions in her best interest), but there is little room for her to do so in an environment of men of power and authority. It is not fair for us to make judgments regarding her power when we, as readers, are only privy to the private thoughts and feelings of male characters. If Gertrude practices agency, the reader is given little evidence of it. Regardless of whether or not Gertrude consciously makes decisions for herself, she is still extremely oppressed because she was born into an oppressive society. Assuming that Gertrude has power neglects the gravity of the subordinate position that women hold in Shakespeare’s plays and in the period (Neely 3). Gertrude’s presence in the play is blown out of proportion by readers. Although her voice is an important one, there is not enough of her to know. The distance created between the reader and Gertrude is indicative of her silence as an oppressed and invisible object (barely citizen) of Denmark.

The Martyr and the Whore: Walking the Thin Line

Women weren’t given room to explore their own desires and were easily cast into one of two categories: the virgin or the whore. Even today, age-old social constructions affect how women are perceived, as well as how women perceive themselves. Under the medieval church, a split between the Virgin Mary and Eve was created. Eve, according to the concepts of order and natural law, was created after Adam to satisfy his needs and obey his commands (“Order in the Sexes” Best). As a result, she became the weak, “anti-type” of the figure of the idealized Virgin Mary (Best), whose importance came from her ability to be desirable and untouchable at the same time. Because the church believed that Eve’s purpose was to serve Adam, her notorious fall became a betrayal of Adam and of God, which allowed for the church to give Adam (and therefore, all men) the power of a God-like authority figure to punish Eve and all women for being of a fallible nature. After developing such a theory, there was a need to justify the persisting male desire to possess and enjoy woman, even in her state of natural imperfection, and so the figure of the Virgin Mary became the ideal, but virtually unreachable standard for women to model. Of course, if all women followed the standards given by the church to be Virgin-like, men of the church would have had a difficult time fulfilling their desires, and so, a space was created between the virgin and the whore to provide a way to control women’s conduct, while simultaneously pleasing men: the institution of marriage. The medieval church represented a hierarchy of men, and women lacked representation altogether. As Michael Best explains, since women were often forced into one of the two categories at the whim of men, jealousy in male characters causes confusion and hostility in their treatment of female characters.

Gendered Madness: the Power Struggle behind Anger and Lust in Prince Hamlet

Hamlet and Gertrude share something in common: they are both victims. On the surface, Hamlet suffers from a lack of acceptance, being treated as a child, being labeled mad, and having to grow up in an unstable and violent environment. Gertrude consciously and/or subconsciously suffers as a woman living in a patriarchal environment, where her worth is determined by her sexual objectification and by her ability to give birth to a son. But, unlike what Hamlet experiences, Gertrude’s suffering is compounded by her invisibility and lack of a voice in the play. She is a victim of the men in her life, whether or not she took part in the murdering of her husband. Because she is a female character, she doesn’t have the complete freedom to pick a partner for herself, and therefore she is not only a victim of King Hamlet, but also of her father and the entire system denying women the right to choose a husband. She is also a victim of her second husband, King Claudius, and Prince Hamlet because they are men. Her objectification is her lack of power, whereas Hamlet’s maleness allows him to have a voice, and although he may not feel as though he possesses the appropriate amount, he does, indeed, posses power.

At a core level, Hamlet’s expressions of anger throughout the play are possible because he is a man. His anger is, in part, a power struggle with his mother. Displays of his rash behavior with both Gertrude and Ophelia are manifestations of his anger over feeling as though he is in a weak position. Hamlet uses Ophelia’s exploited position of inferiority as an opportunity to manipulate and harm her. “If thou dost marry,” he says, “I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny” (3.1 135-137). He carelessly spills out jealousy and insecurity in his intentionally hurtful statements. This implies that he possesses an inner weakness toward female figures, which causes him to feel fearful, and therefore hateful. As anger is a result of fear, Hamlet is most afraid of his own weakness—perhaps of lust or powerlessness toward his mother. Although we can speculate as to the cause of Hamlet’s anger, it is difficult to speculate regarding Gertrude’s feelings.

Her loyalties are ambiguous because her words come from a place of oppression, and it is not fair for the reader to make a judgment regarding her duties or fidelities to any of the male figures in the play without recognizing the underlying subjugation that influences every single word she says. Hamlet fulfills his role as a tyrannical male figure when he sexualizes his mother:

Let not the bloat King tempt you again into bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheeks, call you his mouse,
And let him for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,

and blames her for her powerlessness (3.4 166-170). Directly referring to his mother in a provocative and disgusted manner, he describes how he pictures her as a sexual predator and object. Hamlet is also a victim of the society that encourages the objectification and sexualizing of his mother. As a result, he becomes a powerful victimizer himself. He feels hints of her weakness, he desires her, and he loathes her because his role as a man does not allow for him to sympathize without also feminizing himself in the process.

Confused Meanings: the Sexualizing of the Female Opinion and the Consequence of Speaking out in Measure for Measure

During the Middle Ages, women found an outlet for self-expression in the monastery. Becoming a nun and living in a nunnery meant that a woman would learn to read, write, and possibly create music and books (“Career choices for women” Best). This opportunity dissolved during the later part of the sixteenth century, when education and training of women of nobility became “unfashionable,” and unfortunately the closing of monasteries resulted in the loss of the possibility of an educated and dignified “career” for women (Best). It cannot be ignored that even in the nunnery, women were told what they could read and write by a male figure, as well as restricted to censored religious topics. For a woman who made the choice to be a nun, it was still a choice created and allowed by male overseers and one that strengthened the power of the church and oppression of women through a guise of virginity.

With what little choices were available for women, Isabella struggles to find a place where she can freely express herself in Measure for Measure. Between marriage and death, there is the nunnery. In order to express the freedom to make some form of choice, Isabella is forced to make an exchange: a vow of chastity for a voice. Although it appears, as with Gertrude, that she has considerable power over men, her only dignified power comes from her chasteness. Chastity has been forced on her as one facet of a patriarchal society. By making a vow of chastity, Isabella is practicing agency in her efforts to gain some form of empowerment in her life. Isabella is not hesitant to speak throughout the play, in fact, she is confident and passionate in her ability to verbally express herself; that is, as long as she can maintain her pure image (power). Maintaining a public image of purity is essential for Isabella to have a voice. Therefore, to retain her voice, she must preserve her chastity. Being deflowered is akin to having her tongue cut out, as was done Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. When the Duke, disguised as a friar, manipulatively has Isabella make a false public declaration of a sexual act, he unravels all that she has built up in order to preserve her dignity. His act was devised for a selfish purpose, and in the last scene of the play, he does not proposition her, but does even worse. By having her make that declaration, he destroys her power completely.

The Duke finally tells Isabella, “…for your lovely sake/Give me your hand, and say you will be mine” (5.1 486-486). Notice that he does not ask her or make a proposal, but he calculatedly and nonchalantly tells her to “be his,” implying that he will own her. Isabella’s famous silence at the end of the play is not a chosen silence, but one of oppression and loss. The institution of marriage is powerlessness and silence for Elizabethan women. Isabella struggles to preserve her chastity in words throughout the play, but she becomes entwined and is victimized by the manipulative desires of the Duke, Angelo, and Claudio, who proposition her in an attempt to destroy the possibility of independence for Isabella. Their desire to possess and objectify her is inherent in their desires to sleep with and/or marry her. Isabella is a victim because she loses her verbal power of expression. She poses a threat to the male characters in the play because she overtly uses her chastity to voice her opinions. They, in turn, desire to destroy the power that she struggles to preserve, and so they work at victimizing her until they have won her silence.

Silence Turns to Violence: The Deathly Fate of the Female

Although there were some instances in which women could gain “power” through nobility and inheritance (Greenblatt 9), women faced traditional standards and exercised “choice” under the guidance of the male authority figures surrounding them. Any respect that a woman might have gained would have been due to her blood or ability to give birth to a male child. Even with the ability to inherit and administer land, as a single woman (9), the appearance of freedom through allowances is indefensible. Elizabethan and Jacobean women in early modern England severely lacked the social and political freedoms necessary to practice agency or express their desires openly. Women who attempted to challenge traditional assumptions found in English common law, even if only to a minor degree, were labeled “scolds” and/or corrected through means of public humiliation (Greenblatt 10). Shakespeare’s Isabella and Gertrude face ridicule for being devious, but such assumptions are unfair. Both characters were victimized and held responsible for their objectified position by male characters. This is not unlike the way women are criticized today for expressing their opinions. Women face criticism for being sexual, and if they do not fulfill the sexual stereotype they are criticized for being reserved. Women are easily labeled the virgin or the whore, and it is difficult to find empowerment with powerful stereotypes working toward the demonizing of women’s right of choice. Luckily, different types of feminist approaches have allowed women to analyze their own oppression and work toward their empowerment.

Works Cited

Best, Michael. Shakespeare’s Life and Times. 2001. 26 Feb. 2005

Cohen, Walter. “Othello.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2091-2098.

Greenblatt, Michael, et al. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1659-1666.

---. “The Legal Status of Women.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 9-10.

Maus, Katharine, E. “Measure for Measure.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2021-2027.

Neely, Carol Thomas. “Feminist Criticism and Teaching Shakespeare.” ADE Bulletin 078 (1987): 15-18. 26 Feb. 2005

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997. 1668-1756.

Shakespeare, William. “Measure for Measure” Greenblatt 2029-2086.

Shakespeare, William “The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice” Greenblatt 2100- 2172.

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