Comparing Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia and Gertrude
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Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia and Gertrude
Modern folklore suggests women look at a man's relationship with his mother
to predict how they will treat other women in their life. Hamlet is a good
example of a son's treatment of his mother reflecting how he will treat the
woman he loves because when considering Hamlet's attitude and treatment of the
Ophelia in William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, one must first consider how
Hamlet treated his mother. A characteristic of Hamlet's personality is to make
broad, sweeping generalizations and nowhere is this more evident than in his
treatment toward women. Very early in the play, while discussing his mother's
transgressions, he comments, “Frailty, thy name is woman. (Hoy, 11).” Hamlet
appears to believe all women act in the same manner as his mother.
The first time the audience meets Hamlet, he is angry and upset at Queen
Gertrude, his mother, for remarrying his uncle so soon after the death of his
father. In his first soliloquy he comments on the speed of her remarriage
Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good. (Hoy, 11)
It is understandable Hamlet is upset with his mother for forgetting about his
father and marrying his uncle, Claudius. In Hamlet's eyes, his father deserves
more than one month of mourning and by remarrying so quickly, the queen has
sullied King Hamlet's memory. This remarriage is a sin and illegal, however
special dispensation was made because she is queen.
Hamlet's opinion of his mother worsens as the play progresses because
his father, who appears as a ghost, tells him of his mother's adulterous
behavior and his uncle's shrewd and unconscionable murder. Although Hamlet
promises to seek revenge on King Claudius for murdering his father, he is
initially more concerned with the ghost's revelations regarding his mother.
King Hamlet tells Hamlet not to be concerned with his mother but after the
apparition leaves, it is the first thing Hamlet speaks of. Before vowing to
avenge his father's death, he comments on the sins his mother committed.
Although Hamlet decides to pretend to be insane in order to plot against
the King, it is clear, he really does go mad. His madness seems to amplify his
anger toward his mother. During the play scene, he openly embarrasses her and
acted terribly toward her in the closet scene. The closet scene explains much
about Hamlet's treatment of women and his feelings toward his mother. Hamlet
yells at his mother for destroying his ability to love. He accuses her of
such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there.
Hamlet curses his mother for being responsible for his inability to love Ophelia.
Queen Gertrude's actions have caused Hamlet to see all women in a different
light because she has taken away his innocence and love for women.
After Hamlet kills Polonius, he tests Queen Gertrude to see if she knows
about the murder of his father and both he and the audience seem satisfied she
was not party to that knowledge. Hamlet takes it upon himself to tell the queen
her new husband killed the former king, however he is interrupted by the ghost
who warns Hamlet not to tell his mother. The ghosts tells Hamlet he should be
more concerned with King Claudius, suggesting revenge must be taken soon (Dover
During this scene Queen Gertrude is unable to see her dead husband which
in Elizabethan times implied she was “unable to see the ‘gracious figure' of her
husband because her eyes are held by the adultery she has committed (Dover
Wilson, 254).” The ghosts steals away from the closet when he realizes his
widow cannot see him, causing Hamlet to hate Gertrude even more because he felt
the same rejection when Ophelia rejected him. He can feel his father's grief as
a son and as a lover (Dover Wilson, 255). It was devastating to see his father
rejected by the queen in the same manner he was rejected by Ophelia.
Understanding Hamlet's hatred toward his mother is pivotal in
understanding his relationship with Ophelia because it provides insight into his
treatment of Ophelia. In Hamlet's eyes, Ophelia did not treat him with the love
and respect she should have. Hamlet and Ophelia loved each other but very early
in the play, she is told by her father to break off all contact with him.
Hamlet is understandably upset and bewildered when Ophelia severs their
relationship with no explanation.
The audience does not see the next interaction with Hamlet and Ophelia
but hear Ophelia tell her father about Hamlet's distress, causing them to both
to believe Hamlet is mad, thus falling for his plot. According to Ophelia,
Hamlet's appearance was one of a madman. She described for her father the
length of time he stayed her in bedroom and said
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turned
He seemed to find his way without his eyes,
For out adoors he went without their helps,
And to the last bended their light on me. (Hoy, 27)
Hamlet comes to Ophelia on the brink of a breakdown, partly caused by his
mother's infidelities and when he turns to his lover for support, his mother's
lesson are reinforced and through her actions, Ophelia confirms in Hamlet's mind,
that women can not be trusted. Although Hamlet was pretending to be mad, he
still loved Ophelia and was devastated by her disloyalty (Dover Wilson, 111-112).
Although Ophelia was only following the wishes of her father, her
actions suggest to Hamlet she can be no more trusted than Queen Gertrude. In a
cryptic way Hamlet is incredibly rude to Polonius calling him a fishmonger, or a
“bawd” and his daughter a prostitute in Act II (Dover Wilson, 105). This is the
jilted lover speaking in this scene more so than the mad man Hamlet is
pretending to be.
Hamlet's anger deepens toward Ophelia when he hears of the King, Queen
and Polonius' plot to use Ophelia to find out if he has gone mad for love of her.
Poor Ophelia, just wanting to please her father and the royalty, sadly over
plays her role during the nunnery scene. Ophelia anxiously jumps into her role
at the beginning of their conversation, barely even greeting Hamlet before she
tries to return his gifts. Although he claims not to have given such gifts, she
My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord. (Hoy, 45)
With this speech, Ophelia wanted to provoke Hamlet into declaring his love, but
instead, he called her a liar. The entire rest of this scene is meant for
Polonius and the King who are listening. Hamlet recognizes Ophelia's dismal
attempt at acting and gives her one last chance to redeem herself
Ham. Where's your father?
Oph. At home my lord. (Hoy, 45)
Ophelia has failed the final test because Hamlet knows her father is listening.
At this point in the play, Hamlet is very unstable and in his mind, he thinks
all women are adulterous like his mother and cannot be trusted. Ophelia has
just proved this to him and he acts terribly toward her, telling her
Get thee to a nunnery, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs marry,
marry a fool,
for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.
nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell. (Hoy, 46)
Hamlet seems to be talking about women in general when he says a wise man knows
what a monster a woman can make of them. He is being very cruel to all women,
not just Ophelia, in this scene, because they are all the same to him. Hamlet
goes as far as calling Ophelia a prostitute as a nunnery refers to a bawd house
(Dover Wilson, 134).
For someone who is presumably in love, Hamlet treats Ophelia terribly in
this play. His anger and hatred toward his mother, on top of his insanity,
makes it difficult for him to see that Ophelia was following her father's orders,
not purposefully betraying Hamlet. This treatment of women is unbecoming of a
hero in a tragedy and really shows the extent of his insanity. It was too much
for Hamlet to accept the death of his father by the hand of his uncle and the
adulterous behavior of his mother, so consequently he was very harsh on Ophelia.
Hamlet could not bear any more rejection and despair in his life which Ophelia,
whether she meant to or not, brought into it.