Gender Analysis for Hamlet
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the perception of men and women is much different than the equality they possess today and thus important to explore. The fact that Shakespeare only uses two women in the play shows their importance to have somewhat of a “subordinate role in the society of the time”. [1] These women are Ophelia and Queen Gertrude, who are both used as pawns by King Claudius to obtain power and status by trying to discover the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind to see if he is a threat to the throne. Women are also shown in the play as “unable to live independently”. [2] Shakespeare seems to give his male characters the qualities that these women lack.

Ophelia is always listening to and obeying the advice of her father and brother without showing her own opinions. She avoids Hamlet even though it is implied that she had some kind of relationship with him, and then confronts Hamlet in an attempt for her father and the King to determine his emotions. [3] Near the end of the play, Shakespeare associates Ophelia with flowers before she drowns, particularly violets. [4] This exhibits Ophelia’s delicate, vulnerable, and modest nature. [5] It could also symbolize her weakness or inability to defend herself due to “a lack of self-confidence and a pathetic sense of individuality, decisiveness and her inability to think for herself”. [6] Ophelia also believes it is her fault that Hamlet goes mad, as she blames herself by saying, “And I of ladies, most deject and wretched/That sucked honey of his music vows.../ O woe is me.” [7] Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia is blamed on Queen Gertrude, whose actions deem her untrustworthy in his eyes and make him feel distaste towards all women: “Frailty thy name is woman”. [8] Queen Gertrude is also perceived as a dependent woman by her hastiness in marriage after her husband’s death, even if it did involve marrying his own brother. She seems consumed with keeping her status and power, and is the cause of much of Hamlet’s unease in the play. She is naïve in the play, unaware that Claudius killed her former husband, and is innocent, if not submissive, to Claudius’ intents. [9]

The male characters in Hamlet seem to show more dynamic qualities. Hamlet is torn by the news from his father’s ghost and spends the course of the play trying to achieve the perfect revenge. Claudius is also powerful, as he murders his brother and takes the throne. [10] Even Fortinbras, a character not very prevalent in the play, shows superior masculinity as he takes over the kingdom in a noble and just manner at the end of Hamlet. Polonius is involved in the power struggle as well, however, he knows he cannot obtain the throne himself, so he lives vicariously through Claudius and helps him to try to remain King. He is seen as somewhat of a pitiful character, but still holds importance as a major male figure in the play. Most of the men are also very violent and bloody, with the exception of Horatio who is level-headed, brave, loyal, and courageous. [11] Whether the men hold power or are significant in the development of plot, they are used in many more ways than the women of a patriarchal society are in the play.

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This portrait represents Ophelia’s drowning in the river. This painting gives Ophelia a weak and helpless victim portrayal.






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This shot of Queen Gertrude shows her need and dependence for men.



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Gender Analysis for Macbeth
Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins with an interesting role reversal of the genders. Macbeth, the main male character, is portrayed as a weak follower of women, though traditionally men are the dominant providers. Lady Macbeth and the witches, the main female characters, are displayed as the devious and controlling instigators. However as the play continues, Lady Macbeth’s role is switched back to the traditional womanly role and Macbeth becomes increasingly independent of his wife. [14] The Macduff’s display the traditional roles of husband and wife throughout the play, providing a contradiction to the Macbeth’s.

Lady Macbeth is a very strong character at the start of the play. When she hears of the witches’ prophecy, she immediately thinks of Macbeth saying, “I fear thy nature; it is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.” [15] Lady Macbeth realizes that Macbeth loves Duncan too much and will not be able to do what needs to be done: murder. She even wishes to become “unsexed” so that she can kill Duncan herself.[16] After Macbeth has followed through with his wife’s murder plot and is crowned king, he seems to become more independent and continues to kill those he finds threatening to his position. Lady Macbeth falls to the background throughout the middle of the play, and Macbeth stops consulting her as he continues on his path of destruction. As she begins the switch back to the traditional role of a weaker wife, she goes insane with the guilt from Duncan’s murder. In many of her bouts of crazed sleepwalking, she tries to wash her hands obsessively because she can’t seem to clean her guilty conscience. Displaying her frailty, she eventually kills herself because of this mental instability.

The roles of husband and wife in the Macduff family contradict those of the Macbeth family. Instead of the reversal of gender roles, the Macduff’s stay within their respective traditional spheres. Lady Macduff is a caring homemaker who raises the children, while Macduff is the protector and provider for the family. For this reason, when Macduff hears about the murder of his family, he feels responsible for not being there to protect his wife and children and says he must feel the news “like a man.” [17] Consumed with passionate revenge, Macduff vows to kill Macbeth and becomes more influenced to join Malcolm in his war on Macbeth. These two characters seem to be nobler than the Macbeth’s because they stay within the traditional male and female roles that were more respected within the society.

The three witches, or “weird sisters,” are a supernatural, controlling force in the play. Though they are referred to as women, they have the male characteristic of beards. This symbolizes that they are not completely feminine. The wicked characteristics of the witches imply qualities of manliness in Macbeth, such as their devious ways and impersonal dispositions. They control Macbeth by toying with his already partly inflated ego and prophesying that he will become king. The witches put the idea of murder in Macbeth’s head and give Macbeth multiple warnings and omens, which he structures his life around. The witches know that Macbeth takes to heart everything they say and they take advantage of this. They represent an unfeeling element of nature and simply want to see Macbeth fail.




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Lady Macbeth ultimately wants Duncan’s crown for herself. Her dreams of splendor and power help her to influence her husband to kill the king.








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Lady Macbeth deviously persuades Macbeth into murdering Duncan.




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The ominous three witches create prophecies for Macbeth that end up controlling his life.







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Ultimately, it is Lady Macbeth who murders Duncan. She longs for Macbeth to be powerful even more than he does, and she caused the murder to occur through her persuasion of her husband.

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Comparison
Ultimately, both Macbeth and Hamlet perceive women to have a lesser role and importance to the patriarchal society of the time. Although Shakespeare begins Macbeth with a strong portrayal of the female characters (Lady Macbeth and the witches), in the end he proves that women should not venture outside of their traditional purposes or roles in the social order. For example, Lady Macbeth starts out as a controlling character who manipulates Macbeth into killing the King. Then at the end of the play, she becomes consumed with guilt and kills herself due to her mental instability. Also, in Hamlet, Ophelia acts as a victim of guilt when she blames herself for the death of her father and drowns herself, presumably, in the river. Both of these Shakespearean plays also include primarily male characters to show the dominance of men in Elizabethan culture. In Macbeth, the witches and Lady Macbeth are the main female characters who are recognized as instigators who manipulate Macbeth. In Hamlet, Ophelia and Queen Gertrude are seen as women reliant on power and status. Conclusively, Shakespeare’s implication that women are of a weaker and dependent nature explains the female character’s roles in the play and suggests the male dominated environment of the time.












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  1. ^

    "Hamlet: Themes." LitCharts. LitCharts, 01/01/2010. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.litcharts.com/lit/hamlet/themes.
  2. ^ Lewis, Liz. "Shakespeare's Women." literature-study-online. N.p., 01/11/2001. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/shakespeare_women.html.
  3. ^

    "Ophelia and Hamlet." Frality, thy name is woman. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://elsinore.ucsc.edu/women/womenGertrude.html
  4. ^ Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. 1623. 1-178. Print.
  5. ^ Nardo, Don. Understanding Hamlet. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 2001. 55-71. Print.
  6. ^ Lewis, Liz. "Shakespeare's Women." literature-study-online. N.p., 01/11/2001. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/shakespeare_women.html
  7. ^ Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. 1623. 1-178. Print.
  8. ^ Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. 1623. 1-178. Print.
  9. ^ "Ophelia and Hamlet." Frality, thy name is woman. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://elsinore.ucsc.edu/women/womenGertrude.html
  10. ^

    Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. 1623. 1-178. Print.
  11. ^ Nardo, Don. Understanding Hamlet. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 2001. 55-71. Print.
  12. ^

    "Millais's Ophelia." Learn Online. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.tate.org.uk/ophelia/
  13. ^

    Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet. 1623. 1-178. Print.
  14. ^

    Thacker, Holly. "Gender and Sexuality in Shakespeare's Macbeth: A Reversal in Gender Roles." suite101.com. N.p., 02 Dec 2008. Web. 28 Nov 2010. http://www.suite101.com/content/gender-and-sexuality-in-shakespeares-macbeth-a81897
  15. ^

    Kinsella, Kate, et al. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition. Boston; Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  16. ^ Kinsella, Kate, et al. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition. Boston; Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  17. ^


    Kinsella, Kate, et al. Prentice Hall Literature: Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition. Boston; Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  18. ^ "Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth." The Artchive. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://artchive.com/artchive/S/sargent/sargent_macbeth.jpg.html.
  19. ^ "John Moss as Macbeth and Denni Lee Heiges as Lady Macbeth." MACBETH Directed by Tony Rust. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.theaterweb.com/feo2/macbeth.htm
  20. ^

    "The Weird Sisters." Macbeth Controversy. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.afana.org/macbeth.htm.
  21. ^

    "Macbeth, New Zealand Opera ." Macbeth: New Zealand Opera. Web. 29 Nov 2010. http://www.britannica.com.blogs/2009/11/macbeth-new-zealand-opera/.