Female Norms and the Patriarchal Power Structure in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Socialization is the process by which individuals internalize the mores and norms of the society they live in. It is through this process that the established social order is perpetuated. When individuals fail to accept the beliefs of society as their own, there is then the possibility of chaos for both individuals and society as a whole.
This ability to create upheaval increases in accordance with the amount of power an individual may hold within the traditional power structure. If this independence from conventional thought occurs in someone with a high political rank, they potentially have the power to cause a collapse within that structure. A person with little political power who finds protection within the established system has little recourse and is left defenseless when that system collapses. Given their traditionally less visible roles in society, rebellious women stand is sharp contrast to their more compliant sisters.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is the embodiment of cherished femininity. She complies with the system that protects her and thrives within its protective walls. Gertrude stands in striking contrast to Ophelia. She is antithetical to the traditional standard of femininity. Through her refusal to accept the gender based expectations of her time and her defiant actions, Gertrude is ultimately responsible for the downfall of the ordered power structure and brings about her own destruction.
In Shakespeare’s society, the ideal female is cherished for her youth, beauty and purity. These qualities are appreciated and boundaries are set up to protect the ingénue. A compliant young woman accepts these standards and dwells safely in the space created for her. Ophelia is repeatedly praised for her beauty and purity,
“Ophelia, I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness: so shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted ways again,” (III.i.39-43).
Queen Gertrude herself not only thinks the young girl’s looks may be enough to drive her son mad, but she clearly believes that Ophelia’s virtue alone can bring him back again. Clearly, even a young woman who works within the system possesses power in her own right. Her inexperience and compliance are proven in a conversation with her father Polonius. In Act III, she comes to her father for advice about the puzzling nature of Hamlet’s affections. He responds to her earnest requests for guidance by calling her a “green girl,” (I.iii.102), and telling her not to see Hamlet anymore.
She replies: “I shall obey, my lord,” (I. iii. 139). She accepts that she is naïve to the ways of the world and unquestioningly accepts her father’s orders. She relies on the security he provides and she feels comfortable living within it. Upon his death, she is left literally adrift, committing suicide by allowing the weight of her skirts to pull her to a watery grave.
Gertrude defies the standards of her gender. Nowhere in the text is she praised for her beauty; she is older and also never denies her sexuality. She is in no way compliant, and in fact, makes her decisions despite the objections of her son, her religion, and her husband. Upon the announcement of Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius in Act I, Hamlet implies that he thinks her to be common and attacks the veracity of her grief.
She marries Claudius despite his sentiments. Hamlet is disgusted by this remarriage and berates her, accusing her of living “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” and of “honeying and making love,” (III.iv.91-92). Gertrude is hurt, but she makes no attempts to deny her son’s charges. She is who she has decided to be; she makes no attempt to show herself as the asexual ideal.
Even more striking is Gertrude’s rebellion against the conditions of her religion and the authority of her husband. Claudius kills his brother, knowing that his best chance at gaining the throne is to marry his “sometime sister,” (I.ii.10). His plan to take the throne is contingent upon marrying Gertrude; he is relying on her defiant spirit to reach his goal. According to the church, marrying one’s brother-in-law constitutes incest, not a minor transgression, to say the least.
Gertrude’s independence brings her new husband to greatness but is also ultimately the cause of his downfall. Claudius has relied on Gertrude’s defiance of blood and God alike. In his arrogance, though, he fails to take into account that by the very virtue of her character, Gertrude would most surely defy him as well.
Hamlet alone stands in the way of Claudius’ unquestioned rule and the king has taken elaborate measures to assure that the prince is poisoned. Gertrude, however, insists on drinking the poisoned wine even after her husband tells her, “do not drink,” (V. ii.86). She falls dead, revealing Claudius’ plan and assuring his death. Her defiance is responsible for causing the death of the king and the disintegration of the hierarchy. Because of her powerful political position, Gertrude’s rejection of her ascribed role has serious consequences.
The patriarchal nature of the social order reinforces and rewards the compliance of women. Ophelia dies by her own hand because she lost her father, for her, the source of both order and authority. Gertrude dies because she was unwilling to bow to authority. She rejects her role as a woman, destroying herself. Through her defiance and rebellion, she takes the order down with her. Women who comply with the social order are lost without it; those who defy it can know no other fortune than to be lost within it.