Hamlet: A Feminist Argument

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's Mother. Getty Images

The traditional canonical texts of Western literature are seen by the feminist movement to define who has the power to speak in Western culture and who does not. The authors of the Canon are predominantly men, and their voice is considered by many to be domineering, largely exclusive, and biased in favor of a male point of view. We will focus here on this complaint in terms of the following: the existing Canon and its defenders or promoters, the feminist objection to it, and a reasoned resolution of the opposing views from some notable feminist literary critics.

We will do this in relation to Shakespeare's Hamlet, arguably the most psychologically pervasive work within the Canon.

Undoubtedly, a prominent and very vocal promoter (actually, quite a defensive promoter) of the Western Canon of literature is Harold Bloom. In his national bestseller, The Western Canon—The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom defines the Canon (from Homer to present), and passionately encourages its safeguarding. He also spells out who, he believes, are its critics and enemies. These people he generally groups and labels as the "School of Resentment," which includes promoters of Feminist works. His contention is that this 'School' is intentionally, for its own peculiar reasons, striving to invade the world of academia with a curriculum (a "politicized curriculum") that is sub-standard to the traditional, largely canonical programs of the past (Bloom, Book of Readings 265b).

His defense rests on the aesthetic value of the Canon, and the focus of his complaint is that, among the professions of literary teachers, critics, analysts, reviewers and authors too, there is an increasingly noticeable "flight from the aesthetic" brought on by an unfortunate attempt "to assuage displaced guilt" (ibid).

The cry of the academic Feminists, Marxists, Afrocentrists, New Historicists and liberal-left assayers of literature (who include those who influence and control school curricula) is that Bloom and his sympathizers are "racists and sexists", that they are excluding the under-represented, and that they "oppose... adventure and new interpretations" (Bloom—Readings 265a, 266a).

To Bloom, the apogee of all canonical authors is Shakespeare, and one of the few of his works that Bloom lauds particularly in Western Canon is Hamlet (267, 272b). Hamlet is, of course, praised by a myriad of the best critics, including Susanne L. Wofford. In a chapter of her editor's notes entitled "A Critical History of Hamlet," she intimates the magnitude of this one play in its cultural impact upon Britain and the United States over the last four centuries (Wofford 181). She includes, with a view to impartiality, several critical essays on the work, essays that represent theories of several of those groups of the above cited "School of Resentment." One treatise in particular is a strong and reasoned feminist view to which we will later refer. Through the various analyses selected by Wofford, one recognizes that Hamlet in toto does give voice to the aestheticism upon which Bloom rests his contentions about the Canon.

Ironically, the Feminist complaint, that the Canon is "generally not from the point of view of a woman" and that woman's voice is virtually "ignored" in much of it, is validated in the highly praised Hamlet (Cantar). The irony continues in that a play such as this, which supposedly fathoms the human psyche, does not reveal much at all about the two major female characters. They act either as a theatrical balance to the male characters or as a sounding board for their fine speeches and actions. Little does Bloom justify his defence of the Canon in this regard, but rather he fuels the Feminist claim of sexism when he observes: "Queen Gertrude, recently the recipient of several Feminist defenses, requires no apologies. She is evidently a woman of exuberant sexuality, who inspired uxurious (sic) passion first in King Hamlet and later in King Claudius" (Bloom 351).

If this is the best that Bloom can offer in suggesting the substance of Gertrude's character, it would serve us well to examine further some of the complaints of the feminists regarding the female voice in Shakespeare.

An insightful point of view by some astute cultural Feminists is that "both the male and female psyches are a construction of cultural forces, such as class differences, racial and national differences, historical differences" (Cantar). What greater influential cultural force could there have been in Shakespeare's time than that of patriarchy? The patriarchal society of the Western world had powerfully negative implications for the freedom of women to express themselves, and in turn the psyche of the woman was almost exclusively subsumed (artistically, socially, linguistically, and legally) by the cultural psyche of the man.

And sadly, the male regard for the female was interminably connected with the female body. It was acceptable, since dominance over women was the tacit assumption of men, that the female body was part of his 'property', and that its sexual objectification could be an open topic of conversation. Many of the Shakespearean plays make this very clear, including Hamlet.

Hamlet's sexual innuendo in his dialogue with Ophelia at the 'play' would have been transparent to a Renaissance audience, and apparently acceptable. Referring to a double meaning of 'nothing', Hamlet says to her: "That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs" (3.2.111). This seems like a tawdry kind of joke for a 'noble' prince to share with a young woman of the court; however, Hamlet is not reticent to speak it, and Ophelia herself seems not at all offended upon hearing it. But then, the author is male in a male-dominant culture, and is representing the dialogue from his point of view, not necessarily from the way a cultured woman would think or feel about such humour.

To Polonius, a little womanizing by his son, Laertes, is fine, but the greatest threat to the male patriarchal ego then, and the most feared disrupter of the social order, was cuckoldry, or unfaithfulness by the female. In that sense, Gertrude is made out by Jacqueline Rose as the symbolic "scapegoat of the play" (Wofford 195).

Wofford interprets Rose to mean that Gertrude's actions are responsible for the disruption of Hamlet's possible resolution of his oedipal complex, and for the further disruption of the "ideal aesthetic unity" of the play (ibid). Marjorie Garber points out an abundance of phallocentric imagery and language in the play which tends to reveal Hamlet’s subconscious focus on his anxiety over his mother's apparent sexual infidelity as it relates to the complex (Garber 297-331). All these interpretations can only come from the male dialogue, for we have no knowledge revealed by the text concerning Gertrude's actual feelings or thoughts on these matters. In a sense, she is denied a voice in her own defence or representation. Likewise, "the object Ophelia" ("that is, the object of Hamlet's male desire") also needs representation--by someone outside the play--for as Elaine Showalter says she is portrayed in the play as "an insignificant minor character" created mainly as a catalyst for Hamlet's representation (220). Yet, as observed already, she is one of only two women in the play (excluding the 'player' Queen) and she has a larger part than Gertrude. Furthermore, as Showalter demonstrates, hers is an image that has been eclectically prominent and a character highly scrutinized in Western culture over the past four centuries.

Paradoxically, Showalter's summary of Ophelia's character within the play is spectral-like in its descriptive power: "Deprived of thought, sexuality, language, Ophelia's story becomes the Story of / O—the zero, the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference, the cipher of / female sexuality to be deciphered by feminist interpretation." (222)

This depiction is reminiscent of many of the women in Shakespearean drama and comedy. Perhaps it begs for the efforts of interpretation that, by Showalter's account, so many have tried to make of Ophelia's character. An eloquent and scholarly interpretation of many of Shakespeare's women would surely be welcome.

Showalter's insight regarding the representations of males versus females in a high-profile work of the great Canon, though it might be viewed as a complaint, is remarkably close to a resolution between the two camps: the Canon defenders and its Feminist critics. What she has done through a close examination of a now cultural icon, Ophelia, is to have focused the attention of both groups on a common ground.

Showalter's is a part of that "concerted effort put forth by feminist theory... to alter cultural perceptions of gender, those represented in the canon of great literary works," an effort also well verbalized by Annette Kolodny (Cantar). Surely, a scholar like Harold Bloom recognizes that there is "a need... to study the institutional practices and social arrangements that have both invented and sustained the literary canon" (Cantar—a paraphrasing of Kolodny). He could concede this without giving an inch in his stand for aestheticism--that is, literary quality. And the Feminist literary promoters (like Showalter, Garber, and Kolodny) can--and I believe do—-recognize the Canon's aesthetic greatness, regardless of male dominance in the past, and regardless of the cultural forces that led to an "asymmetrical relationship between women and men" (Kolodny 351). Meanwhile, one may suggest for the future that the "New Feminist" movement continue searching out "the wealth of women writers who have been regarded as worthy of canonization" and promoting these works on aesthetic grounds, adding them to the Canon as they deserve--that is, without other biases (349).

To conclude, then, there has surely been an extreme imbalance between male and female voices in representing each side's true cultural, historical, and spiritual story within the traditional Western Canon. The sorry gender discrepancies in the story of Hamlet are an unfortunate example of this. This imbalance (in disfavour of women) must be remedied largely by women themselves, for they can most accurately represent their own views.

But, to adapt two quotes by Margaret Atwood, "the proper path" in accomplishing this is for women "to become better (writers)" in order to add "social validity" to their views; and, "female critics have to be willing to give writing by men the same kind of serious attention they themselves want from men for women's writing" (Atwood 204, 208, 281). In the end, this is the finest way to restore the balance and allow all of us to truly hear and appreciate the literary voices of all humankind.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Second Words—Selected Critical Prose. House of Anansi Press. Toronto. 1982.

Bloom, Harold. "An Elegy for the Canon." Book of Readings, 264-273. English 251B. Distance Education. University of Waterloo. 2002.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon—The Books and School of the Ages. Riverhead Books. The Berkley Publishing Group. New York. 1994.

Cantar, Brenda. Lecture 21. English 251B. University of Waterloo, 2002.

Garber, Margorie

Kolodny, Annette. "Dancing Through the Minefield." Book of Readings, 347-370. English 251B. Distance Education. University of Waterloo, 2002.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Bedford/St. Martin’s Edition. Susanne L. Wofford. Editor. Boston/New York: Bedford Books.


Showalter, Elaine

Wofford, Susanne. "A Critical History of Hamlet."