Hamlet: A Feminist Argument

Hamlet's Mother
Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's Mother. Getty Images

According to feminist scholars, the canonical texts of Western literature represent the voices of those who have been given the power to speak in Western culture. The authors of the Western canon are predominately white men, and many critics consider their voices to be domineering, exclusionary, and biased in favor of a male point of view. This complaint has led to much debate between critics and defenders of the canon.

To explore some of these issues, we will examine Shakespeare's "Hamlet," one of the most famous and widely read works of the Western canon.

The Western Canon and Its Critics

One of the most prominent and vocal defenders of the canon is Harold Bloom, author of the bestseller "The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages." In this book, Bloom lists the works that he believes constitute the canon (from Homer to the present) and argues for their safeguarding. He also spells out who, in his view, the canon's critics and enemies are. Bloom groups these opponents, including feminist scholars who wish to revise the canon, into one "School of Resentment." His contention is that these critics are striving, for their own peculiar reasons, to invade the world of academia and replace the traditional, largely canonical programs of the past with a new curriculum--in Bloom's words, a "politicized curriculum."

Bloom's defense of the Western canon rests on its aesthetic value. The focus of his complaint is that, among the professions of literary teachers, critics, analysts, reviewers and authors too, there has been an increasingly noticeable "flight from the aesthetic" brought on by an unfortunate attempt "to assuage displaced guilt." In other words, Bloom believes that the academic feminists, Marxists, Afrocentrists, and other critics of the canon are motivated by a political desire to correct the sins of the past by replacing the literary works from those eras.

In turn, these critics of the canon argue that Bloom and his sympathizers are "racists and sexists," that they are excluding the under-represented, and that they "oppose...adventure and new interpretations."

Feminism in "Hamlet"

For Bloom, the greatest of the canonical authors is Shakespeare, and one of the works Bloom most celebrates in "The Western Canon" is "Hamlet." This play, of course, has been celebrated by all kinds of critics through the ages. The feminist complaint--that the Western canon, in the words of Brenda Cantar, is "generally not from the point of view of a woman" and that women's voices are virtually "ignored"--is supported by the evidence of "Hamlet." This play, 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.

Bloom gives fuel to the feminist claim of sexism when he observes that "Queen Gertrude, recently the recipient of several Feminist defenses, requires no apologies. She is evidently a woman of exuberant sexuality, who inspired luxurious passion first in King Hamlet and later in King Claudius." 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.

Cantar points out that "both the male and female psyches are a construction of cultural forces, such as class differences, racial and national differences, historical differences." What more 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 entirely subsumed (artistically, socially, linguistically, and legally) by the cultural psyche of the man.

Sadly, the male regard for the female was inextricably connected to the female body. Since men were assumed to be dominant over women, the female body was considered the man's "property," and its sexual objectification was an open topic of conversation.

Many of Shakespeare's plays make this very clear, including "Hamlet."

The sexual innuendo in Hamlet's dialogue with Ophelia 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." It is a tawdry joke for a "noble" prince to share with a young woman of the court; however, Hamlet is not shy to share it, and Ophelia seems not at all offended to hear it. But then, the author is a male writing in a male-dominated culture, and the dialogue represents his point of view, not necessarily that of a cultured woman, who might feel differently about such humor.

Gertrude and Ophelia

To Polonius, the chief counselor to the king, the greatest threat to the social order is cuckoldry or the unfaithfulness of a woman to her husband. For this reason, critic Jacqueline Rose writes that Gertrude is the symbolic "scapegoat of the play." Susanne Wofford interprets Rose to mean that Gertrude's betrayal of her husband is the cause of Hamlet's anxiety. Marjorie Garber points to an abundance of phallocentric imagery and language in the play, revealing Hamlet's subconscious focus on his mother's apparent infidelity. All of these feminist interpretations, of course, are drawn from the male dialogue, for the text gives us no direct information about Gertrude's actual thoughts or feelings on these matters. In a sense, the queen is denied a voice in her own defense or representation.

Likewise, "the object Ophelia" (the object of Hamlet's desire) is also denied a voice. In the view of author Elaine Showalter, she is portrayed in the play as "an insignificant minor character" created mainly as an instrument to better represent Hamlet. 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." 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.

A Possible Resolution

Showalter's insight about the representation of men and women in "Hamlet," though it may be viewed as a complaint, is actually something of a resolution between the critics and defenders of the canon. What she has done, through a close reading of a character that is now famous, is focus the attention of both groups on a piece of common ground. Showalter's analysis is part of a "concerted effort," in Cantar's words, "to alter cultural perceptions of gender, those represented in the canon of great literary works."

Surely a scholar like Bloom recognizes that there is "a need...to study the institutional practices and social arrangements that have both invented and sustained the literary canon." He could concede this without giving an inch in his defense of aestheticism--that is, literary quality.

The most prominent feminist critics (including Showalter and Garber) already recognize the canon's aesthetic greatness, regardless of the male dominance of the past. Meanwhile, one may suggest for the future that the "New Feminist" movement continue searching out worthy female writers and promoting their works on aesthetic grounds, adding them to the Western canon as they deserve.

There is surely an extreme imbalance between the male and female voices represented in the Western canon. The sorry gender discrepancies in "Hamlet" are an unfortunate example of this. This imbalance must be remedied by women writers 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." In the end, this is the finest way to restore the balance and allow all of us to truly appreciate the literary voices of humankind.

Sources

  • 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.
  • Kolodny, Annette. "Dancing Through the Minefield." Book of Readings, 347-370. English 251B. Distance Education. University of Waterloo, 2002.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Bedford/St. Martins Edition. Susanne L. Wofford. Editor. Boston/New York: Bedford Books. 1994.
  • Showalter, Elaine. Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism. Macmillan, 1994.
  • Wofford, Susanne. William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Bedford Books of St. Martins Press, 1994.