In this day and age, for a play to be plausible and enjoyable, women have to be included substantially in the plot. Our society is no longer patriarchal or male driven, but in the Elizabethan era things were different. The role of women was radically changing as the public were beginning to realise the power of Elizabeth I and this directly affected English Literature which had began to also focus on women. Yet Shakespeare gave small and insignificant roles to Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet.
As said by Judith Cook, they appear to be ‘somewhat spiritless creatures’ when likened to the major greats of Shakespearian theatre like Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Portia and Rosalind who at times show great strength of character and independence of spirit. However, it is quite certain from his plays that had Shakespeare wanted Gertrude and Ophelia to be more important in ‘Hamlet’, he would have given them much more substance and much more dialogue.
However, for a modern director, it is important to understand what role Gertrude and Ophelia play; although Shakespeare may not have wanted them to be the protagonists, they are still essential to the plot. Part of Hamlet’s madness and his jealousy towards his uncle is due to his mother taking Claudius to her ‘incestuous sheets,’ and Ophelia’s presence is necessary in revealing Hamlet’s character. So, in a modern production, a director would have to battle through all the many interpretations of these heroines to produce a plausible portrayal of them.
A number of sources can be examined to reveal Shakespeare’s real intention with Hamlet. Most people associate the play with Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy which has they major theme of vengeance in it but Ophelia’s character as shown in Hamlet is different to that of Bel-Imperia who is more central to Thomas Kyd’s plot. However Thomas Kyd’s tragedy written in 1580 has the most similarities to Hamlet, with corruption, betrayal, the appearance of a ghost and the demise of just about every character by the end of the play. Another very important source of Hamlet is the story of ‘Amleth of Jutland’ told by Saxo Grammaticus.
This source can give rise to different interpretations of Gertrude, as within the story, the killing of the king, by his brother’s hand is known by the whole court including the queen. The two stories of Hamlet and Amleth have close links as equivalents of not only Hamlet, but of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonious, Horatio, Ophelia even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear in Saxo’s version. Therefore perhaps Gertrude did know that Claudius killed King Hamlet, just like her 12th century counter-part did. However, there is one fundamental problem with this theory.
There is not one piece of evidence within the text of Hamlet of Gertrude knowing anything. Other sources also provide evidence that Gertrude may have known that the traitorous murderer of her husband was Claudius. Although it is quite unlikely that Shakespeare would have ever come across Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, (although he makes reference to ‘Priam’s slaughter’) the similarities between both texts are uncanny. Both plays start with the watchman who scans the night sky for a portent. Both tragedies involve the killing of a great king and the adultery of a consort.
Like Hamlet, Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, is a passionate and decidedly reluctant avenger. However, the character of Gertrude seems to be quite the opposite of Clytaemestra’s. Aeschylus’ heroine is a woman of male qualities, often seen as the lioness or a sexual predator. This seems to contradict with Gertrude’s passive nature, but from the text perhaps Gertrude could be interpreted in this sexual role, as she is obviously very attractive to Claudius who reveals that he is ‘still possessed of those effects for which he did the murder … my queen.
Her sexuality is again demonstrated in the closet scene. Barbara Jefford, who played Gertrude at the National Theatre said, ‘I think that she is very, very sexy who desperately needs it and finds Claudius extremely attractive. Did she know about the murder? I think she did, yes… I don’t think you could live in an enclosed atmosphere like the Danish court and not know there was something strange about it! ‘ However, although many of the sources do tend to imply that Gertrude may have known about the King Hamlet’s murder, Shakespeare refrains on revealing his own ideas about it.
There is only one sentence in the whole of Hamlet that could possibly incriminate Gertrude and that is when the ghost calls Gertrude his ‘most seeming-virtuous queen. ‘ Although the ghost prohibits Hamlet from harming his mother, all of the ghost’s anger and hatred seems to be directed at his wife as he urges Hamlet to let ‘those thorns that in her bosom lodge, To prick and sting her. However, these lines are vague and it could be argued that King Hamlet says those words, as he is angry that Gertrude married in such great haste after his own death.
Ophelia is also a girl of contradictions. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s other girls, she seems to have little or no will of her own. However, it is not Ophelia’s own character, which is ambiguous, but her relationship with Hamlet, which is open to interpretation. Ophelia loves Hamlet; just like Bel-Imperia loved Horatio and her equivalents did in the History of Hamblet. From the text she is seen as the personification of innocence and her eventual deterioration is symbolic of ‘something’ being ‘rotten in the state of Denmark.
When Polonius urges her to be ‘scanter of’ her ‘maiden presence’, she seems to be a virtuous girl who is still in possession of her virginity again demonstrated when she says’ he hath … made many tenders of his affection to me, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of heaven. ‘ From these simple words, that almost resemble blank verse, Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship can only be seen as ‘honourable’ but many critics have suggested that they believe that Hamlet and Ophelia had had sexual relations before the play started.
This theory is based on the content of the bawdy snatches made in act 4, scene 5, as Ophelia says, ‘ before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. ‘ It is with in this line that the ambiguity lies as ‘tumbled’ me could be interpreted as cast me aside but is more likely to mean took my virginity. However, she also makes reference to ‘cold maidens’ and perhaps that what she is, a cold virgin. Robert Speaight, who has played in various production over the years said, ‘I do not believe that Ophelia had ever been hamlet’s mistress; the bawdy content of her songs in the mad scene could be from the subconscious of a schoolgirl or nun.
When examining the History of Hamblet and Amleth of Jutland, the corresponding characters to Ophelia both sleep with the hero. Saxo’s Ophelia’s figure is virtually raped by the prince while Belleforest’s heroine is positively eager to be seduced by Hamblet. Nonetheless, most of the inspiration for Ophelia came from the inquest that was held in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford upon Avon on the 11th February 1580. A young girl called Katherine Hamlet had drowned in the area and the inquest was held to see if she was entitled to a Christian funeral.
Had the girl committed suicide, she would have been denied this right and this was apparently an issue in the 16th century as it was included in Hamlet. At Ophelia’s funeral, the gravedigger admits that ‘had she not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out of a Christian funeral. It is probable that the events that befell Katherine Hamlet became the most important inspiration for Ophelia’s death. In the inquest it was revealed that Katherine Hamlet had indeed been jilted by a lover and was pregnant when she drowned.
Thus it is possible that Ophelia had been mistress to Hamlet as is in the case in all the sources. The original stories of Hamlet can give rise to different understandings and often contradicting interpretations of Gertrude and Ophelia, but the answer to their characters is hard to find. One thing that cannot be forgotten is that Hamlet is a play. It is one of those stories that each age interprets anew. It has been acted in many different ways and all of them seem to work. Each account and source assumes new life for each generation and offers different interpretations for different actors and producers.