Feminist Criticism: Female Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays Othello and Hamlet

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Woman in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet
2.1 The Character of Ophelia
2.2 The Character of Hamlet’s Mother: Gertrude

3. Woman in Shakespeare’s play Othello
3.1 The Character of Desdemona

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Female characters play an important role for the dramatic run of events in Shakespeare’s plays. Just as in reality, women of Shakespeare’s dramas have been bound to rules and conventions of the patriarchal Elizabethan era. Therefore, it was very common back in Elizabethan England to compel woman into marriages in order to receive power, legacy, dowry or land in exchange.

Even though the Queen herself was an unmarried woman, the roles of woman in society were extremely restricted. Single women have been the property of their fathers and handed over to their future husbands through marriage. In Elizabethan time, women were considered as the weaker sex and dangerous, because their sexuality was supposedly mystic and therefore feared by men. Women of that era were supposed to represent virtues like obedience, silence, sexual chastity, piety, humility, constancy, and patience. All these virtues, of course, have their meaning in relationship to men. The role allocation in Elizabethan society was strictly regulated; men were the breadwinners and woman had to be obedient housewives and mothers. However, within this deprived, tight and organized scope, women have been represented in most diverse ways in Shakespearean Drama.

The construction of female characters in Shakespeare’s plays reflects the Elizabethan image of woman in general. For all that, Shakespeare supports the English Renaissance stereotypes of genders, their roles and responsibilities in society, he also puts their representations into question, challenges, and also revises them (Online: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/old-WILLA/fall96/gerlach.html).

His Tragedies can be seen, as McLindon (2002) puts, it “typically, it presents a steep fall from prosperity to misery and untimely death, a great change occasioned or accompanied by conflict between the tragic characters and some superior power” (McLindon, 2002, p.2). Those, for tragedies typical early, unnatural deaths are considered as an erotic quality, which seems to be slumbering in all of Shakespeare’s female characters. What is more, all of them appear to have guilt upon them.

Feminist criticism appears to be the fastest-growing and most widespread of all recent approaches to Shakespeare. Further, concerning teaching Shakespeare, feminist criticism is a very easy to follow and interesting point of view for any school level.

The women’s point of view raises several questions; how is meaning related to gender? How is ‘maleness’ related to feminism? What are the females’ functions? Are there any at all?

Hence, feminist approaches to Shakespeare and all those questions are best understood in the context of feminism itself: the drive to achieve rights and equality for women in social, political and economic life. However, this does not mean that feminism is anti-men; it is more against sexism. Consequently, it is against the beliefs and practices that structure and maintain the subordination and oppression of women.

Further, summing up, feminism reveals and challenges the cultural shaping of gender roles in all social institutions like family, work, politics, religion, and, of course, in literature and drama. Feminist criticism examines how female experience is portrayed in literature and drama. It tries to expose how, in plays, in novels and other writing, patriarchal ideology often stereotypes, distorts, ignores or represses that experience, misrepresenting how women feel, think and act (Gibson, 1998, pp.30-31).

Shakespeare’s plays are full with resourceseful and self-confident women, who create their own space and achieve or represent a spirited independence. There are several different personalities in Shakespeare plays, who assert themselves in very different ways: Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Viola, Rosalind, Desdemona, Portia, just to mention a few of them. Thus, the focus of this paper lies in the tragic female characters Ophelia, Gertrude and Desdemona who merit equal, if not to say more attention than male characters. It always seems that there is a tragic burden and guilt attached to their characters that ends in their deaths. Gertrude is guilty of remarrying too soon and quickly after her husband’s death.

Looking at Ophelia and Desdemona, it appears to be harder to find their guilt that caused their deaths. Ophelia may or may not be found guilty by the audience in betraying and rewarding Hamlet’s love. Concerning Desdemona, although the audience knows she is not guilty, Desdemona is falsely found guilty by her husband Othello.

2. Woman in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

2.1 The Character of Ophelia

Shakespeare has a fascinating style of presenting female characters; a lot of them are rebels and unruly. However not all female characters in Shakespeare’s plays are rebellious, they are also very docile, eager-to-please young woman – classic Good Girls so to speak.

Their families, especially their fathers, regard them as ideal children that reflect well on their families and would never threat their authority. The daughters make themselves presentable, agreeable and they accept the suitor chosen by their fathers. The fathers are always convinced that they know what is best for their daughters and have no concerns to impose their wills. The amenable daughters, opposed to their rebellious counterparts, do not question their fathers’ decisions and obey to the consequences. Just like for that period, it seems to be Shakespeare’s ideal feminine representation.

In his Tragedies young woman, like Ophelia in Hamlet, suffer from isolation, abuse and death. In particular, all female characters seem to have the same tragic fate, which is the unnatural, early death (Hamilton, 2003, pp. 69-70).

Ophelia seems to be the ideal representation of Elizabethan daughterhood. In Hamlet, women are reflected as the subordinate position in Elizabethan England, where their lives are strictly controlled by either their fathers or husbands. Their rights are legally, socially and economically restricted. The female characters in Hamlet, Ophelia and Queen Gertrude, have only little or no power or autonomy (Gibson, 2002, p.72). In this part the focus will lie on Hamlet’s female character Ophelia; Polonius’s daughter, Laertes’s sister, and Hamlet’s sometimes love. Ophelia is a sweet, innocent woman, who obeys to both Polonius and Laertes. She is a smart young and loving woman that is overtaken by dramatic fate, madness and death (Berensmeyer, 2007, p. 38).

Critics have determined that it is barely possible to reconstruct Ophelia’s biography from Shakespeare’s text; Ophelia appears in five of the play’s twenty scenes and the pre-play of her love with Hamlet is only displayed through a few ambiguous flashbacks.

Edwards (1979) puts it this way: “We can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet.” (Edwards, 1979, p. 36, cited in: Showalter, 1993, p. 57).


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Feminist Criticism: Female Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays Othello and Hamlet
University of Kassel  (Fachbereich für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaften)
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Feminist, Criticism, Female, Characters, Shakespeare’s, Plays, Othello, Hamlet
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Sara Ekici (Author), 2009, Feminist Criticism: Female Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays Othello and Hamlet, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/137842


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