What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
(IV. 4. 32-34)
This is a quote taken from William Shakespeare’s most controversial play Hamlet, uttered by the tragic hero Hamlet, who reveals to a certain extent his identity conflict by questioning himself: “what is a man?” William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, which was probably first performed in 1600-1, presents a complex textual situation and forms an integral part of cultural memory. The tragedy is often described as an elaborate, dramatic presentation of modern subjectivity and confronts its reader with gender issues. As far as the gender issues in Hamlet are concerned, the following question arises: which feminist’s approach should be applied to analyse Hamlet’s character and to demonstrate in how far the historical background influences the gender constellations in Hamlet ? Therefore, it is important to give a historical background of social structures and social roles during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Elizabethans lived in a time, in which patriarchy was part of their lives. Women were obligated to follow the rules of men. First, it is inevitable to label the categories ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ in connection with cruelty and domination. However, it is difficult to define what is associated with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics and to position these categories in a patriarchal system without developing clichés. To which extent, for instance is Hamlet allowed to grieve deeply for his father and why does Hamlet act misogynously towards women he loves? Obviously, along with the gender distinctions go different functional roles thus, examining the representation of gender roles in Hamlet in connection with social roles will play a dominant role in this paper. This term paper will first address the early modern society to outline the hierarchical system in the Elizabethan World View. After a brief presentation of the Elizabethan World View, patriarchal structures in the early modern England will be illustrated since the cultural context describes the beliefs of Shakespeare’s time and provides the basis for the analysis of gender roles in Hamlet. More specifically, the famous feminist writers Valerie Traub and Judith Butler will emphasize the importance of patriarchy in order to understand gender distinctions in the early modern England. Furthermore, gender concepts will be explained with the help of Hamlet’s misogynous behaviour towards women and Ophelia, who represents a subordinate woman in a patriarchal society. Afterwards, Hamlet’s own gender will be analysed in order to outline Hamlet’s representation of masculine as well as feminine qualities. At the end of the paper, the power structures, the gender distinctions, including the feminine and masculine traits that Hamlet and Ophelia represent, will be summarized.
2. The Early Modern Society, Patriarchy and Gender
The Renaissance tragedy is extensive and makes it therefore difficult to give an explicit definition of the concept of tragedy. However, according to Janette Dillon, a professor of Drama, Shakespeare’s tragedies “depend in their closure on a restoration of political order following the central death or deaths of individuals” (Dillon 2007, 1). Many Jacobean tragedies depict these deaths and breakdowns to describe the disruption of hierarchical orders. A great influence on Shakespeare's tragedies had Seneca. In his tragedies, the audience is confronted with the protagonist's abuse of power, oppression and cruelty. In other words, “his protagonists are driven to murder by inordinate passions such as vengeful rage, lust, and sexual jealousy” (McEachern 2002, 4). Furthermore, by revealing their crimes intentionally, Seneca obscures an insight into his tragic heroes and heroines and illustrates their vicious characters. Unlike Shakespeare, his tragedies have been characterized by a contradiction of men's dominance and strength, on the one hand and a man's weakness and misery, on the other hand. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s tragedies deal with power structures, subordination and gender struggles in the early modern England. These power structures and a hierarchical system are portrayed in the Elizabethan World View.
During the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, the world was perceived as a cosmos that was divided into hierarchical ranks and was understood as the so-called “The Great Chain of Being”. This chain of being draws parallels between the macrocosm and the microcosm. In this concept, the macrocosm describes the organization of the complete outer space whereas the microcosm relates to mankind or in general to any individual. Furthermore, the connection between the creatures and the creator, and the connection between God and the cosmos is represented. Thus, various kinds of beings are hierarchically ordered in the chain of being. On the top of the hierarchical order is God, underneath are the angels that are above human beings, and inferior to them are the animals, plants and rocks. However, based on its rationality, the human being belongs to the most significant individual on earth and the most inferior among angels and other supernatural creatures. Furthermore, late Elizabethans considered the body of a human being to consist of four bodily humours such as choler, blood, phlegm and black bile “which were supposed to determine a person’s temperament and to cause physical and mental disease when out of balance” (Norton Anthology 2006, 582). If for instance, a choleric man changes his diet and is mindful of his amount of sleep, he could lose his bad temper according to the Elizabethans’ general belief. Thus, early modern society believed that every mankind could achieve the right state of body.
As far as the hierarchical order is concerned, even social positions in a society can be explained for instance, Elizabethans considered a king’s power as God-given and as a representative of God. Their actions on earth should portray the divine justice and it is the monarch’s responsibility to retain the hierarchical system. Thus, each level in the chain of being fulfils a function in a hierarchical system of dependency, in which an inferior individual is obligated to a superior individual. This obligation will be explained with the help of patriarchal structures in the early modern England.
2.1 Patriarchal Structures in the Early Modern England
A significant aspect in the analysis of gender in Shakespeare’s tragedies concerns the way relationships between men and women were complicated by social rules and patriarchal values. This leads to the question, which expectations were created by society to be accepted as a gentleman or a gentlewoman and which general sexual distinctions between men and women in terms of power were assumed.
According to the Elizabethan World View, the class and gender hierarchy were emphasized to prevent any catastrophes that ensue these hierarchies rapture or may disintegrate the social order. Anthony Fletcher, a professor of history addresses the topic of patriarchy and gender in his book Gender, Sex & Subordination in England 1500-1800 and explains: “the starting point [for gender hierarchies] was men’s need to find a more secure basis and future for patriarchy” (Fletcher 1995, 401). During Shakespeare’s lifetime, this patriarchal future could be secured through the general belief that the patriarchal order was given by nature (and/or God-given). Therefore, Christianity plays an crucial role and provides the basis for patriarchy as a historical phenomenon, since early Christian societies believed that the “subordination […] of women as a punishment for Eve’s sin, which was fundamental to biblical teaching and an understanding of men’s and women’s bodies” (Fletcher 1995, xvii). By implementing the belief of men’s God-given dominance, women’s natural physical inferiority could be sustained. Therefore, women were perceived as weak not only physically but also mentally, which enable patriarchal society to connect their weakness to their roles in society and deny them any privileges of men.
In Grazia’s and Wells’ Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, Valerie Traub explains in her article “Gender and sexuality in Shakespeare” that “early modern culture was resolutely hierarchical, with women, no matter what their wealth or rank, theoretically under the rule of men” (Traub 2001, 129-130). Thus, the hierarchical system of the chain of being also refers to the conception of gender. A gentlewoman was expected to display the virtues of silence, should be a good housekeeper and is married. This conception was religiously, morally and socially institutionalized.
This chapter about patriarchy is important for the following development of this term paper, since feminist writers generally consider patriarchy as the code term for all those structures in any society, which oppresses women. The representation of patriarchy in the Renaissance and the understanding of gender will be determined in the following.
2.2 Gender Concepts
As pointed out, patriarchy provides the basis for understanding gender concepts during Shakespeare’s lifetime. No matter how wealthy a woman was, a man overruled her. Therefore, the fundament of ideological patriarchy should be taken into consideration in relationships between men and women. It additionally leads to the question of Shakespeare’s understanding on sex and gender, since it seems as if gender issues are used deliberately and recurrently in his tragedies. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account that it is difficult to locate Shakespeare’s ideas on gender and to define his authentic attitude towards sex and gender because Shakespeare at his time was obligated to stick to contemporary gender norms.
Although it might be assumed that Shakespeare tried to address his concerns of gender embedded in his tragedies, “London was of course not of one mind about matters of sexuality” (Bevington 2008, 15). During the Elizabethan and Jacobean era, the majority of early modern citizens endorsed the Christian life by attempting to obey the Ten Commandments and abided by the church’s demand for chastity.
In this context, it is crucial to emphasize that Shakespeare’s characters are only a representation of gender roles in early modern England, which does not mean that it obligatory refers to the actual gender roles during Shakespeare’s lifetime. However, feminists nowadays deal with contemporary interpretations of gender roles in more detail. From a feminist’s point of view, the general assumptions about how women and men should behave do not apply to the gender approaches of feminists. For instance, the universal categories of ‘female’, ‘feminine’ and ‘femininity’ should be distinguished from one another. Bruce Smith, a professor of English gives in his book Shakespeare and Masculinity a definition of the gender terms and explains that ‘female’ refers to the biological sex, whereas ‘feminine’ may be a social identity that is identified by all cultures. Nevertheless, Smith argues that the term ‘femininity’ is more complex. The famous gender theorist Judith Butler gives an explanation of the gender term: