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Hamlet and the Roles of Women

Updated on November 28, 2016
Image of Niobe
Image of Niobe | Source
Daughter of the Picts
Daughter of the Picts | Source

A Matriarch's Demise

Shakespeare's Hamlet uses Niobe and Jepthah's daughter to demonstrate how the women within the play possess vital roles that directly hinge on the connection to the land and the extinction of bloodlines. These two allusions better prove how important Gertrude and Ophelia are to their bloodlines and how women are the key ingredients in making a dynasty prosper.

Niobe is a mirror image of Gertrude in that their gloating eventually leads to their own demise, as well as their fallen families. Niobe was the Queen of Thebes and had 14 children and because she gloated about her fertility and insulted the Gods, all of her children were killed. Her husband then committed suicide and Niobe continued to mourn the deaths of her children even after she was turned to stone. In the permanent state of being forever frozen, Niobe would incessantly mourn over her fallen family. Hamlet's speech in 1.2.147-151, he compares his mother to Niobe because his mother neglected to mourn sufficiently over his fathers' deth and insulted Hamlet I by marrying his brother Claudius.

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor fathers body,
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she-
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!

It's possible that this is foreshadowing the fall of the Danish dynasty. By referring to Niobe Shakespeare may have been alluding to how Gertrude is insulting Hamlet I, who is shown to us as a ghostly feared figure, and how her gloating about his death is the eventual downfall of her family bloodline. Gertrude and Niobe were careless in their actions, they only thought of themselves and didn't conceive the consequences until it was too late.

Niobe was vital to her bloodline because she was able to produce many children, and by her being encased in stone, and thus never being able to produce anymore heirs her bloodline was destroyed. Gertrude was vital because she was tied to the land since Hamlet I didn't name an heir, then the man she re-married would have a greater chance of becoming king. Men who had daughters gave them away with a dowry, which often included land so whoever married their daughter inherited the land she indirectly owned. There is a picture that best illustrates the importance of women being tied to the land. It's entitled The Daughter of the Picts and it displays how women were tied to the land and how without them the men wouldn't be successful in keeping that land. Fertility ensures a bloodline and the only way a man could advance is to have many heirs, mainly boys. Gertrude wasn't in control of Denmark, but by marrying her, Claudius gained access to the land she was tied to.

Jepthah's daughter becomes a mirror image of Ophelia, in that they both become victims to their fathers' political and economic greed, which in turn brings about their death. Jepthah unknowingly killed his daughter, which ended his bloodline. He was in battle against the Ammonites and asked God for assistance. They made a deal and Jepthah made a vow to sacrifice the first creature to greet him, sadly that was his daughter. His daughter said that she would go up to the mountains for two months and weep for her virginity then the sacrifice would be taken out. She dies a virgin which parallels with Ophelia because we don't really know if she actually had sex with Hamlet, the play hints at it but it's not necessarily proven. Jepthah's daughter's bewailing her virginity could be similar to Ophelia's mad songs at the end of the play. In Judges 11:37-39 Jepthah's daughter is weeping over her virginity because she realizes she will never bear children: " And she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains...and she knew no man". Likewise Ophelia sings,

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, a fie for shame!
Young men will do't if they come to't,
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she 'Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.'
So would I'a'done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed. (4.5.47-64)


She has been mislead by so many people on how to handle her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia's confusion about love and men leads to her madness and the blame has to be placed on her father and brother. When she sings "By Cock, they are to blame." I believe this is an attack on the system in which women re given away with dowries. Ophelia blames not just her father for giving her to a man, but she blames all men and she blames this flawed system that gives women away as if they were transactions or bargaining chips.

Women aren't something to possess and men in Hamlet control women's every move, not to protect their women, but to protect their family dynasties. Polonius urges his daughter to stay far away from Hamlet because if she has sex with him and has a bastard son, then her son will never have a chance at being king and Ophelia would have ruined her honor and the family name. Polonius speaks to Ophelia:

Ay, springs to catch woodcocks. I do know
When the blood burns how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both
Even in their promises as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire. (1.4.115-120)

In these lines Polonius is warning his daughter of Hamlet and how vital it is for her to protect her chastity. However, later in the play Polonius pushes Ophelia into the very fire that he was trying to keep her from when he uses her to spy on Hamlet: "Ophelia, walk you here.../...Read on this book, / That show of such an exercise may colour / Your loneliness. We oft to blame in this" (3.1.45-48). Polonius is unknowingly damaging his daughter just as Jepthah did his. He is tossing her into the fists of lust and madness of Hamlet, but only wishes to advance his own political stance. He neglects how this will affect his daughter and fails to listen to Hamlet's words of wisdom in act 2.2: "O Jepthah, judge of Isreal, what a treasure hadst thou!" (385). By paralleling Polonius with Jepthah, Hamlet is warning him of the harm he will cause his daughter if he continues down the path he is on. Both Jepthah and Polonius have one daughter, and with the deaths of these women come the deaths of their bloodlines.

Allusions to Niobe and Jepthah's daughter creates an essence in Hamlet that helps bring forth a woman's importance in an empire. They prove how careless actions can bring down an entire dynasty in the matter of minutes. It also brings forth the idea that mocking the Gods and tempting fate will cause a domino effect within the celestial realm, which will ultimately back fire on the one twisting fate in their favor. Niobe's reference displays Gertrudes failure to just accept her world for what it was. Her craving for something more or better led to the fall of her family and the end of a dynasty. Jepthah's daughter brings to the table the idea that advancing one's political and economic status by sacrificing the unknown can cause on to be irresponsible. Jepthah and Polonius unknowingly destroyed their daughters and extinguished their bloodlines because of their greed for power. As a result their daughters died childless, and Ophelia (we're led to believe) died tainted. As stated before, women are extremely vital in the growth of bloodlines, they are the most important factor needed for stabilizing a dynasties' power by doing what they were built for, conceiving children.


William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

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    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very good commentary on the roles of women in Hamlet. You made your point clearly that their worth is determined by their contribution to power in the bloodlines. Good work!

    • Brittany Kussman profile image
      Author

      Brittany Kussman 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Thank you!

    • whattogetyour profile image

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