Representation of female characters in Shakespeare

Shakespearean plays are written within the patriarchal ideologies of the Elizabethan era. Women were considered to be subordinate to men. This subordinance was clearly projected in the portrayal and representation of women and their sexuality. The 1970’s and the rise of feminism challenged these Shakespearean, stereotypical representations. These new, feminist readings brought new perspectives to Shakespeare’s works. More particularly, the representation of the female characters (Ophelia and Gertrude) within one of Shakespeare’s most read and performed tragedies – Hamlet (Kolin 1991b: 3).

Within Shakespearean drama women and their sexuality are portrayed within an unbending, strict and unfair set of dichotomies. Hamlet is no exception. Women within the play are either portrayed as the whore or the maiden. These binary oppositions are based solely upon a woman’s sexuality. The maiden is pure and chaste while the whore is tainted and promiscuous. This main dichotomy is portrayed in other binary oppositions such as hot and cold, mobility and stasis, open or closed and chaste or unchaste. There is no happy medium, so to speak. A woman who is sexually active is immediately considered a whore (Traub 1992: 25).

A woman, such as Gertrude, who is in touch with her sexuality, is seemingly uncontrollable to the male characters within the play. In Hamlet Ophelia plays the binary opposition to Gertrude. She is chaste and considered to be the virtuous, angelic maiden. However, later, through her madness Ophelia transcends to a more exotic-type whore (Traub 1992: 26).

According to Valerie Traub (1992: 26), Hamlet exhibits what she calls ‘masculine anxiety’ (as do most Shakespeare’s male characters). Shakespearean male characters need to contain the female character\'s sexuality in order to maintain a certain dominance. This containment means that the women should be angelic and chaste. However the fear that these women cannot be contained and made constant in chastised roles is he main constituent of this ‘male anxiety’.

Gertrude’s sexual desire for Claudius and her incestuous marriage are uncontrollable to Hamlet. Since he cannot control Gertrude\'s sexuality, he tries to control Ophelia’s. This control is lost as she moves from her angelic maiden image to a whore-like character through her madness. He only reaches this ultimate desired state of containment in Ophelia through her death.

Hamlet: What man dost thou dig for?

First Clown: For no man, sir.

Hamlet: What woman then?

First Clown: For none, sir.

Hamlet: Who is to be buried in ‘t?

First Clown: One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her soul, she’s dead.


It would seem that through her death, Ophelia is seemingly sexless and thus ultimately chastised (Traub 1992: 25).

Madness and drowning are symbolically feminine within Shakespearean Drama. Drowning is linked to the fluidity if a woman. She is fluid in the tears she cries and in the amniotic fluid and milk she produces. The fluidity is representative of her body and since her body represents her sexuality her drowning is possibly symbolic of reinforcing her femininity and possibly Ophelia’s new found sexuality (Drakakis (ed.) 19 : 282).

During the Elizabethan Era being sad and melancholic became very fashionable and acceptable. It as considered to be a sign of intellect and imagination, however, only for men. If a woman were sad it was said to be part of their biology and rooted in her emotions and not her intellect. This womanly sadness was associated with a type of ‘love madness’ in the Elizabethan era. Ophelia becomes a metaphor of this sexist madness (Drakakis (ed.) 19 : 285).

Cookson and Loughey (1985) feel that Ophelia’s madness drives her to constantly contemplate loss of virginity. This shows a shift from one binary opposition to another - from the virtuous maiden to the promiscuous whore. Her appearance portrays this madness - untamed, disheveled, loose flowing hair (possibly a sign of her un-containment by Hamlet) and broken discourse. Gertrude is made aware of Ophelia’s madness through a description of her disrupted speech patterns.

“Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt that carry half sense. The speech is nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move the hearers to collection.”


Ophelia’s speech becomes less strained and restricted than that of her former sane-maiden self. Her speech is more lyrical and she sings lustful songs filled with sexual imagery. Possibly another symbol of her new found sexuality and Hamlet’s