Hamlet

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Themes and Colors
Action and Inaction Theme Icon
Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Religion, Honor, and Revenge Theme Icon
Poison, Corruption, Death Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hamlet, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women Theme Icon

There are two important issues regarding women in Hamlet: how Hamlet sees women and women's social position. Hamlet's view of women is decidedly dark. In fact, the few times that Hamlet's pretend madness seems to veer into actual madness occur when he gets furious at women. Gertrude's marriage to Claudius has convinced Hamlet that women are untrustworthy, that their beauty is a cover for deceit and sexual desire. For Hamlet, women are living embodiments of appearance's corrupt effort to eclipse reality.

As for women's social position, its defining characteristic is powerlessness. Gertrude's quick marriage to Claudius, though immoral, is also her only way to maintain her status. Ophelia has even fewer options. While Hamlet waits to seek revenge for his father's death, Ophelia, as a woman, can't act—all she can do is wait for Laertes to return and take his revenge. Ophelia's predicament is symbolic of women's position in general in Hamlet: they are completely dependent on men.

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Women Quotes in Hamlet

Below you will find the important quotes in Hamlet related to the theme of Women.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
Frailty, thy name is woman!
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Gertrude
Page Number: 1.2.150
Explanation and Analysis:

In his soliloquy, Hamlet expresses disgust for Gertrude’s actions in the wake of King Hamlet’s death. The protagonist complains of her lustful nature and her moral weakness.

Shakespeare develops in this phrase a clever rhetorical strategy—one that has endured and been used in texts that range from James Joyce's Ulysses to a Supreme Court dissension to a Pokémon episode. The literal meaning of the sentence is that woman are frail, but by inverting the order of the sentence, he forefronts the accusative quality. Then by making the subject the “name” of the quality, he implies that frailty is epitomized and embodied by the female character. According to this logic, it is not just that some women are frail, but rather that they are synonymous with frailty.

Despite the rhetorical power of the statement, it is also a gross generalization—something of which Shakespeare would have certainly been aware. Hamlet rapidly switches from examining the specific case of Gertrude to making a general comment on her entire sex, which points to his tendency for rash action and totalizing language. We see, then, the playwright giving linguistic power to his characters, even as he also displays their shortcomings in rationality and sensibility.

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Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
Related Characters: Hamlet (speaker), Ophelia
Page Number: 3.1.131-134
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ophelia tries to return a set of gifts Hamlet has given her, he renounces their relationship. He first disparages Ophelia for her lack of honesty, and then implicates himself as the cause of moral wrongdoing.

This passage is another striking example of how Hamlet’s apparent insanity covers up complex reflections on human nature and society. His general claim is that Ophelia should not continue to propagate the species, for all men are sinners even if they are generally honest and well-intentioned. Yet instead of expressing this statement directly, Hamlet couches it in the lunatic demand that Ophelia enter a “nunnery”: a place where should would be celibate and therefore unable to “be a breeder of sinners,” or give birth to more children.

Though this passage might be interpreted in passing as chastising Ophelia for her sins, Hamlet’s claim is actually based on his own transgressions. He notes, in a somewhat roundabout manner, that others could consider his actions reprehensible despite his “indifferent honest” behavior: “indifferent” in that he remains relatively passive, and “honest” in that any sins are supposedly driven by a strong moral compass. Yet, Hamlet reasons, if even his disposition makes him worthy of accusation, then presumably other similar men are sinners, and Ophelia should not risk giving birth to one of them. Shakespeare, here, shows how Hamlet’s nihilistic images of the world are a fascinating mixture of compelling and irrational. The logic makes sense and carries deep philosophical weight, while being simultaneously insensitive and outrageous. The two, Shakespeare shows us, can quite easily coexist.