Shakespeare’s tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are plays with multiple layers, motifs, and themes. He uses poison and suicide as a motif, in order to show that the roles people play are poisoned and uses death to represent a way out of those roles, especially for women who seem to be marginalized sexual beings. The theme, women as a sexual being, is presented in both plays. Juliet is portrayed as an independent sexual woman and Gertrude and Ophelia are dependent sexual women. The role of women is important because women represent a tool which men use to manipulate their circumstances; in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is a woman who knows what she wants and who she is, all the while struggling to push back male dominance; in Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude are used willingly as instruments for the enhancement of their male counter parts.
The dominance by men causes the women to make decisions with fatal ends; all three women cannot act freely because of the constraints of their male centered society. Shakespeare uses the plays, albeit in extremes, to show how men sexualize and moralize women, which distorts their roles and actions to propel the characters toward negative outcomes; the way he uses these roles shows us the damage and tragedy of women stuck in these roles, suggesting that women should be allowed to have their own feelings, emotions, sexuality, and identity.
Juliet is a strong female character; her independence goes against the social construct of a noble society. We fall in love with Juliet who follows her heart and rejects the social requirements of her father. He wants her to marry for the enhancement of wealth and status. Being a strong-minded woman, she falls for Romeo, who is the antithesis of what her father wants. It is because of her independent nature that causes trouble for her role in society and her response to male dominance moves the play forward; she makes decisions without her father’s consent, which shows how important it is for women to own their sexuality and womanhood. As Romeo is exiled from the kingdom Juliet becomes grieved, her father thinks her grief is because Romeo killed Tybalt. Both her father and the Friar think she will go insane if she grieves too much; it is as if they think she cannot handle loss properly because she is a women. Juliet’s father thinks that if she marries Paris then she will stop grieving the loss of Tybalt.
He meets with Paris and formulates a plot for her to marry quickly in order to subdue her emotions. This intimates that if she were allowed to truly feel her emotions they would cause her great harm and it is up the men in society to guide, direct, and protect women from themselves. Her father uses manipulation to cause her to submit, by saying that he will throw her out in the streets to fend for herself if she doesn’t marry Paris (3.5.160-163). He demeans her by calling her a disobedient wretch, which suggests that she doesn’t have any right to her own opinion or decisions; without her family she would literally starve to death; her only option for survival is to submit to her father.
Juliet turns to the Friar, who creates a plot to fake her death. Juliet decides to take the Friar’s advice and trick her father into believing that she has died so that she can be free to live with Romeo. This plot is formulated by another male in her life and had it not been for the Friar, there may have been a better plan. The women are portrayed in stereo types which are: women are powerless in times of grief (3.v.131-137), women cannot make decisions without the hand of a strong male leader (3.iv.13-16), and women don’t have the right to choose who they love (3.4.20-23). The messages are subtle but apparent in Romeo and Juliet. Here Shakespeare shows male dominance in comparison with female independence.
Juliet is a heroine who is controlled by the men in her life. She must rely on their expertise to fulfill her destiny. She exerts her independence by asking Romeo to marry her, albeit at night. In fact they meet at night and then later when they are married, consummate their marriage at night. The contrast between the private relationship Juliet has with Romeo and her public lies to her father, is cause to question the rules of society; the rules that she must obey her father and submit to his orders are shown as negative. These roles are the public roles that happen in the daytime, out in the open. But the real story unfolds at night. The drama and her ability to be herself happens at night.
She is a heroine because she is seeking to create her own destiny and the values controlled by men are seen as antagonistic and wrong. The very public life of Juliet’s noble family and their daytime activities, contrasts with their private lives, the lives they live in the cover of night, in the shadows. This shows us that though men may try to control a woman and her feelings, they are not in control at all. They confuse honor, obedience, and submission with happiness and the men are not equipped to handle a woman’s emotional well-being. Juliet’s father doesn’t understand her strength; he undermines her abilities, and his actions cause her to choose a fatal plan.
When faced with Romeo’s death Juliet decides that it is better to be dead than alive and commits suicide along with Romeo. She through her own independence would rather die than be ruled and controlled by men. The society is which she lives is flawed because the rules are too confining; the rules are set up so that the king has autonomy to make decisions, but this narrow societal construct does not work for the independent Juliet; it causes her to struggle with identity, emotion, and a sense of self.
While Juliet’s remained strong, she still suffered as a result of the male dominance and control. In Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia are marginalized and portrayed as weak sexual beings. This display of one-dimensional characterization shows the women as if they are valued as sexual instruments. The contrast between Gertrude who marries her husband’s brother before she has time to properly grieve and thus rejecting the feelings of her son Hamlet, with the worship of Hamlet by Ophelia, shows the women as empty vessels reliant on their male counterparts for identity. Here Shakespeare shows what society looks like when women are only valued as sexual beings or as in Ophelia’s case for their chastity and submissiveness. He shows us that women without a voice, opinion, and choice, are thrust into roles and actions that cause damage to not only them, but also those around them.
Hamlet is shown as the grieving son and his mother as a sexual opportunist. She is shown as a lustful old woman, who doesn’t even grieve her husband’s death. Here Gertrude chooses to marry her brother in law, so that she doesn’t lose her identity as queen. The need for Gertrude to have a sense of power is so strong that she forgoes proper grieving in order to keep her status, by using her sexuality as the only thing she has to offer. The guilt Gertrude should have from marrying for status or sexual relations is why Hamlet is so hurt. This shows us that though marrying for power might be what society accepts, it isn’t always the best choice for a woman and can cause harm to families. Hamlet accuses his mother of exchanging grief for sex and in doing so shamed herself before God and country.
Hamlet argues that his mother could not call the marriage love at her age because sexual passion is tame (3.iv.67-68). His rant shows us how truly hurt he is that his mother has not chosen blood over power. Later in the same speech he tells her that she is filling herself like a glutton and that she should be ashamed of herself (3.iv.72-79). This tells how needless her marriage is and how she not only betrayed herself but betrayed her own son. As Hamlet speaks to Gertrude she becomes stripped of her dignity, sexuality, and identity, which in her case was only present because of her marriage to the king. What is a society to do with women who marry for status? When Gertrude realizes that she has married for the wrong reason she merely says, “What shall I do?”(3.iv.164). She is lost.
In the same way that Gertrude is striped of identity, Ophelia doesn’t seem to ever have one. Her only purpose seems to be to please Hamlet, her brother, and her father. She is a tool that her brother and father use to remedy their conscience and Hamlet seems to only play with. Laertes tells Ophelia not to fall into a trap with Hamlet, because he is afraid she will be used and loose her honor and her heart (1.iii.29-31). Moments later her father appears and tells her she must be cautious (1.iii.95-98), that she doesn’t know herself. Ophelia assures her father that Hamlet loves her, but her father beats her down telling her that she is “like a green girl” (1.iii.101) and she responds with the main point Shakespeare is trying to make “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1.iii.104). Are we to assume that a woman needs a man to do her thinking for her? No. Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s role to show us that when women are marginalized and sexualized they cannot think for themselves. This social norm is not normal and has fatal consequences in society, when women are not treated as fully developed equal humans.
Ophelia’s identity becomes more tenuous upon the killing of her father (iv.5.169-74). As the result of her reliance on her father, and her worship of Hamlet she is thrust in a state of confusion. This confusion leads to her death. She is the most saintly moral person in the play and dies a martyr because she is unable to renounce her worship of Hamlet in order to fully grieve her father’s death. Her lack of identity becomes a fatal consequence of the way her society treats women. She is a product of the actions caused by male dominance; she responds to those actions the only way she knows how. Oddly enough, her drowning is metaphorical for the way women are treated; by drowning she represents all the women in society, who are unable to speak for themselves, unable to have a voice, and unable to breath in the presence of male domination.
The women’s dominance by men in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet moves the plays in a forward motion, because it is through these connections the plays turn tragic. The societies in both plays are male centered and dominated. Women being used as tools for men and represented as sexual beings results in extreme tragedy. Shakespeare shows that women as sexual beings alone, causes society to become confused and misaligned. He further shows that a woman’s identity is important to their health and well-being. In his tragedies the ends are not seen as justification of the means, he shows the danger of an autonomous male centered society, where one ruler controls. If Juliet existed in a society with free choice she would have lived, Ophelia may have sought counsel from another woman, Gertrude may have been able to take the crown, and Hamlet might still be grieving.