In contrast to the myriad of male characters that are present in Hamlet, there are only two significant women characters, Gertrude and Ophelia. Both of their lives end in what can be interpreted as suicide, with Gertrude drinking, either intentionally or not, from the poisoned cup and Ophelia drowning helplessly in a stream, all the while chanting her bizarre songs. In addition to both of these women’s questionable and strange deaths, the development of their characters are equally strange. Gertrude does very little up until and after her meeting with Hamlet in her bedroom. Even during this meeting, she appears remarkably weak and even close-minded, with her only response being some form of asking Hamlet to stop his inquiry into her soul as she cries out, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” (III.iv.177). What is additionally a poor reflection of her character is the fact that she fails to acknowledge or notice the ghost that enters the room in the middle of their conversation. Shakespeare clearly wrote stage directions for a ghost to enter and exit, ending any questions regarding the existence of the ghost. This failure to recognize the ghost’s existence portrays her as unable, and potentially even unwilling, to accept the gravity of what she has done as she is incapable of seeing what is right before her eyes.
With regard to Ophelia, there is quite a lot more development of her character. Towards the beginning of the play, we see the contrast between her and her brother Laertes. While Polonius gives Laertes a speech regarding how to be a proper man, asking him “to thine own self be true” (I.iii.84), Polonius and Laertes both give Ophelia much more specific orders, telling her to keep away from Hamlet. Although this difference in advice could be merely circumstantial, the fact that both Polonius and Laertes are telling Ophelia exactly how, in specific terms, to order her life whereas Polonius only gives Laertes some very broad aphorisms to live by would indicate that it is not. Quite a bit further into the play, Ophelia’s madness sets in. As was briefly alluded to in the class discussions, the treatment of Ophelia and her madness is in stark contrast to the treatment of Hamlet in his potential insanity. With Hamlet, there is constant concern on behalf of all of the court as to the cause of his madness and its meaning. For instance, Claudius asserts, “I like him not, nor stands it safe with us/To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you” (III.iii.1-2). With Ophelia, there is not this kind of treatment. She is ostracized and not discussed at any length by the other characters in the play, and before her death she only makes appearances to cry out her peculiar songs. One gets the feeling that had Hamlet chanted these songs, each word would be analyzed at length, yet this is not the case with Ophelia. Naturally, one could argue that much of the concern for Hamlet stems from Claudius and his fear of his crimes being uncovered which is a fear that is not relevant to Ophelia or that Hamlet is of higher stature than Ophelia, so it is reasonable that his actions receive more attention. That said, concern is not something that should vary based on stature or circumstance; concern for people’s well-being should be omnipresent as a direct result of the dignity of mankind.
Based on the portrayals of Gertrude and Ophelia, it seems clear that at the very least Shakespeare is consciously or subconsciously aware of the fundamental differences in treatment within women. This seems clear because in Hamlet, only two women are presented, and both of these women die strange deaths. One of them has her only significant moment identify her as feeble and unaware while the other is told precisely how to behave and is shown no significant concern when she is in need of it the most. Whether Shakespeare is in fact pointing out through these differences that he wants to see change is impossible to tell. But from such a revolutionary writer, one should come to expect revolutionary ideas.