English 12, Period 1
March 14, 2019
Shakespeare's Use of Stereotypes In Hamlet
As readers of Shakespeare in the 21st century, the topic of gender roles, stereotypes, and
hyper masculinity/ femininity become more apparent than ever. Hamlet was made in the 17th
century where the gender roles in place during that time were drastically different to the current
modern lifestyle. The further the story progresses in Hamlet the more Shakespeare uses
femininity and masculinity to create conflicts within the plot. This is shown through the inner
conflicts of Hamlet through his father’s death,the tale of Ophelia's love, and emotional
manipulation of Laertes. Shakespeare use the stereotypes and social constructs for men and
women to create conflict in order to further the story of Hamlet.
The character most used as an example of gender roles would be Ophelia. Throughout the
story of Hamlet her femininity is used as a starting point to create conflict within the plot. In the
first act as Laertes is departing he tells Ophelia
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed, which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.
Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia. Fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection. (I,iii,25)
Shakespeare uses the generic ideas of femininity by having Laertes, a male figure, to determine
Ophelia’s choices in life. The idea of having men dominate women was a very common
occurrence during Shakespeare’s time period, and it clearly translates when he has Laertes
suggest that Ophelia should better protect her “chaste treasure” or her virginity/ purity. His
purpose in this was not only to protect her from Hamlet but also to secure her likeness towards
other potential men by still being innocent. This plays into her madness she eventually reaches;
Ophelia throughout this story had been pressured into the ideas of maintaining her purity for
marriage, but as soon as she gives herself to Hamlet, expecting marriage, she is rejected leading
to her ruin.
Not only is the use of femininity used as a point to set character’s roles in this society but
Shakespeare also uses hypermasculinity in order to set the tone of what a male, specifically
Hamlet, should be in during this time and how they should adhere to it. When Hamlet was
mourning over the death of his father, Claudius comes to him and says
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled.
For what we know must be and is as common. (I,ii,93)
Claudius calls attention to Hamlet’s weakness of showing too much emotion and being
vulnerable over an occurrence that continuously happens throughout life. This focuses on the
idea of toxic masculinity which leads to the higher expectations for each character, Hamlet
especially, and this eventually moves into societal pressure and internal conflict. This later plays
into the concernment of Hamlet and how he has not done anything to place his revenge on the
man who killed his father. After the arrival of the players and their passionate performance,
Hamlet despairingly says
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing—no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
My dear father’s been murdered,
and I’ve been urged to seek revenge by
heaven and hell, and yet all I can do is
stand around cursing like a whore in the
streets. (II, ii, 510)
Hamlet knows what he’s been doing has not been to what he believes a man should do. He’s
angry due to reflecting on the actors’ actions and motivation compared to his own and there
being a lack of it; not following through with his Father’s ghost request as well as not fulfilling
his role as the prince when a mere actor has done so much from a single performance. Hamlet
then compares himself to “a whore in the streets”. There’s a general disrespect with the women
in and out of his life which comes from the stereotype of men having to be better and bigger than
women. All the blame is typically shifted towards the women in the story which creates this
environment where the men don’t focus the issue on themselves making the conflict worse.
Shakespeare uses the idea of toxic masculinity consistently throughout Hamlet. Much of the men
in Hamlet are bounded to the idea of not allowing themselves to show emotions or “being
feminine” because that shows a weakness, and because of that it typically leads into external
conflicts between the characters. When Laertes finds out about his father’s death he rushes in
seeking revenge Claudius immediately takes advantage of the situation.
Laertes, was your father dear to you?
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?
Hamlet comes back. What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your father’s son
More than in words? (IV, vii, 104)
Laertes takes his emotional distress and forces it into a feeling of anger and regret because he
was not able to avenge his father quick enough; his motivation of revenge stems from his
inability to be vulnerable and show that he is weak. When Claudius is aware of this, he takes
advantage of the state he’s in, much how Hamlet did to Ophelia, and morphes the situation to
how he wants it. In this situation Laertes manifests this emotions into revenge which is very
stereotypical in terms of masculinity, but he could also be seen as playing the feminine role in
this because Claudius was able to manipulate him and control his actions during an emotional
Overall, it may be said that the social construct of Shakespeare’s time established the
reasonings to each character’s actions. With femininity Shakespeare uses them as objects to
manipulate in order to benefit the men, leading to their demise. Then for men Shakespeare uses
their emotions, or lack of, to create discord between characters.
List of Sources
SparkNotes, SparkNotes, www.sparknotes.com/nofear/shakespeare/hamlet/.