Shakespeare’s Hamlet had its origin in the Elizabethan period, and hence, it is a reflection of England during that time. Therefore, a close examination of Shakespeare’s works reveals that his male and female characters portray the features attributed to masculinity and femininity during the Elizabethan England. A perfect example is the characters he developed in the tragedy Hamlet which was first performed in 1602. A deep analysis of the work shows what Shakespeare, like the mainstream Elizabethan England, considered as the qualities of perfect masculinity. Some important elements that can be found in Hamlet as attached to masculinity are honor, the ability to think rationally even in the midst of extreme emotions, determination, and dominance over females.
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According to Rosen (1993), what is peculiar about Shakespeare’s portrayal of masculinity in Hamlet is that the he does not wish to decorate the protagonist with all the masculine characters but he decided to shatter different contrasting attributes in various male characters, leaving it for the reader to understand what is manly and what is not. Firstly, a common theme that arises from the play is that it is manly to avenge to retain honor. For example, Hamlet shows three characters, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. Though all three are in the effort to save honor by avenging the deaths of their dear ones, they adopt three different ways. In the case of Laertes, he wants to avenge Hamlet for the death of his father Polonius and sister Ophelia. Here, one can observe that Laertes is more impulsive and less introspective in nature and this behavior leads to his own peril. For example, he openly says that he would not hesitate to “cut his throat i’th church” (Shakespeare, 1601, 1.2. 98) to avenge Hamlet for honor.
In contrast, the play shows a Hamlet who is unwilling to kill Claudius when he is found praying. Instead of acting sternly, Hamlet develops a dubious and mysterious way of taking revenge, and, though he is not as impulsive as Laertes in his action, he is greatly influenced by the incidents in his life (Rosen, 1993). For example, his mother Gertrude’s betrayal of his father has affected his opinion on femininity and this has colored his perceptions on women. Both these factors have collectively led to the death of so many people, including Ophelia, making his revenge less effective. It is his hatred for his mother that makes him say “Ay truly for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd…” (Shakespeare, 1601, 3.1.121-125). Therefore, he is in a confused state when he meets Ophelia, and so is the reader. On one hand, he unleashes his hatred for the feminine, and on the other, he wants to test the depth of Ophelia’s love. At the same time, it can also be interpreted as an effort to keep Ophelia away from troubles. Whatever the reason might be, he appears far more introspective in nature than Laertes is in the effort to save honor. Yet another point that makes Hamlet different from the other two is his indifference in executing the revenge. He says, “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right” (Shakespeare, 1601, 1. 5. 190-191).
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There is another avenger in the play, that is, Fortinbras, the son of the slain Norwegian king. What makes him different in his approach is that he is very open and bold in his plan to kill the new king of Denmark and is not moved from his resolution by any factor (Johns, 2011). For example, he leaves his “impotent and bedrid” uncle and focuses on training his troops (Shakespeare, 1601, 1. 2. 29-31). Fortinbras develops a definite and straightforward plan to avenge his father’s death and act overtly with the boldest and most direct plan of attacking Denmark. To achieve this, he even gathers troops. In sharp contrast, Hamlet prefers to adopt the indirect and dubious way of feigning madness and performing the revenge without any chances of suspicion. According to Johns (2011), this indicates that while Fortinbras is sure about the reasons, ways, and consequences of what he does, Hamlet is not willing to take the responsibility of what he intends to do; showing a degree of cowardice in him. After introducing these three characters, Shakespeare leaves the rest for the reader to decide what is masculine and what is not.
After introducing these three characters vividly, Shakespeare gives the reader a chance to observe what happens to each of them at the end. Laertes dies with the poisoned sword he has prepared for Hamlet. He was impulsive and unthinking in his behavior and his death resembles the same features; instantaneous and ridiculous, with his own sword. Hamlet was reluctant, covert, and too introspective in his style, and his end came the same way. An injury from Laertes’ poisoned sword leads to his slow death. Both these people manage to fulfill their revenge but their own deficiencies lead to their own death. In contrast, there is Fortinbras who finally wins and becomes the ruler of Denmark. As already analyzed, Fortinbras is different from the other two in the fact that he is courageous, open, and firm on his decisions, and he is not moved by anything in his effort to achieve his goal. This ultimately makes him a winner.
However, one cannot conclusively say that Shakespeare deprived Hamlet of all masculine features of the time. In the opinion of Johns (2011), Hamlet is seen adorned with the quality of not being swayed by the feminine. Instead, he has developed a hatred for the same because of two reasons. Firstly, he is a representative of the Elizabethan time England where females had little role in the mainstream society and were considered fit for homemaking (Rosen, 1993). In addition, Hamlet witnesses the naïve nature of his own mother Gertrude as she betrays Hamlet’s father. Both these elements make him strong enough to ignore Ophelia though he loves her.
Thus, one can see that the protagonist in Hamlet is the victim of the conflicting viewpoints that existed in the Elizabethan society regarding masculinity. On the one hand, a man is supposed to be fearless and bold. It is clear that Hamlet is courageous enough to take revenge as he says “…As meditation or the thoughts of love,/ May sweep to my revenge” (Shakespeare, 1601, 1.5.31-37). From this, it is clear that Hamlet is eager enough to revenge his father’s killing. At the same time, the Elizabethan society wanted males to be honest and thoughtful in their action, and a death for the rightful cause was even considered heroism. Now, a look back into Hamlet proves that he is thoughtful to the extent of cowardice. It is this extreme thoughtfulness that makes him doubt the ghost of his father, and makes him continue his revenge in a covert way in order to ensure that his action is justifiable and that no innocent person is hurt. It is this extreme feeling of rightfulness that prevents him from killing Claudius when he is found praying. In addition, it is this character that makes him keep Ophelia away even though he loves her. From this point, it becomes clear that Hamlet is a person who is firm on his plan to revenge Claudius and even the love of Ophelia does not affect his decision. In addition, he is thoughtful enough to keep innocent people like Ophelia away from danger and his revenge is solely aimed at Claudius.
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In total, it is clear that Hamlet, the protagonist in the play Hamlet is not an epitome of masculinity in the Elizabethan period but Shakespeare has invested elements of the masculine features in a number of characters along with some drawbacks so that the readers are left to analyze and find out what is masculine and what is not in each of them. Interestingly, it is this perfect juxtaposition of features in characters that makes Shakespeare’s works interesting and thought-provoking. From the analysis, it is clear that the main male characters including Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras possess important elements of masculinity in the fact that all three have taken revenge seriously and are striving hard for the same. While Laertes exhibits the weakness of impulsiveness, Hamlet is marked by too much of righteousness and thoughtfulness which overshadow his masculinity. Fortinbras, however, looks free from such weaknesses and becomes the ultimate winner.
- Johns, A. (2011). The representation of masculinity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. London: University of West England.
- Rosen, David. (1993). The changing fictions of masculinity. Chicago: University of Illinois.
- Shakespeare, W. (1601). The tragedy of Hamlet.