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The Sadder Sex: The Gendering of Grief in Hamlet

Horatio, Hamlet and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli

The experience of pain, sadness and depression in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complicated and multifaceted. As the goal of this essay is not to diagnose the characters of Hamlet, pain, sadness and depression along with other terms, such as grief and mourning, will be used interchangeably to refer to the various states from which the characters suffer. For while they may or may not be mad, it can be generally agreed that they are sad. When assessing whether the experience of pain is gendered it becomes even more complex. In her essay, Documents in Madness, Neely states that the speech of mad characters in Hamlet is clearly gender-marked.[1] While the representation of sadness and by extension madness in Hamlet is often characterised as female it is arguable that the overall experience of pain is far more androgynous.  This essay will look at the experiences of sadness of the various characters of Hamlet with particular interest in Hamlet and Ophelia. In conjunction with the play theories by Neely, Kirsch, Steenbergh and Morris will be engaged. Exploring concepts of society, performance, duality, voice and silence and imagery it will be determined that while the experience of pain, sadness and depression have aspects of the feminine and the masculine it is ultimately androgynous.

In Hamlet personal experience of grief is continually opposed by societal and cultural expectations of it. Hamlet is already in mourning when first introduced in act one scene two and at the beginning of what Kirsch calls “a continuous and tremendous experience of pain and suffering.”[2] At this point he is confronted with a series of conflicting representations and expectations of the gendering of grief. Firstly he is confronted with his mother’s own truncated version of grief which is in direct contrast with his own ongoing pain. Kirsch argues that this is perhaps the most intense loss that Hamlet suffers in the play[3]. Gertrude has not only betrayed his father but Hamlet by remarrying quickly. He characterises his mother’s mourning harshly, saying, “a beast that wants for discourse of reason would have mourned longer!”[4]. In evaluating his mother’s grief he reveals his opinion of his own: where hers is ‘frail’ his is strong, where hers is short his is long and where hers is ‘unrighteous’ his is righteous. Hamlet believes his own experience is superior and correct however both Gertrude and Claudius challenge this. Gertrude says “Thou know’st ’tis common – all that lives must dies, passing through nature to eternity.” (1.2.72-3). and Claudius decries it as ‘unmanly grief’. As King and Queen their attitudes are indicative of the larger society in which they reside as well as their own personal agendas. In characterising Hamlet’s extended mourning as unnatural and womanly they suggest Gertrude’s ‘hurried’ mourning is the more appropriate and the more masculine of the two. From this scene it can be determined lengthy grieving is feminine while brief sadness is masculine however these are experienced by characters of the opposite gender. This juxtaposition is continued in the contrast between performance and experience which is central to the play.

The Play Scene by Daniel Maclise

Hamlet’s preoccupation with performance is rooted in the dichotomy between the appearance of grief and the experience of it. This is not more clearly expressed than when Gertrude asks “Why seems it so particular with thee?” and Hamlet responds “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’.” He goes on to list the various outward affectations of grief and declares that he “have within which passeth show” (1.2.75-85). He believes true grief is experienced internally, however, he has adopted at least some of the ‘moods’ and ‘forms’ that ‘show grief’, he is dressed in black and it is apparent to all that see him that he is unhappy. Steenbergh says the connection between the experience and outward performance of emotion is inevitable[5] and so it is with Hamlet. Not only does his appearance reflect his internal experience but when the player delivering the speech on Hecuba is brought to tears Hamlet praises his ability to raise such passion from performance and bemoans the fact that he is unable to do the same. This raises the question of whether emotion prompts performance or if  performance inspires emotion. Hamlet switches back and forth between the two. He outwardly rejects this imitation in the example above and in his disapproval of Laertes excessive grief at Ophelia’s funeral saying “For by the image of my own cause I see The portraiture of his.” (5.2.77-78). Yet he also enacts the performance of suffering, imitating the same performance by Laertes he later criticises, in his physical appearance and in his feigned madness. Hamlet’s grief being apparent is considered womanly. This justifies the anxieties within the play, which Steenbergh touches on, that through the imitation of passion masculinity may be lost[6]. However they are also questionable. Laertes once all his tears are shed “woman will be out.” (4.7.189). In physically and visually mourning Ophelia he will exorcise the female part of himself rather than loose his masculinity. Performance is intrinsically dualistic and Hamlet  is a play of doubles, in regards to the gendering of depression Ophelia and Hamlet are clear doppelgangers.

Ophelia serves as a double for Hamlet offering the audience an alternative experience of suffering and grief.  Neely and Kirsch, along with other theorists, explore Ophelia’s depression and madness as a contrast or extension of Hamlet’s own. Where Hamlet feigns madness Ophelia suffers true madness and where he contemplates suicide she commits it, she takes all his ruminations on pain and turns them into action. It is debatable however which of the two adopts a masculine and which a feminine model of depression, if such a model exists. Looking at the binary oppositions of rational versus irrational and active versus passive it is hard to tell. Traditionally rationality and activeness have been considered masculine traits and irrationality and passiveness feminine. The difficulty is that Hamlet can be considered both rational and passive in his measured contemplation of suicide and Ophelia can be considered both irrational and active in her decisive death. In this sense both Ophelia and Hamlet’s experience of pain is androgynous. Another representation of the duality in the experience of suffering in the recurring image of the mirror.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Hamlet tries to use the concept of the mirror to negotiate the duplicity that surrounds him but it is, itself, duplicitous. While he believes a mirror to show “virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” (3.2.23-25). it can only show a reflection and a reflection is a double. In confronting his mother Hamlet tells her he will, “set you up a glass [mirror] where you may see the inmost part of you!” (3.4.20-21). However his approach is flawed. A mirror cannot reveal it can only reflect. So, once again, Hamlet is caught between the experience and the performance. The mirror is also aligned with women and performance in that it is used in the application of make-up. Hamlet accuses Ophelia and women in general of the inherent duplicity of this, “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” (3.1.145-46). These ideas reinforce Hamlet’s criticisms of the external show of sadness and aligns it with women.

The female gendering of  Ophelia’s experience of grief is made apparent when looking at the opposition between voice and silence[7]. Neely suggests Ophelia’s lack of individual voice and reliance on ‘quotation’ is a result of female oppression[8]. Ophelia’s voice is repeatedly cut off in the earlier parts of the play, she is talked over and controlled by her father, brother and Hamlet so that when these forces in her life are absent she has no voice to articulate her suffering. As Laertes says she has been “Divided from herself and her fair judgement,” (4.5.85). Ophelia must borrow from the songs and rhymes of her male dominated culture to express her grief, “she chanted snatches of old lauds, As one incapable of her own distress,” (4.7.177-78).  Gertrude also lacks a voice to express her pain, when Hamlet confronts her she laments, “if words be made of breath, and breath of life, I have no life to breathe what thou hast said to me.” (3.4.198-200). Within the same scene Gertrude perceives Hamlet as exceedingly loud, “Ay me, what act, that roars so loud and thunders in the index?” (3.4.53-54). Hamlet, unlike the women in the play­, has the opportunity express his pain in his own words and does so in his various soliloquies. Morris asserts that pain “exists in part beyond language.” and therefore is inextricably connected to silence[9]. While Hamlet dismisses the outward expression of sadness it is Ophelia and Gertrude, within their voiceless domain, who reject the expression of it. Remaining in silence, however, Ophelia allows her experience to be objectified and gendered by those outside of it.

Ophelia’s suffering is contrasted, like Hamlet’s, with the perception of it. Gertrude is afraid ‘ill-breeding minds’ will make ‘dangerous conjectures’ from Ophelia’s nonsensical ramblings but it is in fact she and Laertes who apply their own gendered meaning to Ophelia’s experience. Neely raises the possibility that reading the self-represented madness can aestheticize the condition[10] and this is what occurs. Throughout act four scene five Ophelia is described as ‘pretty’ despite her manic state. When Ophelia passes out herbs and flowers extolling their meanings Laertes declares “She turns to favor and to prettiness.” (4.5.186). While Claudius found the possibility that Hamlet was mad dangerous[11] Ophelia’s madness is considered gentle, natural and beautiful, in other words: female. This ‘aestheticizing’ of Ophelia’s madness is furthered by Gertrude’s description of her death, “When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaidlike” (4.7.174-76). Her suicide, depression and very character is connected to nature and water; elements symbolically associated with both woman and sadness. Gertrude goes so far as to mythologize Ophelia’s suicide. In likening her to a mermaid, as Hamlet does a nymph (3.1.89), Gertrude cements her experience of depression in not just the otherness of femininity but the otherness of the supernatural as well. This otherness harkens back to Gertrude’s own experience which Hamlet likened to a beast and associated with an ‘unweeded garden’ in act one scene two. Gertrude’s grief is also described as inhuman and aligned with nature but grotesque instead of beautiful. Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s sadness is able to be feminized but only in their silence. Their internal experience, like Hamlet’s, is conflicted, characterised by both female and male traits, and thus androgynous.

The experience of pain, sadness and depression in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is gendered. It is experienced in both female and masculine terms and expressed in female and masculine terms and as a result is entirely androgynous. The social and familial expectations of the expression of grief contrast with the individuals experience of it. While certain behaviours are considered either masculine or feminine the characters tend to experience the opposite. Performance of grief threatens the male characters with loss of masculinity but also offers the opportunity to expel womanly virtues from within themselves. The duality of the gendering of the experience of depression is reflected in many dualistic aspects of the play, Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s contrast and extension of each other and the imagery of the mirror. The silence and ‘quotation’ of Ophelia’s and Gertrude’s experience of pain aligns them with the suppression of women but also the inexpressible nature of grief of which Hamlet believes himself to be a champion. In the silence of the female characters their performance of suffering is able to be feminized by onlookers however their experience remains within. Each experience of pain, sadness and depression in Hamlet is particular to each character, yet they all remain gendered by society, performance and their own understanding of it.

[1] Carol T. Neely, “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Early Modern Culture,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42, no. 3 (1991): 322.

[2] Arthur Kirsch, “Hamlet’s Grief,” ELH 48, no. 1 (1981): 17.

[3] Kirsch, “Hamlet’s Grief,” 28.

[4] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, (New York: Signet Classics, 1963), Tenth Edition, 1.2.151-52.

[5] Kristine Steenbergh, “Emotion, Performance and Gender in Shakespeare’s Hamlet,” Critical Studies 34 (2011): 94.

[6] Steenbergh, “Emotion, Performance and Gender,” 97.

[7] David Morris, “About Suffering: Voice, Genre, and Moral Community,” Daedalus 125, no. 1 (1996): 27.

[8] Neely, “Documents in Madness,” 325.

[9] Morris, “About Suffering,” 27.

[10] Neely, “Documents in Madness,” 325.

[11] “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” (3.1.191).



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