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Shakespeare’s Hamlet Essay: Comparison of Gertrude and Ophelia

Comparison of Gertrude and Ophelia within Hamlet

Shakespeare developed 126 female characters in his dramas. In his tragedy Hamlet there are Ophelia and Gertrude. This essay will explore the similarities or commonality of these two characters.

One obvious feature which both Ophelia and Gertrude have in common is that they are both recipients of Hamlet’s ill-will. T.S. Elliot in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems” explains how Gertrude is the object of the protagonist’s disgust:

Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. (25)

L.C. Knight in “An Approach to Hamlet,” agreeing with T. S. Eliot, comments on the “obsessive passion” which the prince exercises in his chastisement of Gertrude:

I am of course aware that what Hamlet says to his mother in the Closet scene may be regarded as part of a necessary and proper attempt to break the alliance between her and the smiling murderer; but through it all runs the impure streak of the indulgence of an obsessive passion.[. . .] If with genuine, even with passionate, concern, you want to help someone in great need, someone in desperate ignorance of his true condition, do you, I wonder, say, “This is what you are: see how ugly you look”? Well, perhaps you may; but certainly not in such a way that you seem about to make an aggressive attack. (70)

In similar fashion, Ophelia is verbally abused by the hero; and this episode is elaborated on in detail later. In the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet, David Bevington enlightens the reader regarding the similarities between Gertrude and Ophelia as the hero sees them:

Yet to Hamlet, Ophelia is no better than another Gertrude: both are tender of heart but submissive to the will of importunate men, and so are forced into uncharacteristic vices. Both would be other than what they are, and both receive Hamlet’s exhortations to begin repentance by abstaining from pleasure. “Get thee to a nunnery”; “Assume a virtue if you have it not.” (9)

As Bevington says, both Gertrude and Ophelia are “tender of heart,” motivated by love and a desire for quiet familial harmony among the members of their courtly society in Elsinore. At the first social function in the play, Gertrude is motivated out of love for her son to advise:

The Search for Self in Tirra Lirra by the River

The Search for Self in Tirra Lirra by the River

It has been suggested that Tirra Lirra by the River can be regarded as a novel which aims eventually at a better understanding”2. In my opinion understanding is achieved at two levels in the novel. The first type of understanding is personal and introspective, and is discovered by the central character. The other is societal, achieved through allegory and symbolism, and aimed at the reader.

Jessica Anderson aims to develop this dual understanding through the exploration of two main themes: the quest for self-knowledge, and the consequences of gendered societal repression. In this essay I will explore these themes, and how much Nora and the audience respectively finally understand in relation to them.

The Quest for Self-Knowledge

Nora Porteous, the main character of Tirra Lirra by the River, embarks on a voyage of self discovery as an elderly lady – mostly while in bed recovering from pneumonia. As physical exertion, which the reader later discovers has been her usual response to periods of ‘waiting’, is denied her, she begins to explore her inner world of imagination and memory. Her most important discovery is that she has lived under the curse of an imbalance between imagination and reality all her life. This imbalance is signified by Nora’s many correlations to Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot”, and by the chasm between her physical appearance and actions and her inner character.

One of the most obvious traits shared by the Lady and Nora, is their desire for the perfect social world of Camelot. Nora’s ‘Camelot’ is a “region of [her] mind, where infinite expansion was possible” and is more real than “the discomfort of knees imprinted by the cane of a chair” (…

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… from p. 61. Willbanks, p. 62. Pam Gilbert, Coming Out From Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers (London: Pandora, 1988) p. 140. Elaine Barry, “The Expatriate Vision of Jessica Anderson,” Meridian 1 (3) (1984), 3-11. This from p. 8. Alfred Tennyson, “The Lady of Shallot,” In Elaine Barry, Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (Queensland: UQP, 1992), Appendix 2. Elaine Barry, Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (Queensland: UQP, 1992), p. 89. Barry, Meridian, p. 9. Barry, Fabricating, p. 83. Roslynn Haynes, “Art as Reflection in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River,” Australian Literary Studies 3 (12) (1986), 316-323. This from p. 318. Willbanks, p. 60. Barry, Fabricating, p. 73. Barry, Meridian, p. 7. Barry, Fabricating, p. 74. Willbanks, p. 60. Barry, Fabricating, p. 71. Willbanks, p. 62.

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