The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is among the most famous works of William Shakespeare. Written between 1599 and 1601, it focuses on the story of Prince Hamlet, who struggles after losing his father, King Hamlet. The work has been heavily studied by literary critics and scholars because it features many essential topics. The issues of gender and masculinity are particularly crucial in Hamlet due to the play’s settings. Through the main character, Shakespeare translates and critiques the ideas about masculinity and femininity that were prevalent at the time. After losing his father unexpectedly, Hamlet experiences a crisis of masculinity that forces him into paralytic or reactionary positions.
Masculinity can be seen as one of the main themes in the play, as questions of emotion, revenge, grief, and violence are raised continuously. Hamlet’s crisis of masculinity becomes evident from the beginning of the tragedy when Claudius criticizes Hamlet for his “unmanly grief” (Shakespeare 1.2.94). The stereotypes of masculinity are evoked continuously throughout the play, and Hamlet’s action or inaction is viewed in the light of these standards.
As explained by De Grazia, Hamlet was widely considered to be rather old-fashioned by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (359). Consequently, the ideas about gender portrayed in the play are also somewhat outdated. Men are required to be active, violent, and cold in their thoughts and actions, whereas emotions, grief, and delays in action are reserved for women. For this reason, Hamlet is also criticized by his mother, Gertrude, who encourages him to “cast thy nighted color off” and accept death as an inevitable consequence of life (Shakespeare 1.2.68-73). The criticism contributes to Hamlet’s crisis of masculinity, making him acutely aware of his deviation from masculine standards of behavior, particularly in the presence of other men.
Besides emotional turmoil, Hamlet also demonstrates other characteristics and behaviors that challenge his masculinity. As noted by De-yan, Hamlet pays little attention to matters of politics and economics, and he is more invested in family matters and his troubles (92). According to De-yan, “the obsession with domestic matters is generally defined as effeminate, especially in a male-dominated society, and Hamlet thus becomes a woman by giving up his male domain” (92).
Furthermore, Hamlet’s behavior toward Ophelia also deviates from the ideal of conduct imposed on men. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia has been considered toxic by researchers, showing his weakness and inadequacy as a man (De-Yan 93; Wilson 284). These features strengthen Hamlet’s crisis of masculinity and contribute to its escalation into violence later in the play.
Comparisons between Hamlet and traditionally masculine characters are evident from the first act of the play, too. For instance, Hamlet feels humiliation and despair upon meeting Fortinbras, who represents the main ideas of masculinity: “O that this is too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (Shakespeare 1.2.129-130). Hamlet also acknowledges his shortcomings by comparing himself to Hercules. In criticizing Claudius, he states, “My father’s brother, but no more like my father/Than I to Hercules” (Shakespeare 1.2.152-153). Hercules is commonly seen as a hero who portrays traditionally masculine qualities of courage, strength, resilience, and action. By drawing this comparison, Hamlet thus confirms his lack of masculinity.
Because of the crisis he faces following the death of his father, Hamlet also finds himself in paralytic positions, which are characteristic of femininity. As stated by Low, Hamlet is paralyzed both by his strong emotions and by the difficult choice he faces: “the notion of taking a part makes Hamlet uneasy, however, particularly because such a part would involve behavior that could be divorced from true feeling” (501). The necessity to avenge his father thus contrasts with Hamlet’s wish to grieve privately and experience his emotions freely. This ‘feminine experience of feeling is opposed by the ‘masculine’ experience of acting, and the inability to decide between the two causes Hamlet’s paralysis in the first act of the play.
Role confusion also contributes to Hamlet’s paralysis and delays his decisions. Being a prince and a son, a man and a love, Hamlet struggles to navigate the complex political and social scenes where he is bound by standards and expectations (Low 502). This causes him to stall and wonder about the best path to take. Interestingly, the role conflict that Low refers to is somewhat characteristic of the Renaissance times, when the evolving code of honor caused conflicts between men’s conscience and their duty to the state: “Renaissance men had to cope with both an old, medieval code of honor and the tensions of a new one, tensions that were created, to a large degree, by the contemporary insistence on the importance of the individual conscience” (Terry 1072).
The rejection of femininity and the adherence to masculine ideals would resolve the impeding conflict for Hamlet. Hence, he also drives himself into reactionary positions, showing manly qualities of courage, strengths, and even arrogance.
Hamlet’s reactionary positions are mostly driven by the gendered expectations imposed on him by various actors. However, action is also necessary for Hamlet to resolve his inner conflict. In a psychological view of Hamlet, Paris argues that his compliant behavior at the beginning of the play marks repressed aggression, and, in this case, the eventual shift to action is almost inevitable (39-40).
Consistent with this understanding of his character, Hamlet yields to the expectations of his father’s ghost and the rest of society, reacting to King Hamlet’s killing in the only way an honorary man would: by plotting his revenge. It should also be noted that in his pursuit of vengeance, Hamlet does not adhere to the ideals of honor imposed on men in the Renaissance times. For instance, in Act III, Hamlet rejects a chance to kill Claudius while he is praying, but does so not out of honor but to prevent Claudius from going to heaven: “A villain kills my father; and for that,/ I, his sole son, do this same villain send/ To heaven” (Shakespeare 3.3.76-78).
The use of poison is also considered to be a deviation from the code of honor since it is linked to dishonesty and unfairness of the fight itself. To fulfill his honor as a Renaissance male, Hamlet would need to kill Claudius in a fair fight (Terry 1076). In the final scene of the play, Hamlet’s desperation causes him to execute revenge just so, marking his protection of his father’s legacy and honor.
Overall, analyzing the ideas of masculinity presented in Hamlet provides vital insights into the tragedy. First of all, it is evident that Shakespeare depicted a crisis of masculinity faced by his character, and that this crisis was linked in equal parts to the changing notions of masculinity and Hamlet’s own feelings. Secondly, the crisis experienced by Hamlet translated into his paralytic and reactionary positions within the text. On the one hand, role confusion and uncertainty paralyzed Hamlet, preventing him from taking a risk and making decisions. On the other hand, plotting and fulfilling revenge was a way for him to meet the expectations of his family and society.
De Grazia, Margareta. “Hamlet before Its Time.” MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 4, 2001, pp. 355-375.
De-yan, Guo. “Hamlet’s Femininity.” Canadian Social Science, vol. 5, no. 5, 2009, pp. 89-95.
Low, Jennifer. “Manhood and the Duel: Enacting Masculinity in Hamlet.” The Centennial Review, vol. 43, no. 3, 1999, pp. 501-512.
Paris, Bernard J. “Hamlet and His Problems: A Horneyan Analysis.” Centennial Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 1977, pp. 36-66.
Terry, Reta A. “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 4, 1999, pp. 1070-1086.
Shakespeare, William. “.” Shakespeare Online, 2020. Web.
Wilson, Scott. “Literary Clinical Practice: Desire, Depression and Toxic Masculinity in Hamlet.” Journal for Cultural Research, vol. 22, no. 3, 2018, pp. 278-292.