Nov 16, 2020 in Literature


Treatment of Women in the Classical Literature

Throughout the history of mankind, the role of women in the society changed a lot. During a long period, they have no rights to take part in the social life of the countries. Moreover, it was not necessary for women to get a proper education and work equally with the men. However, their treatment in the society was different too. Nowadays, we can judge about the position of women by analyzing the ancient and classical literature. Very often, it provides a clear vision of the womens treatment at the various stages of history.


One of the most important classical dramatic texts is Hamlet written by W. Shakespeare. In this tragedy, we can observe the description of several female characters, playing a significant role in the plot development. However, their treatment by the surrounding men is quite strange from the contemporary point of view. Hamlet and other male characters consider women to be weak features and do not demonstrate any respect. For instance, at the very beginning, Hamlet is very unsatisfied with his mothers behavior. He blames her of the quick marriage with the other man after the death of the previous husband (Act 1, Scene 2, 150). Hamlet finds such a conduct to be unacceptable and immoral. He speaks to his mother with contempt and neglect, demonstrating no tender feelings. What is more important is that Hamlet tends to transform his feelings toward one woman into a general attitude toward all female individuals in his life.

Actually, Gertrude, Hamlets mother, is not an evil woman or a negative character. She loves her children and wants them to be happy. Moreover, analyzing the tragedy, it is easy to notice that she really loved her previous husband. She did not know the reasons of his murder and could not believe Claudius to be the killer. Therefore, it is unfair to blame her of the wedding with her husbands murderer. At the same time, Hamlets anger with Gertrudes actions is quite obvious and logical. He cannot stand the injustice in the world and want to revenge for his father fairly. He finds it difficult to understand his mothers emotions. Furthermore, he does not even try to comprehend his mothers position. This is one of the main conflicts connected with the female characters in the book. Actually, women could not be treated fairly because of the inability of the men to understand their emotions and feelings in a proper way (Act 3, Scene 1, 150).

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However, there is one more aspect to analyze, speaking about the treatment of women in Hamlet. There is another female character in the tragedy. It is Ophelia, a pretty girl, who falls in love with Hamlet. She is young, innocent, and virtuous. The author described her portrait with a certain tenderness and kindness. She personifies the image of virtue and morality (Heilbrun 92). However, she is treated unfairly too. Hamlet promises to marry her but he does not keep his words. He takes her innocence and leaves her alone. Actually, Hamlet considers the only concept of marriage to be absurd. He supposes that if the children are sinners, there is their mothers fault in it (Act 3, Scene 1, 130-133). Such a tendency to blame women in all sins is typical for the tragedy in general. Later, the readers can notice that Hamlet loved Ophelia very much. However, he could not find the right words and the proper manners to appreciate her worthily.

Thus, it is possible to conclude that women were not treated rightly in this tragedy. It is a very strange feature, considering the fact that Hamlet was fighting for justice in the world. However, while he was more concerned with the revenge, he could not notice the simple iniquity in his own home. This aspect of the story forms one side of Hamlets tragedy. The author showed that even those people who are struggling for peace and justice perform plenty of wrong actions in their lives.

Such an attitude of Hamlet toward Ophelia impresses the readers and makes them believe in the unfair treatment of women. In fact, women in this tragedy, being surrounded and controlled by men, end their lives unhappily and unsuccessfully. They find no support from the men and ought to lead miserable lives. The readers can see that men, being very busy with their deals, pay no attention to the lives of women and do not consider them to be worth attention. As a result, women suffer a lot and lead unhappy lives without any possibilities to change their fates for better.

Therefore, we can conclude that Hamlets cruel, severe, and blaming speech witnesses his hatred toward women in general. The readers can see that he uses Ophelia as a one of the means in his plan to revenge. At the same time, we can say that Queen Gertrudes behavior has caused his contempt for women. However, it does not acquit Hamlet and his words. Such an attitude toward women does not make him noble and smart. Thus, Shakespeare described the society, where women are not treated in a proper way.

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The situation is quite different in the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus. The most significant female character in this play is Jocasta, Oedipus mother and wife. When she gave birth to Oedipus, the Oracle said that this child would kill his father and marry the mother. Jocasta decides not to kill the baby in order to prevent the prophecy (Sophocles 1307). She gives Oedipus to the other man and asks him to bring up her son. Such a decision shows that Jocasta is a clever and independent woman. She has an ability to change her fate and provide separate decisions. Therefore, we can see that the author highly appreciated this character and present her positive traits of character.

Moreover, Sophocles did not depict Jocasta as an ideal woman. In fact, she is far from the image of the Athenian womanhood. She plays a great role in the development of the plot and speaks a lot during the whole story. After her marriage with Oedipus, she became a ruler of the country. She is not described as a soft, tender, and weak creature. On the contrary, she personifies the voice of reason, giving good advice to her husband (Sophocles 1320). Moreover, she knows a lot about the principles of ruling. Oedipus says that he is equal with her in rights. It means that Jocasta has a great social power and can make important decisions (Fisher 221). The author emphasized the fact that Jocasta exerts a great influence on the behavior of Oedipus and other men. This is a very unusual image of a woman in the literature of that time.

At the same time, Jocasta differs in her deeds from the men that surround her. In her actions, Jocasta does not listen to gods advice. She is concerned mainly with the well-being of her relatives and sweethearts. She is ready to protect her happiness and the lives of her children and husband in any way. At the same time, she is more sensitive than sensible. This is a great difference between the description of men and women in the ancient literature.

Such a position of a woman in the Sophocles drama is much different from the Shakespeares description of womens treatment in Hamlet. While Jocasta has all opportunities to reveal her talents and fulfill the desires, Gertrude and Ophelia live isolated in a great castle without any love or support. The comparison of these characters from different epochs provides readers with a comprehension of the womens position at various stages of history. On the other hand, it is impossible to judge about the whole epoch by analyzing only several samples of literature.

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Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus presents two more female characters. They are Jocasta and Oedipus daughters. Both of them reflect the contemporary imaginations about womens behavior and appearance. However, they do not play an important role in the tragedy. They do not speak a lot, and they begin to act only at the end of the play. Such a neglecting of female characters bears a little resemblance with the position of women in Hamlet. In both plays, women are not paid enough attention and are not treated fairly. Obviously, Sophocles represented a more loyal attitude toward women than Shakespeare did. However, he refused to reveal female characters completely. From this point of view, the readers get to know that in the ancient times, women were not equal in the rights with the men. The image of Jocasta is hyperbolized and perfected. However, it is just an authors tool in order to impress the readers and intrigue them with an interesting plot.

To sum up, the position of women in the classical literature is rather a controversial one. Different writers tended to describe various female images which differ a lot according to the context. In general, we can notice a certain similarities between the female characters in Shakespeares Hamlet and Sophocles Oedipus Tyrannus. For instance, both plays pay a little attention to the revealing of the female characters. However, there are huge differences too. For example, Hamlet represents an anger and contemptuous attitude toward women and considers them to be weak and unimportant creatures. At the same time, Sophocles provided an image of a strong and independent woman. Obviously, these images differ a lot. However, here are the peculiarities of the womens description in the literature. The crux of the matter is that every female character is unique and inimitable. Therefore, it is impossible to find the same examples of womens portraits in the literature of two different epochs.


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