The Winter’s Tale and Hamlet are two of the many plays written by William Shakespeare. The former takes place in two towns, Sicily and Bohemia. In the play, Sicily is ruled by King Leontes while Bohemia is under the rule of Polixenes. Based on the first scene of the play, it is evident that King Leontes and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, are close friends. In fact, Polixenes tells Hermione of their childhood, “we were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk I’ the sun,” (1.1. 83). However, after a series of events in the play, the friendship is broken and, at one time, King Leontes is perceived in pursuit of Polixenes, with the primary intention of having him arrested and charged for his sexual offense. On the other hand, the play, Hamlet, is set within a royal palace located in Denmark. The play focuses on different occurrences and emotions in the kingdom, from a broken family, romance, guilt, and revenge. While Shakespeare uses two distinct characters as protagonists in the two plays, his work illustrates common themes of gender and sexuality in society differently.
A distinct character portrayed by Shakespeare in “The Winter’s Tale” is King Leontes, who is married to Queen Hermione and is the father of Mammilius. He is also the administrator in the kingdom of Sicily. However, in the second play, the playwright uses a distinct character known as Hamlet. Although Hamlet does not occupy a powerful position in the palace, he is part of the royal family. Hamlet is the deceased king’s son, but his place at the throne is taken by Claudius after his father’s death. Shakespeare illustrates how present and past occurrences shaped Hamlet’s life and his attitude towards the opposite gender. Through the two distinct characters, Hamlet and King Leontes, the plays demonstrate how people perceive gender and sexuality.
In the Cambridge Dictionary, gender is defined as the “physical and/or social condition of being male or female.” (“Gender” Cambridge dictionary). In most scenarios, gender is portrayed by a person’s masculine or feminine traits. However, while gender is often defined by a person’s biological features, it may also be based on the social structure of a community. Using the latter definition to explain gender, it can be concluded that females are often viewed as inferior to men in society. Similarly, Shakespeare illustrates this issue in the first act of the play “The Winter’s Tale”. Within Leontes’ palace, he engages in a conversation with Polixenes. As noted in most scenes of the play, the dialogue is dominated by the male gender. Despite the fact that Queen Hermione possesses power in the kingdom, she only speaks when her husband permits her to. This situation causes the king to declare to her in Act 1, Scene 2: “Tongue-tied, our queen? Speak you,” (34-35). Not until the king questions her silence, does Hermione shares her opinion on the topic under discussion.
Gender is also a prevalent theme in the play “Hamlet.” After Prince Hamlet returns to Sicily from Wittenberg, he makes romantic advances towards Ophelia. In both traditional and modern society, females are often praised for their beauty and personalities. Additionally, women are expected to be virtuous. Similarly, in the play, Ophelia is constantly praised for her beauty. For instance, in Act 3, Scene 1, Queen Gertrude states to Ophelia:
“Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness: so, shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted ways again,” (39-43).
Her words depict the issue of women subordination. As noticeable in the scene, Ophelia is required to marry Lord Hamlet because it is society’s expectation for her to do so. Additionally, Lord Hamlet’s influence in the kingdom deems it necessary for Ophelia to obey his wish. As such, during a conversation in Polonius’ house in Act 1, Scene 3, Laertes reminds Ophelia that “His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own,” (19). Due to the social structure, Ophelia willingly submits to the command and agrees to get married to Lord Hamlet.
The two plays also illustrate ways in which men regard the female gender as morally corrupt. In “The Winter’s Tale,” the playwright uses King Leontes to illustrate this concept. King Leontes believes that his wife is engaged in a romantic affair with Polixenes, the ruler of Bohemia. As a result, he confronts her before the council of Lords, in the king’s palace. While addressing his wife, Leontes says, “She’s an adulteress,” (3.2. 100). Although the king lacks enough proof to confirm that his wife has indeed cheated on him, he proceeds to accuse her of infidelity. This situation shows that the society is always quick to judge women. On the other hand, men are often spared from the wrath of being branded immoral. In fact, a certain level of immorality among men is sometimes regarded as normal. For instance, society may conclude that it is customary for men to have more than one partner. Therefore, when a man cheats on his spouse, it is viewed as a natural occurrence. The same idea is portrayed in Shakespeare’s work. Through the characters, Hermione, King Leontes, and Polixenes, he shows how the society encourages gender discrimination. Rather than judging both parties alleged to have committed the sexual offence, King Leontes blames his wife, Queen Hermione, to the extent of having her imprisoned. Fortunately, however, Polixenes manages to escape, saving himself from the king’s punishment.
The theme mentioned above is also illustrated in the play Hamlet. Through characters such as Hamlet and Gertrude, Shakespeare demonstrates how gender discrimination is prevalent in the society. After Hamlet learns about his father’s demise, he returns home, only to find that his mother had remarried Claudius. During a confrontation with his mother, he says, “Mother, you have my father much offended,” (3. 4.11). Lord Hamlet regards his mother’s actions as morally corrupt. First of all, Claudius was his late father’s brother, which made him Hamlet’s uncle. Despite being related, Queen Gertrude defies the customary laws and proceeds to marry her brother in law. Although the offence is committed by both parties, Hamlet only confronts his mother. Based on this scene, it can be surmised that Shakespeare’s purpose is to illustrate gender discrimination in the society.
Although the primary idea of Shakespeare is to portray the theme of gender discrimination in the society, he also illustrates how masculinity and femininity are defined by people. To do so, he uses Queen Gertrude. The queen goes against the society’s expectations by choosing the man she wanted to marry. Rather than submitting to the notion of women inferiority, Queen Gertrude follows her desire and marries her deceased husband’s brother, King Claudius. During a confrontation with his mother in the Queen’s chamber, Lord Hamlet says, “Mother, you have my father much offended,” (3.4. 11). The words uttered by Hamlet show that women had to adhere to societal conventions. Either they were prohibited from remarrying after their husband’s death or they were expected to marry specific people following their partner’s demise.
The other theme that the two plays illustrate is sexuality. In the Cambridge Dictionary, sexuality is defined as “someone’s ability to experience or express sexual feelings” (“Sexuality” Cambridge Dictionary). However, there exists a wide range of sexual orientations such as gayism and lesbianism. In the two plays, sexuality takes the form of expressing sexual feelings towards another person. The most prevalent form of sexuality which Shakespeare illustrates in the two plays is adultery and incest.
There exist several cases of sexuality in the play “Hamlet.” Shakespeare illustrates brotherly love which can be perceived as incest. For example, Laertes becomes overly protective of his sister, following Hamlet’s advances towards her. Also, before leaving for France, Laertes tells Ophelia to “not sleep, but let me hear from you,” (1.3. 3-4). Without an in-depth examination of the scenario, it appears that Laertes is somewhat concerned about her sister’s safety. As a result, he continuously emphasizes Hamlet’s negative qualities. For instance, he tells Ophelia that “The virtue of his will: but you must fear,” (1.3. 18). Throughout the scene, Laertes’ advice to his sister is intended to instill fear within her and to prevent her from getting close to Hamlet. Laertes’ concern over Ophelia’s decision to marry Hamlet can be viewed as an incestuous relationship between the two characters. In addition to protecting her, Laertes appears jealous of Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.
Another scene which Shakespeare uses to illustrate the incestuous relationship between the two siblings, Laertes and Ophelia, is the dialogue that takes place at the castle. As Laertes mourns his father and sister’s death, he appears to grieve his sister the most. It seems as if Laertes laments his sister more than her husband does. While addressing King Claudius, Laertes expresses his love to Ophelia,
“A sister driven into desperate terms,
Whose worth, if praises may go back again,
Stood challenger on mount of all the age
For her perfections: but my revenge will come,” (4.7. 28-37).
Laertes considered Hamlet unworthy of Ophelia’s love. As a result, he regards her marriage to Hamlet as one driven by desperate terms. In the aforementioned extract, the character also appears to have more to say about his sister than his father. As a result, it would be valid to argue that the planned “revenge” was over his sister’s death. In the scene mentioned above, Shakespeare depicts Laertes’ sexuality towards his own sister, an act which is incestuous.
Through the characters, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, Shakespeare illustrates incestuous sexuality. After the king’s death, Claudius marries his brother’s wife, a clear case of incest. This aspect is demonstrated in the conversation between Hamlet and the ghost. After stating that Claudius was responsible for his death, the king’s ghost brands him an “incestuous, adulterate beast,” (1.5. 47). The ghost also declares that the queen was sexually involved with his brother prior to his death. Based on the extracts from the play, it can be concluded that the queen willingly engaged in incest with her brother in law.
Like the play Hamlet, The Winter Tale also portrays the theme of sexuality. Shakespeare demonstrates this theme through King Leontes and his wife. During a council meeting in the queen’s chamber, Leontes states his suspicion about his wife having an affair with Polixenes in the words,
“From him that has most cause to grieve it should be,
She’s an adulteress,” (3.2. 99-100).
The king expresses his pain over his wife’s alleged affair with his close friend. Shakespeare includes the scene to illustrate how unfaithfulness is also common among married couples and their friends.
In an attempt to illustrate the theme of gender and sexuality, Shakespeare also highlights their impact on the society. In “Hamlet,” sexuality leads to the death of several characters, including Ophelia. The act also leads to broken marriages in “The Winter’s Tale,” as King Leontes rejects his daughter and orders his wife to be arrested and jailed.
Although the two plays depict the issue of gender and sexuality, the characters are distinct in personality and traits. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare uses a compassionate and caring character. This conclusion can be drawn from Hamlet’s encounter with his mother. At first, Queen Gertrude thinks that her son would murder her for her incestuous and adulterous act, “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?” (3.4. 22). However, despite his mother’s unlawful behavior, Hamlet still loves her and declares, “And – would it were not so! –you are my mother,” (3.4. 24). In another instance, he insists on calling her “A good mother,” (3.4. 45). These statements reveal that Hamlet is a concerned character.
On the other hand, King Leontes, the distinct character in “The Winter Tale” is ruthless and jealous. Following the allegations over his wife’s affair with Polixenes, King Leontes punishes her, severely. First, he denies fathering Hermione’s daughter. As a result, he orders the captain to have her banished from the kingdom. In the process, she meets Polixenes’ son and they eventually get married. Secondly, the King orders that his wife and Polixenes be arrested. King Leontes discontinues his friendship with Polixenes because he was romantically involved with his wife. Furthermore, he describes his wife as “nothing” several times in the play. All the examples given above show the differences between the two characters in the two plays. One is compassionate while the other is angry and jealous.
In conclusion, the two plays Hamlet and The Winter Tale illustrate the themes of gender and sexuality. Through different characters, Shakespeare portrays the two issues in the play. Apart from the playwright using the characters to illustrate the themes y, he also creates an image of the society in which we live. Incest, adultery, revenge, and guilt exist in the contemporary world, also. For instance, several cases of romance -related murders remain unsolved in the modern society. Although the work above presents a comparative analysis of the two plays, they are not limited to the topics of gender and sexuality. Other themes such as power and politics are also developed and they play a prominent role in the two texts.
Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/sexuality?q=Sexuality
Shakespeare, William (n.d.). Winter’s Tale, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/winters_tale/full.html. Accessed 19 April 2019.
Shakespeare, William (n.d.). Hamlet: The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html. Accessed 19 April 2019.