Gender and Sexuality in William Shakespeare’s Plays

The three William Shakespeare’s plays, The Twelfth Night, Hamlet and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ share the same theme “gender and sexuality”. In the three plays, the plight of women is addressed (Ralli, 66). Twelfth Night portrays a sexual mess where people go to various heights to win the people they love. Hamlet shows how men regard women as morally corrupt because they follow their heart’s desire. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ King Leontes portrays hatred for women as he mistreats her wife and daughter on the accusation of infidelity. Hamlet and ‘The Winter’s’ tale share some similarities and differences in matters of gender and sexuality.

In both plays ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Shakespeare brings out the theme of gender and sexuality. In ‘Hamlet’ the gender, uncertainty is brought about by the motif of incest. Claudius and Gertrude are married although they were former sister-in-law and brother-in-law. Ophelia and Laertes display a relationship that could be taken as incestuous. Ophelia and Laertes are sister and brother but Laertes sometimes uses sexual terms to speak to his sister. When Ophelia dies, Laertes leaps into the grave and holds her in his arms a sign of affection (Shakespeare, 53). Hamlet’s and Gertrude’s relationship however shows the strongest form of incest. Hamlet is obsessed with Gertrude and preoccupied with her in such a way that he is fixated with her sex life with Claudius.

Hamlet shows hatred against one gender specifically women. Hamlet hates women after her mother is so fast to get married to Claudius after his father’s death. He believes that women are morally corrupt and does not take Gertrude’s actions as a sign of female sexuality. Throughout the play, Hamlet is cynical about women as can be seen in his relationships with Gertrude and Ophelia. Hamlet is seen urging Ophelia that instead of facing sexual corruption it is better if she joined a nunnery. He even uses the words ‘Frailty, thy name is a woman’ on her mother (Gertrude) to show she hated women.

In the play ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Shakespeare shows the theme of gender and sexuality. Hermione faces the wrath of his husband Leontes when he is faced with sexual jealousy. Leontes believes that his wife is having romantic relations with Polixenes his friend (Prosser, 47). Instead of taking revenge on Polixenes, Leontes imprisons his wife as punishment after Polixenes escapes. The play is full of misogyny as Leontes regards her wife as “nothing”. After her wife gives birth to a daughter, he claims that she belongs to Polixenes and orders her to be taken to desolate land far away. As a sign of revitalization, Shakespeare uses Perdita, Leontes’s daughter to build the family back together and heal the broken relationship with Polixenes. Florizel, Polixenes’s son falls in love with the abandoned Perdita and wants to marry her. Throughout the play, Hermione spends all her time defending herself against the unjust accusations of her husband. The play shows the mistreatment of females in society.

In the two plays ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Winter Tale’, the characters Hamlet and Leontes, demonstrate the theme of gender and sexuality through the motif of misogyny. Hamlet displays his hate for women when he is disgusted with her mother’s decision in marrying Claudius just a few days after his father’s death. Hamlet believes that this is sexual immorality. Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, Laertes’s brother whom she warns that she would rather go to a nunnery rather than become sexually corrupted. Hamlet seems to have the opinion that a woman getting married immediately after the husband’s death is immoral. He does not blame the men who do these sexual wrongs.

The same character of misogyny applies to Leontes who believes her wife Hermione must pay for his suspicion of infidelity. Although he does not have any proof that his wife is unfaithful, he sends her to prison believing that she did an unforgivable sin. Leontes shows hatred for women because it would have been logical if he punished Polixenes for the same sins but after he escaped, he sought to punish the wife. The hatred for women is further shown when he even refuses to acknowledge her daughter as her own. He opted to perceive her as an object of infidelity and she should be abandoned.

The only difference between Hamlet and Leontes is that Hamlet is compassionate while Leontes is not. Hamlet loved her mother Gertrude despite her disloyalty. Although he hated what her mother was doing, Hamlet did not stop supporting her. Hamlet loved Ophelia despite the opposition from her family. He only condoned the character but did not use his powers to abuse or mistreat these women. On the other hand, Leontes used his power to inflict physical and emotional pain on his wife and daughter who were supposed to be her family.

Shakespeare has used similar figurative language in the two plays ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’. In both cases, figurative language brings up the key ideas of gender and sexuality that show love, guilt and revenge. Both plays use a figure of speech known as a soliloquy. In Hamlet the soliloquies use include instances where Hamlet says ‘O, What a rogue and peasant slave am I’ (Act 2 Scene 3), ‘To be, or not to be’ (Act 3 Scene 1), ‘How all occasions do inform against me’(Act 4 Scene 4) among others.

In ‘The Winter’s Tale’, a soliloquy is used in Act 4 Scene 3 where Autolycus speaks of his past life. Although he is addressing the audience, it is as if he is talking to himself. He talks about his trickery and the way he sees a young shepherd (Clown) approach him which makes him gloat (Helprin, 78).

In both plays, Shakespeare also uses Imagery. In Hamlet imagery is used to represent concepts and abstract ideas (Shakespeare, 69). Act V, Scene I, Yorick’s Skull discovered on the graveyard represents symbolism. The skull represents the inevitability of death. Hamlet talks to the skull a figure of speech known as soliloquy (V.i.174–179).

In ‘The Winter’s Tale’, imagery is used to express the contrasting ideas of guilt versus innocence. Shakespeare uses the bible to portray the sinful acts of adults. He uses Isaiah11:6-9 “A little child shall lead them”. Through the death of Mamillius, a little child, King Leontes is reformed. Perdita was a source of joy to Paullina, Polixenes, and Antigous and finally to Leontes (Act I, Scene II, and Lines 83-87). Shakespeare uses epigrams in the play on Act I, Scene II, Lines 203-205 “He makes a July’s day short as December”. Act II, Scene III line 185 “I am a feather for each wind that blows.”

The other similarity between ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is the use of one distinct round character. In Hamlet, the main character is Hamlet. Hamlet builds up the whole story, which revolves around him. In the whole play, he brings out the theme of gender and sexuality through romance, guilt and revenge. Hamlet wants to eliminate Claudius because he was involved romantically with her mother, which he suspects were the reason he killed her mother. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’ Leontes is a round character who brings out the theme of gender and sexuality. Leontes is jealous because he thinks his wife and Polixenes are romantically involved (Helprin, 84).

A major similarity between the two plays is that the major conflict in the plays is brought about by romance. In Hamlet, Claudius falls in love with Gertrude. Due to the romantic relationship, he kills Hamlet’s father. Hamlet is thereafter trying to revenge for his father’s death. In ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Leontes is annoyed because he believes his wife is romantically involved with his friend. He throws his wife in prison and disowns his daughter. His daughter falls in love with Polixenes’s son and gets married. Their romance leads to marriage, which thereafter unites the two families.

Works Cited

Helprin, Mark. Winter’s tale. New York, NY: Pocket Books, 2005, p 44 -85

Ralli, Augustus. A history of Shakespearian criticism. Berkeley, CA: Humanities Press, 2008, p 34 – 168

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Glendale., CA: S. Paul & Co., 1869, pp 5 – 61

Shakespeare, William and Rich, Barnabe. Twelfth night, Murrieta, CA: Classic Books Company, 1889, pp16 – 178

Shakespeare, William. The winter’s tale, Plain Label Books, 1908, pp 4 – 199

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and revenge. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003, p 24-58

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