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Women in Hamlet and King Lear

This research examines the characterization of women in Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear as a presentation of an apocalyptic vision embedded in the tragic scheme of action. It will be argued that in each of the plays, different as they and their respective tragic heroes are, the major women characters are positioned in ways that complicate and lend psychological texture to the unfolding action in general, while amplifying the stature of the tragic hero in particular.

H.D.F. Kitto distinguishes between Greek tragedy, which "presents sudden and complete disaster, or one disaster linked to another in linear fashion," and Shakespearean tragedy, which "presents the complexive, menacing spread of ruin." The Greeks, says Kitto, derive tragedy from transgression of "divine law," while Shakespeare derives it from "an evil quality which, once it has broken loose, will feed on itself and anything else that it can find until it reaches its natural end" (Kitto 337). Each in its way, Hamlet and Lear portray the consequences that ensue when the natural order of civilized expectations is artificially interrupted by an exercise of power. In Hamlet, power is attached to Claudius's ambition and lust and in Lear to the king's abdication not merely of kingship but of responsible stewardship over civil society in favor of instant gratification. Fueled by power, the momentum of tragedy develops a life of its own and, as Kitto says, despoils everything in its path.

The sense of disintegration that pervades Hamlet is articulated quite early in the play, when the guardsmen remark that something is rotten in he state of Denmark (I.iv.90). That statement that sets the tone for the whole line of action. Gertrude's character is emblematic of that rottenness. She is initially deliberately obtuse about the death of elder Hamlet and about Claudius's ardor, then increasingly culpable in what happens as she willfully disregards the evidence of Claudius's treach...

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Women in Hamlet and King Lear. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 21:26, January 20, 2019, from