This sudden tragedy occurs, no less, just as Ophelia is to happily crown the hanging boughs of the tree, which symbolically represents the happy instance that must have occurred just prior to the play's opening -- Hamlet's engagement to Ophelia. As on the bank of the brook, so too with Hamlet -- an "envious sliver broke"; the "rash" and "intruding" Polonius interjected himself and denied Ophelia what her nature so plainly made her for: to love. He teaches her, rather, to doubt and to suspect. Ophelia falls victim to the plague of Elsinore, which may be stated as the conflict between truth and falsehood.
The Man's Nature
Hamlet engages in this conflict in an altogether different manner, however. If Ophelia and Gertrude approach it from the direction of love, Hamlet approaches it from the direction of reason. Gertrude and Ophelia intuit; Hamlet rationalizes. Ophelia, for example, appreciates Hamlet's predicament immediately she sees him and without a word from him by way of explanation: "He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / as it did seem to shatter all his bulk / and end his being" (2.1.106-108). She cannot identify the problem at the heart of Hamlet's conflict, but she intuits enough to know there is one and that he should be pitied and helped for his pains. She continues, "He seemed to find his way without his eyes, / for out o' doors he went without their helps / and to the last bended their light on me" (2.1.110-112). Ophelia recognizes herself as "their helps," meaning she understands the role she ought to play in supporting Hamlet through love, assistance and appreciation -- a role she is denied by her incompetent father.
While Shirley Nelson Garner notes that Shakespeare's characters encourage a "fuller understanding of the traditional meanings of 'masculinity' than of 'femininity'" (302), a sense of the traditional meaning of femininity is at least implied negatively, that is, through omission. Ophelia goes mad because she is denied a traditional mode of feminine expression: love. Gertrude does not come to Ophelia's assistance, though she hoped for a union between her son and Ophelia, because she is too involved in her own relationship. One can glean, therefore, the two extremes of womanhood in Hamlet: to have no recourse to love lends one to madness; to love too extremely lends one to blindness. Since the play, however, lends itself more to the crisis of masculinity in Elsinore, it does not present a picture of traditional femininity along the same lines of one of Shakespeare's comedies. This is a tragedy -- and, moreover, it is the tragedy of Hamlet, not of Ophelia. Her death is a consequence of his tragic fall. Therefore, it is time to consider the way in which he and his gender face the conflict of the play.
The conflict is, essentially, one of truth. What is true? What is real? What is good? What is false? Hamlet cannot understand the conflict until he puts it in intelligent terms that give a sense of reason, proportion, logic and sense to the events. His faith is tested, his sense of nobility is outraged, his anger is provoked, and his confidence is knocked. Hamlet does suspect from the beginning that something is out of order at Elsinore, as do the other men watching the battlements (it is Marcellus who declares that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark") (1.4.100). But he cannot be certain until he himself has sufficiently considered all aspects of the problem, settled on a solution, and held himself responsible for effecting that solution. Hamlet's battle is to think, which he does. Ophelia's battle is to love, which she is simply not allowed to do. Thus, she dies. However, since thought/truth are so corrupted in Elsinore, Ophelia is not the only one to suffer the consequences of the unnatural environment: the entire royal party dies. Both love and reason are suffocated within the castle walls. Horatio alone is bidden to live so that at least someone might be able to make sense of the tragedy that has occurred.
If the Woman Must Love, the Man Must Reason
Much of Hamlet's conflict and his masculine approach to resolving the conflict stems from his inability to rationalize the nature of the apparition that his compelled him to vengeance. Hamlet partakes in an internal discussion, which mirrors the arguments put forth by scholars like Battenhouse, Miriam Joseph and others. Roy W. Battenhouse asserts that while "the Ghost is the 'linchpin' without which Hamlet falls to pieces…[one must] question Wilson's judgment that the Ghost 'is Catholic,' 'comes from Purgatory,' and 'is the only non-Protestant in the play'" (161). Hamlet asserts as much when he suggests that he is motivated both by heaven and by hell to avenge the death of the King. His problem is that he cannot reconcile the nature of his task, whether it is justified or whether it is a trick to ensnare his soul. Sister Miriam Joseph provides the other aspect of Hamlet's interior discussion: "Roy W. Battenhouse holds that the ghost comes from a pagan hades or a Christian hell, that although he mentions the sacraments, they are to him mere shells in which he does not believe, and that his words reveal him as having a vindictive and vainglorious character incompatible with that of a saved soul" (493). Sister Miriam then refers to a lengthy rebuttal from Monsignor I.J. Semper who states that "the Ghost pays a moving tribute to the last sacraments, and hence to assert that he merely 'mentions' them is to be guilty of understatement" (Joseph "Discerning the Ghost" 493). Shakespeare shows that the masculine gender in Hamlet deals with ideas. In fact, just as there are extremes in love, there are extremes in how one deals with ideas: at Elsinore, there are the two masculine extremes of dealing with ideas. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent the sheer mindlessness of masculinity within the walls of Elsinore. Hamlet himself represents the opposite extreme, one who is so oppressed by thought that he cannot act until he virtually explodes.
Sister Miriam Joseph also observes the masculine code existent in Denmark when she states that "Hamlet is a Christian hero whose tragic flaw is his failure at the moment of crisis to measure up to the heroic Christian virtue demanded of him by the moral situation and by the ghost" (Joseph "Hamlet, a Christian Tragedy" 119). Hamlet's inability to measure up to the noble code that he knows exists is part of the reason for his fall. His fall triggers Ophelia's. But his fall, in a sense, is triggered by Claudius', which occurs prior to the play with the murder of King Hamlet. Moreover, Hamlet's fall is speeded by his crisis of faith, his inability to discern the nature of the ghost, whether it is for good or for bad. His crisis of faith may be the result of the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism present at the time of the play's conception. Hamlet, after all, is a student at Wittenberg, where Martin Luther taught his Protestant doctrine. The new doctrine adds to Hamlet's confusion concerning the nature of man, specifically how one can be both good and bad at the same time. For instance, Sister Miriam Joseph, a Catholic nun, has no difficulty in implying that to "justify the idea of a purgatorial spirit calling for revenge…Saint Thomas had cited God's command to Moses to kill those who had worshipped the golden calf as a special exception to [the 5th] commandment. The Ghost's call for revenge is another such exception, a 'special command from God brought by a good spirit'" (Siegel 21). Indeed, she is possessed of a "traditional Catholic view…that a soul might come to earth from purgatory" (Joseph "Discerning" 493). Her faith is not informed by Protestantism but by the old world religion. Hamlet has no such reinforcement: he is separated from the guidelines of scholasticism and must rely on his own doubt-ridden intellect to see him through the course.
The Man also Wants Respect
The gender disparity may also be seen in the way in which Hamlet rages and the way in which Gertrude describes it. Hamlet, rejected by Ophelia and denied an outlet to his natural yearnings, rails against all womankind and, in perfect Protestant form, decries the conception of new life as the "breeding of sinners," which he sees as a gross offense against God. Because Polonius refuses to allow his daughter to be Hamlet's help, Hamlet throws off all restraint and plunges headlong into an extreme mode of thought that seems Calvinistic in the fact that it views all mankind as totally depraved. In other words, there is no moderation in Hamlet's reason, just as there is no moderation in Gertrude's love.
It is Gertrude, however, who understands Hamlet's predicament, once she is awakened to the world around her following Ophelia's death. While he…