The Women - Language and Interpretation

Gertrude and Ophelia are absolutely central to Hamlet’s tragic journey. They are elusive, enigmatic and fascinating characters, created by a playwright who recognises that people are contradictory, illogical and sometimes their behaviour cannot be easily explained.

In this exercise you will closely examine both women as they appear on the page, their language and their motivations, and contrast it with the interpretations you have seen on the stage or in film.

Preparation (working individually or in pairs initially)

Read Ophelia’s scenes and Gertrude’s scenes. List the following:

  • Within the action of the play, what choices do they make for themselves?
  • What choices are made for them by others?
  • To what extent or in what ways do they betray Hamlet?
  • How does Hamlet betray them?
  • List 3 examples of powerful ‘imagery’ in the language of the women that you believe captures an important aspect of their character and briefly explain why.


Answer the following short response questions, comparing and contrasting your own opinions (based on your personal analysis of the text) with what you perceived to be the interpretations offered by the actors and the director. With each question, offer concrete examples of on-stage images and choices made by the actors/designers to reinforce your arguments. Essentially, do you agree with the choices made, based on the personal conclusions you have drawn?


  1. How serious is the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia – have they already become lovers? If so, how does this raise the stakes for both characters? (Offer your personal opinion in comparison with the interpretation on stage)
  2. Describe the relationship between Ophelia and her father, before and after her death. (Again compare and contrast interpretations)
  3. Is Ophelia a weak heroine or a strong young woman in terrible circumstances?


  1. Is Gertrude callous, selfish and unsympathetic in her treatment of her grieving son in the first court scene of the play (Act 1 Scene 2)? Offer your opinions on her remarriage and treatment of Hamlet in comparison to the choices made on stage by the actors.
  2. Describe the love affair between Claudius and Gertrude? What do they want from each other or seem to offer each other? Are they a good couple?
  3. Describe Gertrude’s journey in the play. Do her loyalties change? If so, when and why?

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