Sexual Indifference in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

The Prince of Denmark, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has gained a degree of literary magnetism due to his complexity: his atypical outlook, his melancholy, and especially his perplexing relationship with Ophelia. Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia have been long argued; however, what should have been in question is his capacity for sexual attraction. Sparked by the actions of the play, Hamlet becomes aware that he is incapable of being sexually attracted to women or men, what we refer to in contemporary society as asexuality. Although Hamlet may have always had a capacity for romantic attraction, he has endured psychophysical change created through his recently developed misogynistic contempt. This led to his general loathing of both men and women and an abnormal view on relationships, causing the realization that he cannot sustain a sexual relationship, which he attempts to express in his love letter.

In Shakespeare’s England, no terminology existed to describe sexuality (Smith 11). Although non-traditional relationships occurred, they were not differentiated from others (Smith 11). Asexuality, a more recent concept to Western culture, is “a complete lack of sexual attraction and/or sexual interest” (Bogaert 4). Sexual attraction must not, however, be confused with romantic attraction. Romantic attraction is emotional attachment and a want for companionship, independent of sexual attraction: physical and sexual desire (Bogaert 9). This difference, of course, was not defined in Shakespeare’s England, and was referred to as just “love”. Despite the fact that the behaviour we have now linked to asexuality is not a common one in Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet’s sexual indifference is not an isolated incident. Falstaff, from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, “lack[s] significant sexual motive” (Tiffany 262), and there are asexual implications in plays like Epicœne, by Ben Jonson, who is contemporaneous with Shakespeare.

In Hamlet’s first appearance, he scorns “A little more than kin and less than kind” (1.2.65), insinuating both that he is not pleased in his mother’s remarriage, and he uses “kind” in a sense of how unnatural their relationship is (Greenblatt 342). Mournfulness and grief is overbore by disgust as Hamlet follows with a soliloquy in which he states his appal for the haste of his mother’s incestuous actions: “But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two” (1.2.138). Further insulting Gertrude, Hamlet compares her to a beast, implying a creature that “lacks the faculty of rational thought” (Greenblatt 344) “would have mourned longer” (1.2.151) for the death of Hamlet’s father. Prior to his cognizance and confrontation of his father’s ghost, he despised both his uncle and his mother, and begins targeting his frustration at not just Gertrude, but all women.

Hamlet, engrossed in his diatribe following the court’s exeunt, rants about the physical and moral weakness of all women, without considering the virtue and intention of his uncle, Claudius as well. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (1.2.146), blaming not one single act of infidelity on one woman in particular, Hamlet confirms his hatred is misogyny. Hamlet refers to Gertrude’s insatiable sexual appetite as “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (1.2.135-7). Hamlet is frustrated that his mother’s sexual activity did not die with his father.

It seems as though Hamlet’s hatred of women triggered the realization of his lack of capacity for sexual affection. This can be seen when Hamlet tells Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.122) at the mere insinuation of a relationship between the two. Hamlet has adopted an unhealthy concept of relationships and marriage, due to the psychological tampering caused by mother’s second marriage. He assumes marriages occur only to procreate, as he rejects Ophelia because he does not wish to be “a breeder of sinners” (3.1.122-3). Hamlet, in this sense, has blindly connected companionship and sexual attraction, and feels he is unable to reciprocate in a relationship, as he has no sexual interest.

Most non-asexual people tend to have their romantic and sexual attractions directed to the same person, while asexual people are only capable of romantic attraction (Bogaert 11). If Hamlet were capable of both types of attraction, he would be able to distinguish the two, and therefore not have such an unnatural view on marriage. Hamlet, at one point, refers to his uncle Claudius as “dear mother” (4.3.51), and upon query responds: “My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh, and so my mother” (4.3.53-4). Although this is a religious reference (Greenblatt 396), Hamlet has established that he does not, in any way, want a sexual relationship, especially one that leads to marriage.

Not only have the incestuous actions of his mother developed Hamlet’s misogynistic sentiment, however, the betrayal in general, both from his mother and his uncle, has caused Hamlet to question the fundamentals of life. “O God, O God, / How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1.2.132-4). As Hamlet is convinced he cannot find companionship without sexual affection, he finds no appropriate reason for his existence. This speech is the first indication of Hamlet’s suicidal contemplations.

Full of melancholy, Hamlet explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a concern that many present-day asexual people claim to share:

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – no, nor women neither” (2.2.293-9).

At first glance, it seems that Hamlet is stating that although the human race is full of possibility, he detests them for their actions; however, considering the context, the word ‘man’ would be used to encompass all of humankind. Therefore, specifying “no, nor women neither” refutes the claim that “man”, in this case, means humanity, and instead refers to the male sex. With that in mind, Hamlet is declaring that he is not sexually interested in man or woman.

It is evident that Hamlet has, once again, unthinkingly connected romance with sex. It seems as though he is frustrated, as he can find beauty in people and the world, however, he feels he is not sexually attracted to, or delighted by men or women.  Ultimately, Hamlet doesn’t understand the appeal of sexual activity compared to the vast complexity of human capability, a concept that many present-day asexual people are also concerned with (Asexuality Archive, 20).

It is often argued that Hamlet has unconscious sexual desire for Gertrude, according to the Freudian Oedipus Complex (Jones 99). If this were the case, Hamlet’s manifestation of sexual attraction would refute the idea that Hamlet demonstrates features of the contemporary definition of asexuality. Jones’ argument tries to explain Hamlet’s procrastination as evidence of the psychodynamic conditions of his Oedipal desires (99-100). Although it is another argument in itself, it does need to be touched upon.

It cannot be proved that Hamlet has unconscious feelings towards his mother due to the amount of time it takes for Hamlet to exact his revenge on Claudius. Although psychoanalysis can prove effective in many cases, textual evidence proves more advantageous. The most time-consuming action Hamlet underwent was to “find grounds / More relative” (2.2.580-1) than what he has been told by the ghost of his father. He takes time to “catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.582), a more human thing to do compared to the reckless murders that occur in many of Shakespeare’s other tragedies.

It is nonsensical to argue that, psychoanalytically, Hamlet did not avenge his father in act III scene III because he unconsciously idolizes Claudius for succeeding in what Hamlet wanted (Jones 101), while there is textual evidence that says otherwise. When Hamlet enters behind Claudius, while he is in some act of repentance, he draws his sword, ready to exact his revenge. He hesitates and vows to murder him in a moment “that has no relish of salvation in’t” (3.3.92), such as when he’s “drunk asleep, or in his rage, / Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed” (3.3.89-90). Hamlet’s justification for this postponement is to ensure “his soul may be as damned and black / As hell whereto it goes” (3.3.94-5), rather than a psychodynamic dilemma. Although this does not, in any way, prove Hamlet to lack sexual attraction in general, it establishes the belief that he does not suffer from Oedipal desires.

The letter Hamlet sent to Ophelia seemingly explains his affection for her; however, his true intent is not always interpreted. “Doubt thou the stars fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move, / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love” (2.2.116-9). It seems as though Hamlet is telling Ophelia the only thing she can be certain about is his love; however, it is quite the opposite. Stephen Greenblatt has written that, in the instance of the third line, the word “doubt” is used as the word “suspect” (361). The words “doubt” and “suspect” are antonymous, as to “doubt” is to feel uncertain, while to “suspect”, in this case, is to feel something is likely true. This ambiguous duality of the word “doubt” is an autoantonym: “a word that has a homograph that is an antonym” (The Online Dictionary of Language Terminology). Applying the autoantonym to the text, Hamlet’s letter is telling Ophelia to suspect astronomical facts, which at the time were not necessarily facts, to be true, but to not suspect an uncertainty to be true: the uncertainty being Hamlet’s love.

This short poem is heptasyllabic, excluding the last line. John Barton, co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, believes that missing syllables are non-accidental and that “short lines [in a verse] can always tell you something, usually about the characters’ intentions” (35). The missing syllable in the last line draws our attention and changes the meaning completely. If the word “you” filled in as the missing seventh syllable, it would mean, taking into account the use of the autoantonym, “never suspect I love you”; however, with the missing syllable it stands as “never suspect I love”. The syllable has been intentionally withdrawn to emphasize the idea that Hamlet does not “love”: he lacks sexual attraction and interest.

The conclusion of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia is clearer than the beginning; however, it still needs to be looked at with some care. “O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon my groans. But that I love thee best, believe it. Adieu. / Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him” (2.2.120-3). As there is no defined distinction between sexual and romantic feelings in Shakespeare’s England, Hamlet classifies both as love. It seems as though Hamlet, when he tells Ophelia “I love thee best”, is attempting to explain that she is the closest he has come to love someone, as all he feels is romantic attraction, rather than sexual.

Although it fundamentally means he is having difficulty expressing himself, Hamlet being “ill at these numbers” and not being able to “reckon [his] groans”, or “count . . . or number [his] groans metrically” (Greenblatt 361), refers us back to the missing syllable of his verse. Ending the letter with “whilst this machine is to him”, this being the only use in all of Shakespeare’s works of the word “machine” (Goddard 404), is explained as while “this body belongs” to him (Greenblatt 361). Regardless of whether “him” refers to God or to Hamlet’s psyche, it seems to say Hamlet’s incapacity for sexual attraction is life-long. For these reasons, the letter he is sending has a very apologetic tone, rather than a declaration of love from the man who normally has such a playful, flirtatious way with words.

Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia has always been a highly debated topic. Although he may have romantic interest in her, Hamlet demonstrates features of the contemporarily defined sexual orientation, asexuality. Subconsciously triggered by his mother’s second marriage, leading to his sentiment of human insignificance, Hamlet never has and never will experience sexual attraction. He tries to explain to Ophelia in his “love” letter that he was both incapable and unwilling to partake in sexual relations with her, or any other person; however, no word, in Elizabethan times, existed.

 

 Works Cited

Asexuality: A Brief Introduction. AsexualityArchive.com, 2012.

“Autoantonym.” Def. 25 March 2013. The Online Dictionary of Language Terminology. 7 April 2013 <www.odlt.org>.

Barton, John. Playing Shakespeare. New York: Anchor Books, 1984.

Bogaert, Anthony F. Understanding Asexuality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2012.

Goddard, Harold C. “Hamlet to Ophelia.” College English April 1955: 403-415.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

Jones, Ernest. “The Oedipus Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive.” The American Journal of Psychology 21.1 (1910): 72-113.

Jonson, Ben. Epicene. Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

Smith, Bruce R. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Tiffany, Grace. “Falstaff’s False Staff: “Jonsonian” Asexuality in The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Comparative Drama. Vol. 26. No 3. Comparative Drama, 1992.