Common Literary Themes

Gender inequality as a theme across literary works

Hamlet

"Frailty, thy name is woman"

This quote sets the general tone toward women for most of the play. Hamlet rants about how Gertrude remarried so soon after her husband's death. He cannot accept the idea of his mother marrying Claudius. This shapes his views on women in general. Much like their contemporaries in historical literature, the female characters in Hamlet are completely dependent upon the men in their lives.


Ophelia is discouraged to think for herself and to trust herself at all.

"Perhaps he loves you now,

And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch

The virtue of his will, but you must fear."



At first, her brother Laertes warns her to be careful and not to think much of Hamlet's professions of love, later Polonius gives her stricter orders and basically makes her distrust herself completely. When she loses her lover and her father dies, she goes mad and commits suicide because she cannot perceive a life of her own beyond these influences.

The Odyssey

"Eurymachos, all my excellence, my beauty and figure, were ruined by the immortals at that time when the Argives took ship for Ilion, and with them went my husband, Odysseus. If he were to come back to me and take care of my life, then my reputation would be more great and splendid."

Penelope is a portrayal of the faithful wife, waiting for her husband when everyone else believes him to be dead. In the above quotation, she implies that her self worth is completely dependent upon her husband, and in the context of the story, this makes her a model wife.

Throughout Odysseus' travels, he comes across a plethora of female characters, most of whom represent temptation. The sirens, half bird-half woman, lure sailors to their doom with their mystical song. Scylla and Charybdis, both once beautiful sea nymphs, became victims of a god's anger and were turned into monsters posing a threat to passing ships. Circe and Calypso are both charming seductresses who get in the way of Odysseus' journey home. Odysseus, who has fought fierce warriors and monsters, is helpless against these women's wiles. While his disloyalty is excused as he did not consent in his heart, he would not tolerate any form of infidelity on Penelope's part. He even slaughters all the maids of his palace upon his return for cohabiting with Penelope's suitors.

Oedipus the king

Iocaste is the only female character with a major role in Oedipus the King. Although she plays a maternal role as well as the role of a mediator and adviser as a wife, she inevitably commits suicide when faced with a dire situation. Oedipus, just as distraught, gauges out his eyes but lives on. Women were considered weaker than men by Athenian standards, and this reflects strongly in literature.