Hamlet, the hero of Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet, utters this famous phrase in Act 1, Scene II. In fact, he is recalling the beautiful memories of his mother and deceased father. He mourns the death of his father and changing nature of woman, referring to his mother, Gertrude, as she has married his uncle Claudius. He says, “Frailty, thy name is woman! / A little month, or ere those shoes were old / With which she follow’d my poor father’s body.” By woman, he refers to Gertrude, who is morally weak, because she has betrayed her husband by marrying his brother, Claudius just after a month of her husband’s death.
Saddened by the death of his father and hasty marriage of his mother, Hamlet wants to die himself. To Hamlet’s mind, woman represents frailty, meaning breakable, weak and delicate in nature. He alludes to inherent weaknesses in women’s character. His mother, Gertrude epitomizes frailty or weakness. He also refers to his mother as a spiritually, morally and physically weak woman. She is morally weak and frail because her incestuous inconstancy drives her to remarry immediately after her husband’s death. Spiritually, she is weak because she has committed a sin and physically she is frail as women are less robust and less stronger than men. In his eyes, there is no comparison between Claudius and his father, who is “Hyperion to a satyr.” Therefore, Hamlet feels Gertrude acted foolishly.
During Elizabethan period, women lived in a patriarchal society and were portrayed as weak characters. They do not have liberty and genuine freedom — the reason that Shakespeare has depicted them in negative context. However, today, we find the use of phrase in different contexts for describing not only frailty of women, but also for describing other things. For instance, in literature James Joyce has used marriage as frailty, “Frailty, thy name is marriage.” Some people use this phrase for those women who cannot raise their voice against cruelty and injustice in society.
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month –
Let me not think on’t – Frailty, thy name is woman! –
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body…
(Hamlet Act-1, Scene-II, Lines 146-149)
Hamlet, grieving for his deceased father, denounces swift remarriage of his mother. He thus calls womankind as weak and frail in character. He describes his mother as an archetypal woman because Gertrude not only weakened her credibility by second hasty marriage but also failed pathetically to understand her son’s motives for his prolonged mourning. Therefore, Hamlet speaks out his feelings loudly, denouncing overhasty marriage of his mother, degrading her for ignoring green memories of his father’s death and marrying a lecherous creature like Claudius, who has no comparison with a celestial figure like his father. Besides, this line foreshadows the frailty of Ophelia, who chooses to be on side of her father. This is another betrayal by a frail woman and eventually both women die due to their own foolishness.
- Irony: Hamlet uses this phrase ironically to depict women as immoral and negative stereotypes.
- Soliloquy: This is quoted as the best example of soliloquy in English literature.