‘Frailty, thy name is woman’ is one of dozens of famous expressions that have entered common speech, but which originated in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The old quip about Hamlet, that it’s ‘too full of quotations’, wittily sums up the play’s influence on not just English literature but on the everyday language we use.
Many of us know, and some may use, phrases such as ‘to the manner born’, ‘cruel to be kind’, ‘neither a borrower not a lender be’, ‘something is rotten’, ‘hoist with one’s own petard’, ‘in my mind’s eye’, ‘primrose path’, ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’, ‘method in one’s madness’, and many more. All of these derive from one play: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. So, how does ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’ come into the play?
Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Shakespeare’s play, the speech beginning ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ (in some editions, ‘O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt’ while, in some others, ‘O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt’) appears in Act 1 Scene 2, towards the end of the scene which introduces Hamlet (his first line of dialogue is the witty ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind’, spoken about his uncle, Claudius).
Hamlet’s first soliloquy is one of the most famous speeches in the play, and as with all of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the language requires some unpacking. We have previously analysed the soliloquy in detail here.
In lines that have become famous, Hamlet expresses despair about the world more widely, beyond himself. Everything seems washed-out and colourless, and ultimately nothing comes of anything anyone does. The whole world is like a garden full of weeds – disgusting and corrupt weeds which have taken over the whole garden.
But before long, we come to the real reason for his angst: anger at his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle barely two months after his father died. (At this stage of the play, Hamlet is unaware that his father was murdered by his uncle.)
That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.
His father was an excellent king, Hamlet maintains, and to compare him with the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, is like comparing the god Hyperion (the Greek god of the sun from classical mythology) to a satyr, a mythical beast that was depicted by the Romans as goat-like (associating Claudius with base lust). Indeed, Hamlet’s father was so loving to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, that he would not permit (‘beteem’) the wind to blow too harshly on her face.
And then we come to ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’ as Hamlet’s language becomes more passionate as he becomes increasingly worked up:
Heaven and earth!
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! –
Hamlet expresses his anger towards his mother, who hangs off Claudius as if her desire for him had only increased by being satisfied (by Hamlet’s father). It’s as if Gertrude was loved so well by Old Hamlet that, rather than sit around mourning his death, she needs to get her ‘fix’ from somewhere.
And then he exclaims, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’ Hamlet blames his mother’s hasty remarriage on her ‘frailty’ as a member of womankind: women are the very embodiment of ‘frailty’. The word ‘frailty’ here denotes a lack of constancy in love: emotional rather than physical frailty. Women, Hamlet thinks, are too weak to stay faithful. They give in to the desires of the flesh too readily.
The line ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’ reveals Hamlet’s misogyny, which is well-established. Indeed, Tony Howard has written a fascinating book, Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction, all about the long tradition of women playing the role of Hamlet and exploring the deep misogyny (and hatred of femininity, especially within himself) which the character evinces.
But as Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor explain in their helpful note in the Arden edition, Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), the misogyny was normal for Shakespeare’s time: indeed, the sentiment of ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’, if not the exact wording, was proverbial even when Shakespeare wrote the play.
Thompson and Taylor also, curiously, direct us to Measure for Measure, where Isabella, the main female character in that ‘problem play’, describes women as ‘ten times frail’ (Act 2 Scene 4):
We are all frail.
Else let my brother die,
If not a feodary, but only he
Owe and succeed thy weakness.
Nay, women are frail too.
Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves;
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
Women! Help Heaven! men their creation mar
In profiting by them. Nay, call us ten times frail;
For we are soft as our complexions are,
And credulous to false prints.
Isabella’s point is that women are destroyed by men who seek to take advantage of them. And women are ‘ten times frail’ because they are gullible or ‘credulous’, and trust men too easily. However, it is interesting to note that Isabella spurns Angelo’s blackmailing advances (he wishes her to sleep with him, in return for him sparing her brother’s life).
The sentiment that women are frail and inconstant may have been accepted mainstream belief in Shakespeare’s time, but we should pay attention to whose mouths he puts such sentiments into, and Hamlet’s irrational hatred of his mother’s actions and Isabella’s strength in resisting Angelo’s threats to her honour reveal, as so often in Shakespeare, a more complex picture.