On Shakespeare’s Ophelia

June 12, 2010 § 11 Comments

In my Shakespeare class, our final paper was on Shakespeare’s epic Hamlet and out of all the choices of topics we had to write about, I chose Ophelia. During our unit on Hamlet I found myself surprised over and over again by how intensely many people seemed to hate her. (And I don’t use the term hate lightly, I mean they despised her!) “The play would be the same without her!” “She doesn’t DO anything.” “She’s way too passive!” At one point, I ended up in a very impassioned debate outside of class against five other classmates. Guess who the one person that liked Ophelia was?

To be sure, Ophelia is a passive character, but for some reason that fact doesn’t cause me to loathe her. Weird.

I wrote this paper as a sort of defense, if you will. I think that Ophelia’s passivity stems from her environment and that the truly tragic thing about her is that she knows no other way to act. She is one of only two females drowning (forgive the pun–I’m tired) in an overpoweringly large cast of males. She has no support system that encourages her to act on her own and every man around her somehow feels the need to tell her how to behave. But I won’t lay out my thesis right here and now. You can click below to read the full paper.

I figure at least one reader must be a Shakespeare buff. Enjoy!

It’s called the Tragedy of Hamlet for a reason, though to be sure, there is no lack of tragedy for the other characters involved. By the final scene, Laertes has lost his father and sister, Horatio is about to lose everyone, and Polonius has been killed. All of this, of course, ads to Hamlet’s tragedy, but it’s important that the audience not forget that there are other characters to feel sympathy for. Take Ophelia, for example. She begins the play as a beautiful, optimistic, obedient, young woman and ends up broken, indifferent, deeply hurt, and mad. This character arc is made all the more tragic by the degree to which she is dependent upon people—specifically men. While the male characters of the play take revenge and plot against each other, Ophelia remains passive and unable to act upon her feelings. Ophelia suffers supremely because of the simple fact that she’s a woman being forced to live under the conditions of a man’s world. This is demonstrated by the unequal relationships she has with men and her inability to process a terrible situation on her own.

All of the influential people in Ophelia’s life are men: her father, Polonius, her brother, Laertes, and her love interest, Hamlet. These are the people with the most power over her, the people who are most able to dictate her decisions for her (and often do). This is especially true with Laertes and Polonius. In fact, in the first scene the audience sees Ophelia, she barely speaks because the two men in her life spend the majority of the scene advising her. Both of them discourage her from trusting Hamlet’s proclamations of love. Laertes warns that, “[Hamlet’s] greatness weighed, his will is not his own, for he himself is subject to his birth.” (lines 20-21, page 41) This means that, according to Laertes, Hamlet’s focus is on the kingdom and Denmark, so he is unable to be truly devoted to her. He also dedicates a great deal of this speech to how important he feels it is that Ophelia maintain her “purity.” “My dear sister,” he tells her. “…Keep you in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire. The chariest maid is prodigal enough if she unmask her beauty to the moon.” (lines 37-41, page 41) Though for the time, it was normal for anyone and everyone to be concerned about the virginity of a woman, it still must have been frustrating to be told by your brother (who – as implied by Ophelia – may not be that pure himself) what to do with your own body. This also means that if she were anything other than entirely “pure” (as some readers theorize), this lecture from her brother would be highly guilt-inducing. Or it could even make her mad. After all, why does Laertes get to enjoy the pleasures of France while she is forced to live a chaste life?

In this same scene, Polonius asserts his authority by forbidding her from seeing Hamlet again. After Laertes has left, Polonius speaks to her using very patronizing language, saying things like, “You do not understand yourself so clearly as it behooves my daughter and your honor,” (page 45, lines 105-106) and referring to her as both a “green girl” and a baby. Though some of his points about Hamlet are valid, the voice he adopts to speak to her varies greatly from the voice he uses when speaking to Laertes. When addressing Ophelia, Polonius operates under the assumption that she is entirely helpless to think or act for herself. The “advice” he gives her isn’t so much advice as it is a command. He disallows her from seeing Hamlet and cautions her that “with a larger tether may [Hamlet] walk than may be given you.” (page 471, lines 134-135) Hamlet is a young man and Ophelia is a young woman. They are held to different standards. This may be the most valid thing he says in all of Act 1, Scene 3, if not the entire play. While Hamlet can afford to be sullen, to act out, and to flirt with her carelessly (as Polonius and Laertes feel he’s doing), these are luxuries that Ophelia does not possess. As a woman, her father and brother inform her that her duty is to stay chaste (therefore, away from Hamlet) and obedient to her family. Perhaps the one disobedient thing she has done was to accept Hamlet’s proclamations of love; however, he was abusive towards her in the end, which only serves to reinforce the importance of obedience. It’s also worth noting that there is no mother in the picture—Ophelia does not have a guiding female force to look to, so she spends most of the play obeying the authoritative men in her life.

As a woman, not only is Ophelia held to a higher standard, but she also lacks ways to express herself that the men of the play possess. Throughout this tragedy, various male characters act out in their own unique ways. From Hamlet’s feigned (and real) insanity to Claudius’ walking out on the play, to Laertes’ storming of the castle with an army, there is no shortage of dramatically expressed male angst. Ophelia, however, though under great amounts of stress, remains fairly static. Despite Hamlet’s rejection and her father’s death, she is given no outlet for her sorrow, fear, anger, and frustration, which causes all of these emotions to grow and intensify until they eventually boil over in Act 4. Without an outlet for these feelings, she ends up taking them out on herself alone. For example, by Act 4, both Hamlet and Ophelia have lost their fathers. This loss, however, manifests itself differently in Ophelia than in Hamlet. While it’s natural for Hamlet to seek revenge on the murderer of his father, for Ophelia to do such a thing would be unheard of. It’s her brother, Laertes, who takes on this role, returning to the kingdom proclaiming that he’ll “be revenged most thoroughly for [his] father.” (page 215, lines 153-154) Laertes has the privilege of being able to act out his aggression and pain because he is a man, while Ophelia, who shares these feelings just as intensely, is expected to remain silent and passive. The act of avenging a lost loved one in this world is defined as a distinctly male characteristic, though in reality the desire to do such a thing is universal. As Beatrice of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing puts it: “I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.” (page 145, lines 137-138) In a way, Hamlet and Ophelia symbolize different ways people react to death under horrible circumstances. As defined by society, Hamlet’s reaction is distinctly male, while Ophelia’s is distinctly female.

It’s near the end of the play that Ophelia loses all the guidance she’s become habituated to. She has spent her whole life listening to the advice and demands of her father and brother, never even viewing thinking or making decisions for herself as an option. This type of independence has never been encouraged by the powerful figures in her life. So, when all the men she’s been conditioned to depend on are stripped from her life (Polonius is dead, Laertes is away at school, and Hamlet—responsible for the murder of her father—has left for England), it’s only natural that she is at a loss. Everything that once defined her existence and provided stability is now gone. Becoming accustomed to such a constant management of her life in this male dominated society robbed her of the ability to fend for herself and ultimately results in her ruin.

It’s stated several times that the reason for her madness is the loss of her father. Claudius says of her madness, “Conceit upon her father.” (page 207, line 50) While most of the songs she sings can easily be related to her dead father, there are some that can also be related to Hamlet. For example, interspersed between songs of remorse and funerals are songs of lost love and men’s betrayal. The song that stands out most jarringly says, “Young men will do ‘t if they come to ‘t; By Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she “Before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed. He answers “So would I ‘a done by yonder son an thou hadst not come to my bed.”” (page 209, lines 65-66) Though “cock” in that context can also mean God, the allusion to sex cannot be disregarded. Whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia have been intimate, the song still showcases her hurt, confusion, and maybe even regret regarding love. The next time she sings a significant portion of a song, however, it is solely about her father. “And will he not come again?” she asks. “No, no, he is dead,” she responds. (page 219, lines 214-215) The repeated references made to Polonius and Hamlet emphasizes the fact that she’s still in the habit of turning to the men in her life in trying circumstances, even when they are nowhere to be found.

In addition, “going mad” in a world where she has no control could be the only possible liberating thing she can do. This is, of course, not to say that she actively makes the decision to become mad, but, upon falling into a state of “distraction,” she no longer needs the guidance of others or has to listen to anyone’s instructions. It’s not that she’s precisely in control of her actions, but no one else is either. Because when a person is mad, nobody expects them to adhere to the standards dictated by society, so in a way she has freed herself. Prior to this pivotal scene, Ophelia rarely spoke. She was featured in many scenes, but often delegated to the background, only to say things such as, “I shall obey, my lord.” (page 49, line 145) Even when she does speak, it’s usually in response to something a man has said. She is rarely the instigator. However, in Act 4, Scene 5, she dominates the stage. She sings and makes wild statements and speaks of flowers, while everyone else on the stage is silenced. For the first time in the play people are truly listening to her—she finally has a voice. Unfortunately, this voice has been gained out of madness and tragedy, not some epiphany about independence. And while people do listen to her, they lack the capacity to understand her. She’s just crazy. Perhaps there could be some legitimacy to the things she’s saying if they just looked deeper, but she’s merely a pretty, young woman who has lost her wits and though it’s awful, there is nothing to be done about it.

The chief reason there remains such fascination with Ophelia’s character among scholars and students alike is because she is both wildly removed from and closely related to reality. While her fate is larger than life, the foundation of her madness is deeply rooted in the realities of a woman’s life. Her skewed relationships with men, her passivity, and her inability to think critically for herself are–unfortunately–all too familiar. To this day, we live in a male dominated society. To this day, girls and women are held to unrealistic and contradictory standards. To this day, men are encouraged to act out their aggression, while women are discouraged from doing so. It would be great to say that Ophelia’s experience is unrealistic and entirely removed from the modern day experience of women across the world, but it would simply be untrue.

§ 11 Responses to On Shakespeare’s Ophelia

  • Joie says:

    Long time lurker, but thought I’d say that there’s at least one Shakespeare geek reading the blog :)

    Very well put. A defense of Ophelia isn’t something one sees very often.

  • Laurie (knitmeapony) says:

    I love the paper.

    One of my favorite ever descriptions of her comes from the lovely Canadian TV show Slings and Arrows, here’s the Youtube link. (forward to 1:35 if you just want the description).

  • Phoebe says:

    Hooray for de-lurking!
    I also LOVE Slings and Arrows, so thank you for that. :)

  • mirandanyc says:

    De-lurking rocks.

    P.S. So does this post.

  • Sarah says:

    Haha, that made me think of Slings and Arrows as well.

    I’m a theater geek and Hamlet is my favorite play, and while I’ve heard of people being annoyed by Ophelia, I can’t say anyone has ever told me they actively hate her. I think she’s such a wonderful and interesting character, and I’ve always found it definitely worth noting that there is never a mention of her mother or any female family member.

    I would say that Ophelia is a feminist character in a really weird, tragic sense. Not because she does anything explicitly feminist, but rather because she shows the dangerous consequences and effects of a male dominated, non-female-friendly world.

    I think Shakespeare tends to be pretty lady-friendly, considering the times (except for Taming of the Shrew, which is a really good play in its own right, but not exactly empowering)

  • mirandanyc says:

    Something I find interesting to consider is how Ophelia’s tragic demise relates to feminism…

    On one hand, it kind of sucks that she dies — though I suppose everyone in Hamlet dies, but her death stands apart in my mind since she’s not caught up in the final grisly conflict of the play. Strong, interesting women are often killed in literature without much fanfare, without much comment except for something along the lines of, “It’s so sad, she was so pretty.”

    Further, many theorists think Ophelia and Hamlet had sex (which is why he blatantly calls her a whore), so in some ways her death is a symbolic punishment for her sexuality — good old fashioned slut-shaming. Both she and Hamlet die, but he dies a hero while she dies alone.

    On the other, perhaps Shakespeare is pointing out the tragedy of our double standards and norms of femininity, revealing their destructive power. His intentions are so difficult for me to figure out.

  • Ms. Wizzle says:

    Thanks for this! I recently read Hamlet for the first time (and then over and over again) and have become fascinated with both Ophelia and Gertrude. My university library had some fantastic books of feminist analysis of Shakespeare’s work and his treatment/writing of female characters. I hope to write something about Gertrude for my own blog soon!

    Well done.

    • Phoebe says:

      That sounds awesome! Something I would definitely be interested in reading. I have mixed feelings about Shakespeare’s treatment of female characters. On the one hand, I find his female characters to be oftentimes far more interesting, developed, and likable than his male characters (for example Portia, Viola, Beatrice–although she’s pretty evenly matched with Benedick). But on the other hand, there’s The Taming of the Shrew and Desdemona (although badass Emilia serves to counter her I suppose)… I know I’ve tried really hard to see Taming as a secret feminist tale, but so far haven’t been able to.

      Whoa. I wrote way more than I intended to. The point is, I can’t wait to read your post and would love to know the titles and authors of those books you mentioned.

      • Ms. Wizzle says:

        Ditto on Taming of the Shrew! Hooray for 10 Things I Hate About You, and I’ve heard some rumors about Diablo Cody trying her hand at a new adaptation.

        I’ll get you that list of books soon! Shakespeare was meant to be my summer reading (grad programs in Psychology don’t really leave a lot of free time for Shakespeare), but I got caught up in Stieg Larsson instead. Hopefully I’ll get back to Ol’ William soon.

  • [...] because self-destruction has always been one of the marks of a proper lady, from Hamlet’s Ophelia to modern “heroin chic” models. She also faints so many times, I almost wanted to tell the men [...]

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