Defining Ophelia

Ophelia has not been remembered fondly over the years. “Fragile,” “wanton,” and “weak” are commonly ascribed traits to this admittedly tragic heroine; it seems she is either a cold temptress or an object of pity, and rarely anything more. These epithets, though reductive, are forgivable conclusions— when the title character utters over a third of the play’s lines, and many of the most celebrated lines at that, it is easy for any secondary character to be overlooked. And this protagonist is notorious for his less-than-kind opinions of women, specifically his sometime lover Ophelia. If William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the closest a drama can get to first-person narration, it is extraordinarily easy to come to the conclusion that the entire play reeks of sexism as a product of the times. However, as always with Shakespeare, a closer look reveals much more complexity. Yes, Ophelia’s character is reduced to one of two stereotypical versions of women, but Shakespeare accomplishes this not through the presentation of Ophelia by Ophelia, but by the projection of perfect chastity by Laertes and Polonius and complete wantonness by Hamlet. With Gertrude as a sort of neutral take, Shakespeare could be using Ophelia’s character to make a point about his culture’s treatment of women rather than perpetuate it.

The audience first meets Ophelia as she receives a lengthy lecture from her brother Laertes regarding Hamlet’s affections— and the fickleness thereof— before he departs, and her father Polonius arrives to reiterate her responsibility in preventing Hamlet from leading her astray. Immediately we see Ophelia as an obedient sister and daughter, willing to conform to their expectations for her to be as chaste as the Virgin Mary. However, Laertes’ and Polonius’ speeches focus less on their goals for Ophelia and more on their concern that she will fall short of such lofty expectations; Polonius tells her she “[speaks] like a green girl, / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance” (1.3.101-102). Though this treatment seems condescending at best, perhaps Laertes and Polonius do not doubt her virtue without just cause. It is made clear in this scene, as well as others, that Hamlet has expressed some degree of fondness for Ophelia, and it is likely she feels the same. She explains that “He hath . . . of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me” (3.1.90-100), and later in act 3, scene 1 Hamlet tells her, “I loved you once,” to which Ophelia responds, “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so” (115-16). None of this is in and of itself irrefutable evidence that the pair had intimate relations, but there are sexual overtones in both Hamlet’s outbursts toward and teasing of Ophelia (“Wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” [3.1.140-41]), as well as in Ophelia’s songs as she descends into madness in act 4, scene 5:

Then up he rose and donned his clothes

And dupped the chamber door,

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more. (52-55)

Though these passages may not be indisputable proof, they imply strongly enough behavior that Laertes and Polonius would not delight to hear about, and Ophelia knows this. One needs only to watch The Breakfast Club to realize the detrimental effects a demanding parent can have on a child unable or unwilling to meet their expectations, and Ophelia is no exception. This family’s narrative is one of lofty, even unrealistic expectations, little faith, and the disappointment of said expectations, all rooted in the image of the ideal chaste maiden and the general idea that women are the “weaker sex.”

This is a pattern Shakespeare appears to perpetuate, especially with the title character. However, in the midst of Hamlet’s misogynistic rants and cold callousness to Ophelia’s emotions, there is a nugget of blame that rests with him, rather than the drama’s tragic heroine. Constructing the pair’s relationship leading up to the first act of Hamlet requires a fair amount of inferring, but one can start with the fact that they did, in fact, have some form of romantic involvement, as referenced earlier in this essay. Furthermore, there is material evidence of their affair in the form of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia in act 2, scene 2 and the tokens in act 3, scene 1 that Ophelia “[has] longéd long to redeliver” (93). More opaque, however, are the individuals’ attitudes toward their relationship. Ophelia, who is relegated to be the projection of the play’s males, does not have the opportunity to disclose her private thoughts, but she does admit that she believed Hamlet loved her. In her responses to Laertes and Polonius in act 1, scene 3, she suggests having faith in his love for her— she tells her father that Hamlet “hath importuned [her] with love / In an honorable fashion” (110-11). If nothing else, Ophelia holds a high opinion of Hamlet, or at least the Hamlet she knew before the play’s exposition; in act 2, scene 1 she laments, “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (153).

But if Ophelia’s relative scarcity of lines in the play is enough to indicate her fondness for Hamlet, the title character’s lack of private thoughts about Ophelia is likely more telling than the things Hamlet does say to her. It is interesting that, in a drama laden with soliloquies which are mostly delivered by Hamlet, he devotes none of them to introspection about the woman he claims to have loved. If he speaks of her, it is to mock Polonius; if he speaks to her, it is to taunt and insult her. Working with the assumption that Hamlet is in his right mind for the duration of the play (a question that warrants an entirely separate essay), he either intends to scorn Ophelia, or he has absolutely no understanding of social conventions. The latter being unlikely, the next logical question is why he lashes out at Ophelia, and both his “get thee to a nunnery” speech and Ophelia’s madness seem to suggest sexual promiscuity as the answer. The former is laden with innuendos and accusations, beginning by calling her chastity into question and ending with an implied comparison to whores by saying, “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (3.1.145-46). Here Hamlet characteristically speaks around his meaning, but Ophelia’s songs in the midst of her insanity help fill in the cracks:

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 sun,

An thou hadst not come to my bed.” (4.5.60-66)

These verses highlight quite clearly the double standard imposed upon women, and perhaps refer explicitly to what has transpired between Hamlet and Ophelia. He loved her once (promised her to wed), and later denounces her as a whore for going to someone’s bed— even though it was his. Despite whatever may or may not have transpired between these two in the time before the play begins, Ophelia endeavors to follow her father’s bidding, and Hamlet claims to do the same. However, while the former follows the conventions of her society and behaves as well as she can manage, the latter spits out blame and hostility with every breath until it kills the supposed object of his affection.

All these versions of Ophelia are rather uncharitable, and they make it easy to dismiss Hamlet the character, Hamlet the play, and even Shakespeare himself as hopelessly misogynistic. However, in the midst of antiquated and often insulting versions of Ophelia, we find an advocate for her in the form of Gertrude. Though the two women appear together in only two scenes, in the first of which Ophelia is insane and in the second, dead, there seems to be a sort of maternal understanding on the Queen’s part. At Ophelia’s funeral, she scatters flowers on the grave and says, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” (5.1.246). To know Ophelia well enough, and to think of her highly enough, that Gertrude would welcome her as a daughter-in-law is quite the compliment. As a woman and a mother, it is unlikely that she was ignorant of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship, whether or not she knew the exact nature thereof. If the Queen suspected Ophelia of indecent behavior, it did not negatively impact her opinion of her; if she did not, it is because she gave her the credit to behave modestly that Ophelia’s family never did. Additionally, it is significant that Shakespeare chose Gertrude to bear the news of Ophelia’s death. The connection thus created could not have been accidental; otherwise, an anonymous messenger could have accomplished the task just as well. By selecting the Queen instead, and filling her speech with such a specific narrative of the nature of Ophelia’s death, Shakespeare implies a closeness between the two women. In the absence of Ophelia’s actual mother, it is not a stretch for the audience to contrive a mother-daughter relationship between the two, and it is the forgiving nature of a “mother’s” love that grants Ophelia a sense of redemptive wholeness within Hamlet, even as the remaining cast seems bent on destroying her.

All these conflicting views of Ophelia come to a head in act 5, scene 1 during her funeral. There is doubt as to whether her drowning was accidental or intentional (another question that deserves its own essay), but in either case the blame does not lie with Ophelia. Instead, it falls on the heads of those that drove her to her madness, of which Hamlet was the primary cause. However, he could not have accomplished this on his own; he required the set-up by Laertes and Polonius to truly break her. It is hard to characterize the precise effect Polonius’ murder had on his daughter, since the play offers little in the way of clarifying the nature of their relationship throughout Ophelia’s childhood, but with the customs of the time and apparent lack of a mother it is safe to assume that most— if not all— of the controlling factors in her life came from Polonius and, to a lesser extent, Laertes. The effort they make in act 1, scene 3 to impress how important it is that Ophelia be chaste and modest alone would be enough to trouble a lonely young woman; to grow up under that pressure would have much more significant and longer-lasting effects, especially if she was, as suspected, engaging in decidedly immodest relations with Hamlet. Regardless of whether or not Laertes and especially Polonius were too overbearing, the sudden and tragic loss of one such figure in Ophelia’s life would naturally have a disastrous effect on her psyche. With her brother gone and her father murdered by the man she believed loved her, Ophelia became isolated and essentially set up for insanity and a premature death. Hamlet may not have held her head underwater, but he was the one responsible for destroying the primary pillar of support, however harmful that pillar may have been at times, and refusing to allow her to lean on him while she found her bearings. And though not as culpable as Hamlet, Laertes earns his fair share of the blame for his sister’s death: Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet, their father’s death, and her ensuing madness were not unknown to him, yet Laertes decided to focus on avenging his father’s death rather than care for his suffering sister.

This set-up is precisely what makes Ophelia’s funeral so enraging. Laertes begins the ordeal by leaping into her grave in a show of grief, the magnitude of which he was evidently incapable of summoning when there was still something to be done for Ophelia. Immediately after, Hamlet emerges and challenges Laertes to top his love for Ophelia, which is so vast that “Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up [his] sum” (5.1.271-73). He continues by demanding to know if Laertes “Woo’t weep? Woo’t fight? Woo’t fast? Woo’t tear thyself? / Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile?” (5.1.276-77), and he claims that he would do any of these to prove his love for Ophelia. However, in actuality, Hamlet did not offer her even a single kind word, let alone devour a reptile on her behalf. The entire situation is ludicrous; neither man’s reaction— and Hamlet’s especially— is proportionate to the way they treated Ophelia while she was alive, and there is really no situation in which grappling in a grave is appropriate. While these laments and challenges may be heroic in a different setting, the context in which Shakespeare puts this exchange paints Hamlet and Laertes as fools and swaggerers. Gertrude, on the other hand, seems to be the only attendee to genuinely mourn the loss of this young woman, and in that sense she “wins” the altercation at Ophelia’s funeral. The tone of this scene and the behavior of Shakespeare’s characters, though it may on the surface seem appropriately masculine, support the nuances in previous scenes that show Ophelia not as the whore or saint she is often painted as, but as a lonely young woman doing her best.

Hamlet has earned itself many epithets, from being touted as one of the greatest dramas of Western literature to being condemned as an insultingly misogynistic play starring an insultingly misogynistic hero. As is typical, however, the truth lies between the extremes. There are certainly moments to make any feminist scholar’s blood boil, but perhaps readers are emphasizing the wrong points. Ophelia receives abuse and chastisement left and right until she dies from it, yes, but the characters that administer these verbal blows are the ones that prove themselves to be fools as Ophelia exits the drama. Meanwhile, Gertrude— the only character to give Ophelia any credit— is the one that truly mourns her passing. Perhaps Shakespeare is perpetuating the culture of the time through his masterpiece, but perhaps he is subtly condemning it in the way he defines Ophelia through his other characters. She may be a weak-minded girl to Polonius and Laertes, and she may be a malicious seductress to Hamlet, but to the Queen she is worthy of Gertrude’s son, which is as lofty an opinion as the men’s are unfavorable. If Ophelia deserves consideration as the former, she has certainly earned credit as the latter.

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