The Duality of Femininity in Shakespeare's Hamlet
Through the use of ambiguity in the plot of Hamlet, Shakespeare brings the audience into the action of the play, allowing its meaning and importance to shift with each varied perception. For centuries, audiences of the play (including readers, actors, directors, artists, and critics) have used the ambiguity of every line of Hamlet to create a thousand interpretations of the text, and yet in the case of Ophelia they seem to lack imagination, always casting her either as the pinnacle of innocence or as a figure of cunning sin. Through these interpretations, Ophelia’s character expresses the duality of societal perception of women and femininity, which is then used to dismiss her and her importance to the play.
In society, from Shakespeare’s time to the modern era, women are either innocent maiden saints or loathsome sinners, and the deciding factor is nearly always sex. Sexuality, either in absence or abundance, has become synonymous with femininity in society to an extent that it never has with masculinity. As Ophelia has become an image of femininity, most often realized as a fragile and powerless maid with few words beyond “I shall obey, my lord” (I.III.19) and rarely imaged as a woman in control of her own choices, with her own agenda, she has come to embody this virgin/villain dichotomy. Uniquely vulnerable to definition by others, Ophelia’s character is the epitome of Shakespearean ambiguity, defined first by the male characters of the play and second by the play’s audience, but never given definitive meaning by herself.
The prevailing view of Ophelia paints her as an sweet virgin, childlike in her innocence, which allows audiences to infantilize and ignore her. Polonius entreats her to “think [herself] a baby / That [she has] ta’en these tenders for true pay / Which are not sterling” (I.III.18), relegating her to the position of a foolish young girl who knows nothing of love or life and must surrender her autonomy to her father and brother. Both Polonius and Laertes exert control over Ophelia’s sexuality, warning her of the dangers of losing her virginity, which, for an unwed woman of Ophelia’s time, were very real. However, father and brother both endeavor to keep Ophelia unwed and under their control, subject to whichever image they wish to fit her to. To Laertes, she is “a slice of female ‘perfection’ whose chastity he can legislate and in whose memory he can prove his manhood” while to Polonius she represents “a perpetual ‘baby’ he must continue to ‘teach’” (Dane 410) Audiences of the play are no less guilty of remaking Ophelia into whatever image they deem most fitting. Most often audiences choose the guileless maid under the power of the men around her, “the paragon of innocence, love, and undeserved tragedy, not very clever perhaps, but so sweet!” (Madriaga 173). In keeping with this view, lines suggesting cleverness in Ophelia are overlooked and swept aside. Take, for example, Ophelia’s response to Laertes’ warning:
“But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede” (I.III.16)
Here Ophelia clearly calls out Laertes’ — and society’s — hypocrisy regarding the virginity of females versus males. Laertes, like all men, may tread “the primrose path of dalliance” while Ophelia and her fellow women are resigned to the “steep and thorny way” — an important social analysis that points to at least marginal intelligence in Ophelia, but is nearly always dismissed by audiences who view her as a child incapable of such heavy thoughts.
Some critics choose to read Ophelia not as an innocent virgin but as a conniving harlot, allowing her wit and measured autonomy, but none of the “sweetness” attributed to a virginal reading of her character. Subscribers to this view of Ophelia point first to Hamlet’s comment to her in the nunnery scene: “I say, we will have no more marriages!…To a nunnery, go.” (III.I.55). Evoking the antiquated (though modern in Shakespeare’s time) meaning of “marriage” as “sexual union” as proof that Ophelia is not a virgin, critics claim that Hamlet urges Ophelia to a nunnery that is less than holy, using the word as “a cant term for a house of ill-fame” (Wilson 159). Hamlet, seeing through her role in the plot of the “lawful espials” (in this reading willing and not coerced by her father or the king), realizes that she is not the sweet innocent he thought but a scheming woman whose only place is removed from society. This Ophelia is depicted as “a flirt; a fast girl such as at Elizabeth’s court was the rule rather than the exception: a girl whose model was Anne Boleyn, the young beauty who ascended the throne by way of the King’s bedroom” (Madriaga 175). As a virgin, Ophelia is a poor wretch manipulated by her father to serve his political ends; otherwise, she is a schemer manipulating the good prince in hopes of gaining a crown herself. This second view allows Ophelia more autonomy than a pawn, and even measured control over the men around her, but it also damns her. The virginal Ophelia is only “a screen onto which men might project their fantasies” (Dane 411), whereas a sexual Ophelia is a far less docile fantasy; remove her chastity and Ophelia may use the one weapon allowed to women of her time — sexual allure — to gain modest control over men and her life. Polonius and Laertes, aware of this ability, attempt to keep Ophelia’s sexuality carefully under their control, in turn keeping her under their thumb. Along with Hamlet, they, like many men, fear a woman in control of her own sexuality, and thus a non-virginal reading of Ophelia casts her “not [as] a person…merely a spectre of [men’s] psychic fears…a duplicitous whore…a sexually corrupt beast…a dark pit for breeding sinners” (Dane 409). Here is the dual perception of femininity most evident: girls as children are innocent and sweet, but once a woman is no longer a maid, she is vilified. Although Ophelia gains limited agency in this reading, it is awarded to her only to further condemn her; she is dismissed as a sinner and the gravity of her actions is eclipsed.
Although the portrayal of Ophelia as maid or floozy are divergent, they converge in one aspect: both remove her from the action of the play and place her under the power of the men around her. Those who read Ophelia as a treacherous tramp often dismiss her madness as a just punishment for her promiscuity or duplicity, which is dually problematic in that it assumes promiscuity should be punished and in that it completely disregards the solemnity of her condition. Likewise, in treating her as a lovesick maid too weak to survive the loss of her father and romantic interest, audiences disregard the emotional manipulation and abuse Ophelia suffered at these men’s hands. Completely circumscribed by the men around her, and kept constantly under their control, Ophelia is given no opportunity to develop an authentic self; “With her identity constructed always in reference to another, Ophelia is, in essence, nothing, an empty cipher waiting to be infused with…meaning” (Dane 410). After Polonius’ death, with Laertes and Hamlet abroad, Ophelia is left without the father, brother, and lover who had so long told her who and how to be, caught between their contradictory definitions of her, and faced with the overwhelming ability to “infuse” herself with her own meaning, she goes mad. To read this madness as the result of weakness is to be in error, for Ophelia is “empowered by her own madness” (Hunt 15). It is only once she is mad that Ophelia finds the ability to speak out against the injustices done to her and to those around her. She inflicts her judgment in a uniquely feminine yet scathing way through her nursery songs and metaphor-laden flowers. But Ophelia at her most subversive, and most cognizant, is also Ophelia at her most ignored.
The clear message Ophelia intends to send with her rhymes and flowers is undermined at every opportunity by the men of the play as well as by audiences. At first glance, Ophelia’s rhymes are easily dismissed as the ravings of a mad girl; this is often reinforced by the stage traditions of having Ophelia act wildly or undress, making her into another “female hysteric.” These traditions include productions that include a wildly euphemistic “Mad Ophelia” (harkening back to a promiscuous reading of her character) or an erratic, sobbing Ophelia too overcome with emotion to take part in thought. While the wanton Ophelia is represented onstage with innuendo, her maiden counterpart is infantilized and beautified, as exhibited most clearly by Laertes himself with the words, “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, / She turns to favor and to prettiness” (IV.V.92). Laertes, and many audiences, use the femininity of Ophelia’s madness and turn it into something tragically beautiful but ultimately meaningless, crafting her into “an aesthetic object to whose personal torment he can remain blind” (Dane 407). If Ophelia’s actions are shrugged off as inconsequential, her words are interpreted as even more empty. Ophelia finally speaks out against those who have used her for their own gain, only to have her audience “botch the words up to fit their own thoughts” (IV.V.86) and once again “serve their own emotional and political ends” (Dane 419). Laertes and Claudius both use her madness to support their plot against Hamlet, which, had it succeeded, would have allowed Claudius to remain in power and given Laertes high status in the court, perhaps his late father’s position. Thus interpreted and claimed by Laertes and Claudius, and the play’s audiences, Ophelia’s madness is doubly removed from the girl herself, her meaning removed from both action and word.
Ophelia’s death is likewise at a remove from her character, given meaning by everyone but Ophelia herself. This occurs first when Gertrude relays the news of Ophelia’s drowning in prettified verse, focusing on the serene imagery of the “willow grows aslant a brook” (IV.VII.100) and the “mermaid-like” (IV.VII.100) way Ophelia lay in the water before she drowned. This aesthetic portrait of Ophelia, which limns her death an instance of beauty without substance, is the reigning portrayal of her death. Artists capturing Ophelia’s last moments in painting or photography show the girl afloat among the weeds, her flowing white dress wrapped around her body and made sheer by the water in a morbidly erotic representation of female death. The eroticism common in depictions of Ophelia’s death juxtapose her maiden and sexual selves: the virginal white of her dress combined with the sensuality of her body seen through the sheer dress. This Ophelia, “Aestheticized…[and] wrapped in…the ‘fantastic garland’ of male imagination” (Romanska 486) is nothing more than an object, “the painting of a sorrow, / a face without a heart” (IV.VII.98). Shrouding Ophelia’s watery demise in metaphor and beauty clouds audiences’ ability to see it for the dark tragedy it is.
The most powerful elements of both beauty and metaphor in Ophelia’s death are the flowers Ophelia wears as she drowns. Interpreted as aesthetic objects increasing the beauty of the scene while taking away meaning, in actuality the flowers are especially heavy with nuance. Ophelia adorns herself with a particular arrangement of blooms that capture near perfectly her role in the play and the ways in which it is stolen from her. The crow-flowers symbolize childishness, while daisies symbolize both unhappy love and innocence or purity; together, these flowers represent the maiden side of Ophelia, viewed as little more than a child unwise to the ways of the world and ultimately driven mad by lovesickness. Conversely, she ornaments her garlands with long-purples, a botanical innuendo that Gertrude assumes Ophelia was ignorant of, though it is unlikely that a girl with such command of the language of flowers would be ignorant of the orchids’ meaning. This is the virgin Ophelia claiming the sexuality denied to her by her father, or the harlot bringing disgrace upon herself. Her last flower, the nettle, represents cruelty — all of the manipulation and abuse Ophelia suffers as well as the injustice and harm done to her in judging and ignoring her. Here is Ophelia’s plight distilled into a handful of petals. But the eloquent bouquets meet the same ultimate end as Ophelia, turned into aesthetic objects whose meaning is irrelevant. They become simply another part of her lovely death.
The loveliness of Ophelia’s death ultimately displaces and overshadows any consequence it might have held. Audiences accept Gertrude’s dubious explanation of Ophelia’s death with little trouble or insight into the real reasons behind her demise; “the ‘beautified corpse and the beautified death replaced [sic] the explanation for the death itself” (Romanska 497). Ophelia’s death is accepted as either an accident, which removes the little agency Ophelia exhibits, or as a suicide which is never explored but is easily dismissed as irrational. In both instances, Ophelia is seen as “incapable of her own distress” (IV.V.100) rather than as making an autonomous choice. This eradication of her autonomy begins just before the “nunnery” scene, during Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. The play itself contains no stage direction to remove Ophelia from the stage, though she is traditionally made to exit for the length of the speech and return at its end, allowing Hamlet to speak his mind alone, as if Ophelia is unworthy of hearing or unable to understand the soliloquy. This simple change in staging carries tremendous weight in changing the meaning of the play and the role of Ophelia. The Ophelia who remains onstage is Hamlet’s confidante, listening to his words and contemplating her own existence alongside him — a contemplation that will eventually lead to her own choice “not to be.” The Ophelia who retreats to the wings “is just the symbol and the image of man’s distress, but ‘incapable’ of feeling the distress herself” (Romanska 500), a childish girl used as a foil to and symbol of Hamlet’s existential crisis but unable to comprehend its magnitude. Her more licentious twin is undeserving of hearing Hamlet’s soulful confession. To allow Ophelia to hear and consider the “to be” soliloquy is to free her from the dual perceptions of femininity that so constrains her character and enable her to arrive most fully at a genuine “self.” The Ophelia who commits suicide in Act IV is an Ophelia who has “struggled through her own existential monologue, [and] emerges to make her first autonomous choice…that in order authentically ‘to be’ she must choose ‘not to be’” (Dane 423). Suicide for Ophelia is a way to escape a world that will allow her neither voice, nor autonomy, nor self; in killing herself, she claims herself as her own. In a final irony, this first fully autonomous choice is used to further the storylines of Hamlet and Laertes, and is utterly unacknowledged by critics.
The folly in analyzing Ophelia’s character is in attempting to mold her into one of the only two options available for female characters when, like every female character, she is more than simply a virgin or a villain. To read her as either sinner or saint without acknowledgment of the true girl behind these interpretations is to erase her from the play or place her firmly in the shadow of the surrounding male characters. By classifying Ophelia into one of these two categories, audiences predetermine their analysis of her actions, denying her the chance to define her actions herself. In doing so, audiences remove the consciousness that makes us human, perpetuating the perception of Ophelia as an object rather than as a person.
Note: Quotes are taken from an edition (Dover Thrift) of Hamlet that lacks line numbers; page numbers are given in their place. Sources are listed below the break.
Dane, Gabrielle. “Reading Ophelia’s Madness.” Exemplaria 10.2 (1998): 405–23. Literary Reference Center [EBSCO]. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
De Madriaga, Salvador. Shakespearean Criticism (1984): 171–75. Print.
Hunt, Cameron. “Jephthah’s Daughter’s Daughter: Ophelia.” ANQ 22.4 (2009): 13–16. Literary Reference Center [EBSCO]. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Romanska, Magda. “Ontology and Eroticism: Two Bodies of Ophelia.” Women’s Studies 34.6 (2005): 485–503. Literary Reference Center [EBSCO]. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1992.
Wilson, J. Dover. Shakespeare for Students (1992): 158–62. Print.