Or, The Danger of Female Passivity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Of all of William Shakespeare’s female characters, Ophelia is remembered as being one of his more passive, yet endearing heroines, from arguably his most famous play, Hamlet. She is frequently associated with water since her cause of death was drowning, and artists typically depict her last moments as being tranquil, yet Ophelia herself is seen as an object of tragic, fragile beauty. Most readers see her this way: as a passive, tragic victim who is unable to fight back against the many people—especially men—who keep pulling her apart. Ophelia is surrounded by men who use her as a pawn in their quest for vengeance or power. First there is her father, Polonius, and then there is her brother, Laertes, both of whom are seen constantly putting her in her place, telling her to be virtuous, and telling her how to behave. Hamlet, Ophelia’s possible lover, emotionally abuses her in cruel, public ways. Even Gertrude, the other main female character in the play, never shows any true hints of kindness towards Ophelia, and she too, like everyone else, uses the girl for her own benefit. Shakespeare also victimizes the character of Ophelia.
The main oppressive male-figure in Ophelia’s life is her father, Polonius. Fathers dominated young women at the time for the first few years of many girls’ lives until they were married off, only to be dominated by their future husbands. Polonius, though he is typically played as an almost fool-like character, is not without his menacing moments, most of which occur when he is with Ophelia. He puts her down emotionally when he scoffs that she speaks “like a green girl,” someone naïve in the ways of the world, as if he is almost saying so sarcastically (Hamlet 1.3.110-111). Polonius disapproves of the time Ophelia is spending with Hamlet and is frequently seen criticizing her because of it. He tells her to respect herself more, in the name of her virtue, or she will turn him into a laughing stock, a “fool,” not seeming to care about the damage it would do to her reputation more than his (Hamlet 1.3.118). He crushes Ophelia’s dreams of Hamlet, telling her that Hamlet’s words, which he equates with a flame, give “more light than heat” and that she must not mistake them “for fire” (Hamlet 1.3.125-126, 129). He adds more salt to this wound by summarizing his point with “Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers” (Hamlet 1.3.134-135).
Polonius continually says similar lines to Ophelia, not simply beating a dead horse, but near to the point of emotional abuse. Polonius damages her even more by forcing Ophelia to give him all of the letters Hamlet has written to her, which Polonius then takes to the King and Queen for them to read. This would have been severely humiliating for both Ophelia and Hamlet, if he knew about it. Then to add even more insult to injury, Polonius and Claudius, the king, use Ophelia as bait to see how insane Hamlet has become. As part of the rouse, Polonius has Ophelia read from a prayer book to make it look like she is alone, which is also a subtle way of telling her to be virtuous around Hamlet, especially since her father and the king are watching their every move.
Her brother, Laertes, does little to comfort his sister. Laertes in the third scene of the play, the first time he is seen speaking to Ophelia, repeats several times how she should fear Hamlet’s advances. He says that the “best safety lies in fear” (1.3.47). He tells her how Hamlet’s affections towards her are “not permanent, sweet, not lasting” (1.3.9). Polonius and Laertes both remind Ophelia that Hamlet is a prince and that she would never be considered as a potential bride for the future king of Denmark. No young woman wants to hear the word “never” in relation to her potential lover, but here her family does not hesitate to tell her this.
Though perhaps the cruelest torment Ophelia receives is at the hands of the play’s protagonist, Hamlet. He denies that he ever gave her the trinkets she wishes to return to him in act three, then he proceeds to tell her that he loved her once (Hamlet 3.1.125), but retracts this by declaring that he never loved her (3.1.129). Hamlet cruelly tells her that she should not have believed any loving word he ever spoke to her (3.1.127), proving to Ophelia, in her mind, that her father and brother were right: that Hamlet was using her all along, that he never loved her. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia breaks her heart even more, taking away any hope that someone would be on her side. These words are a knife in Ophelia’s heart, but Hamlet has only begun to insult her. He calls her two faced in the famous line “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (Hamlet 3.1.155-156). Hamlet torments her even more by telling her that she should marry a fool, because a wiser man would realize that she would turn him into a monster and inevitably cheat on him (Hamlet 3.1.150-151). He then says that even if she is chaste and virginal, she will still be the subject of gossip, a woman with a ruined reputation, even if she is, in fact, innocent (3.1.147-148).
To top it all off, Hamlet, famously, tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.131). At first glance, he seems to be telling her that she would be better off as a nun. This line would have been quite offensive in Shakespeare’s time since the term “nunnery” was sometimes used in place of the word “brothel.” Nunneries were also places where girls who had become pregnant out of wedlock went to deliver their babies, repenting their “sin” at the command of society. By telling Ophelia to go to a nunnery, Hamlet is comparing her to someone who has had a child out of wedlock, a sexually loose woman, and a prostitute. Hearing these words would be absolutely heart wrenching for someone like Ophelia, someone who may have never done anything wrong, accused of crimes she has not yet committed.
Hamlet treats her so unfairly, so cruelly, that his insults have just added a lot of fuel to what was already a big fire, Ophelia is ripped apart by the one man who has treated her fairly, the man who had once said that he loved her. The fact that Hamlet, the possible love of her life, kills her father is the last straw and Ophelia’s sanity slips away. The next time she appears in the play she has already become completely insane, happily throwing away her mind as easily as she gives away flowers. She is symbolically deflowered and literally insane.
After being treated so harshly by the men she called family and the man she loved, Ophelia’s treatment at the hands of society is equally terrible. Gertrude, the queen, refuses to speak to Ophelia once she has become insane. Some film adaptations of the play have Ophelia imprisoned at the beginning of this scene, none more so than Kenneth Branagh’s film, where Ophelia is kept underneath the palace, where she is treated like an inmate in a mental hospital, and she even wears a costume that resembles a strait-jacket. This harsh treatment of Ophelia on screen is the visual equivalent of Ophelia’s treatment verbally and emotionally by the other characters who seem to care little for her.
When Ophelia eventually drowns, Gertrude witnesses the girl’s death, yet the queen does nothing to save her. Gertrude, like everyone else, turns her back on this poor girl, letting her drown, and metaphorically letting her sink deeper into her insanity. Even after her death, Ophelia is still treated like an object, not a real person. A priest nearly refuses to give Ophelia a Christian burial, preferring to throw her outside the graveyard since she has possibly committed suicide (Hamlet 5.1.203-206). Laertes compares Ophelia to an angel and Hamlet only now that Ophelia is dead, declares his love for her, but this is done to Hamlet’s benefit alone because Ophelia died believing no one really loved her (Hamlet 5.1.216). After her funeral, she is not mentioned again. No one in the entire play truly cares for Ophelia, and if they did they never showed it to her when she was alive or even after her death, saying only polite words to her casket the way society dictates. The tears of Laertes and Hamlet might be less for Ophelia, but more for themselves.
Like many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroines, Ophelia’s struggles take a back seat to Hamlet’s, the protagonist’s trials. In today’s post-new-wave-feminism society, female readers especially might find this to be a rather interesting idea. Shakespeare’s female characters typically stay in the background, coming up to center stage only for brief moments to advance the hero’s pain. Take for instance Lavinia from Titus Andronicus, another passive victim in a similar vein to Ophelia, a young woman who is savagely raped and horrifically mutilated mere hours after her wedding, a tragic character that rarely speaks (she is unable to speak for most of the play). Yet, her pain and suffering is not the focus of the play. What she has endured occurs to give Titus, the main character, more motivation, and there is no scene of Lavinia being comforted after her ordeal. Another example of this is Cressida from Troilus and Cressida, who, despite her name being a part of the title, and most of the plot revolving around her, she actually is only in a few scenes—and she is the heroine. Yes, Ophelia is a supporting character, she is not the heroine, but the image of this melancholic young woman drowning has become nearly as famous as the popular image of Hamlet holding up Yorick’s skull in the graveyard. The fact that Ophelia and her death especially are mainly used by Shakespeare to give the character of Hamlet, not Laertes, Ophelia’s own brother, more emotional turmoil, says a lot about the treatment of the character—she is a plot device. It is ironic that a character whose actions are so passive in the story, is still being twisted around by the author as a plot device, never given the credit she deserves even by the author that created her.
Ophelia is a victim in many senses of the term. She is passive, she is seen as someone’s property. Ophelia is used as a spy, as bait, but never once is she given the respect she deeply deserves. After being used by her father, brother, lover, and nearly every other major character in the play, Ophelia seems to have finally broken down. So it is fitting, almost, that this woman who was so passive in her life, lets herself drown, never taking the effort to save herself. After all, if she were to survive she would still have to go back to being insane in a cruel, heartless world, being a pawn in someone else’s plans once again.