How the miseries of Hamlet’s Ophelia portray the misogyny faced by women over the years
Sexism is a disease that has plagued the planet since the beginning of humankind’s recorded history. The first country to provide voting rights to women was New Zealand when they passed the woman’s suffrage bill in 1893 (“Women”). One would expect such an orthodox and ancient prejudice to have vanished by the time humankind entered the 21st Century. However, it continues till this date in different shapes, but with the same intentions to demean and disrespect another person on the basis of their gender. It is safe to assume that the 16th and the 17th centuries, the time when William Shakespeare lived and wrote his famous dramas, were a time of nonchalant misogyny and Shakespeare’s longest play Hamlet reflects that accurately. The most troubled character in the play is Ophelia who never suffers because of her own actions, but rather due to the actions of other male characters. She is an exemplar of innocence who is shamed unjustly both by her family and her lover. Clearly, Ophelia is the prime victim of misogyny because she is treated unfairly by the men in her life, suffers the consequences of the actions of the men she loves, and unfortunately dies in a deranged and disgraced state due to these miseries.
Even though Ophelia dies at the end of the play, like every other major character of Hamlet, she and Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, are the true driving forces of the entire narrative. The importance of female characters in Hamlet can be easily overlooked because of the overwhelming number of male characters in the play, including the protagonist and the antagonists. However, it is important to note that without the involvement of these two female characters, half of the plot disappears. It is highly possible that if Gertrude had not married her ex brother-in-law Claudius, Hamlet would not have been disturbed enough to plan such a crafty revenge. He could have even dismissed the apparition of King Hamlet as the devil because “the devil hath power/ T’ assume a pleasing shape” (Shakespeare 2.2.628–629) as Hamlet had suspected for a short while. Since Hamlet possesses a sharp mind, it is likely that his logical brain would have stepped in after seeing the Ghost, instead of being enticed by it. According to Hamlet, his mother went “with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (Shakespeare 1.2.156) that he did not even have enough time to process his father’s death, leading to his motivation for revenge. On the other hand, the murder of Polonius, which is a major turning point of the play, would not have occurred if he did not futilely obsess over Hamlet’s relationship with his daughter Ophelia. Therefore, both the female characters are either directly or indirectly responsible for the progression of the story.
During the time of Shakespeare, male actors usually played female roles as well (Garcia) and that could be one of the reasons as to why there was not a great resistance from the actors to perform in dramas having sexist tones. Hamlet is filled with misogynistic lines and undertones as well, including the protagonist who links every misfortunate event with womankind. From the beginning of the play, he displays this trait when he exclaims, “Frailty, thy name is Woman” (Shakespeare 1.2.146). When he utters these words in his first of the many famous soliloquys, he is contemplating his mother’s marriage with his uncle. Hamlet believes that it is his mother’s feminine ‘frailty’, which he believes is his mother’s submission to sexual temptation, that has caused her to get involved with the “incestuous… adulterous beast” (Shakespeare 1.5.49) Claudius. Laertes and Polonius make similar sexist remarks while cautioning Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet. Laertes, who lives and studies in France and who probably does not abide by his father’s wishes all the time, gives restrictive advices to his sister when he says, “And, in the morn and liquid dew of youth, / Contagious blastments are most imminent.” (Shakespeare 1.3.45–46) The disease imagery included in this line, which states that young flowers are the most vulnerable to diseases, clearly displays Laertes’s intention to repel Ophelia from forming intimate relations with Hamlet as he thinks that Ophelia is still a ‘young flower’ or a virgin. Moreover, Polonius’s hypocrisy is highlighted in his conversation with Reynaldo where he asks the latter to spy on his son. It is shown that Polonius is somewhat lenient while dealing with Laertes’s extravagant and indulgent lifestyle since he says that “such wanton, wild, and usual slips/ As are companions noted and most known/ To youth and liberty” (Shakespeare 2.1.23–25). This absolutely contradicts Polonius’s strict behaviour with his daughter Ophelia whose relationship with Hamlet is prohibited and degraded by him. Polonius believes that Ophelia should “not believe his [Hamlet’s] vows, for they are brokers/ Not of that dye which investments show, / But mere implorators of unholy suits” (Shakespeare 1.3.132–134). Polonius’s misogyny is most emphasized in his differing and drastically contrasting behaviour with his children, of which Ophelia is a victim.
Furthermore, Ophelia’s miseries are not only incessant but also extremely conflictive in nature. She is used as a pawn by both her father and her lover for their selfish, cunning reasons. Polonius who initially warns Ophelia to not reciprocate Hamlet’s advances, later stages her encounter with Hamlet to expose Hamlet’s lovesickness and justify it as the major reason behind his strange behaviour. Polonius is so oblivious to the reality that he only trusts his own mind; he is so dedicated to his theory that he “will find/ Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed/ Within the center.” (Shakespeare 2.2.169–171) Needless to say, this turns out to be a wild goose chase for Polonius since Hamlet keeps throwing him off track with his strange behaviour and “antic disposition”. The only innocent who suffers due to this entire endeavour is Ophelia who is first confused by her father’s exploitation of her as a way to gain the King’s confidence, and later is insulted by Hamlet when she encounters him as per her father’s wishes. Hamlet insinuates that Ophelia is a deceptive person by saying, “I have heard of your paintings well enough. God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another” (Shakespeare 3.1.154–156). Ironically, Hamlet is the deceptive one in this case since he is pretending to be ruthless and agitated to throw Claudius and Polonius, who he knows are listening to this conversation, off the right track. Unfortunately, Ophelia is unaware of this secret and gets inflicted with highly excessive collateral damage.
Ophelia, who had already been forced to abandon the love of her life, loses her sanity completely after her father’s untimely and suspicious death. As Laertes studies in France and as she does not have a mother, she is left completely alone and becomes deranged after Hamlet murders Polonius. Her entry into the court in Act 4, Scene 5, where she is carrying different flowers, confirms her insanity. Her intelligence and emotion, however, are symbolised through the flowers that she carries. For example, she says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died” (Shakespeare 4.5.203–204). Violets are considered to be a symbol of faithfulness and hence, she implies that Hamlet destroyed her faith by killing her father. Ophelia eventually succumbs to all of the demons in her head and mysteriously dies, most probably through suicide as the gravediggers suggest in the final act of the play. After Ophelia’s death, Gertrude reveals her wish to have made Ophelia her daughter-in-law; this is an unfortunate timing to reveal this since Polonius claimed in the beginning of the play that Ophelia would never be allowed to become a part of the Royal family. Hence, Ophelia is ashamed publicly by her lover and forced into that humiliation by her father for an extremely unnecessary and vain reason. This paradox ultimately leads to events which, along with her father’s death, push her towards complete insanity and untimely death.
Even today, women around the world suffer discrimination at their workplace and their homes for extremely prejudiced and groundless reasons, much like Polonius’s baseless theory of Hamlet’s lovesickness. It is regrettable to note that even after Ophelia’s death, her brother and her ex-lover could not put their egos aside when they engage in a fistfight over Ophelia’s grave — showing that even after death, Ophelia does not gain the respect and love that she deserves. The cultivation of these supremacist egos occur in the play due to the misogynistic upbringing and environment of medieval Europe. Although, members of the Royal and noble families were formally educated in the fields of literature, history and science, moral education could only be received from the Churches, who had their own misogynistic ambitions and rituals. The overwhelming misogyny in every section of the society left the women of medieval Europe with no other option but to succumb to the obnoxious male hierarchy. It is a shame that such traditions still persist in many parts of the world, despite the social and technological advancements in society; these loathsome beliefs continue to affect several innocent and brilliant women who are not very different from Ophelia. Ophelia’s innocent love for Hamlet and her obedience towards her father, who views her as his daughter and nothing more, lead to her unfortunate demise. The key to a more progressive society is to view women not just as mothers, or sisters, or daughters, but as equal and highly capable human beings.
Garcia, Lucas. “Gender on Shakespeare’s Stage: A Brief History.” Explore the Art, 21 Nov. 2018, www.writerstheatre.org/blog/gender-shakespeares-stage-history/.
Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. The Tragedy of Hamlet , Prince of Denmark. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2018.
“Women and the Vote.” New Zealand History, nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage.