If my degree has taught me anything, it’s that female characters in literature really do get a bad rep, and in my mind, few female characters are quite as hard done by as Shakespeare’s Ophelia. Consequently, I have decided to join the ranks of those who have come to her defence, to persuade you all that Ophelia is truly one of the feminist icons of literature.
My first issue with the general portrayal of Ophelia is that she is typically described as exactly that: “Hamlet’s tragic love interest.” Nothing more. Do you remember when Arianna Grande made a point of saying she is more than simply Big Sean’s ex? I feel that way about Ophelia. So much attention is placed onto the titular character and his relationships with those around him that Ophelia is often ignored, her suicide (I’d put up a spoiler warning but it’s been out for over four-hundred years’ guys) dismissed as the result of failed love.
Whilst Ophelia may be a victim of the patriarchal abuse and oppression many women during this period suffered under, she is far from being the tragic victim she is generally portrayed as. To be entirely honestly, I was actually shocked at some of her earliest remarks in the play when I first read it, having been so used to hearing her described in the typical light of the beautiful yet tragic victim. It’s true that Ophelia’s first line in the play is an interrogative, regarding her brother’s opinion of her character, “do you doubt that [I would write to you]?” but Ophelia does also demonstrate early on that she is fully aware of hypocrisy, misogynistic double-standards, and the fallibility of female sexual corruption as opposed to ideas around masculine promiscuity. Although she generally appears to be “obedient”, she isn’t afraid to point out these injustices, and question them. After Laertes spends several pages warning Ophelia of the “dangers” of sexual encounters and the “fear” she should feel at the threat of losing her virginity, Ophelia confronts her brother, saying:
“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, when like a puffed and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.”
Conveniently, her brother replies with nothing more than a pathetic “O fear me not.” and that is the end of the conversation.
In the 2009 BBC production of Hamlet with David Tenant, during this piece of dialogue Ophelia reaches into her brother’s suitcase and pulls out two condoms, which he was going to take back to university with him, which I actually think is extremely poignant. What Ophelia is demonstrating here is her ability to spot the fallibility of male arguments towards female desire, education and the “dangers” of sex. She makes it clear to the audience that she does not live in any kind of deluded, “feminine” ignorance, with a belief in all things goodness, sweetness, flowers and sunshine. She is aware of the world, aware of its corruption, and she knows she can be the judge of the world and those within it herself. Like Jane Eyre who followed her, Ophelia is seemingly a quiet bird whose fierce colours, although hidden somewhat behind a veil of necessary societal femininity, shine with a brilliant passion.
She also shows with this one piece of dialogue that she is highly educated, and well-versed biblically. Her passage refers back to Mathew 7: 13/14,
“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; because strait is the gate, and narrow the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
Her lines also, in some respect, refer back to classical Roman religion, focusing on the myth of the Choice of Hercules, who must choose between Virtue and Pleasure. He chooses the former. It is interesting how Ophelia, in this one passage, highlights her extensive education, her biblical understanding, her quick wit (to apply these to her brother), her observational ability and understanding of hypocrisy, and yet she is one of the only young people within the play to not be a “scholar”- to not study in France with her brother, or in Wittenberg with Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern- all because she is a woman.
It has often been suggested that Ophelia, as well as Gertrude, has no free agency of her own. Whereas Hamlet contemplates whether or not Calvinist notions of “total depravity”, “original sin” and predestination — the ideas that we as humans have no free will and that all we do is ordained by the sovereign power of God — even down to you lifting that mug of tea to your lips, or me glancing over at my Sherlock calendar — are true, Ophelia is seemingly stripped, as some argue, of all ability to put into motion or even into words her educated thoughts, or to dictate even the smallest actions of her life. But this isn’t entirely true, as can be seen after the death of her father.
Poor Polonius. One minuet he’s the useless, bumbling, foolish father who uses his daughter as bait to impress the king and spread rumours about his son’s bad behaviour to find out if he’s actually behaving badly (seriously), the next minute he’s been stabbed by Doctor Who. Yet, such is Ophelia’s devastation at the loss of her father and the loss of her lover (who also killed her father…#awks) that she apparently descends into madness herself.
Now, Ophelia’s madness is in itself up for debate. It could well be argued that like Hamlet, the only way she can truly express what she believes is to portray herself as mad. She may be ‘obfuscating insanity’, as Hamlet (possibly) does. But Ophelia, in her state of “delusion”, is able to use her intelligence and vengeance for the injustice committed which destroyed her lover’s mind and killed her father, and infuse these with her own particular style of femininity and sweetness which in some respects strikes more awe in audiences, certainly in me, than pity (sorry Aristotle).
She hands out flowers to her brother and to the King and Queen towards the end of Act 4. To her brother Laertes she gives rosemary, for “remembrance” and pansies “for thought”- clearly in related to their recently deceased father. Then, however, she proceeds to hand out fennel, columbines and rue. Each of these flowers were at the time symbolic of something, which Elizabethan audiences would have been highly aware of, and depending on who she gave each flower to, which Shakespeare does not specify (probably to leave her madness ambiguous), here we witness Ophelia’s final passage of justice, and judgement.
Fennel signified flattery, whilst columbine’s signified marital infidelity. If these were given to Queen Gertrude, what do you think Ophelia was trying to say? Gertrude and Claudius are examples of the new wave of English (even though the play is set in Denmark) aristocracy. Before the rise of the Tudors, power in Britain was decentralised. Dukes, Earls, Lords of smaller areas and counties, they weren’t under direct rule of the monarchy, and didn’t really have to listen to the King. They were their own source of power, and as a result the British aristocracy were fierce, unruly warlords. But with the new dawn of the Tudors and the Renaissance era power became increasingly centralised, and suddenly the way to power changed. The monarchy now had complete sovereignty over the entire state; it’s finances, weaponry etc. The new path to power was through flattery and political manipulation– to be a courtier, chivalric and doting. This created a crisis of identity within the aristocracy as gone were the days of the fierce and independent warlords of Britain, and in were the days of Machiavellian manipulation and courtly mannerisms. This is a crisis directly mapped onto the plot of Hamlet and it can be argued that Hamlet’s father, seen in his suits of armour cursing the “witchcraft” wit of his brother used to seduce and manipulate, is a representative of the old wave of aristocracy whilst Claudius is the new. Hamlet, as usual, is stuck in the middle.
But what does this have to do with the giving of fennel (assumedly to Gertrude)? Gertrude is at her best in front of an audience. A beautiful queen full of charm and grace, she is seen to flatter and enchant her guests through her use of language similar to her husbands. It is almost difficult to imagine her with her late husband seeing how well she fits with Claudius’s style of rule. So in offering her fennel and columbine, Ophelia is highlighting Gertrude’s use of linguistic manipulation, perhaps, to flatter and goad people into doing as she wishes and perhaps also sheds light upon Gertrude’s own desire to be desired- to be flattered and loved, hence the reason she married so soon again. This leads us on to columbine- the Queen herself is aware of how quickly she married Claudius- Ophelia may well share the view of Hamlet, in that Gertrude shares “incestuous sheets” with Claudius, and that a marriage so soon after the death of a spouse can only be seen as an act of infidelity. It also offers the audience another small nudge towards the suggestion- wait, was Gertrude in on the murder of her husband?
Next up, we have rue. Now, we can only assume that Ophelia presented rue to Claudius, because it supposedly signified repentance. If you’ve not read the play before, King Claudius did in fact murder his brother for the throne (it’s the Lion King. It is literally what the Lion King is based on), and when he tries to repent for his crimes he finds that he cannot. Ophelia’s offering of rue to Claudius is interesting, because she herself has no idea that Claudius killed the former king. Hamlet tells nobody of his encounter with his father’s ghost, and so Ophelia’s choosing of this flower for Claudius must be based upon her own scepticism about him- which, anyone listening to his perfectly balanced, subtle language and his reaction during the scene with the players, may well have guessed. The flower to the audience is ironic, because we know that Claudius has cannot repent. Rue to him is just another reminder of his damnation.
Finally, we have violets, which “withered all when my father died.” Violets traditionally symbolised faithfulness, and if her father was anything decent, he certainly was faithful, to the crown, the state of Denmark, and in a strange way to his children. But what is also interesting about the particular use of violets is that it refers back to a line from Act I, when her brother Laertes is warning her against Hamlet’s advances: “For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour, /Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood, /A violet in the youth of primy nature, Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,/ The perfume and suppliance of a minute.”
Now, this might seem like a seemingly tedious (and desperate) connection, but I’m a third-year English Literature student desperately attempting to put off thoughts about my dissertation and post-university life; I’m using this as much for procrastination as you are (did the summer hit you hard financially? Did you have to cancel netflix? Is that why you’re here?), but look at the use of the lexis by Shakespeare. “A violet in the youth of primy nature, not permanent, sweet, not lasting” here, a violet is used to describe young Hamlet, a vibrant flower in its prime, bursting and expanding its sexual and intellectual desires before settling into his position and rank of supremacy. When Ophelia refers to the violets dying with her father could she mean this young and vibrant Hamlet? This would make sense as Hamlet killed Polonius- perhaps that was the moment in her mind when the vibrant and glorious violet withered and died in her good opinion- the moment she lost her affectionate Renaissance prince forever to the claws of the very madness and corruption she has just placed her judgement upon, and perhaps also fallen victim too.
Or, could we use Laertes’ description of Hamlet’s sexual appetites as a dual description for the concept and virtue of faithfulness? It cannot move forward, and whilst it is sweet and inherently good, it cannot last, certainly not in Denmark- it’s almost as though nothing good can exist in Denmark- anything good is swallowed whole and spat out into the fires of purgatory, apparently. Is Shakespeare implying through Ophelia that faithfulness withers and dies because it cannot be sustained in a world as cruel, as harsh, as spiritually ambiguous and as corrupt as this? Does faithfulness live only in the ignorant and the hopeful, as Polonius seemed to be both, and dies with them? This would certainly fall in line with Hamlet’s way of thinking and the Calvinist notion of “original sin” and “total depravity”- that we are all too rotted by the sin of Adam and Eve to be faithful at all, and so it is merely a pretty, fleeting veil, laid down to hide the rotten core of a human heart beneath. Who knows? This is the beauty of Shakespeare.
There is so much more to be said for Ophelia- even the description of her death by Gertrude, which forever entombed her in the image of the Romantic and tragic heroine, immortalised in beauty, youth and heartache. But I think I’ll leave this one here as it is, just as food for thought.
I’ve got to say, the more I delve into Shakespeare, the more I love him.
(Also, I just want to give a quick shout-out to John Green for his amazing Crash Course series, which is where I learnt about the flower symbolism in Hamlet. If you’re studying classic literature, I strongly recommend giving them a watch!)