It came to my attention while sitting in an English lecture on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which my lecturers dove into Hamlet’s existentialism and quest for revenge, that this play was being approached from a rather narrow perspective, focusing more on the exploits of the male tragic hero, and paying little attention to the other victims of the corruption within Denmark, particularly the tragedy of poor Ophelia. As critic Elaine Showalter pointed out, ‘her tragedy is subordinated to that of Hamlet.’ Overlooked by critics throughout time, I believe Ophelia has not been done justice, and hers is a story which should be shared and explored.
Constantly overpowered by her masculine figures, Ophelia suffers more than anyone. She loses her love, her father and eventually her mind. The great tragedy of her life is not, in fact, her premature death, but the treatment she received in life, used as both a sexual and a political pawn, by which the men enact their evil manipulations. She is a victim of physical as well as emotional abuse, from both her overbearing father and her former lover, Hamlet.
Even in death, she is treated as a pretty girl, only good for her looks rather than a kind, gentle being, with any intelligence or an ability to speak of her own accord. Gertrude’s description of her tragic drowning in a lake presents her the pinnacle of femininity and tragic beauty, overly romanticizing her. This is an image immortalized through time, for example through the infamous 1881 painting by Millais of the young girl submerged in a lake, clothed in a billowing white gown and adorned by delicate flowers. This is a clear example of Ophelia’s representation as a weak, feminine character with no real sense of agency.
It was not until more recently that critics have begun looking at her in a new light, and have realized it is perhaps time to reframe our perspective on this female heroine. For example, in Lisa Fiedler’s 2002 ‘Dating Hamlet’, a retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, from Ophelia’s perspective, she is presented as the headstrong heroine. She was in fact a key component of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. She was not only a pawn, but a kind-hearted girl, so desperate to be loved that she holds on to her affection for Hamlet and her belief that he loved her once, despite his jilting her and his misogynistic outbursts towards her. Ophelia deserves more credit than she is afforded, for being a driving force in the play. Her relationship with Hamlet is key in revealing his warped view of women, and her spiral into madness parallels Hamlet’s own. We see Ophelia’s agency coming through at the end of the play especially, when, in her madness, she is finally able to speak her mind, voicing her grief over her father’s death and her anger towards Hamlet. Through her death, a case of suicide, she breaks from the Elizabethan construct of society, in which suicide was considered a mortal sin.
It is important for us to reflect on the great tragedy of Ophelia’s life, as she is a symbol of femininity and the position of women in Elizabethan England, displaying the outdated perception of women as weak and easily manipulated by men.
Featured image: Averie Woodard via Unsplash