Gender and Identity in Hamlet: A Modern Interpretation of Ophelia
by Heather Brown
In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf addresses the topic "Women and Fiction," offering her own reading of history from a woman's perspective by emphasizing women's lack of tradition in a historically male-dominated society. Woolf's essay sets up a juxtaposition between males and females which is particularly helpful in framing the reader's understanding of relationships in literature prior to Woolf's time. Woolf's modern reading of history allows the reader to interpret Shakespeare's Ophelia not as a source of admiration for her assertion of identity but, rather, as a source of sympathy for her loss of identity after the removal of male dominance.
Through her essay, Woolf attempts to account for the effect of the past upon female writers as well as female fictional characters, concluding that the woman's position in history-- seen only in relation to men--is problematic because of the hierarchy implicit in the relationship. She begins preparing her essay by "[...] thinking of the safety and prosperity of the one sex and of the poverty and insecurity of the other and of the effect of tradition and of the lack of tradition upon the mind of a writer [...]" (Woolf 24). Woolf cites what will become a key distinction between the two sexes in her reading of history: the males are living in "safety and prosperity," whereas the females are basically without a tradition to draw upon, leaving them unconfident and confused amongst a history pervaded by male figures. Having no examples to follow to become heroic or artistic--to leave their distinctive mark upon history--women instead become submissive and are shaped explicitly by their relationship with males.
Shakespeare's characterization of Ophelia in Hamlet illustrates the consequences that an extreme lack of female tradition has upon a woman. In "Reading Ophelia's Madness," Gabrielle Dane writes, "Motherless and completely circumscribed by the men around her, Ophelia has been shaped to conform to external demands, to reflect others' desires" (406). In congruence with Woolf's theory, Ophelia suffers from a lack of female tradition--not only from the absence of women in history but also from the absence of any reliable female influence in her life, that which would traditionally be fulfilled by her mother. The unexplained absence of Ophelia's mother leaves her father, Polonius, in the most influential role.
According to Woolf, the relationship between Ophelia and her father creates problems on many levels, the first of which rests on Ophelia's inability as a woman to directly relate to a male role model. Speaking of the literary tradition, Woolf says, "[...Male writers] never helped a woman yet, though she may have learned a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use. The weight, the pace, the stride of a man's mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully" (76). Woolf recognizes a critical difference between the sexes which, I believe, applies as well to parental influence as it does to literary influence. Woolf's language suggests the pressing nature of a man's hierarchal relationship over a woman: his "weight" is too unfamiliar to her femininity for her to be able to "lift" a benefit from his example. Ophelia possesses no identity of her own because Polonius attempts to fashion "the weight, the pace, the stride" of himself upon her. He believes his needs are her needs and, knowing no significant influence apart from Polonius and her brother, Laertes, Ophelia loses her identity as a woman by allowing herself to be molded by men.
At Ophelia's entrance into Hamlet, Laertes accompanies Ophelia and advises her on her relationship with Hamlet. From the outset, Laertes and Polonius treat Ophelia's private matters as if they were issues of familial importance; both men take upon themselves the role of explicitly telling Ophelia how she should behave. "For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,/ Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,/ [...] The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more," instructs Laertes to his sister (1.3.6-10). His speech surpasses advice by telling Ophelia how to act rather than suggesting.
In Laertes' absence, Polonius continues the attempt to fashion Ophelia's relationship with Hamlet to his own liking, saying, "You do not understand yourself so clearly/ As it behooves my daughter and your honour" (1.3.105-6). Polonius insults Ophelia's ability to comprehend the situation, but, more importantly, his diction reveals his sense of possession and his concern for social appearances to serve his own interests. Although he is speaking to Ophelia, he refers to her as "my daughter," claiming ownership and dominance over her. The words "behoove" and "honour" suggest that Polonius' primary concern is that Ophelia act according to the proper societal standards, keeping up the appropriate appearance because her behavior reflects back on him as a public official and as her father.
Woolf describes a hierarchy between men and women in A Room of One's Own which sheds light on Polonius' relationship with Ophelia in Hamlet as a source of power for Polonius, further diminishing Ophelia's position to that of a mere foil to male characters in the novel. "More than anything, perhaps, [...life] calls for confidence in oneself. [...] And how can we generate the imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one has some innate superiority [...] over other people" (Woolf 35). In Woolf's view, members of the male sex generally feel that they have an "innate superiority" over women. This hierarchy, then, necessitates the presence of submissive female characters in order for males to sustain positions of power in any capacity.
Shakespeare configures Ophelia as inferior to male characters, particularly to Polonius and Laertes. Ophelia depends so entirely upon this relationship to male characters that beyond it she cannot think nor act for herself--in effect, she does not have an identity. "I do not know, my lord, what I should think," Ophelia tells her father during their first conversation about Hamlet. Polonius responds from a position of authority over Ophelia, asserting his power as the decision-maker between the two of them:
Again, Polonius protects his own interests rather than Ophelia's: she should "tender [her]self more dearly" or else she'll "tender [him] a fool." The language, once more, suggests Polonius' possession of Ophelia, for he speaks of her in terms of monetary value, "tender."
Later, formulating his plan to show Claudius Hamlet's love for Ophelia and consequent madness, Polonius says, "At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:/ Be you and I behind an arras then;/ Mark the encounter [...]" (2.2.176-178). Polonius plans to "loose" Ophelia as if she were an animal rather than his daughter. Polonius molds Ophelia's identity to fit his own needs, taking advantage of her relationship with Hamlet to improve his own relationship with Claudius. While the males of Hamlet practice their authority by "teach[ing]" Ophelia how to behave, Ophelia loses any identity she might have had as a woman and literally becomes a pawn to the men. She "do[es] not know" how to act autonomously and therefore depends upon her father to instruct her and submits entirely to his will.
In A Room of One's Own, Woolf creates a metaphor likening women to mirrors that further assists the reader in interpreting Ophelia's character as a source of sympathy for her lack of identity. Woolf continues her modern reading of history by suggesting that male historical figures could not have reached their status without their relationships to females:
Woolf's interpretation of history provides a helpful context for understanding Ophelia's character as a "mirror" that serves a critical importance by "reflecting" men. Ophelia's identity essentially rests upon this relationship. Aside from the male characters using Ophelia as a "looking glass"--casting their reflection upon her, showing themselves and the audience their power over her--Ophelia serves no purpose in the play. She is Polonius' pawn, Laertes' chaste sister, and Hamlet's lover. Once these male influences are removed and these descriptions no longer define Ophelia, she loses her identity and becomes mad. Laertes has gone to France, Polonius has been killed and Hamlet has rejected Ophelia, saying "[...] I loved you not./ [...] Get thee to a nunnery" (3.1.129-31). What can the mirror become when it has nothing to reflect?
As Dane argues, "Madness releases Ophelia from the enforced repressions of obedience, chastity, patience, liberates her from the prescribed roles of daughter, sister, lover, subject" (412). However, Ophelia's madness cannot be interpreted as a "release" or a final assertion of Ophelia's individuality but, rather, enhances the reader's sympathy towards Ophelia as a character without any ultimate identity. For even in madness, Ophelia remains fixated on the males who shaped her identity. "He is dead and gone, lady,/ He is dead and gone;/ At his head a grass-green turf,/ At his heels a stone," sings Ophelia, lamenting her father's death (4.5.34-7). "I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I/ cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him/ i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it" (4.5.73-5). Far from breaking free of her "prescribed roles," Ophelia becomes preoccupied with them, speaking of little else than her deceased father.
With no identity to draw upon from the past other than her role as a puppet to males, Ophelia's identity disappears along with the disappearance of male dominance. She does not assert herself as a last-minute feminist hero of the play; instead, Ophelia represents the opposite, demonstrating the consequences of allowing herself to be entirely defined by others as she is unable to recognize herself as an independent human being in their absence. As Carol Thomas Neely writes of Ophelia in "'Documents in Madness': Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture," "The context of her disease, like that of hysteria later, is sexual frustration, social helplessness, and enforced control over women's bodies. [...] The representation of Ophelia implicitly introduces conventions for reading madness as gender-inflicted" (Neely 334). Thus, Ophelia's gender does not "liberate" her as Dane argued but, rather, causes her decline into madness as she is characterized as a "helpless" and "control[led]" woman who has lost even this identity.
Ophelia's death by water can be interpreted, like her madness, as an admirable assertion of identity. Dane argues that Ophelia's death is her "first autonomous choice. [...] While the notion that suicide becomes the only possible route to autonomy for this woman is undeniably tragic, Ophelia's choice might be seen as the only courageous--indeed rational--death in Shakespeare's bloody drama" (423). Ophelia's drowning is one of the most ambiguous actions in the novel, for it occurs offstage and is only related to the audience by Gertrude, who herself did not witness the death. Thus, Shakespeare leaves interpretation to the reader. Although it is possible that Ophelia recognized herself as an individual identity at the end of the play and consciously killed herself to affirm this identity, I argue that this reading is unlikely once Ophelia's position throughout the novel is considered. Ophelia's extreme distraction and mourning over her father's death culminates in her drowning, whether or not she committed suicide, allowing the reader to feel pity for her lack of autonomous will rather than admiration for her freedom.
In "Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition," Kaara Peterson writes, "[...] Shakespeare intends to leave the circumstances of Ophelia's death--suicide or accident--inconclusive: he gives Gertrude this less than typical messenger performance (her only extended monologue in the play) and then provides for its immediate discrediting by the gravediggers. [...] There is an epistemological gap in the text that cannot be filled in" (Peterson 257). The freedom of interpretation that is left not only to the reader but also to the remaining characters of Hamlet is problematic, for each character reads Ophelia in a different way. Even in her death, the characters of Hamlet--all but Ophelia--mold Ophelia's identity.
To the end of the play, the deceased Ophelia serves as a foil to male characters, a catalyst to the actions of the men and a "mirror" to reflect those actions to the audience in a more heroic light. Neely interprets Ophelia's ultimate role in the play as a juxtaposition to Hamlet, saying, "By acting out the madness Hamlet feigns and the suicide that he theorizes, the representation of Ophelia absorbs pathological excesses open to Hamlet and enables his reappearance as a sane, autonomous individual and a tragic hero in the last act" (334). Thus, Shakespeare needs Ophelia's "pathological" presence in order to allow Hamlet to escape this characterization for himself. In juxtaposition to Ophelia's madness, the audience recognizes Hamlet as "sane" and a "tragic hero." Ophelia's death, in contrast, is tragic but not heroic, for while Hamlet learns more about himself as the play progresses and ultimately fulfills his role as avenger, Ophelia declines as a character, becoming more and more of a puppet for Polonius and ultimately falling when Polonius no longer controls her strings.
The final act of the play, presenting Ophelia's funeral and the subsequent duel between Hamlet and Laertes, epitomizes Woolf's claim that women "are essential to all violent and heroic action" (36). The men do not use Ophelia's funeral to honor her memory; rather, the funeral enlarges the competition between Hamlet and Laertes. "I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers/Could not, with all their quantity of love,/ Make up my sum," claims Hamlet (5.1.285-7). Hamlet sets himself in opposition to Laertes, challenging him to compete on the basis of love for Ophelia. "What wilt thou do for her?/ [...]Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?/ I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?/ To outface me with leaping in her grave?" (5.1.287-95). The remainder of the plot consists of Hamlet and Laertes attempting to "outface" each other. Ophelia becomes the medium that instigates these men to act, pushing the plot of Hamlet forward with its "violent and heroic action."
Woolf's A Room of One's Own recognizes the problematic consequences of a male-dominated history where women have served only as "mirrors" or as juxtapositions to superior men. "It would be ambitious beyond my daring [...] to suggest to the students of those famous colleges that they should re-write history, though I own that it often seems a little queer as it is, unreal, lopsided; but why should they not add a supplement to history? Calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety?" (Woolf 45). Woolf's essay encourages modern interpretations of the past so that women such as Ophelia might be better understood as lacking female tradition to draw upon and thus inclined to possess no identity other than that which is fashioned upon them by more dominant characters. By interpreting Ophelia according to Woolf's theories, the reader recognizes Ophelia as a tragic figure whose identity was lost when male forces no longer directed her actions.
Dane, Gabrielle. "Reading Ophelia's Madness." Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 10 (1998): 405-23.
Neely, Carol Thomas. "'Documents in Madness': Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare's Tragedies and Early Modern Culture." Shakespearean Criticism 19 (1991): 330-39.
Peterson, Kaara. "Framing Ophelia: Representation and the Pictorial Tradition." Shakespearean Criticism 48 (1998): 255-62.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Washington Square Press: New York, 1992.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Harcourt, Inc.: San Diego, 1989.
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