Ophelia Drowning: Cleansing Herself of Social Roles
“Frailty, thy name is woman.” The 1948 movie adaptation of Hamlet stayed close to the text and gave good insight into the character of Ophelia. However, I disagree with the movie and text that frailty is always a feminine attribute. Ophelia is physically presented as a little girl with braids in the movie adaptation, going along with the presentations of many of her as a good little girl, always obedient to the will of the men in her life. In the case of Ophelia, I am arguing that she was not frail or weak; she was simply never allowed any control over her life except at the end when she ended it (Olivier).
“From the first, Ophelia’s psychic identity appears externally defined, socially constructed. Although every human psyche might be said, from a psychoanalytic perspective, to be constructed largely as a result of social interactions, Ophelia’s unique development has given her an especially permeable psyche (Dane 406).” Ophelia was motherless and completely controlled by the men around her. She had been shaped to conform to the desires of others. Her name derives from the Greek word for “help” or “greatest possible succor,” which is how men viewed her, a help to accomplish what they wanted. Ophelia has been described as “that piece of bait named Ophelia.” She was used, abused, and confused. Her father, lover, brother, and king were all manipulating her and sending her contradictory messages (Dane 406).
“Both brother and father smother Ophelia in an incestuous stranglehold, each the self-appointed tutor of her moral, intellectual, even psychological development (Dane 407).” When Ophelia begins to receive attentions form the Prince, both her father and brother become alarmed. Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship cannot possibly result in marriage, so they know the only result of the courtship would be disgrace. The two men feel that Hamlet’s intentions are dishonorable. And if Ophelia were to become pregnant, she would be ruined. Laertes and Polonius know that a Prince is a persuasive suitor who may well be able to lead the virtuous woman in their family to go astray (Jenkins 209). To Laertes, Ophelia is a chaste woman, and he sees it as his responsibility to protect her from the clutches of men. He decides to teach his sister about dreaded male advances, “Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister (Shakespeare 1.3.33).” Ophelia answers her brother’s arguments about Hamlet’s intentions with questions (1.3.4-10). Her questions open a protective space in which her thoughts remain private. Laertes continues to give her instruction to stay away from Hamlet. She never says that she will listen, but we know that she will obey her brother when it comes to her relationship with Hamlet. However, her brother cannot change her thoughts and feelings for the Prince (Finkelstein 6-7).Shakespeare’s plays often play more to father-daughter tensions than those between brother and sister. Polonius is overly involved with his daughter’s love life, not only because he desires to advance politically, but also in the need to identify himself as a father. In Polonius’s mind, he unites him and his daughter as one, saying “think yourself a baby (1.3.1056)”. Polonius is attached to his daughter for his own gain; he shows no investment in Ophelia as a daughter, but only as an asset (Finkelstein 7). When Ophelia’s father tells her not to spend time with Hamlet or to think of Hamlet, she simply listens to her father and obliges to follow his command. This is only because her father does not give her a chance to choose. Right after getting the command, she goes off and begins to think upon the wonderful Hamlet who has written her a love note, but her dad immediately appears and tells her to stop (Olivier). He warns her that if she should act for herself, she will “tender [him] a fool” (1.3.109). After keeping her from the Prince for days, he submits her to him, in order to prove his loyalty to the new king (3.1.4). After Ophelia has been verbally and very likely physically assaulted by Hamlet through Polonius’s little love test, the king and councilor speak for seventeen lines before Polonius remembers to notice his daughter. They then leave the room, offering no help to the hurt Ophelia. To Polonius, his daughter, his lure, has served her purpose and is of no further use to him (3.2.109). Wholly unconcerned with Ophelia’s needs, Polonius manipulates both her mind and her body to gratify his love of power. Ophelia’s brother and father retard Ophelia’s psychic growth through their harsh usage of her, stifling her personal development to satisfy their own life (Dane 408).
Ophelia’s lover also disregards her needs for his own. Hamlet visits Ophelia. He is obviously flustered. Hamlet grabs Ophelia and holds her hard, but then he holds her at arm’s length. Hamlet attacks her emotions for him, sending her mixed messages of his own love. He tells her that he has never loved her. Any person who was so emotionally tossed around by men her whole life would certainly have issues with her own feelings. He figures that Ophelia has been acting autonomously which he believes is wrong after the actions of his mother; in result, he becomes violently abusive toward her. Ironically, she had been acting completing obediently to the will of men; the very thing that Hamlet wanted.
People rely on their family and friends as a constant for them of love and support. Instead, Ophelia’s father tells Hamlet’s parents that Hamlet is mad and shows Hamlet’s love letter for Ophelia. They concoct a plan to show Hamlet at his worst, displaying his contrast of feelings for Ophelia, giving no consideration to the effect this will have on Ophelia. She returns a favor he gave her. Hamlet then begins to say that he loved her once, but that she should not have believed him. He commands her to go to a nunnery, comparing her to a whore. The way Hamlet talks to her is violent and commanding. He pushes Ophelia roughly, says that there should be no more marriages, and leaves her crying on the floor after kissing her hand. Then Hamlet’s uncle and Ophelia’s dad appear from behind the curtain. Not even caring about her feelings, they go on with their plans to destroy Hamlet. The end of part one has Ophelia lying on the stairs, looking up into the distance while sobbing. Her father and the man that claimed to love her both hurt her in this scene and neither offers her any form of comfort. For Ophelia, there is no support system which would suggest a result of low self-worth (Olivier).
“Indeed with her identity constructed always in reference to another, Ophelia is, in essence, nothing, an empty cipher patiently waiting to be infused with whatever meaning the particular mathematician should require. Lacking personal ego boundaries of her own, Ophelia seems compelled to absorb whatever psychic identity is thrust upon her (Dane 410-411).” Ophelia does not know how to think for herself, because she has never been allowed this great privilege. Male voices fill her head, guiding her every thought. With her brother in France, and her lover suddenly banished to England for the murder of her father, the voices stop. “Confronted with such a thunderous silence, Ophelia becomes mad (Dane 411).”
Ophelia begins to ramble, a sign that she no longer knows what to say without her father’s guidance. The mad songs that Ophelia begins to sing reflect on all the major issues of the play. Each “fragment of a popular ballad (4.5.23-40)” contains numerous levels of accusation and mourning, along with protest and longing (Dane 414). The first song mourns for her father and accuses of a hasty burial, indicts Gertrude for no distinguishing between lovers, and the longing for her banished love, Hamlet (Dane 414-415). Ophelia is enacting a funeral- but not simply in her father’s honor- with her lamentation, accompanied by her distribution of flowers (Dane 417). Ophelia gives the appropriate flowers to each party. To Laertes, she gives rosemary and pansies which signify remembrance and thoughts, because she wants to be remembered by him. Gertrude receives fennel and columbines which represent marital infidelity. Ophelia gives King Claudius rue and a daisy, which stand for repentance and a love doomed to be unhappy. This makes it appear that she was staging an elaborate elegy in honor of the whole company. Dane quotes Cherrell Guilfoyle, who suggests that these flowers were funeral flowers to be handed to those who would shortly die- the King, the Queen, Laertes, and herself (Dane 417).
Dane asks the question that although Ophelia found a way in which to express her frustrations and protest against the community’s wrongdoings, has Ophelia really found “an autonomous voice, a discrete self?” Even though Ophelia’s not-so-random ramblings express how Ophelia feels, Ophelia is still speaking in quotation. Her voice is still fragmented through the words of others. Her father, brother, and lover may no longer tell her exactly how to think, speak, and act, but Ophelia is now speaking through ordinary but disjointed speech comprised of popular ballads, traditional legends, routine pieties, even familiar expressions of greeting and farewell (Dane 419).
Ophelia’s final mad scene, when she disperses funeral flowers to the company, may be seen as a determined farewell. Rue was the flower that Ophelia presented to herself. This flower signifies repentance, which seems appropriate for a woman contemplating her own death. Through this interaction with those who should care about her, you can see her trying to make that final connection that those close to suicide tend to make, remember me. Even that last cry for help does not solicit a reaction from those she reaches out to.
Ophelia does not know how to speak for herself through her own thoughts. By losing her father’s iron-clad guidance, Ophelia has lost part of her identity. She no longer knows how to function. I imagine this would be a lot like having someone guide you through a place that is dark and unfamiliar to you, for them only to leave you at the most difficult part of the journey. The fear or the unknown is terrifying. A fear of identity theft through the use of the vast Internet is frightening to many people. For the most part, the Internet is a guide, a useful tool, but we are becoming reliant on this technology to the point that we will often rather turn to the Internet for an automatic answer rather than take the time to contemplate the question in our own mind. The Internet, like Polonius (who should have been a good father and a good guide), can turn on you. Many people use the Internet as a weapon to hurt others and steal identities. How lost would each of us be if our information was stolen on the Internet? Would you ever be able to trust another source of information again? These examples of fear are comparable to how Ophelia would have felt to lose her sources of guidance. Ophelia, however, did not know how to function without this guidance. Instead, she chooses to end her life.
Ophelia’s drowning was an act of partial self-awareness. The question then must be asked if her death was a deliberate act, a suicide. In Hamlet, the gravedigger says if the water comes to the man, “he drowns not himself.” But if the “man go to this water”…? The gravedigger concludes that it is quite simple: “He that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life (5.1.15-20).” The accounts from Gertrude and the gravedigger leave room for interpretation. The most that Shakespeare gave in his words of Ophelia’s purpose was her unwillingness to resist succumbing to a watery grave (Dane 422).”
Dane and I suggest that in the reflection of the water, Ophelia finally recognizes who she is and decides to merge with it. After struggling with her first experience to express her feelings, Ophelia emerges to make her first autonomous choice (Dane 423). “Ophelia decides that in order authentically “to be” she must choose “not to be (Dane 423).”” As Ophelia floats down the river, she begins to sing, and then she drowns. Singing is a source of comfort. Ophelia uses this to allow her to follow through with the decision she has made (Olivier).
Dane says, “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 (Dane 423).” Ophelia decides to commit suicide in order to release herself from the power and manipulation that the men in her life had over her. Ophelia’s dressing in white symbolizes her innocence and her desire to be cleansed. Faith is also usually represented by the color of white, so her white dress can be her hope for a better situation through her death.
Ophelia was not frail, but she was pushed to the point where only her frail persona remained. She could no longer keep up the façade to keep everyone happy but herself. Ophelia chose to allow herself to escape the bonds of social roles. She could no longer let herself be the obedient daughter and young woman who did everything she was told. Ophelia could make this one choice without experiencing any social consequences. The sense of resulting freedom from the choice she was about to make allowed Ophelia the power to follow through with her own first true decision. She cleansed herself from the power her world had over her by choosing not to be (Olivier).
Works CitedDane, Gabrielle. “Reading Ophelia’s Madness.” Exemplaria 10 (1998): 405-23.
Finkelstein, Richard. “Differentiating Hamlet: Ophelia and the Problems of
Subjectivity.” Renaissance and Reformation 21.2 (Spring 1997): 5-22.Jenkins, Ronald Bradford. “The Case Against the King: The Family of Ophelia vs. His Majesty
King Claudius of Denmark.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 17.3-4 (Aug. 1996): 206-18.
Hamlet. Dir. Olivier, Laurence Kerr. Prod. Laurence Kerr Olivier. Perf. Laurence Kerr Olivier, et al. Film. Two Cities Film, 1948. February 18, 2012 <http://ativ.alexanderstreet.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/view/657516>.
William Shakespeare 1564-1616. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A Mowat, Paul Werstine, and Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Washington Square Press, 2004, c1992. Print. Hamlet .