In Defense of Ophelia

In my English Literature class, we are studying Hamlet, and while we’re pretty slow in reading it (we’re still in Act 2 Scene 2) I already have the basic gist of the play. For example Hamlet, obviously being the titular character and protagonist, is the tragic hero. Therefore, it is inevitable that he will die. Also, even just two acts into the play, we’ve already encountered a handful of familiar quotes and phrases, showing how popular this play really is. It has been quoted many times (sometimes misquoted *wink*), and it really is a humbling feeling to be able to study something that has affected society in this way. To quote your work is probably the greatest compliment an author — or this case playwright — can ever get.

Bravo, Shakespeare!

There are so many themes going on in Hamlet, but for this time I’m going to focus on Ophelia. Having not read the entire play yet, I only have a vague idea on what’s going to happen to her (insanity? death?). However, I get this feeling — a vibe, if you will — that most people see her in a bad light. Just because she did as she was told doesn’t mean she’s weak. If anything, I think it’s remarkable that she can see beyond what she wants and understand that doing as she was told is the right thing to do. (This, of course, is debatable.)

Anyway, the following is an essay I began to write during class and finished during Private Study. This is purely my view on things, just to warn you. ^__^

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set around the 16th century, and given the role of women in that time, Ophelia’s behaviour during the play is understandable. No matter what modern audiences might say about her, her obedience to men and her apparent lack of will, it could all be explained by the play’s setting.

In Act 1 Scene 3, practically everything in that scene is about Ophelia’s relationship with Prince Hamlet. Her brother Laertes and father Polonius both warn her about keeping her virginity, acting like a lady and more or less disagreeing with her relations with the prince. Polonius even went as far as advising his daughter to rebuff the prince’s affections, given his high status and the very unlikely plausibility of an actual marriage coming from it.

Ophelia, ever the obedient daughter, did as she was told and refused to reply to Hamlet’s love letters. This shows her respect for her father, taking his advice at heart and actually trusting him.

Although it can be argued that if she really did love Hamlet, then she would have written to him anyway. Juliet, for example, went against her parent’s wishes to marry Paris and instead wedded Romeo. But look at what happened to her: death from suicide. Common sense will then admit that following her father’s advice, Ophelia is looking out for her own good. She trusts her father to know what is in her best interest and, while this decision might sadden her, it would all be better in the end.

Another point against Ophelia is her apparent lack of will. The latter half of Act 2 Scene 1 shows her conversing with Polonius, telling him what just occurred. Instead of going straight to Hamlet and talk to him about his confusing behaviour and his wild apparel, Ophelia told her father basically asking him what to do. Now, you can’t argue her by going to the person she trusts to ask for advice.

Also bear in mind that directly meeting with Hamlet could be seen as rude, his princely status could attest to that. It could also be argued that the effect of Hamlet’s behaviour could have frightened Ophelia so much that she is scared for her well-being, kind of like a ‘fight or flight’ situation. Hamlet is physically stronger, and judging from his behaviour he is clearly not in charge of his faculties.

Yes, Ophelia is seen to be dependent on her male family members, but in Act 1 Scene 3 she returned her brother’s warnings with a witty remark:

“…Do not as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine

Himself the primrose path of dalliance reads,

And recks not his own rede.”

Ophelia is intelligent. She has a backbone, and is not a mindless ninny. While not the role model for feminism, I hope this post explains and clarifies how strong she is. She has the potential to be a strong, modern woman, but the influence of her time and the social conventions of then hinders her.



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