57. Women’s’ Rights: A Chronicle of Ophelia’s Fall into Madness

Author: Katarina Williams, First Year

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia represents the stereotypical innocent female “victim” who allows societal male influences to affect her immensely. Although Ophelia seems like a powerless female, through this character the play expresses a feminist perspective. Her plight demonstrates the troubles women face when surrounded by controlling males. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, exhibiting a feminist approach, chronicles an oppressed Ophelia in a male dominated society as she slips into madness and ultimately takes her own life.
Ophelia’s relationships with her father and brother reveal her docile nature and dependence on the males in her life who primarily orchestrate her behavior. Laertes, her brother, commands her to stay away from Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Laertes, in a controlling manner, tells Ophelia to “Think it no more” (I.iii.10), regarding her opinion of Hamlet.  Laertes comes to a verdict for Ophelia: stay away from Hamlet and guard her virginity. Not only does these indicate Laertes’s overbearing brotherly tactics to scare his sister away, but confirms Laertes dominant role in her life. Whether or not Ophelia feels a certain way about Hamlet, Laertes dictates her opinion and interaction with Hamlet. However, Laertes is not the only dominant male role in her life. Her father, Polonius, is just as controlling.  When Ophelia speaks to her father, she expresses an uncertainty concerning her notions or affection towards Prince Hamlet. She communicates, “I do not know, my lord, what I shall think” (I.iii.104). Ophelia is totally submissive, she essentially tells her father to think on her behalf. Ophelia seems to have no power in her choice of lover. The father-daughter dialogue exhibits Ophelia’s dutiful weakness: she voluntarily adheres to the commands of her domineering father. Another indication of male dominance over Ophelia is her choice of language. Ophelia refers to her father as, “My Lord.” Not only does this reference show Ophelia’s inferior role in their relationship, but also it uncovers possible fears she may possess. Overall, the interactions with Ophelia and the males in her family predispose her towards a path of self-destruction. 
At this moment, Ophelia teeters between two directions. She wants to follow her father’s instructions and heed her brother’s advice; however, she also truly wants to believe that Hamlet loves her. The clear beginning to Ophelia’s fall into madness happens when Hamlet dramatically rejects her. He utilizes harsh and powerful language that would drive most women into insanity. For example, he repeatedly cries to her, “Get thee to a nunn’ry, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners” (III.i.120-121) essentially breaking her heart.  Even though Hamlet genuinely loves Ophelia, he does what is best for him. Therefore, he tells her to go to a nunnery so the world cannot touch her. However, Ophelia might as well go to a brothel because according to Hamlet she deserves the classification of a whore.  Hamlet thinks he is doing the right thing by pushing Ophelia away, yet he ends up hurting her even more. Ophelia fails to understand any of Hamlet’s motives; as a result, Hamlet breaks her heart.  This event of tortured love is not the official trigger to Ophelia’s madness; it mainly escalates into a path of her confusion and destruction.
The death of Ophelia’s beloved father, Polonius, pushes her directly to the fall into insanity. When Ophelia is told about her father’s death, she goes crazy and throws flowers: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts” (VI.v.174-175). The act of her throwing the flowers signifies her emotional rape.  Just as she violently throws the flowers so the men in her life slash away or wrestle with her rights as a human being. By losing her father, she loses her last vestiges of sanity. Moreover, Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death indicates how she allows the actions of men to control her life. Although Hamlet conveys this submissive attribute of women, it makes the struggle that women have in this patriarchal society apparent, thus confirming a feminist approach. Additionally, Shakespeare could have excluded women, not showing the hardships they faced.
Ophelia’s inability to cope without her father coupled with Hamlet’s rejection of her predominantly causes her to take her own life. Although she drowns herself, she receives a Christian burial. Most often, people who kill themselves are not given a funeral, because suicide is seen as an immoral way to die.  However, because the play honors Ophelia’s death as a Christian burial, the play implies that the men in her life possibly “killed her,” or instigates her self-destructive drive.  At the scene of her death, the Gravediggers question the appropriateness of the burial: “Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation” (V.i.1-2). While the debate between the two grave diggers seems insignificant, this dialogue strongly suggests that despite her intentions to take her life, she is murdered by a male dominated society. Moreover, this is a feminist approach because she was given a Christian burial, indicating that the men in her life killed her. It is implied that Hamlet’s sexual cruelty and her family’s controlling ways compel her into a rebellion of her own: death. She is not necessarily setting herself free from madness, but through death she liberates herself from the misery of men’s controlling nature. After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet and Laertes fight over her—treating her like an object, with the ability to be possessed. Hence, even when she is dead men treat her as solely an object of ownership.
The treatment of Ophelia, seen through Hamlet, demonstrates the pressures of women in a male dominated society. Even though Ophelia takes her own life, she is murdered by the male influenced society, thus, giving the play a feminist perspective.  It is only through her death that she finds refuge and where she is able to show mercy. Her plight is no different from countless others that have suffered through courts where powerful men have ruled. Women throughout history, especially in influential courts, are required to adhere to their male figures. Queen Elizabeth was harassed for years to find a husband because no one believed she was capable of ruling without a man. It even exists in modern day versions of court life such as courtrooms and boardrooms.  Women are still in competition with men for equal rights and equal say.  Men are still paid more, promoted more easily, and the Boys’ Club still exists, making it difficult for women to compete equally for the same jobs and the same recognition.

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