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Ophelia’s Position in Society in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare

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It is frightening to think that there was a point in time where nearly half the world’s population had societal positions little more than glorified slaves. Women have traditionally been forced into the role of the submissive, expected by society to live as the pure, demure housewife. This institutionalized oppression of women, one-half of the world’s population, has led to the greatest tragedy of all time: the loss of potential talent and opportunity to sexism and hurtful, unrealistic standards foisted upon women, How many Marie Curies, Michelle Obamas, Madonnas have never come to bear because they were too afraid, too beaten down by the patriarchal society that they lived in? Instead of being allowed to pursue dreams and success, women have been left to stagnate and are expected to obey, as if they are dogs expected to perform some funny trickr Throughout Hamlet, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, Ophelia’s sanity is portrayed to deteriorate with time, culminating with her implied suicide, in correlation to her increasing lack of autonomy that thwarts her free will.

The depictions of Ophelia‘s sanity reveal how the denial of female’s self-possession by society has drastic consequences for womankind, In modern times, it seems that it is guaranteed that one can love whom one wishes to love, especially with the focus on LGBT rights and acceptance that society is trending towards, Ophelia, on the other hand, was denied even the basic right to choose whom she would marry and love. After finding out that Ophelia has become romantically involved with Hamlet, her brother Laertes is quick to criticize and warn her against seeing Hamlet. The specific language that Laertes uses is insulting and demeaning towards Ophelia, reducing her to nothing more than “the perfume and suppliance of a minute” which implies that she isn’t worth anything more than a passing fancy for someone of true noble heritage such as Hamlet. Not only is this deeply offensive to Ophelia, but she is unable to respond or retaliate to Laertes‘ harsh words because of the expectation that she defer to men in any and all circumstances.

This deference is furthered when her father is brought to the scene and confronts Ophelia about her relationship with Hamlet just as Laertes had just done, Not only is this redundant conversation extremely irritating, but Polonius further demeans Ophelia, forcing her to admit that she doesn’t “know what to think,” Humiliation on her part is severe and one can feel the hot rage that would threaten to spill over in an angry tirade. But worst of all is that she must keep quiet. The only words that Ophelia manages to mutter out are that she “shall obey.” Ophelia has no outlet to relieve her stress or rebel against her father because she is totally dependent on Polonius for the basic commodities for living. One mustn‘t be thankful that their circumstances are better, but rather, one should wish that more terrible situations never had existed at all, while contemporary women are allowed to, for the most part, say and think what they want, women at the turn of the 17th century were not afforded such luxuries.

Ophelia, unable and disallowed from being able to take independent action, has never learned to stand up for herself. So when ordered by King Claudius and her father to speak with Hamlet so that the two men may spy on the newly insane Prince of Denmark, she defers yet again and obeys, betraying what love may have been between Hamlet and herself to her newly assumed duty as spy, Hamlet soon sees through the deception and beings to tears into Ophelia, ordering her to a “nunnery”, vernacular for a whorehouse. Hamlet’s baseless assertion is both offensive and deeply harmful to Ophelia‘s reputation as a lady of the court Ophelia however, cannot stand up for herself because were she to reject Hamlet’s statement, she would be forced to admit that she knows what a “nunnery” was, which would label her as a coarse and uncouth girlr Hamlet further says that if Ophelia were to marry, which he think is unlikely, another insulting comment on his part, that she would turn her husband into a horned “monster”, a colloquialism for the word cuckold.

This implication that she would be unfaithful to her future husband would be a serious one as Hamlet and Ophelia were romantically involved prior to his insanity, Hamlet may be implying that Ophelia is a slut and that she would not be fit to marry him or anyone else Hamlet ends his tirade with a rather small proclamation that “[he] loved [Ophelia] not” for the duration of their relationship. But Ophelia, humiliated and insulted, cannot do anything to Hamlet as he is a man and a royal, in her time period, Ophelia had no power, no real rights to dignity and self-empowerment. Today, a woman’s position in society is developed over the course of her life through hard work and toil Ophelia was born into a life of riches and wealth, but for all the money and status that comes with being close to the Danish Royal family, she cannot decide her own place in life. Her position was decided by her noble birth, she would be a flower to be plucked by some man chosen by her father. And so, flowers are constantly associated with Ophelia, Laertes in 13 uses a flower to describe her purity and virginity.

Using terrifying erotic imagery, Laertes describes a “canker” worm that would eat at and destroy a beautiful flower, frightening Ophelia from premarital sex It is ironic that Laertes insist on Ophelia’s virginity and while sexualizing her through his diction, but once again a male character has taken action against Ophelia and has sought to control her life through coercion. Later on in the play, Ophelia’s madness following the death of her father leads her to give flowers to the members of the Royal court, Factually the flowers rue and wormwood in particular which Ophelia gives to Gertrude were once used to induce miscarriages so as to abort unwanted children, This message passed through flower petals is enough to cement Ophelia’s status not only as a flower on the wall, but as a bearer of flowers, or symbol for all women in those times This comparison built through repeated scenes associating Ophelia with flowers is demeaning at best and harmful at worstr. A flower is superficially beautiful and fragrant but has no real value aside from its beauty, equating a woman to a flower ignores everything that makes them special and unique, reducing them to a sex icon of beauty that is to be taken at will by any man who so wishes.

Under constant pressure and erosive forces, even a mountain can turn to dust in the wind, A human, especially one who is placed in an emotionally turbulent situation such as Ophelia, can break much more easily than a mountain Following her father’s death, Ophelia turns to madness as a final way of coping with the strictures and tragedy of her life, there is no other way to deal with everything besides forgetting the world and retreating to a more basic, deranged stater Her death itself reflects the way that Ophelia was helpless against the forces of the world. Gertrude, describing the circumstances behind Ophelia’s death, says that Ophelia seemed to be “incapable of her own distress” and that she died without struggling, pulled under the water by “garments, heavy with their drink.” This mirrors Ophelia‘s situation, unable to fight against the garments, symbolic of patriarchal societal pressures that had been dragging her down her whole life.

Taking into account her passive nature, Ophelia‘s death shouldn’t have been ruled a suicide as she wouldn’t consciously choose to kill herself. Rather her passive nature won out and prevented her from struggling as the weight of the wet clothes pulled her into the river. Relatability perhaps is what makes Shakespeare so interesting to study and read and is what has made his plays survive so long after his passing. Out of all the characters and intricate plotlines of Hamlet, Ophelia‘s struggle against the patriarchy and her eventual failure against the societal forces working to keep her oppressed are directly relatable to the male-centered society of the present Perhaps not to the same degree as 18th century Denmark, the let century still has heavy elements of entrenched sexism and a general attitude that women should be told how to act rather than choose how to act. This philosophy that has become so far-reaching has devastating consequences for the women of today, leading to depression, unfulfillment, and general frustration Ophelia’s tragedy, sadly, is a woman‘s reality.

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Ophelia’s Position in Society in Hamlet, a Play by William Shakespeare. (2023, Mar 17). Retrieved from

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