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1, 685 Words AS Level Katie Matthews How does Shakespeare present Ophelia in the world of 'Hamlet'? In what ways have modern readers and audiences interpreted her character? Even though Ophelia is not the central character in the play 'Hamlet', she is still an important one. Since Shakespeare wrote the play in the early 1600 s, depending on the theatrical performances and director's view, audience's and critics' interpretations of Ophelia have changed dramatically throughout the past 400 years. Shakespeare, in the portrayal of Ophelia shows how men in a strong patriarchal society controlled women in the 1600 s. The influence of men in Ophelia's life is evident throughout by the relationships with the men in her life. It is interesting to note that Ophelia's first scene is in a very domestic setting. Her brother, Laertes is stressing to Ophelia the fickleness of young love showing men's attitudes towards women in the period by assuming that Ophelia cannot think for herself.
Ophelia is obviously uncertain or doubtful about Laertes' argument but she is still in awe of him so she answers monosyllabically: 'No more but so?' She has a small ration of dialogue compared to Laertes's grand lecture suggesting the overpowering control that he has over his sister. Laertes speaks in a very verbose manner and even begins to sound arrogant and hypocritical. Ophelia's father, Polonius enters saying 'Yet here Laertes? Aboard, aboard for shame!' It has been suggested by Elaine Showalter, a feminist critic that Polonius was willing to let his son leave for France without a farewell or wishes of good luck from his father. Therefore, she says there was little hope for a strong father- daughter relationship between Polonius and Ophelia if he had failed with Laertes. Polonius disabuses her of her longing for a relationship with Hamlet and tells here that 'You do not understand yourself so clearly/ as behoves my daughter and your honour' Rather than sympathizing with Ophelia, Polonius almost ridicules her by saying she not only does not understand her duty as a woman but she does not understand herself.
Eventually Ophelia agrees and disregards her own thoughts, Ophelia-'I don't know, my lord, what I should think.' Polonius- 'think yourself a baby' Public image was very important during the Jacobean period as it depicted social status. It is evident when Laertes warns Ophelia not to have sex with Hamlet, that his fear is the family may suffer a financial loss as they would be unable to marry her to a man of high social rank. They talk of Ophelia with reference to commerce and property, almost as though she is merely a possession: 'That you have these tenders for true pay/ which are not sterling' As mentioned earlier, Polonius has a rather distant relationship with his children; he even goes to the point of using Ophelia's loyalty to enhance his own prestige in the eyes of Claudius. Polonius lays out his plan to test his suggestion about Hamlet's madness: 'I'll loose my daughter to him' Polonius's choice of words here suggests that Ophelia is a caged beast, again with no real will of her own, who may eventually escape. The word 'loose' was also closely related to prostitutes, which could imply the disrespect felt towards women in the period.
When Freudian interpretations of 'Hamlet' became popular in the 20 th century, Ophelia was seen as having an... 'Unresolved oedipal attachment'... to Polonius. Some modern productions of the play, such as Kenneth Branagh's film 'Hamlet' (1996), take the Freudian approach. During the scene in which Laertes gives Ophelia his opinion about her relationship with Hamlet, Branagh shows the two walking arm-in-arm through the palace gardens like lovers. Also at the scene where Ophelia rushes into her father's bedroom in a nightgown, Showalter comments: 'After speaking with him about the confrontation she has just had with Hamlet, her father leaves the room, and she lies down on her father's bed as if it is an all too comfortable and familiar place.' In the same scene, Branagh's film demonstrates the sexual double standards in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'- where it was usual for men to be promiscuous but women had to remain chaste so they remained valuable to their family.
He even goes to the extent of showing Polonius with a prostitute that he treats crudely. Showalter believes that the newest perspective on Ophelia's madness is that: 'It is in protest against hypocritical male- ordered societies like the one which Branagh presents in this scene.' There are no scenes of Hamlet and Ophelia alone, perhaps to avoid a scene of sexual intimacy because in the Jacobean theatre they would have all been male actors. The audience only hears of the relationship through the conversation of others. We see how Hamlet's obsession with his mother's re-marriage and possible infidelity with Claudius changes his outlook and opinion of women, including Ophelia. Ophelia's description of Hamlet during 'the closet scene's ou nds like a deranged lover, however this image is found in other plays of that time. 'No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled Ungar tered, and down-gyved to his ankle, Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other And with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosed out of hell.' This conventional appearance of a madman can be seen by Malvolio's appearance in 'Twelfth Night' where it combines comedy and dangerous impropriety in the same way.
At this point, the audience remains uncertain whether Hamlet is just putting on an 'antic disposition' but it has the effect of introducing Ophelia to the idea of madness. On the order of Polonius, Ophelia presents Hamlet with the tokens of affections he previously gave her. She interrupts his 'to be or not to be's oliloquy, though it is possible that she hears it and that Hamlet himself is aware of her presence. In this case, she is a victim again, already spied on by her own father and Claudius, but now also by Hamlet playing the role of the 'melancholic' man.
Hamlet launches into an assault on women, questioning Ophelia's trustworthiness 'Are you honest? ... are you fair?' This is a clear reference to his mother where he talks about beauty corrupting honesty as a paradox, which he now understands because he can see it in his mother. These cruel malicious rantings aimed at Ophelia are the misogynistic criticisms that were quite common in the revenge dramas of the period. Hamlet says: 'Get thee to a nunnery' Perhaps because the world is too corrupt for Ophelia to remain pure so she must withdraw herself and enter the world of a convent. Yet more likely, it is being critical of her by being aware that she is being used by her father against Hamlet and calling her a whore for allowing someone else to use her. The reference to a 'nunnery' then would mean a brothel as it was used in colloquial speech during the period.
Once alone, Ophelia is free form male influence. Interestingly, Ophelia becomes her most articulate and describes her ideal Prince and herself as: 'I of ladies most deject and wretched That sucked the honey of his music vows' These two lines are the only allusions to her own feelings, yet she can only think when she is free from male empowerment. Later Hamlet again uses crude and coarse language to ridicule Ophelia. 'I think nothing my lord'... Ophelia tells Hamlet in the Mousetrap Scene, and he cruelly twists her words: Hamlet- 'That's a fair thought to lie between maid's legs Ophelia- 'What is, my lord?' Hamlet- 'Nothing' In colloquial terms, 'nothing' was a term for the female genitalia so to Hamlet 'nothing' is what lies between 'maids' legs.
As Showalter says: '... In the male visual system of representation and desire, women's sexual organs represent the horror of nothing to see. When Ophelia is mad, Gertrude says that 'Her speech is nothing' mere 'unshaped use.' Ophelia's speech thus represents the horror of having nothing to say in the public terms defined by the court. Ophelia is deprived of thought, sexuality and language...
.' Ophelia is a woman completely controlled by men; the frailest aspect of her seems to be that whether by nature or nurture she cannot exist without men. Although her feelings are not taken seriously, she needs men to guide her perceptions of the world, as she has been convinced that she is incapable of trusting her own. Once her male support begins to diminish so does her state of mind. It seems as though her thoughts and emotions that were blocked by sanity and by the repressive society are given free expression in her madness. The restrains that were placed on her through society 'Are moved, a secret life rises up and overwhelms her.' On the Shakespearean stage, conventional female insanity was exactly defined. Ophelia dresses in white and scatters flowers.
In Branagh's film, Kate Winslet plays Ophelia. She is seen wearing the traditional white flowing gown, her hair loose, and her fingers twitching. An added effect was the change in pace and pitch of the speaking, the songs were sung and there was an air of tension as you watched. She sat by a mirror to symbolism the duality within the character. Ophelia's speeches are full of extravagant metaphors, lyrical free associations and 'explosive sexual imagery.' She sings about betrayed love and how 'Before you tumbled me you promised to wed' These are the sorrows resulting from broken promises, possibly by Hamlet.
There is then a dramatic change in the language back to prose. Ophelia's constant change of discourse could represent the change in her mind. Ophelia cannot find her own words to express her feelings, so utilises the words of traditional ballads about death, relating to the pain of her father's murder. These borrowed words indicate that Ophelia had never been able to express her own mind in her own way, but with her madness, she finds new freedoms yet remains unable to express her thoughts alone without the help of borrowed discourse. Ophelia's lunatic ravings reveal the nature of her young mind, full with suppressed sexual ideas, her obsession with death, beauty and her own desires and are far more explicit than in any other scene: 'Then up he rose and donned his clothes And d upped the chamber door; Let in the maid that out a maid Never departed more' The mad scene has probably changed the most over the centuries. After 1660 when women were allowed to act on the stage, the role of Ophelia was sentimentalized and actresses who had been rejected or scorned by love played the part, as the emotion was easier to express.
The Romantics changed concepts of the mad woman as seen in gothic and Romantic literature. Harriet Smithson performed Ophelia in Paris 1827, wearing a black veil suggesting female sexual mystery and the flowers shaped like the cross became an interpretation that was carried on even to the Laurence Olivier film in 1948. Modern interpretations have been influenced by growing awareness about social and family pressures and female schizophrenia. The different interpretations depend on the changing views of women and Ophelia herself is 'a character of multiple and changing perspectives.' In addition, the influence of modern psychiatry is seen near the end of Branagh's film when Ophelia is shown in a cell being showered by a hose, perhaps in an effort to control her worsening mental illness. From a feminist perspective, the hose is a phallic image symbolizing the patriarchal society forcing Ophelia to confirm to its will. In Coleridge's famous dictum: 'The Romantic Ophelia is a girl who feels too much, who drowns in feeling.' Whether Ophelia drowns or commits suicide is still debatable, in Gertrude's speech she refers to 'weedy trophies' and 'long purple' and it has strong sexual overtones, showing that even in death her sexuality remains ambivalent: 'Liberal shepherds give a grosser name But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.' The image of Ophelia drowning has been the subject of many paintings, perhaps most notable is the painting by John Everett Millais, and Showalter has interpreted it as: 'the division of space between Ophelia and the natural details of Millais had so painstakingly pursued reduces her to one more visual object; and the painting has such hard surface, strangely flattened perspective, and brilliant light that it seems cruelly indifferent to the woman's death.' The final farewell to Ophelia is symbolic in many ways, her lover and her brother fighting over her love.
'I will fight with him upon this theme Until my eyelids will no longer wag.' Even in death, Ophelia is seen as an object fought over by men, who in the patriarchal society that she lived in valued possessions and their worth over women themselves. 'For most critics of Shakespeare, Ophelia has been an insignificant minor character in the play, touching in her weakness and madness but chiefly interesting, of course in what she tells us of Hamlet.' Unlike Hamlet in the play, Ophelia does not struggle with moral choices; Lee Edwards another feminist critic concludes that: 'We can imagine Hamlet's story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet.'.
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