This is a draft of my final paper for my Shakespeare class. I’m pretty happy how it turned out. If you have any thoughts on Ophelia and her role in the play (and within Shakespeare), please comment! I’d love to hear new takes.
The Tragedy of Ophelia: Uncovering Hamlet’s Heroine
In the Elizabethan era there were limited pathways for women to grow as people and, largely, the words of William Shakespeare mirror that fact. Hamlet is no exception. Ophelia experiences the same limited options – marry Hamlet, respect her father and brother, and acquiesce to the monarchy – and dies when she does not fit within one of those patriarchal roles. The common misconception, however, is her suicide is derived from her “madness,” that she was so tethered to her holy trinity of Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet, she offed herself when she could no longer provide support to them. Even contemporary feminist pieces only entirely discredit one or the other, either addressing her autonomy being snuffed out by the patriarchy, driving her to madness, or her alleged willingness to end her life as a failure of resolve. An alternate reading of Ophelia’s role in Hamlet, when she is afforded the qualities of double consciousness regularly applied to Hamlet, one in which a blend of feminist and post-structuralism paradigms are considered, finds a more progressive heroine, someone who rebels against not only the structures of society, but the structures of theater. In defining the pathways for women in Denmark, contextualizing cultural opinions on suicide, exploring the feminist and gender implications towards women within the era, identifying the differences – and, therein, importance – between song and speech, and emphasizing transcending societal constructs, it becomes overwhelmingly clear Ophelia committed suicide because she did not want to exist in a society, or space, in which she would be regulated to a secondary citizen status; thus making her Shakespeare’s least recognized progressive heroine – a title that would open modern conceptions of existence and feminine empowerment up throughout Shakespeare.
Women in the Elizabethan era rarely possessed any autonomy. Stephen Greenblatt, in his section on “Wooing, Wedding, and Repenting” within Will in the World, notes: “Very few young, unmarried Elizabethan women had any executive control over their own lives; the girl’s watchful father and mother would make the key decisions for their daughter” (119). The period is not unlike contemporary society, as Mary Pipher describes in Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, with the inundation of media and parental structures shaping the thoughts and self-worth of young women. This barrage of messages creates a limiting of pathways, according to Pipher:
The more I looked around, the more I listened to today’s music, watched television and movies and looked at sexist advertising, the more convinced I became that we are on the wrong path with our daughters. America today limits girls’ development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized. (2).
Before Ophelia can say a word within Hamlet, she is being warned about pursuing a relationship with Hamlet, or in general, by Laertes. It’s the first instance of her limited pathway towards any sustainable life within Denmark. Prior to her introduction in act 1, scene 3, Laertes cajoles her into letting him know what is going on with her even if it means a loss of her sleep: “sister, as the winds give benefit/ And convoy is assistant, do not sleep/ But let me hear from you” (1.3.2-4), placing narrative and familial structural emphasis on the patriarchy before Ophelia. The strain placed on her only exasperates the more Laertes speaks, as he positions Hamlet’s potential love as something unnatural:
For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute—
No more. (1.3.5-10).
Laertes’ speech is littered with words discrediting Hamlet and simultaneously inhibiting Ophelia’s ability to decide on Hamlet, or anything, for herself. Words like “trifling” and “toy” make Hamlet’s affection seem trivial and inconsistent, and phrases such as “Forward, not permanent,” and “sweet, not lasting,” accentuate an action that is not condonable within the environment established by her family and credible society. It is a message that Ophelia accepts, even if she is potentially aware of the hypocritical mouth it comes from:
“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede. (1.3.47-51).
Ophelia accepts the words of Laertes because she sees his genuine care for her best interests, but she clearly, as evidenced in her assessment of his logic and knowledge of his nature, does not want to have to live by a double standard. Her partial objection structures the validity of a limited pathway argument. She may adhere to the requests of Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet, but her provision to this early request acknowledges she is aware of the structure in which she resides.
As understanding of structure is important to grasp the world in which Ophelia exists, understanding their belief structure is just as important. Suicide happens many times in the Shakespearean oeuvre, but in Hamlet it plays a significant role. It is both the potential port of Ophelia’s demise and a theoretical question for Hamlet to address. In “Neither Accident nor Intent: Contextualizing the Suicide of Ophelia” Barbara Smith explores the role of suicide in the play and the connotations of suicide within the period. Smith dissects the aforementioned double standards and the texts of her songs, but pays particular emphasis on how a suicide would be viewed within the religious context. She writes: “The prevalent religious and cultural attitudes toward suicide that informed early modern English sensibilities, in this play, also apply to the religion and culture of Denmark. Christian theologians and preachers agreed that those who take their own lives are damned, and for many, suicide was literally diabolical” (101). Those attitudes are seen when Laertes rebukes the priest when he insinuates Ophelia shouldn’t have received a proper service because of the suspicions of suicide. He bemoans:
Lay her i’th’earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling. (5.1.238-242).
The first sentence is a command that denies any claims the priest may be attempting to make. “Lay her I’th’ earth,” comes after the priest proclaims “No more be done” (5.1.235) after Laertes asks, “Must there no more be done?” (5.1.234). The command ignores the papacy, suggesting suicide statuses may only be applicable to those in the proletariat. If there was any doubt beyond that, Laertes completes the sentence with “And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/ May violets spring!” (239-240), crafting a paradox in which Ophelia is the angel of the nobility, and devil of society.
The diabolic agency that resulted in Ophelia’s alleged suicide likely would have been accepted as being manifested in her madness – the archetypical construct of such a diabolical nature, according to Smith. While Smith eventually concludes, “Ophelia’s suicide is a sad but credible response by her own impaired psyche” (109-110), she actively acknowledges the psychological trauma induced by the “worsening psychological hell brought on by the abuse and neglect she suffered at the hands of those she loved most. It recalls the damage done by the paternalistic undermining of autonomy” (110). Smith’s final lens, while roots itself in Ophelia’s break from the construct in which she existed, neglects the metaphysical nature of the stage, ignoring Smith’s earlier note to the presence of King Hamlet’s ghost as evidence to prospect of existence within theater after corporal life. The lingering potentiality for Ophelia to come to a conclusion of suicide as an exit to pursue greater theoretical realms of equality still remains.
Having established the societal structure and cultural connotations of suicide, it’s only prudent to cement an image of Ophelia as a person, and women as a gender, prior to moving forward. Hamlet’s epic assault of “frailty, thy name is woman!” (1.2.146) positions the feminine in a negative light. The fault is only heightened in the vitriolic Nunnery scene in which Hamlet hurls a version of the deprecatory “Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.141) insult to Ophelia five times across the course of roughly twelve lines. Ophelia is twice faulted within the scene. Once by Hamlet, once by society (Polonius, Claudius et. all). It is in the few moments of “Oh, woe is me,/ T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” (3.1.163-164) that Ophelia realizes what she is within the context of Elizabethan society. She is both the angel and the devil that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gilbar write of in “The Madwoman in the Attic” when they read Goethe. She is presented in a binary of being either a “penitent prostitute” (815) or an “angelic virgin” (815) whose purpose is to serve in a role of “Interpreter[s] or Intermediar[y] between the divine father and his human sons” (815). The same binary is further explained in Judith Butler’s “Performative Acts and Gender Construction” when Butler talks of gender. She writes: “Gender is made to comply with a model of truth and falsity which not only contradicts its own performative fluidity, but serves as a social policy of gender regulation and control” (908). Ophelia, even if she complies in earnest, is being used by her father, Claudius, and Gertrude to spy on Hamlet at the inherent risk of damaging the relationship Hamlet and Ophelia have. Simultaneously, Ophelia is degraded by Hamlet in the aforementioned manner. She is simultaneously at opposite ends of the era’s female binary as she is both whore to one and angel to the other, stimulating the aforementioned paradox of emotions that can only be accurately described when Ophelia returns to say “I think nothing, my lord” (3.2.115) while at the production of Hamlet’s play – an exercise in tortuous civility as Ophelia watches the play of the person who has spurned her. In those moments she cannot trust Hamlet and she cannot trust her family/society.
Ophelia disappears from act 3, scene 2 to reappear in the “Mad Scene” of act 4 scene 5; her final breathing appearance. The pivotal point in viewing Ophelia as a legitimate autonomous person is appropriating the “mad” signifier. To do so, acknowledging Ophelia’s method of expression has to occur: she sings. Leslie C. Dunn points out the critical importance of song in Hamlet within her essay “Ophelia’s Songs in Hamlet: Music, Madness, and the Feminine.” Dunn argues, citing Elaine Showalter, that “the subsequent history of Ophelia’s representation, not only on the stage but in the discourses of literary criticism, psychiatry, and the visual arts, has followed [the] first male readers in constructing her as an archetype of both woman and madness” (50) eventually positing, “I wish to argue that Ophelia’s singing is full of meaning – indeed, overfull – which is precisely what makes it such a potent signifier, not only of women and of madness, but also of music itself.” (52). Significant differences from the conventional analysis regarding the songs begin to form through Dunn’s approach.
The first difference is founded in the contrast of song and speech. Dunn refers to something “extra” (52), music, and begins to describe the difference between the vocalization patterns of song and speech. She writes about song: “The very process of vocalization is exaggerated or intensified; the voice seems to have a less mediated relationship to the body, perhaps because there is literally more body in the voice – more breath, more diaphragm muscles, a more open mouth” (52-53). The moment of more first comes to fruition when Ophelia first responds to Gertrude in act 4, scene 5:
Say you? Nay, pray you, mark./
“He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.”
“Mark” serves almost as a marker for the difference in expression, a self-referential moment in which Ophelia establishes her difference and begins to express her issues. Dunn furthers the idea when she cites an article from Kaja Silverman in which Silverman writes, “The voice is never completely standardized, forever retaining an individual flavor or texture” (53). It’s a potent idea in visualizing Ophelia as her own person within act 4, scene 5. Reading/viewing Ophelia as a person who, by the previous point possesses an inherently different voice, expresses disdain and grief and more in a manner categorically different from the method of communication used in the west (speech), enables exponentially greater power to a woman marginalized into a “madness” classification. That classification stems from what Dunn refers to as a:
“Western tendency to position music among signifying systems not only by analogy with, but also in opposition to language … such apparently innocent, usually celebratory metaphors of “musical” language reveal how music, whether as discourse or in discourse, becomes implicated in the binarisms that organize patriarchal thinking, and thereby associated with the unconsciousness and the irrational as well as with the feminine. (54-55).
The entirety of Hamlet is routed on multiple plains. Greenblatt notes the play is one of Shakespeare’s greatest examples of doubling, noting of Hamlet: “he seems at once Catholic, Protestant, and skeptical of both” (103). But that isn’t the only area of a double consciousness in the play. The world of Hamlet is routed in both the physical and spiritual realms, because otherwise it would not be able to hold the specter of King Hamlet’s ghost – which, in turn, influences the conflictions Hamlet experiences in his own existential plight. The same can be said of Ophelia. She may be the dutiful daughter and the invested lover, but she is also the realist who hears of her brother’s “dalliances” (1.3.50) and inadvertently acknowledges her belief structure may be broken with “I think nothing, my lord” (3.2.115). Multiple traces of signification exist that allow Ophelia to be viewed in such a manner.
Breaking from Dunn for the moment, the textual analysis of Ophelia’s “madness” is well documented. In “Popular Performance, the Broadside Ballad, and Ophelia’s Madness” Caralyn Bialo makes a similar, yet different, claim as Dunn in looking at how Shakespeare uses song in his drama. She documents the history of Ballard selling and its place in popular culture, describing them as having associations of being “rude and popular” (Bialo). This lower class association, Bialo argues, allowed a widened compass “of gender-based analyses by locating Ophelia within a non-elite cultural tradition that allowed room for female resistance to patriarchal expectations for behavior” (Bialo). Eventually, she concludes that Ophelia holds in the “unresolved tension [:] Shakespeare’s tacit acknowledgment of the dramatic force of popular traditions and his desire to ally himself with more elite forms of theater” (Bialo). Bialo’s position furthers the idea of Ophelia acting as something more than a basic archetype. While Bialo links songs to madness in comparison with Hamlet’s scripted drama, the presence of Ophelia as the other in the triangle of Hamlet as script, Ophelia as balladeer, and the nobility as audience, it still allows her a tangible difference in the context of Feminist theory. Classification is echoed in The Function of Song in Contemporary British Drama when Elizabeth Hale-Winkler notes the frequency of song in Shakespeare. Hale-Winkler writes: “The singers in Shakespearean drama are usually secondary characters and often of low birth. Because etiquette frowned on a gentleman performing in public, noble characters will usually call for a page or a servant to sing rather than performing themselves” (37-38). It is also seen in Gabrielle Dane’s “Reading Ophelia’s Madness” when Dane contrasts the familial “smothering” of Ophelia with the lack of viable options [i.e. pathways] for her to grow. Dane writes: “She must explode outside of the categories designed to circumscribe her … to a place where she can first locate then express her rage” (4). And lastly it is present in Judith Wechsler’s “Performing Ophelia: The iconography of madness.” Wechsler considers the presentation of Ophelia through four modules – textual analysis, theatrical performance, visual representation, and psychiatry – with the question being do the “diverse modalities offer different kinds of evidence and the possibility of inference, or does the intersection of these disciplines create it’s own problematic” (202). Wechsler eventually settles on a gothic conclusion that “the outer can be expressive of the inner,” (218) transcending the four modalities. What each of these assessments have in common is an acknowledging of the significance in the text and the method in which it is delivered, as they are dueling rhetorical devices – a type of argument unknown to a woman of her stature.
Helene Cixous establishes an idea within “The Newly Born Woman” that: “Either woman is passive or she does not exist. What is left of her is unthinkable, unthought” (349). That unthought thought is Ophelia manifested. Her songs transform her into an unrecognizable entity of shrewd analysis that no one can understand because they are not on her plane of existence. Dunn uses this to further her analysis of song and, therefore, Ophelia’s ability for autonomous action, noting through others the gravity of act 4, scene 5: “The writings of Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous, and Clement testify to the power and persistence of these constructions of music, and suggest what can be at stake in maintaining them” (55). If structure collapses when such music, subversion of discourse, is established, then act 4, scene 5 is the tipping point for the tragedy within Hamlet.
Ophelia enters act 4, scene 5, according to the David Bevington edition of Hamlet within The Necessary Shakespeare, “distracted, playing on a lute, and her hair down” (589). “Distracted” is a word that differs from madness and alludes to ulterior concerns. “Distracted” conveys that she is apart from herself, or, in better terms, the conception of herself. If Ophelia is truly “distracted” coming into the scene, it is in direct contrast with her first words. “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” (4.5.21) is as direct as one can be when they enter a scene, or a room, or any other physical space in which they are looking for someone. It establishes reason for being in a specific location. Labeling Ophelia as “mad” ignores any and all concepts of her reason for being in the scene.
It is easy to perceive Ophelia’s presence in act 4, scene 5 as a lament, as her first two bits of singing addresses her loss of Hamlet and the death of her father. She sings:
“How should I your true love know/
From another one?/
By his cockle hat and staff,/
And his sandal shoon.” (4.5.23-26).
“He is dead and gone, lady,/
He is dead and gone;/
At his head a grass-green turf,/
At his heels a stone.” (4.5.29-32).
There are similarities and stark differences in how Ophelia describes both men. Each is afforded four lines, which is a sign of precision in direct contrast with her alleged madness. It cements order to the reason for being present in the scene. The differences flourish in such order. The lines lamenting her love for Hamlet lack symmetry. They are split into two sentences, the first of which is a question. “How should I your true love know/ from another one?” (4.5.23-24) addresses Laertes’ earlier assertions of Hamlet even if, ironically, they only currently exist because of the intervention of Polonius, Claudius, and Gertrude. It is Ophelia’s “to be or not to be” moment as she reflects on the nature of her alleged lover, by saying “By his cockle hat and staff,/ And his sandal shoon” (4.5.25-26). The poignant indicator that establishes Hamlet is “cockle hat.” According to a footnote in the Bevington edition, it refers to a “hat with cockleshell stuck in it as a sign that the wearer had been a pilgrim to the shrine of Saint James of Compostella in Spain” (591), something the religiously conflicted Hamlet likely would have seen, or known of, in pursuit of his studies. It draws the appropriate reaction from Gertrude for multiple reasons: 1) Ophelia is clearly speaking of Gertrude’s son, whose relationship with her she actively sabotaged, and 2) as Dunn notes, Ophelia is breaking from accepted rules of conversation. Of Ophelia, Dunn writes:
“her personal voice is estranged, filtered through the anonymous voices of the ballads, multiplying and thereby rendering indeterminate the relationships between singer, personae, and audience… these voices are doubly embodied in the music’s materiality – in the melody that “works” at the language, and in the “grain” of Ophelia’s own voice – which causes a further surplus and therefore slippage, of meaning” (58).
Ophelia’s Polonius stanza, in contrast to Hamlet, possesses a degree of symmetry. The use of anaphoric phrasing is a stark difference to that of the earlier set. Ophelia repeats “He is dead and gone” (4.5.29,30) and “At his” (4.5.31,32) at the beginning of each line and, not only do they accentuate where Polonius is, they accentuate who put him there – Gertrude – as she is the “lady” (4.5.29) who had the extramarital affair that not only broke the order of her, Ophelia, household, but Hamlet’s as well. As Ophelia’s only other named female counterpart in the story, as a woman who later professes “hoped [Ophelia] shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” (5.1.244), she served as her defacto role model for how a woman was to behave in the kingdom of Denmark. There is no madness behind the eyes of Ophelia, but an intent to confront.
Claudius walks in to act 4, scene 5 just prior to line 37. The introduction of Claudius is the first time Ophelia has seen the King since the revelations of Hamlet’s play. Ophelia greets him, prior to Claudius speaking to her, with song:
“Larded with sweet flowers;/
Which bewept to the grave did not go/
With true-love showers.” (4.5.38-40).
While Ophelia could be expressing the lament of her father to Claudius, as he suggests with, “Conceit upon her father” (4.5.45), it is also plausible that Ophelia is referencing the events relayed in the play and the predicament with Hamlet she was forced to participate in. First, the player king dies from poison poured in his ear while asleep in his garden, which was Hamlet’s nod to his father’s death. Ophelia reusing the imagery of flowers could be read as a play on the poison. Second, these bewept flowers did not go to the grave with true love showers, how is that exactly an indication of her father? It likely could reference the disdain she would logically feel for Hamlet by this point in the play. Even more, the last two lines could be a continuation on the flower imagery, referencing the hypocrisy of the love Claudius felt for King Hamlet. Regardless of what they are, they should not simply be read as a lament of her father, as Claudius and Gertrude do everything they can to subdue Ophelia – namely label her words and emotions. At the end of Ophelia’s song upon Claudius’ arrival he speaks the following to her, “How do you, pretty lady?” (4.5.41). The usage of “pretty” should not be overlooked, according to Dunn:
As social behavior, too, Ophelia’s singing is “noisy.” It is disruptive, indecorous, defying expectations – particularly the expectation of appropriate feminine behavior implicit in the epithet with which Claudius attempts to stop her; “Pretty Ophelia” (4.5.56). But Ophelia … refuses to be pretty, as she refuses to be silenced” (58-59).
The rejection of prettiness, sweetness, and other forms of patriarchal constraint by Ophelia end with her death in two ways. As she is no longer present on the mortal coil, she literally doesn’t have to take arms against the issue. Secondly, once she passes, and is no longer present, the patriarchy can redefine who she was through subverting the appropriate feminine presence, Gertrude. Dunn notes: “Gertrude is implicitly submitting [Ophelia’s memory] to patriarchal authority, representing Ophelia the way the men want to see her” (63). Just as Ophelia attempts to confront Gertrude, Claudius, and the patriarchy in her “madness,” the patriarchy equally confronts her presence in an effort to compartmentalize her thoughts and feelings in the greater scheme of power subordination.
If song is the ultimate feminine form of discourse, then singing about feminine sexuality crafts an excess of the feminine that would naturally be uncomfortable in Denmark. Scarred patriarchal comfort aside, Ophelia experiences moments of empowerment unknown in the era whilst performing her St. Valentine’s song, as Dunn points out, “Claudius’s discomfiture is obvious from his interruption, but Ophelia is unfazed; she interrupts him and finishes her song” (59). The first eight lines are:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,/
All in the morning betime,/
And I a maid at your window,/
To be your Valentine./
Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,/
And dupped the chamber door,/
Let in the maid, that out a maid/
Never departed more.” (4.5.48-55)
Many indicators of possession are at play in the first set of lines. The maid in Ophelia’s song, herself, is at the window of the intended, likely Hamlet. To be at his window is to be in his line of sight. Further, the fact she is within a window implies she is in a constricted line of sight, as windows only exist between walls – i.e. approved patriarchal paths. She is also his Valentine, which adds a flavor of ceremonial right in his possession of her. The action in the second sequence of lines is just as one sided. Only the male rises. He puts on his clothes. He lets in the actual maid – the housekeeper – to find the maiden turned into a madam. These things happen to her. She loses her virginity, literal or metaphorical, to Hamlet. But because she recounts the story, through her own means of discourse, she controls the issue and perception of said matter. The last eight lines further, and disrupt, the sexual encounter:
“By Gis and by Saint Charity,/
Alack, and fie for shame!/
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;/
By Cock, they are to blame./
Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me,/
You promised me to wed.”’/
“‘So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,/
An thou hadst not come to my bed.” (4.5.59-67).
Ophelia’s first sentence comprises lines 59 and 60, and it is unclear if she is mocking or actually crying out. She sings: ““By Gis and by Saint Charity,/ Alack, and fie for shame!” (4.5.59-60). She exclaims shame and invokes Jesus (Gis) and Saint Charity to be a part of her alleged ordeal. The second sentence addresses the nature of said, alleged, shame, “Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;/ By Cock, they are to blame./” (4.5.61-62). There are multiple euphemisms running through the lines: “do’t” refers to the act of sex, “to’t” refers to the woman, and “Cock” refers to the male genitalia. “Cock” actually has a double meaning, according to the Bevington footnote. Bevington read “Cock” as “A perversion of “God” in oaths;” (591). Ophelia’s word play does a couple of things in that event. Not only does it continue the sexual nature of the previous lines, penetrating her perception of prettiness, but it addresses the natures of men and condemns their belief structures – notice the capitalization of Cock as in God. The last four lines – each two line sentence devoted to each participant in the act – reinforce the nature of men and societal structure, addressing the hypocritical actions of the man of the era, willing to engage in sex but unwilling to marry the woman afterward because his perception of her (the angel/whore binary) has changed. Ophelia’s song may be a bawdy reprieve designed to shock the structures around her, but it is an overlooked piece of feminist commentary within the generation, only available from the excess in which Ophelia presents her argument.
Ophelia exits act 4, scene 5 twice. The first is before line 75 and the second just after line 203. In looking for the reason why Ophelia could potentially have committed suicide to escape the patriarchy of Denmark, it can be found here. The last sentence of her first exit speaks to a group: “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.” (4.5.73-74). The issue in addressing such a message to a plurality is that Gertrude is the only female present. She is talking to a broader audience. This is the first trace of Ophelia taking an action that would transition her from the corporal realm to a spiritual presence. She proclaims good night four times. Why four? If Ophelia is emphasizing her break from Christianity, in order to end her life in the coming scene, it seems appropriate. Eve is only mentioned in the bible four times and the fourth day is the day of creation (Genesis 1:14 – 19). If Ophelia thinks herself as sort of a neo-Eve, willing to fall from the grace of the patriarchy, she would also be creating her own existence. Highlighting the women – Gertrude, the women of Denmark, and, as she comes closer to this metaphysical bridge, the women in the audience – allows Ophelia to emphasize the inequality they experience. Her second exit, once Laertes has returned, directly addresses God. She finishes her last song, “God ha’ mercy on his soul!” (4.5.202) only to end her last line in verse, “And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God b’wi’you.” (4.5.203). Her introduction of Christianity marks her shift to another religion. If she were speaking in a room of shared faith, she would have likely omitted the “Christian” marker because they would all have been Christian. Adding it is a mark of Derrida’s differance. It is different from the indicators of speech she was used to, and alludes to another idea of existence. “God b’wi’you” (4.5.203) is her farewell because God no longer is with her.
The idea that Ophelia commits suicide to escape the patriarchal restrictions of society and religion are contingent on a particular trait unique to Ophelia: loneliness. Amelia Worsley, in “Ophelia’s Loneliness” diagrams the issue throughout the play, remarking that “the Folio edition of Hamlet contains Shakespeare’s first recorded use of the word “loneliness,” which is also one of the earliest references to the concept in all of English literature” (522), eventually offering an interesting thesis; “Ophelia’s quiet loneliness not only colors the references to loneliness in Shakespeare’s other plays, but also reframes the way that Hamlet’s solitariness has been understood. The tendency to isolate Hamlet as the innovative protagonist in the story of the development of solitude has obscured Ophelia’s hitherto silent role in the development of the soliloquy form.” (522). Worsley’s main point stems from Ophelia being present in act 3, scene 1 as Hamlet delivers the infamous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. In those moments, in which Hamlet remarks on existence, faith, and various other issues, Ophelia is the one living those isolated conceptions, as Hamlet only acknowledges her after his opining is finished. Regardless if Hamlet is aware of her or not, Ophelia exists within her solitude – an autonomous state known only to her. Because Ophelia is present for Hamlet’s words, she possesses the ability to acknowledge the same themes as he, only sooner in the play and through her own expressive form of discourse. Yet, no one notices.
While Ophelia’s drowning could have been accidental, Ophelia’s suicide as escape from restraint is subversive. It reconfigures ideas of existence within theater and, to a larger extent, art, as Ophelia takes the action to transcend the plane that Hamlet only thought to embark upon. Ophelia’s potential willingness to take her own life redefines years of gender analysis within Shakespeare as it defies the societal construct established by the pens of men and religious rule, if any distinction is to be seen between the two parties. Nature, the binaural opposite of society, took Ophelia back, as she drowned herself among petals of flower. Studying the tragedy of Ophelia is a case argument for the impact of patriarchal definitions, the role the elder woman has in conforming the younger into societal models, and how suicide within the context of structures can be an empowering action of metaphysics.
Bevington, David. The Necessary Shakespeare. 5th Edition. Pearson, 2017. 589-591. VitalSource Bookshelf Online.
Bialo, C.. “Popular Performance, the Broadside Ballad, and Ophelia’s Madness.” Studies in English Literature, 1500 – 1900, 53(2), 2013. 293-309. Web. 4/24/2016
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Construction.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell: Malden, 2004. 900-911. Print.
Cixous, Helene: “The Newly Born Woman.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell: Malden, 2004. 348-354. Print.
Dane, Gabrielle. “Reading Ophelia’s Madness.” The University of Minnesota: Minnesota, 1998. 1-9. Web. 4/24/16.
Dunn, Leslie C.. “Ophelia’s Songs in Hamlet: Music, Madness, and the Feminine.” Embodied Voices: Representing female vocality in western culture. Ed. Dunn; Jones, Nancy A.. University of Cambridge: Cambridge, 1996. 50-64. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Blackwell: Malden, 2004. 812-825. Print.
Greenblatt, Steven. Will in the World. W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2004. 103-119. Print.
Hale-Winkler, Elizabeth. The Function of Song in Contemporary British Drama. Associated University: New Jersey, 1990. 37-38. Print.
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Penguin: New York, 1994. 2. Ebook.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Necessary Shakespeare. 5th Edition. Pearson, 2017. VitalSource Bookshelf Online.
Smith, Barbara. “Neither Accident nor Intent: Contextualizing the Suicide of Ophelia.” South Atlantic Review 73.2 (2008): 96–112. Web. 4/24/16.
Wechsler, J.. “Performing Ophelia: The iconography of madness.” Theatre Survey, 43(2), 201-221. (2002). Web. 4/24/16.
Worsley, A..”Ophelia’s Loneliness.” ELH 82.2 (2015): 521-551. Project MUSE. Web. 4/24/16.