The Question about Innocence and Acting Like a Prostitute
Most of the attention in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is directed toward the play’s namesake the Prince of Denmark or at the least King Claudius, the villainous uncle who murdered his brother and seduced his wife. Critics and readers alike contemplate the inner workings of Hamlet’s mind, yet don’t devote as much thought to the dull, seemingly one-dimensional character of Ophelia. She is defined by her relationships with other individuals: the daughter of a noble courtier, the lover of the Prince who murders her father, and the sister of a brother with somewhat powerful political status. A young female confined by habit and custom to a fairly subservient role, she doesn’t spark much interest at first and seems to act simply as a basic plot device. However, the author had more extensive plans in mind for this character; Shakespeare utilizes Ophelia to illustrate the dual nature of women in Hamlet’s eyes.
Throughout the play, Hamlet holds a distorted view of women as heartless sexual fiends who can at times display virtue and innocence. He considers them almost to be instinctual animals with uncontrollable behavior extremes, instead of sensitive human beings whose actions might wobble back and forth somewhere in the middle ground of these two radical endpoints. Through Ophelia, one notices Hamlet’s transformation into a man who believes that “women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desire” (Shakespeare-Online). Does this explanation of a woman’s temperament ring true? A closer look into Ophelia’s actions and the circumstances surrounding them will give more insight into determining whether Ophelia is a seductive temptress, a pure virgin, or an example of dual nature.
The first clue into Shakespeare’s true intentions for the character of Ophelia comes directly from the name itself. The etymology of Ophelia is said to have two possibilities. One option claims that it is derived from the Greek word for “help” or “succour.” The word could have also originated from “ophis” meaning “serpent” (English). If Hamlet was in reality as highly educated as would be assumed from attending a college such as the University of Wittenberg, he would have gained knowledge of the Greek language. The awareness of this interesting dichotomy of Ophelia’s name might indeed be disturbing to Hamlet, and it could very well have led to his guardedness in dealing with the relationship between himself and Ophelia.
Another worthwhile perspective on Ophelia’s character is that which can be found in countless pieces of artwork spanning from the eighteenth century to present-day (Arts). Most of the pictures are solo portraits, emphasizing Ophelia’s loneliness and lack of friendly ties, especially after all the male authoritative figures in her life abandon her. Many of these images depict her in nature dressed in flowing white gowns with long, loose hair, which might represent childlike innocence and simple disposition. The different faces hold either an eerily calm expression, illustrating Ophelia’s strange behavior as she drowns, or a slightly distraught appearance as she is caught off guard in some stance. Although most of these likenesses would imply nothing but purity, several of the paintings retain some sexual element, even if it is only a seductive look. For instance, a few pictures reveal more of Ophelia than could be considered modest or appropriate. Without even fully realizing what they were doing, the artists of these pieces picked up on some detail, however minute, of Ophelia’s dual nature in Hamlet and subconsciously portrayed that in their artwork.
Although such a result was most likely unintentional, Polonius makes a whore of his own daughter. When Ophelia becomes frightened and dismayed by Hamlet’s wild appearance and behavior towards her while he was in her room, she rushes to her father for advice. In response to what he has just heard, that Hamlet has come before her, looking “as if he had been loosed out of hell / To speak of horrors,” he goes to the royal court (II, i, 75-120). There, Polonius plans with Queen Gertrude and King Claudius to use Ophelia’s charms to spy and learn why Hamlet is turning mad. Even though Polonius is not aware of the insinuation, Hamlet calls him a “fishmonger,” which can mean a dealer in a disreputable trade; in other words, Hamlet is calling him a pimp (II, ii, 173). He continues on in the conversation to offhandedly warn Polonius of his daughter’s possible conception (II, ii, 184-185). At some points such as this, when he openly flaunts their intimacy, it is apparent that Ophelia has been made a harlot from her love Hamlet as well.
One thing seems to infuriate Hamlet more about Ophelia’s lascivious nature than anything else – the fact that she “has put her sense of love and duty for another man above her sense of love and duty for him” (Shakespeare-Online). When Ophelia obeys her father and attempts to end her relationship with Hamlet, he is painfully reminded of a very similar situation (III, i, 90-102). He can’t help but to make the connection with how his mother Queen Gertrude chose his uncle King Claudius, disregarding her loyalty to his deceased father King Hamlet. If these choices are understood to have a sexual undertone, as Hamlet believes, then these “more imperative” relationships could easily be considered incestuous. Ophelia is again coerced into whorishness, not through any preference of her own, but because she must follow the path that her controlling male counterparts, and therefore society, set out for her.
As Hamlet is reeling from Ophelia’s recent initiation of their separation, he spits out “get thee to a nunnery” (III, i, 121). At first, it appears that he might be trying to preserve her goodness and protect her from the evil ways of men by ordering her to flee to a convent and away from the sin of men. However, when he repeats the same line with the addition of the retort, “Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too” (III, i, 136-139). Obviously, he is not referring to a nunnery in the literal sense if he is so bitter and includes “if you must marry,” since someone living in a convent would not be able to marry. Hamlet makes it clear with these lines that he is speaking of a nunnery as slang for a whorehouse, and that he believes women, or “monsters” as he calls them, lead to the corruption of men.
Despite the efforts of the men in her life to make of her a strumpet, it is apparent to those not blind sighted by outrage and distress that Ophelia symbolizes goodness. Characterized with childlike innocence and naivety, she has been sheltered by her brother Laertes and father Polonius her entire life (Hamlet Haven). Since she knows only loyalty and love towards Polonius and Laertes, Ophelia has no reason other than to believe they are considering her well-being when they instruct her to be wary of Hamlet (I, iii). For instance, as she watches the play with him, she replies only, “I think nothing, my lord” to his query of whether she thinks he’s talking “dirty” to her. Even as Hamlet continues to barrage her with wisecracks and innuendos, Ophelia patiently disavows his remarks: “You are naught, you are naught: I’ll mark the play” (III, ii, 106-137). When she is dishonest – she answers Hamlet that her father is home when he is behind the curtain – she acts out of genuine fear (III, i, 129-130).
Even in her insanity, after she has lost all direction and support, Ophelia represents honesty and virtue. Her vulgar songs are only dismally reminiscent of the price that the corruption of society took on Ophelia’s pure heart, and a reminder of the pain Hamlet caused her: “Quoth she, ‘before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed.’ / He answers, / ‘So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, / An thou hadst not come to my bed’” (IV, v, 62-66). Instead of evoking fear or horror, her behavior merely displays her helplessness and inspires pity. Just now in her madness and sorrow, can Hamlet’s artificial perception of Ophelia as a licentious woman prove itself (Hamlet Haven).
Although she will never realize it, Ophelia’s own death will prove to exemplify the dual disposition of women that she portrayed throughout her life. Queen Gertrude describes her drowning as “her clothes spread wide, / And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, / Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, / As one incapable of her own distress, / Or like a creature native or indued / Unto that element” (IV, vii, 174-179). Mermaids were considered to be “eternally youthful, beautiful, embodying the mystery of the ocean, and possessing an alluring song.” They were interchangeable with mythological sirens, who were thought to be “temptations of the flesh.” However, since Ophelia returned Hamlet’s gifts, the usual pattern is reversed. Also, the mermaid has a physical human/beast duality; both points suggest Ophelia’s continued dual nature after death with “feminine seductiveness” and “the rational call to epic duty” (Hamlet Haven).
William Shakespeare employs the character of Ophelia to demonstrate the dual nature of women. Hamlet recognizes it in Ophelia as he feels that she hides her natural seductive personality behind a disguise of perfection and purity. Did this explanation ring true in the character Ophelia? In some ways it did, such as associations made between mermaids in death and her somber songs of madness. However, the dual nature could possibly have some merit when reflecting on the character of Queen Gertrude as well. In addition, perhaps a closer look should be taken at the male relationships in her life for good measure; her connections with Polonius and Hamlet seemed to oppose each other in a way. Honestly, Hamlet’s madness could also find cause for two extreme personas in him – perhaps a dual nature of men should be discovered and investigated. Although King Claudius and Hamlet can prove to be curious character studies, critics and readers alike should instead contemplate the more interesting inner workings of Ophelia’s mind – whore or pure?
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