Ophelia and I are feeling this song right now

And since this is the summer of Hamlet, perhaps I can imagine Ophelia singing this song.  When I was growing up, Ophelia was the poster child for the troubled adolescent girl.  My mom read Reviving Ophelia when I was a young teenager.  I remember looking at the picture on the cover and thinking “Who is Ophelia?”

I never really liked Ophelia.  She seems the exception to me.  Shakespeare’s plays are full of strong, intelligent women, so much so that he ruins the rest of literature for me as a teenage girl.  How could I go from reading Shakespeare to A Tale of Two Cities?  (My nomination for most annoying woman in literature goes to Lucy Manet, not that I’ve read that book in 14 years.)  Most of the women in other stories seemed stupid and helpless victims.  Shakespeare wrote women who were intelligent and completely in control of their own destinies, despite hardships and their circumstances.

Ophelia seems to be the exception. 

Ophelia is a woman torn between the influence of her father and her lover.  She is a pawn in everyone’s game.  Worse still, she seems either oblivious to that fact or totally content with it!  When her brother and her father tell her to stay away from Hamlet, she protests a little (but not too much) and ultimately obeys.  When her father wants to use her as a pawn to test his theories, she once again obeys.

I’ve always thought that Hamlet should slap Ophelia during the nunnery scene.  In some productions, there is a noise or a movement that suggests to Hamlet that Polonius and Claudius are watching him from speak to Ophelia.  In that moment, he knows what is going on.  When he asks “Where is your father?” he already knows the answer.  He is testing Ophelia to see whose side she takes.  What’s more, I believe that Ophelia knows that she is being tested.  When she answers “At home, my lord,” she is saying that she is taking her father’s side against Hamlet.  She is too weak to do otherwise.  Hamlet at that moment, in my production, would slap Ophelia.  Hamlet knows that his school friends are being used against him, and now his girlfriend is being used against him.  What’s worse, she consents to this use.

It is for that reason I do not like Ophelia.  It’s partly that she chooses her father over Hamlet, but what is worse, that she allows herself to be totally dominated in this way.

When I was in college, I pledged for APO, a community service fraternity.  Our slogan was (in bastardized Greek rendering) Archae!  Philia!  Ophelie!  Which means, “Be a leader, be a friend, be of service.”  I never realized how closely Ophelia’s name resembles the Greek phrase for service.  It makes sense.  Ophelia is a servant.  She is incapable of actually making her own choices in a court where every relationship is an alliance and fraught with danger.  Is it any wonder she goes crazy?

I heard someone say that Ophelia is stronger than Hamlet because she does the things that Hamlet merely considers or pretends.  Hamlet pretends to go mad and thinks about suicide, and Ophelia does these things (though I think the suicide is doubtful).  To which I say, whoop die do.

I’ll take Rosalind, Viola, Lady Macbeth, Paulina, Isabel, even Juliet any day over Ophelia.

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2 Responses to Ophelia and I are feeling this song right now

  1. exiledtyke says:

    This did more than make me chuckle, but first, how can you not like A Tale of Two Cities? Tut, tut, tut.

    Is it surprising that, in Elizabethan England, Shakespeare wrote about strong-willed and determined women? Harold Wilson (former British Prime Minister) is reputed to have called Barbara Castle “the best man in my cabinet”. How much more must Elizabeth have had to be “the best man” in the country? I’m sure that, in common with many of his countrymen of the time, Will knew not only which side of his bread was buttered, but also who was providing that bread and butter, and to this extent it would serve his own interests to portray strong women. What I hadn’t thought of previously was Ophelia as servant, well not knowing any Greek let alone bastardised Greek, I couldn’t have spotted the connection, but, I do wonder whether maybe Shakespeare was playing with that concept. Elizabeth did say “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.” and I’ve always found it interesting that she chose to cast herself in what was, generally seen, as the more subservient of the two roles when she might as easily have claimed equality by using the word “espoused” and saying something like “I have already espoused the kingdom of England”. That Elizabeth did see it as the more subservient role in a marriage is, I would suggest, supported by her statement that “I will have here but one mistress and no master.” So, if, for now at least, we accept that, In Elizabethan England, the wife was subordinate, though not necessarily inferior in any way, to her husband, and could be expected to serve him in many ways, could Shakespeare have been showing the other side of his monarch in the character of Ophelia?

    • I will say, in regards to A Tale of Two Cities, I haven’t read that book since I was 14, so I should probably reread it. I’m sure I’d get more out of it now than I did then.

      You’re right, it’s not a all surprising that, in the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare would choose to create strong women.

      I like your point about how Shakespeare may be telling us something else about Elizabeth in Ophelia. I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s a very good point. We typically think of Elizabeth I as a powerful woman, and yet her portrayal of herself as the wife of England means that she is portraying herself as subordinate to England. Intriguing. I like it.

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