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Feminism is the movement that advocates for women's right, interests, and gender equality. A feminist lens can be used by writers to show injustices in women through aspects such as sexual objectification and stereotyping. In Shakespeare'sThe Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, character Ophelia can be analyzed through a feminist lens to better understand her purpose in the play and Shakespeare's views of women in society.
Freudian critic, Jacques Lacan answers a very prominent question. What is the point of the character of Ophelia? Obviously she is essential, for "she is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet.(Lacan) Ophelia is used as a character to develop Hamlet. Her motives seem dominated by the characters around her with whom she interacts with, until she is driven to madness. In a sense, Ophelia is a sympathetic and engaging pawn in the drama that is surrounded by powerful men; her father Polonius, her brother Laertes, and Hamlet. Her madness can be linked to the abandonment of these men; Laertes leaves, Polonius dies, and Hamlet abandons her, because she no longer has the authority of the male world. By developing Ophelia as a character that relies on other men's judgements, Shakespeare supports principles of feminism stating that women are oppressed by men in society.
A critical reading of Act 3, Scene 1 uses the interaction between Hamlet and Ophelia to apply a feminist reading. In this scene, Hamlet has just given his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy when Ophelia enters to converse with Hamlet. Through a feminist perspective, the significance of the scene comes when Ophelia asks "Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?" (line 111) and Hamlet replies "Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transformhonesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness." (lines 113-115). The text serves as a reflection of the internal thoughts of Hamlet. Hamlet at the moment is dealing with a life crisis. His father was killed by his uncle, his mother has remarried, and the ghost of his father has urged him to revenge his death. The text shows how Hamlet has stereotyped all women as whores because he feels that his mother has forgotten about his father far too quickly. In the same scene, Hamlet further explains his thoughts of women as he remarks " if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them." (lines 139-141). He is lashing at Ophelia by telling her that women are unfaithful and driven by lust. As Hamlet accuses Ophelia of being like "all other women" he has once again stereotyped women in society. As a whole, both of these examples have helped the reader to understand William Shakespeare's views of women in society as dependent on men and weak because they are driven by desire.
The basic principles of a feminist theory state that the relationship between men and women has almost always been unequal and oppressive. The extent of inequality and oppressiveness has varied through history. That know societies have been patriarchal. Patriarchy is a system in which males dominate females. That all major social institutions have been characterized by male dominance in aspects such as economy, political system and family. A feminist theory also explain that sex and gender are not the same thing because sex is a biological category while gender is a social condition. French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir writes "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." The belief of difference in sex and gender also means that, males and females are socialized to become masculine and feminine. These are social characteristics implied by society, not biological essences.
Novelist Simone de Beauvoir wrote a founding document of modern feminism in 1949.The Second Sexchanged the lives of many women. The Second Sex is one of the earliest attempts to confront human history from a feminist perspective shown through the effort of Beauvoir to locate the source of imbalanced gender roles in society. Today, many regard this masterwork as not only as pillar of feminist thought but of twentieth-century philosophy in general. The thesis of The Second Sex is that "men fundamentally oppress women by characterizing them, on every level, as the Other, defined exclusively in opposition to men." Beauvoir believes that man occupies the role of subject while the woman is left as the other. Man is essential and absolute while woman is inessential and incomplete. The distinction that is basis for many of Beauvoir's later arguments; he creates, acts, or invents while she waits for him to save her. De Beauvoir writes that it is natural for humans to understand opposition to others, however, the process does not apply to sex because by defining a woman as "other," man is denying her of humanity. In Book II of the chronicles of the Second Sex, she traces the development of a woman through stages of life which include her childhood, her youth, and her sexual initiation. By doing so she proves that women are not born "feminine", but instead are shaped by external forces. In this book, De Beauvoir shows how females are conditioned to accept passivity and dependence in every stage of her life. Processes in society deprive women of equality and oppress her into the "other". After being denied the possibility of independent work or fulfillment, the woman must accept a life of housework, childbearing, and sexual slavishness. Beauvoir then continues to analyze the roles of woman in adulthood. She states that woman performs three major functions; wife, mother, and entertainer.
The Feminine Mystique, written by Betty Friedan is another feminist novel that is regarded as one of the most "influential books of the 20th century". Friedan expressed her beliefs that women are victims of a "false belief system" that forces them to "find identity and meaning" in their lives through the role of a housewife and mother. Such a system terminates a woman's possibility of developing their own identity and forces them to come to terms with the identity as a housewife and mother through her husband and children. Friedan stressed her belief that women would only be liberated if they were given the same economic opportunities as men. Like wise, resolutions to oppression of women in society have the same views on liberation of women. "To achieve liberation women must acquire economic power", by providing women with such opportunities, this will provide access to other forms of power. Such power includes political, ideological, and power within a family.
Affirming Ophelia an independent character is difficult because she seems to not have past. In opposition to Hamlet, his past is known through the death of his father, his childhood and education, and the reader is informed of the relationship between Hamlet and his old friends. Ophelia does not seem to have a past. Thus, making it difficult to develop her character as independent. Shakespeare keeps Ophelia as a mysterious character, only appearing in five of the play's scenes. The relationship between her and Hamlet is only knows through scarce flashbacks of Ophelia. Feminist critic Juliet Dusinberre notices that the reason for Ophelia's lack of independence is a result of a "repressive double standard inherited in our traditions." Her father, Polonius, allows his son to become independent by leaving for the university to pursue his "wild oats". He does so in order for Laertes to learn from his errors and how to be true to himself. For, if he can be true to himself then he shall be true to other men. However, his daughter must not rely on her own judgement. Instead, he advices her to "think yourself a baby" (I.III.line 105) Her brother, Laertes, advised "best safety lies in fear" (I.III.line 43). Laertes is stating that fear will keep his sister safe. Ophelia's sense of right and wrong is based on other people's judgement. Ophelia does not ever given the opportunity to develop her own independent conscious. Her dependance on the male world is shown through her statement, "I do not know, my lord, what I should think." (I.III.line 104). In accordance with the thesis of Beauvoir, Ophelia is being characterized as the "other", she is deprived of the opportunity to develop herself as an individual. Instead she is oppressed into an incomplete character who is manipulated by the ideal of the men in her life. Even her internal thoughts are controlled, she is taught what is acceptable to believe and how she should live her life. Laertes and Polonius are even in control of her emotions, deciding who she may fall in love with. In the end, Ophelia's individuality is robbed from her simply because she is a woman and seen as naive. In accordance with Friedan, Ophelia is an example of a woman who has been manipulated by a "false belief system" because she is led to believe that her father and brother ultimately know what is best for her. In a sense, she is brainwashed by the opinions and advice of the men who manipulate her life. Ophelia has lost her desire to uncover her own identity and sadly, in the end driven insane. Ophelia's insanity can be seen as the lack of liberation she received, she was unable to come to terms with her identity as a stereotypical "maiden".
Male characters such as Hamlet, the King, and Hamlet's father are prioritized through the play. Shakespeare has used such dominant characters to develop the tragedy. Hamlet's father is killed by his brother who takes his wife and kingdom. Hamlet is then responsible for the revenge of his father's murder. One may ask why Shakespeare chose to give the role of a protagonist to a male instead of a female. In this case, why did Shakespeare use Hamlet to avenge the murder? Why wasn't Gertrude given that role? Feminist critics suggest that the oppression of even female characters was a result of the gender structure of Elizabethan times.
Female characters, Opelia and Gertrude, were not as critical in the play. Instead, they were used as "pawns" to further develop the character of the males. In the case of Gertrude, she is the "object" for which Hamlet feels possessive of. The fact that she re-married her husband's father short of his death is one of the prominent reasons that Hamlet's actions are seen as insane. Ophelia played a similar role, she developed Hamlet as a character that was slowly turning mad. Shakespeare is able to portray Ophelia as inessential because once Hamlet turns mad, she follows shortly. Leading the reader to believe that Ophelia is lost without male direction which she has been so dependent upon.
An important critical question being asked through out is what will be the resolution of the play? The reader closely follows Hamlet who has the obligation to avenge his father's death. The ghost of his father urges him to murder Claudius, "an eye for an eye". Only by doing so will he be able to re-establish the peace that has turned to chaos. However, Hamlet knows that morally, murder is incorrect and can't seem to bring himself to do so. He tries to contemplate alternative decisions but instead begins to turn insane, realizing that there are no other alternatives. Shakespeare seems to use Hamlet to avenge death rather than Gertrude because as a male figure, he has more power and complexity than a female. Another critical question that can be asked is why is Hamlet's insanity so significant? Ophelia is also turning mad but Shakespeare seems to focus on the issues of Hamlet rather than Ophelia. Through questions such as these, he reader can understand that a woman who was turning crazy was a lost cause, however, a man was a complex individual who could find resolution. These questions are a further example of oppression of women.
The reader must be familiar with Shakespearean time in order to fully understand the meaning and interpret the text, in particular, the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). This era is often considered to be the golden age in English history. Being the height of the english renaissance, this era developed english poetry music, and literature. Most importantly, elizabethan theatre flourished.
The role of women in society was relatively unconstrained. In contrast to different cultures, women enjoyed freedom.
Feminist critics agree that history has been dominated by men, where woman have simply served as "mirrors" to superior men. Modern feminism explains that women in the past haven't been better understood due to their lack of possession of an identity, other than the one that has been given to them by more dominant characters. Through a feminist perspective the reader understands that Ophelia was a tragic character with a lost identity that came about after male forces no longer determined her actions.