To be a “she” or not to be: Shakespeare’s female characters in Hamlet and As you like it, raised above society’s conceptions of the female gender
E. Agathokleous 2019
Shakespeare’s writings are highly observant and contain social and historical representations as well as observations about the human condition (Gunenc, 2015). His characters show depth and their personalities undergo changes and reach resolutions according to both societal norms of the time but also to the genre of the play (Shainess, 1982). Gender relations were a significant aspect of his writing especially regarding to the time when Shakespeare was writing when women were the property, first of their father and then of their husband according to the law (Shainess, 1982). Their marriages were business transactions with the woman being exchanged for a higher position in society by entering a family of high social status or even to secure survival if the woman’s family was poor (Shainess, 1982). For the transaction to be successful the woman had to be a virgin, of proven chastity, otherwise she was considered to be unwanted for marriage (Shainess, 1982). This related highly to matters of succession since it was the only that the fatherhood of the husband was certain (Shainess, 1982). In this society, where men dominated every aspect of life women were not permitted to reveal their true self and potential instead they were constantly oppressed and obliged to obey men (Shainess, 1982).
Shakespeare’s writings appear to reveal an understanding of the female situation in such a society since through his plays a concern about this problematic view of womanhood by society can be detected (Greer, 2003). Even though a woman had become the ruler of the country, society still functioned by the masculine domination norms that are seen through Shakespeare’s plays, often leading to assumptions of the playwright’s little regard for women and chauvinistic tendencies (Greer, 2003). My purpose is to argue that an examination of Shakespeare’s female characters can convince that Shakespeare not only understood but rather protested to the society’s complete disregard of the female gender, their potential and virtues and the suppression of intelligent human beings, able for independence and with much to offer. Through the tragedy Hamlet and the comedy As you like it, society’s expectations for women become clear, however it is also revealed that these expectations destroyed any potential of what these women could be or could have become. While Ophelia in the tragedy portrays the tragic results of this oppression, Rosalind in the comedy gives the alternative of what a free woman can accomplish.
Ophelia, daughter of Laertes the Lord Chamberlain of the court, even though not considered by critics as a major character in Hamlet, is a complex character that undergoes change and even though she abides to each one of society’s dictations about women, she meets a tragic fate. Her fate, a result of suppression by society make her a very good example of how obeying patriarchal norms does not guarantee a happy outcome (Chen, 2011 & Haniph, 2017). Ophelia first appears in Scene III when she converses with both her brother and her father about Hamlet and his affections towards her (1.3.482-622). In the beginning, Ophelia appears as a naïve, innocent woman, in need for advice in order to preserve her chastity. Laertes, her brother, is the first to warn her of the dangers that Hamlets’ affection towards her poses and advises her to pay no attention to it, or take it seriously (1.3.487-492). Then Polonius, her father, with a diminishing tone comments on her inability to look after herself alone, and readily dismisses her claims that Hamlet cares for her, calling her a naïve “green” girl (1.3.583-584). Ophelia herself is presented as unable to decide for herself or even speak for herself (1.3.591). This very first appearance of Ophelia, informs the audience of a woman loyal and submissive primarily to her father who expresses himself more dominantly but also to a brother as concerned as her father in regards to his sisters’ purity. Her father, furious after she tells him about Hamlets’ reassurances of his love commands her to stop seeing him alone and she pledges to obey (1.3.621-623). At this first stage of suppression Ophelia is compelled to listen to her father and to suppress any feelings she might have for Hamlet. Here she is presented as precisely the way society views women whose feelings are not of importance, they are unable to make their own decisions and are in need of male dominance and guidance (Gunenc, 2015).
Ophelia’s manipulation however does not stop at this first command. When Hamlet starts exhibiting obvious signs of madness with his erratic behaviour towards Ophelia after she ignores him (2.1. 1034-1041), both king Claudius and Polonius use Ophelia in order to spy on Hamlet and assess his madness and she of course obeys once again (3.1.1732-1735). This outrages Hamlet who attacks Ophelia with harsh, deeply offending words, claiming first to have loved her and then to never have but also calling her a breeder of sinners, an attack on her sinful gender (3.1.1805-1021). Hamlet accuses her of betrayal, of putting on a mask in order to seduce him and spy on him and erases any chances of a future marriage between them (3.1.1834-1840). In this stage Ophelia is used an instrument to prove Hamlet’s madness, regardless of the consequences that this will bring on her (Chen, 2011). Ordered both from her father as well as the king she is rendered unable to refuse, even if this order goes against their previous one, one that revealed how both her brother and father did not consider her worthy of a prince’s love (Chen, 2011).
The final blow for Ophelia after her chances for a happy life with Hamlet are ruined is the death of her father that renders her now all alone in the world with no one left to guide her, forced by the circumstances to reveal that she does indeed have a voice of her own. After Polonius death, Ophelia appears distraught unable to face her grief any other way than to raise her voice in singing (4.5.3030-3075). Her circumstances, overbearing and impossible to overcome lead to the only possible outing, her madness which eventually leads to her death (Chen, 2011). A continuous suppression of her feelings, a changing of roles through the course of the play and the loss of every male figure to support her in life since she has not been allowed to shape her own future, lead to her demise (Chen, 2011). While her love for Hamlet could have allowed her a way out this love was destroyed by societal beliefs manifesting through her father and brother, denying her any chance to be happy (Joshi, 2015). Her drowning overdramatized by her white dress and the water that swallows her is the only way for her to escape her crushing reality. “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” (4.5.2905) this existential expression can relate both to the human condition but also to gender specific realizations, women being stereotyped, directed and dominated with guidelines to follow in order to be able to exist in society that will never allow them to discover who they could really be if given the opportunity. The only way for Ophelia to express through her own voice in the society she exists in is by being mad and this madness finally allows Ophelia to express through songs and actions that seem irrational since they now stray from any patriarchal domination (Chen 2011).
According to the genre of the play, Ophelia’s death is the most appropriate but also the only possible outcome in a tragedy. In the end Ophelia becomes “poor Ophelia” and her death is viewed as a complete waste of a beautiful, innocent woman, capable of love, causing the audience’s pity (Chen, 2011). Whether intentionally or not through Ophelia Shakespeare raises the issue of women and their often tragic endings brought about by their life circumstances, a life of oppression and refusal of the ability of decision making and action taking.
While Ophelia’s end is a tragic one, Rosalind comes to answer her question, disguised as a man becoming this way able to reveal her true character and capabilities showing what women could be if they had the power to act freely. The heroine in As you like it follows a different path that gives an alternative to Ophelia’s fate (McEvoy, 2012). When the audience meets Rosalind she is too in a distressful state since her father had been banished from court (1.2.1-15). From the start she appears to be of a strong loyal character since she chooses to remain with her cousin Celia in the court (1.2.1-15). Rosalind is both beautiful and of status, being the daughter of a duke (Bangari, 2017). She falls in love with Orlando as soon as she sees him introducing the theme of love in the comedy (Bangari, 2017). The audience’s first impression is of a woman who is a loyal friend able to show feelings of affection and devotion (Bangari, 2017). When she herself is banished for no reason at all, she does not dwell on her misfortune but decisively takes action and flees the court, along with her also loyal cousin, dressed like a man to increase her chances of surviving (1.3.38-1.3.145). She shows cleverness and resourcefulness when she devises her plan to escape the court and to find her father in the woods (Bangari, 2017).