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Ophelia "Frailty They Name Is Woman"

By carlawilliams42 Mar 08, 2009 2120 Words

Hamlet says, “Frailty thy name is woman”. Consider this statement in the light of the presentation of Ophelia;

Identify key scenes and soliloquies for analysis
Discuss various productions/interpretations
State your preference of interpretation

The word frail means when a person or object has the quality of being weak, fragile, weak in health or being morally unstable, also someone who is easily manipulated and influenced by people that surround them, unable to stand on their own. In this essay I plan to look into the character of Ophelia in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, to see whether she is a frail character and what factors contribute to this. I want to look at particular scenes where Ophelia is involved and ones where she is being described and used in order to see how Ophelia reacts to the other characters in the play, to see if she shows any particular signs of being frail.

In act 1 scene 2 Hamlet is referring to his mother describing his feelings on how unacceptable it is that she has moved on so hastily from the man that she seemed to love so dearly. He then says “Frailty, thy name is woman!” He is at the time aiming this comment at his mother and his anger for the new King but he also labels innocent Ophelia under this as well. We have to remember that Ophelia was brought up in a society that is male dominant, the women in Elizabethan times had little control on what was to become of their lives and were closely governed by their fathers and husbands. The women in this period would be expected to obey their husband’s orders and father’s wishes. It is therefore not surprising that Ophelia isn’t given many lines in the play itself but she is a key tool used throughout by; Hamlet, Polonius and Claudius in a bid to out do and catch one another out. I would agree with Jacques Lacan here in his introduction of Ophelia in one of his seminars that began with “That piece of bait named Ophelia” she is indeed used as bait by those closest to her and they don’t seem to care if the bait gets snapped up in the process.

This meddling and toying with her makes it impossible for her to escape and contributes to her death, this is done by the people close to her whom she looks up to and respects enough to be reliant on them and to also totally trust them with her affairs and problems but they misuse her and manipulate her naivety.

From the beginning Ophelia is portrayed to us as a delicate, well spoken, respectful young lady but one who is being instructed and ordered by her brother to uphold the family name by not consenting to sex with Hamlet before marriage, even though she does voice her own opinions on the matter she does seem to obey and follow what her brother is firmly suggesting she does. Although I think here Ophelia shows her true collectedness and wit in that she knows that her brother is likely to be going against these rules himself and therefore being hypocritical. “But, good my brother, Do not as some ungracious pastors do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine, himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede.” Here she voices her point but in a very dignified way. All she wants is her brother to have a sense of fairness between them and put aside the fact that she is seen as weaker being a woman and is almost voicing a plea for equality. In comparison after this she is then instructed again, now by her forceful, religious father who simply thinks that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is not love at all but that it’s just lust. He thinks he has his daughter’s best interest in mind but he doesn’t give her much time to think about her feelings or to voice them to him.

In act 1 scene 3 Ophelia confides in her father explaining what Hamlet has said to her and also what she believes Hamlet’s feelings are towards her. “And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of heaven.” This shows not only that she trusts Hamlet’s love but that she is very open with her father and that she has a great deal of trust in him and doesn’t have to hold back or keep secrets from him. She is quite naïve in thinking that she can have complete trust in Polonius. He uses this great trust his daughter has in him to his advantage to gain favour with Claudius. Some may say that it is here she is frail in that she does not stand up for what she believes or for her love for Hamlet. She quickly obeys her father’s wishes to stop seeing him without thinking about what she truly wants.

In reply to Ophelia’s feelings and beliefs on Hamlet’s love for her, Polonius shows in his tone and language his disregard for his daughter’s feelings and level of maturity. “Think yourself a baby.”

“You speak like a green girl.”
“Ay, fashion you may call it.”
Here he is likening her to a baby, maybe meaning she is weak, young and frail and has to depend on others in order to survive amongst them. Also he mocks her because he does not believe that Hamlet’s love for her is real although she does. He is almost humouring her because he thinks she is a fool for thinking that Hamlet’s love is true and is constantly putting her down calling her a green girl because she is not ripe yet and therefore not old enough to see what is really going on.

This scene and discussion ends simply with Ophelia saying;
“I shall obey.”
She has been brought up not to argue with her father but I agree with David Bevington when he says, “Ophelia’s willingness to let her father interpret for her is very disappointing” because in contrast to her ability to stand up to her brother she has no ability to oppose her father.

In act 2 scene 2 Polonius is conversing with Claudius trying to arrange a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. “I’ll loose my daughter to him.”
Her father talks about her like a piece of bait or a pawn under his complete control, he makes her sound like an animal being let loose like a wild dog, suddenly released. This is her father yet again taking control of her life and happiness when he suggests that they set up a meeting with Hamlet so that Polonius and Claudius get to spy on the situation and hear what Hamlet has to say. It is in this scene that Hamlet now uses Ophelia as a target for his anger, frustration and feelings of hatred for the foul play of Polonius and Claudius. He is blunt and horrible when he voices his anger claiming there was never anything between him and Ophelia; “I loved you not”

“Marry a fool for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.” Hamlet is quite cold hearted and harsh in the things he chooses to say to Ophelia. He also directs comments through her such as; “I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already all but one, shall live.” Here Hamlet is threatening Claudius and really trying to scare and intimidate him by suggesting that he is going to kill him. Ophelia’s reaction to this scene with Hamlet and his mockery of her is little and she comes across as quite feeble with little to reply with. “O help him, you sweet heavens.”

“O heavenly powers, restore him.”
Instead of replying directly, she is pleading to the heavens and God as if the devil or evil has changed Hamlet and she wishes they could change him back. This could be seen as naivety to think it is not down to Hamlet himself. She shows frailty here; in that she soon looses confidence and also the will to stand up for herself and the love she thought she had with Hamlet.

Act 4 scene 7 Ophelia’s death is announced by Gertrude in front of Laertes and Claudius. Ophelia’s death is described in such a personal, peaceful and elegant way it’s a very good cover up for the struggle and madness that is quickly spreading amongst the castle. “Her clothes spread wide, mermaid like they bore her up…pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.”

These lines said by Gertrude create a poetic image of Ophelia’s supposed accidental death. The description has probably been changed in this way because committing suicide was a sin and the church would have been disgusted at the thought that someone involved with the royal family would do such a thing. Ophelia would not be authorised to have a proper funeral and burial if it was seen to be suicide. Even though parts of the description are lovely and create images and reflections of Ophelia there is still a harsh awakening with the words ‘muddy death’ that soon bring you back to the reality of what has happened and now a disturbing factor has been added. You can almost misread the play and not notice she has in fact killed herself, after her suffering she doesn’t even get a dramatic exit like all the other deaths in the play and seems instead to sink to her death. This may be because of Ophelia’s personality and general aura that a painful slow death would not fit with her character and her back story. The description itself makes it seem as if the water did not have to fight to bring her down but that it was actually very easy and with no struggle, portraying that Ophelia is in fact frail in that she could not fight harder and get herself out of the deep, dark hole in her mind that she had retreated into.

In the two films I have watched of Hamlet, the portrayal of Ophelia has been different. In Kenneth Branagh’s version, Ophelia is how I imagine her to be; quite striking, elegant and she also comes across as quite an intelligent young lady played by Kate Winslet. When she talks she doesn’t shy away and seem frail, she actually seems to voice her lines quite forcefully when appropriate. However when she turns mad in this film production I think the acting and the overall look of Ophelia is somehow out of place. I think she needs to show her crazy side in a more subdued style of acting and with a slightly more psychotic side to it, this is where Franco Zeffirelli’s film for me excels because I think Helena Bonham Carter’s take on Ophelia is better and more like I expected it to be as depicted from the original script. Her natural ability to have that “off the rails” look about her is a major plus, she pulls off the crazy act but in an elegant and purely quite disturbing way. Her overall portrayal of Ophelia however, seems weak and she seems to just blend further and further into the background.

In conclusion I think Ophelia’s character is like a child getting caught in between the cross fire and I think that her story is tragic in its own way because of her being kept close but constantly in the background. She gets forgotten about and used by the powerful men in the play. I agree with Barbara Everett when she says that “Ellsinore is what was once known as a “man’s world”, one given up to the pursuit of power in a conventional system of rivalries. There is little place for women in such a world, and the women of this tragedy are markedly shadowy and faint”. I think that Ophelia could be seen as sheltered naïve and frail. I think it’s through no fault of her own however, but rather through the pressures of society, family and her peers.


critical essays on Shakespeare’s hamlet general editor Zack Bowen

written version of one of Jacques Lacan’s seminars

Heinemann advanced Shakespeare set text

by Carla Williams

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