Many adolescent females enrolled in the grade 12, university English course could well be discouraged by the representation of women displayed in the assigned literature. It is quite a culture shock as in past English courses, there has always been strong, powerful female characters analyzed, such as Harper Lee’s, Scout and Calpurnia; William Shakespeare’s, Portia, Lady Macbeth, and Juliet; and Charles Dickens, Estella. However, both of the lead female characters, Gertrude and Ophelia of Hamlet, in addition to, Emilia and Desdemona of Othello are displayed as docile, powerless females, all of which are killed by the man to whom they “belong.”
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In Hamlet Ophelia is portrayed as an immensely weak character. The first time her character is introduced in Act 1, Scene 3, both her brother, Laertes, “Be wary, then. Best safety lies in fear” (1.3.43), as well as her father, Polonius, “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,/ Have you so slander any moment leisure,/ As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet” (1.3.133-135) forbid from pursuing any further contact with Hamlet. Even though Ophelia deeply loves Hamlet, she agrees to forego seeing Hamlet, “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.136) as she does not possess the strength or power needed to stand up for herself. It is also critical to examine the way she addresses her father. She addresses Polonius as a “lord,” even though he is certainly not, shows that she feels powerless over him. Because Hamlet is forbidden from speaking to Ophelia anymore, he tells her to convert to a nunnery and to never get married. “If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry; be thou as chaste as ice, pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery” (3.1.136) From this point on in the play, Ophelia is used and abused by every man who she is dependant on. Laertes, who supposedly loved Ophelia and viewed her as angelic, “A ministering angel shall my sister be” (5.1.216), inevitably witnessed how oppressed Ophelia was by their father and yet chose to let her remain in Denmark while he sailed off to France. If Laertes actually cared about Ophelia, he would have either taken her with him, or remained in Denmark himself. Because Laertes did not stay to protect his sister who he supposedly loved, she became used by her father in his attempts to impress King Claudius. Polonius, without any delay, rushes Ophelia over to the King’s palace to volunteer her
to spy on the man she loves, Hamlet. “At such a time I’ll loose my daughter to him” (2.2.154). Ophelia is verbally abused by Hamlet many times throughout the play, “Lady should I lie in your lap?â€¦; I mean, with my head upon your lap?â€¦ That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs” (3.2.102-108). Here, Ophelia is being sexually exploited publicly by the man who she always defends, “He hath importuned me with love/ In honourable fashion” (1.3.110-111). Even while Hamlet is speaking so derogatory told her, Ophelia is not emotionally strong enough to defend herself and as good as tells Hamlet it is fine for him to speak this way towards her, “I think nothing, my lord” (3.2.107). Also when Hamlet stabs Polonius, he does not once ponder how it could affect Ophelia, and this says a lot as Hamlet philosophizes and re-philosophizes everything. Although there is much evidence that Hamlet does in fact love Ophelia, “Forty thousand brothers/ Could not, with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1.247-249), the façade of madness that he chooses to put on is what drove her mad, causing her to (arguably) commit suicide. However, Gertrude is able to describe every little detail of Ophelia’s death with incredible description, meaning that someone must have witnessed Ophelia’s death. Why did that person not help her? Is it because she was a woman and therefore wasn’t valued?
It is commonly theorized that how one treats their mother, will be how they treat their future romantic partners, and vice versa. This theory is proven by the character of Hamlet. He treats his mother just as poorly as he treats his girlfriend, Ophelia. The first time the character of Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude is introduced, she is being oppressed by her youthful son. Gertrude is celebrating one of, if not the, most exciting day[s] of her life, as she has just fallen in love and gotten remarried (after the death of her previous husband), and it is the day of her new partner, Claudius’, inauguration. Hamlet decides to mortify his mother in front of the entire kingdom by showing up in black, isolating himself from the royal family, calling his mother “common” (1.2.74), and pointing out to everyone in attendance that although is father has only been “two months dead- nay, not so much, not two” (1.2.139). He exclaims “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (1.2.146). And Gertrude condones this behaviour as she does not reprimand him. However, matters between Hamlet and Gertrude do not stay at a level of mere verbal abuse. After Gertrude “tax[es] him home” and attempts to defend herself for the first time in the entire play, Hamlet begins violently yelling at her, accusing her behaviour of making him unable to be good to Ophelia. Matters take a turn for the worst when Hamlet throws her onto her bed, and murders a man in front of her. The appalling and inexcusable aspect to this chief defining moment is that Gertrude still loves and treats Hamlet the same way, both before and after it occurred. This is displayed in Act Five when she (to some extent) recognizes that Claudius is making an effort to kill Hamlet. Beside her sits a chalice laced with poison which Claudius intends to nourish Hamlet with. Gertrude selflessly drinks from the chalice even after Claudius warns her “Gertrude, do not drink” (5.2.286).
Gertrude is not the only woman studied this course who continues to love her abuser. Emilia is subject to her abuser, Iago’s, control. Although she is undoubtedly a voiceless, victim, as the play progresses (predominantly in Act three) she is able to show delicate strength and occasional control. At the start of the play, Iago calls Emilia several vile names, including (but certainly not limited to): “good wench!”, and “villainous whore!” Throughout the entirety of the play, Iago consistently reminds all of the women that the only reason they exist is to please men sexually Emilia is spot on when she states that “they are all but stomachs, and we all but food; they eat us hungrily, and when they are full they belch us” (3.4.100-10). When she asks Iago “How now! What do you here alone?” (3.3.300). The casual tone that she uses towards him also shows her lack of respect towards him. In addition to demonstrating her new found self-belief as she is finally able to question Iago’s motiveless malignancy towards everybody. It shows how far Emilia’s character has grown, as at the beginning of the play, Emilia naively plays into Iago’s deceptive plot by stealing the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona. What Emilia was oblivious to, was that Iago wrongly deemed her (and all other women) cheating “whores”, and placed the handkerchief in Cassio’s room so that Othello will believe that Desdemona slept there. . However, when Iago calls Desdemona a whore publicly, the voiceless Emilia speaks up, and dooms him to hell “A halter pardon him! And hell gnaw his bones! Why should he call her a whore?” (4.2.143-144). When she discovers that Othello has killed Desdemona, she again speaks up, yelling: “As ignorant as dirt! Thou hast done a deedâ€¦ The moor hath killed my mistress (5.2.171-174). Othello rebuttals with a threat, claiming that it would be “best” (5.2.169) if she remains tacit, and says nothing else about his foul deed. Nevertheless, Emilia still voices her disdain towards Othello. Subsequent to Desdemona’s murder, Othello reminisces as to why he killed her, reminding himself of her “unfaithfulness,” displayed when she “gave” the handkerchief to Michael Cassio. At this time, Emilia realizes her mistake, and refuse to comply with Iago’s demands “Oh thou dull Moor! That handkerchief thou speak’st of I found by fortune and did give my husbandâ€¦ He begged of me to steal’t.” (5.2.232-236). As a result of disobeying Iago and defending Desdemona’s honour, Iago murders her.
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Although Desdemona and Othello’s relationship is a tad more loving than Emilia and Iago’s, it should certainly not be deemed healthy. While Othello and Desdemona’s relationship was conventional at the beginning of the play, Iago quickly causes it to crumble. “But I do love thee! And when I love thee not, Chaos is come again” (3.3.90-93). Here, Othello explains to Iago that if he ever did not have Desdemona, his life would turn to an utter mess. This is why it is ironic that not too long after, Othello is the solitary person liable for ending her life. For someone so in “love,” Othello immediately, without question, believes Iago when he lies and says that Desdemona is cheating on him. However, this is so far from Desdemona’s character traits, it is a ludicrous suggestion. Desdemona truly is an innocent “angel.” Had she recognized how suffocated Othello was by his jealousy, she may have realized that their relationship was deteriorating to an unhealthy point. But, she always chooses to see the goodness and kindness in people instead. This is most likely due to the fact that she has high hopes of having finally found a man who will not treat her as their property. Desdemona was denied a proper wedding and was forced to run off and elope with Othello as her over controlling father, Brabantio, would have never permitted it. In Act One, Iago, and Roderigo travel to Brabantio’s house inform him of Desdemona and Othello’s marriage. They discuss it using terms such as: Othello “stealing” Desdemona, and being a “thief.” This is the same as talking about her as if she is an object, or some sort of pet that belongs to somebody, although her obedient, submissive nature doesn’t exactly prove them wrong.
Although the reading material in the grade 12 university English course is undoubtedly sexist, and degrading towards women, Shakespearean plays are also a very important part of our world’s cultural history, as it gives a tremendous amount of insight as to what life was like in the 1600s. While contemplating Gertrude, Ophelia, Desdemona, and Emilia’s struggles, it is also important to consider that the play was written approximately four-hundred and ten years ago, and Shakespeare’s plays were actually quite avant-garde for that time.
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