If there’s one thing Shakespeare loves to write about, it’s grisly death. Madness comes in a close second. In Hamlet, we see the madness of Hamlet lead to the suicide of Ophelia. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen madness lead to death, however. Othello’s madness lead to the death of Desdemona. Claudio’s madness (induced by Don John) leads to the “death” of Hero. If we step away from Shakespeare’s “tragic death of a female lead” trope, we can also see madness run rampant through Twelfth Night and Richard III. It seems pretty obvious what Shakespeare’s favorite theme is.
If we look at our three leading ladies, Ophelia, Desdemona, and Hero, we see that they are very, very similar. All are considered one of the most beautiful women of their time. All want nothing more than to be devoted to their respective men. Yet somehow, all are accused of promiscuity. We have learned about the cultural views on women in Shakespeare’s time, and just to reiterate, this accusation might as well be a death penalty.
Does this mean Shakespeare was writing these characters to prove a point? I personally like to think of Shakespeare as a kind of proto-feminist, but I know this view is widely disputed in the academic world. I think that the idea isn’t so far-fetched, considering he was followed by the likes of Jonathan Swift, another advocate for writing about the ridiculous stigma on women. I wrote a whole essay about Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” I recommend that poem to those who enjoy reading these types of works. It might be the oldest instance of the old “girls don’t poop” myth. Getting back to Shakespeare, I think that Hamlet is a good representation of just how poorly women are treated in Shakespeare.
Poor Ophelia just wants to be with the man she adores, Hamlet. Her brother and father are constantly trying to dissuade her, saying Hamlet has no time for her, being a prince, and that he will not love her. She persists, and while we get an inkling of love in Hamlet’s heart for her, he puts on a mask and drives her as insane as he’s pretending to be. He is constantly calling her derogatory slurs based on her sexuality, all of which seem to be unfounded. But we get what may just be a glimpse into the meaning of Hamlet’s words in Ophelia’s song she sings in act IV. She sings about a man who sleeps with a woman, and promises to marry her. Instead, the man turns her down, saying he promised to marry her before she had sex, and now that she had premarital sex (with the man himself, which is ridiculous) he refuses to marry her. I think this song may be autobiographical, Ophelia’s last attempt at clearing her conscience before she commits suicide. I’m curious to see what other scholars say about Ophelia’s motives.
Whether it’s death or madness, I’m sure that Shakespeare’s women will keep us mourning for the rest of the semester.