Femme Fatalities

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.


3 thoughts on “Femme Fatalities

  1. Alex Verso

    I agree! I’ve actually just learned about femme fatale in my Fiction into Film class this semester, and I had the same thoughts when analyzing the leading female characters throughout the plays we’ve read. The only thing that is not classically femme fatale about some of the females, is that they play more of a “damsel in distress” archetype, rather than a mistress or mysterious “devils candy.”

  2. elisebrucche

    I think you highlight an interesting link between masculine “madness” and female death in Shakespeare. Shakespeare does seem to be trying to make a point about the excessive amount of pain and suffering male behavior inflicts on women and the appalling lack of recourse for women in these situations. If we think back to ditty that Balthasar sings in Much Ado About Nothing, women were largely expected to “sigh no more” and to convert “all your sound of woe / Into hey nonny nonny” (2.3.56ff). What is perhaps most interesting about Shakespeare’s depiction of women is just how little it takes to damage their reputation. Hero, Desdemona, and, quite possibly, Ophelia are all ruined by a man’s unkind word! Words, Shakespeare argues, have real power, and women, because they have very little say, suffer for it. Somewhat disappointingly, Shakespeare does not offer any suggestion how women might rectify this situation, leaving us all to sing “hey nonny nonny.”

  3. michaeldrago

    In some ways, we can say that Shakespeare often uses an early version of the “women in refrigerators” trope where a female character is brutalized and murdered in order to advance the male character’s arc. In the case of Shakespeare, his female deaths often act as a way of putting an exclamation point on the tragedy and loss that the male protagonist has suffered throughout the play. We see this exact scenario in plays like Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear. It’s a bit simplistic to say that this tendency of his is in and of itself problematic – whether it is or not largely depends on how well the female characters are developed throughout the plays and whether their deaths serve any purpose other than to impact the male character – but it’s an interesting trend to observe all the same.


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