Loss of a Woman’s Honour
An individual’s level of chastity throughout his or her lifetime is based on the decisions her or she makes, which can either be accepted or rejected by the individual themselves or the people around him or her. For women, not only in contemporary society, but also in history, righteousness, modesty, and upholding a woman’s virtue are ways in which women are seen as honourable, and a key factor all women must attain in order to be accepted in micro/macro- societies, such as family, friends, as well as general acquaintances. With honour, there is a sense of certainty- certainty that one will be accepted and not looked down upon, but also certainty that one does not have to face the poor attributes of themselves. Facing one’s flaws and impurities is difficult, and very often, feared, thus avoided by humans. In Shakespeare’s timeless play Hamlet, Ophelia, seemingly passive, melancholy and innocent demonstrates the self conflicts associated with struggling to face, accept, and ultimately restore one’s honour once it has been altered or even lost in order to gain a sense of certainty. In the play, Ophelia was always obedient to the male authority figures in her life; she was always accepting other’s views and her actions up until Act 4 were influenced by the control of the three dominant men around her- Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes. This control and sense of obligation to obeying the dominant men in her life was sadly the only sense of certainty she had known. Never had she had the chance to act on her own will, her own emotions, nor did she ever try. Women were just naturally inferior to men, and it was difficult to gain a sense of self strength when so much of life was regulated by the choices men made. However, despite Ophelia’s solidification through the superiority of men, it was inevitable that she would have to face the world on her own accord- unfortunately for her that time was when she had lost all the men in her life- being forced to face her loss of honour and certainty and status quo all at the same time. Shakespeare depicts through Ophelia that when an initially dependent woman is secure within her certainty through obedience, she will abolish the reality of any honour that may have been lost, however when she is exposed to the cruel nature of men, and denied of love, she must face her impurities which leads her into madness as she struggles to accept the loss of honour and certainty.
Initially, Ophelia is very quiet, passive, and almost gone unnoticed in the midst of all of the drama occurring with Hamlet and his quest to finding certainty. Ophelia, in her healthy state, in love with Hamlet is secure and has nothing to fear as her certainty is solidified through the dependency she has on her father and her brother. Her choices were dictated and her future was never something she had to carefully consider as it was undoubtedly going to be controlled by her father. She gained reassurance from the oppression she dealt with her everyday life. During the time of this play, women did not have much say in what would happen in their lives, in fact, women would in turn lean on superior men in order to remain within a region of security. It was as if women feared to be alone, because the lack of power they had as it had led them to being fragile. This is shown not only through Ophelia, but also Gertrude who after her own husband’s death, marries Claudius as if to stay safe and avoid the fear of facing a world led by men alone. She was even inferior to her own son which further solidifies the weakness of women in this piece. There is reason to believe that during this time, even before the play, that Ophelia had lost her virginity to Hamlet- thus her honour and chastity. However, her loss of honour was never something she would face because she was so secure and certain about her life that it did not matter to face the truth now because she was also sure that Hamlet was indeed in love with her. Her impurities at this point were hidden by the lack of ability to express her true self, brought on by the control of the men in her life. Certainty in this sense ultimately sensors the truth and one’s sanity and perception that the world is secure limits one from being accountable to his or her actions. This weakness women had that was surrounded by the motive of remaining safe and certain is a key factor as to the reason they have a big downfall when they lose certainty because they never focused on preparing for a time of being uncertain or impurity, all they put mind to was remaining in a state of somewhat power by being under the wings of powerful men.
Ophelia never had to face or consider her impurities because she was secure under the control of the men around her, however all it took was one shift in her security for her certainty to be altered. Being obedient as usual, she agrees to investigate Hamlet on accord of Polonius. She spurs a conversation with him with the knowledge that Polonius is watching them and Hamlet lashes out on her and she exposed to Hamlet’s outrageous madness. She even lies to him, covering for Polonius which on her part, was another sign of the weakness and dependency women had towards men. If she had held the strength to speak for herself and express her true feelings, she would not have let Polonius decide what would happen with her and Hamlet. She truly did love him, and this is proven by how much she is shaken by Hamlet’s madness, but she was not stable enough in herself to stay true to that love or her feelings. After being exposed to Hamlet’s madness, whether he was putting on a show or not, she is left to face her impurities, her loss of virtue, and her loss of honour. She left with no cause, no purpose for this loss because what had made it secure before was now destroyed through Hamlet’s cruelty he displayed to her in this scene. Having no purpose for this flaw she had gained was the first shift into a state of uncertainty. This first shift was the key turning point for Ophelia as she now had to face the fact of not being pure. This shift proves how women being solely reliant on remaining certain through men should never be a way to live life, because when the time comes of restoring lost honour, women must be be equipped with the strength to handle it alone. Losing Hamlet for Ophelia was the first turn she had to take to restoring lost honour.
Ophelia is seen trying to restore honour, by balancing her purity out with faith. However, after losing her father to death, her brother to duty, and Hamlet to madness, she has completely lost all sense of certainty and honour as she no longer has a foundation or conduct to live her life upon. This loss springs her into depression, then ultimately madness. Through her songs she sings to Gertrude, she is admitting to all her sins and impurities and describing how men treat women, hinting at the fact that she has also been treated like that where men take women to their chambers. This also solidified the fact that she indeed had lost her virginity to Hamlet, which was why she was so thrown off by his outrage and denying of their love. Her madness was brought on by the realization that honour could no longer be restored, though she did try to stay pure through faith, but even that did not allow her to be certain. Madness exposes truth, while certainty masks reality. For Ophelia, her acceptance and facing of her truth was brought by her madness. The absence of guidance and direction from the men around her also had led her to a state of certainty. This was the only time she was seen to be acting upon her own emotions as she no longer had a specific way of being told how to act. This left her with no purpose, leading her death. The only thing certain in the end was death which was what she turned to when nothing else in her life was certain. When one has lost all sense of certainty, brought on by the loss of one’s honour, they will turn to accepting death.
It can be concluded that when an initially obedient individual is forced to face their loss of honour, they will be led into a state of uncertainty, where the truth and reality is brought to light through madness. This is addressed through the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s timeless play Hamlet. The fact of how one’s certainty and one’s honour are coincided is solidified through Ophelia, as she is seen to be led to madness due her own loss of chastity.