Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Empty Vessels: A look into the Codependency of Ophelia and Gertrude

While Shakespeare commonly depicts his female characters as empty, mindless creatures, The Tragedy of Hamlet creates the most appalling image of women thus far. In this play, both Gertrude and Ophelia are depicted as being so codependent of men that they cannot live and function without the companionship and direction of a male agency. In earlier plays, characters such as Desdemona in the Tragedy of Othello may appear to be very passive and naive to the dangers of their circumstance, but are ultimately characters you can function without men. For example, Desdemona has the capability to form a homosocial bond with Emilia. In 4.3., we see that Desdemona expresses some degree of trust in Emilia’s character and holds a very personal conversation with her. In Hamlet, homosocial bonds between women are completely absent from the play. Instead, Queen Gertrude’s sexuality quickly shifts from her husband to her husband’s brother upon his death and Ophelia constantly searches for approval by the multiple men in her life. The play, Hamlet, therefore sets up a world in which women are absolutely nothing without “men.”
In 4.5., we see that Ophelia is not a functioning, coherent person upon the death of her father. Horatio says, “She speaks much of her father, says she hears/ There’s tricks i' th' world, and hems, and beats her heart,/ Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt/ That carry but half sense. Her speech is nothing” (4.5.4-7) Here, we see that there is no sense or coherency to Ophelia’s speech. While she appears to be driven by emotion, she does not have the ability to properly convey these emotions to the world. Instead, Ophelia goes around singing a dreadfully depressing song. She sings, “He is dead, and gone, lady/ he is dead and gone./ At his head a grass-green turn,/ At his heels a stone” (4.5.29-32). She then turns away from the idea of death and sings about loss of virginity and unrequited love. She sings, “Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me,/ You promised me to wed.’/ So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,/ An thou hadst not come to my bed.” Here we see that Ophelia has become completely consumed in a state of grief. In her song she notes the finality of her relationship with her now dead father, and the hopelessness of her romantic relationship with Hamlet. In this scene, we see that Ophelia comes to realize that her purpose in life ends with her disconnect from the male figures in her life. She concludes that she is nothing without men, and therefore selects to drown herself.
On the other hand, Gertrude is a character who moves past her hardships by maintaining a connection to the male world. While Hamlet in 1.2. sees Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius as “incestuous”, insensitive, and overall immoral, this marriage is merely a survival mechanism for Gertrude. In 4.5, Gertrude appears to feel alienated by Ophelia’s song. At one point, Gertrude says, “Nay-- but Ophelia” as a way to suspend Ophelia’s song and keep her from outwardly expressing her grief. Here we see that Gertrude did not dwell on her own misfortunes long enough to feel the same desperation as Ophelia. Instead, Gertrude resolves her problem and quickly replaces one man with the next. Gertrude is therefore shown as a symbol for the female’s ability to function in the world with the direction of man, while Ophelia represents the inability to function in the world without man.

1 comment:

Thomas Baschnagel said...

This is a great blog post, and one that could easily be developed into an essay. I agree that it's actually quite distressing to see two such dependent, weak women in this play, neither of whom seem to function as anything more than merely empty vehicles which drive the plot. Both Gertrude and Ophelia cannot function without the men in their life, and the way they are portrayed throughout the play suggests that, without men, their characters would have little to no substance; therefore, they really only serve the purpose of plot filler for the men's actions to effectively take place. That filler results in a captivating play for the audience, but at the unfortunate expense of any chance for a female character to appear strong. The real tragedy of Hamlet, then, is the failure of its women characters to exist independently of the male characters. For the longest time, I had always felt that The Taming of the Shrew was one of the most tragic plays for female characters, but I would have to say Hamlet is a close second.