Female Suffering in Shakespeare: Ophelia and Juliet

Female expressions of love lead to suffering, and this initial suffering comes in the form of exploitation. Ophelia suffers as she is exploited by Polonius and Claudius in Hamlet because of her love for the title character.  Although their love is debated, Ophelia confesses that she did ‘love’ Hamlet ‘once’ (3.1.1114).[1] AC Bradley concurs, declaring that Hamlet once ‘sincerely’ loved Ophelia, making her exploitation all the more upsetting as her genuine feelings for Hamlet are disregarded.[2] This love prompts Polonius to ‘loose’ (2.2.159) his daughter to Hamlet, in the hope of ascertaining the cause of his madness. Ophelia is traded by her father in aid of Claudius’ schemes, leading to her suffering. Emi Hamana recognises this scenario, noting that Ophelia suffers a series of ‘patriarchal oppressions.’[3] She suffers at the hands of the patriarchy as her interests are ignored and subverted in favour of the dominant males that surround her, notably Claudius and Polonius. Ophelia’s declaration of love for Hamlet leads to her suffering as she is considered a useful tool to be exploited.

This exploitation of Ophelia leads to a different form of suffering, as she is subjected to verbal abuse by her former lover. Hamlet ambiguously banishes Ophelia to a ‘nunnery,’ (3.1.120) which could be a reference to a brothel. This reference implies that Ophelia is sexually promiscuous and does not uphold traditional ideas of purity and chastity. Avi Erlich therefore defines Ophelia as ‘sexually treacherous,’ and theorises that she has had sex with Hamlet.[4] Upon her wedding, Hamlet threatens to give Ophelia a ‘plague for thy dowry,’ perhaps a reference to sexually transmitted diseases, thus confirming Ophelia’s sexual activities with Hamlet (3.1.135). Her demonstration of love towards Hamlet, having sex with him, has led him to shame her publicly, and therefore led to her suffering in the form of verbal abuse. Hamlet shames Ophelia and implies her sexual discordancy in the presence of Claudius and Polonius, leaving her feeling ‘most deject and wretched’ (3.1.154). Ophelia feels rejected by Hamlet as he has cast her aside and alluded to her sexual impurity through his verbal abuse directed at her. Hamlet’s verbal aggression towards Ophelia opens her up to ridicule and leaves her vulnerable, as he exposes their clandestine affair in front of her father and Claudius, resulting in her suffering.

Juliet’s expressions of love for Romeo lead to her suffering at the hands of Lord Capulet as she is also subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse. Lady Capulet tells Juliet that Paris seeks her for ‘his love,’ (1.3.75)[5] and Juliet opines that marriage was an ‘honour’ she did not ‘dream of’ (1.3.67). Juliet agrees to ‘look’ at Paris, as her mother wishes, like a dutiful daughter (1.3.98). However, upon marrying Romeo, Juliet dispenses with her daughterly duties, as she marries without her parents’ consent and does not consider their opinions on the matter. Her strength of love for Romeo has led her away from her familial duties demonstrating her newfound loyalty towards him. Cedric Watts notes that Juliet defies the will of her parents and opens herself up to ridicule by marrying for love and without her parents’ consent.[6] As a result, Lord Capulet is verbally aggressive towards Juliet, declaring that she is a ‘disobedient wretch!’ (3.5.166). The use of exclamation marks is rare in Shakespeare, and its inclusion emphasises the anger of Lord Capulet towards Juliet. Lord Capulet declares that having her has been a ‘curse,’ (3.5.166) implying that Lord Capulet now sees his daughter as a burden that he seeks to reject, as she has disobeyed him and refused to marry Paris. ‘Curse’ implies that Capulet believes Juliet will continually cause the family distress and harm. Juliet is rejected by her father during this tirade and risks being fully ejected from the family in her refusal to marry Paris, prompting her to beg for ‘pity’ (3.5.197). Her expressions of love towards Romeo and her agreeing to marry him, has led to her suffering as she is subjected to verbal abuse by her family. This occurs as she has compromised her duty and role within the family. Watts also notes that Lord Capulet’s response is symbolic of the feud due to its ‘intensity,’ which Juliet has concentrated into her own home through her marrying, and love of Romeo.[7] This cements the idea that female expressions of love lead to suffering, and in this instance suffering comes in the form of verbal abuse and aggression.

Female expressions of love lead to suffering, and for both women this also manifests in the form of grief, which is caused directly by their lovers. Upon hearing that Romeo has murdered Tybalt, Juliet acts with confusion, which is conveyed in her discussion with the Nurse, as she calls Romeo a ‘beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical’ (3.2.75). This juxtaposition shows her distress at the news, as she cannot reconcile Romeo’s beautiful appearance with his murderous actions. Romeo’s killing of Tybalt places Juliet in a precarious position, as she cannot condone the murder of Tybalt, but also finds that she cannot ‘speak ill of him that is my husband’ (3.2.125). Juliet suffers due to her love for Romeo, as it was Romeo who killed Tybalt offsetting her grief and all of the events that follow.

The ‘poison of deep grief’ (4.5.75) affects Ophelia differently, and prompts her descent into madness. She is distressed at the idea that Polonius should be laid in the ‘cold ground,’ (4.5.70) an action directly caused by Hamlet as he is the murderer of Polonius. Shakespeare’s use of prose here emphasises the madness of Ophelia, as she speaks and acts freely within her madness, expressing disdain towards Hamlet, highlighting the suffering that he has caused her. Ophelia sings about a man who ‘promised me to wed,’ (4.5.63) implying that Hamlet is the object of her hatred and disgust. She also states that this promise was made before he ‘tumbled’ (4.5.62) her, a reference to sexual intercourse. Despite her father’s murder, in her madness, caused by her intense grief, Ophelia still fixates upon her lover, imploring the audience to realise that Hamlet is the direct cause of her suffering, as her father’s murderer, and her suffering throughout the whole play.

Juliet’s suffering is sustained past the stages of grief, due to her continued loyalty to Romeo. Unlike Ophelia, Juliet remains loyal to her male lover, and retains her sanity. This prolongs her suffering, as she finds that she is further tested with the impending news of Romeo’s banishment. Juliet explains that ‘there is no end, no limit, measure’ in the word ‘banished’ (3.2.125). Juliet notes that the word itself has infinite powers to kill and destroy, and that the physical act of Romeo’s banishment kills her beyond infinity. As well as having to deal with her grief, and the prospect of Romeo’s banishment, Juliet finds that in allying with Romeo, she will make enemies of her family, who seek the ‘murderer’ (3.5.84) of Tybalt. She then tries to involve herself in the Capulet plot to avenge Tybalt, falsely claiming that she will not be satisfied until she sees Romeo ‘dead’ (3.5.94). Her loyalty towards Romeo means that she has to cope with the possibility of his banishment, as well as the grief and anger of the Capulet family, which exacerbates her suffering.

The final suffering of both heroines is death, which is used to discuss the wider position of women in society. Juliet greets death with the strength that she draws from her love for Romeo. Her loyalty to him, and the suffering she has endured, leads her to this moment, as she declares that she is the ‘sheath’ (5.3.170) of Romeo’s dagger. Juliet’s death is used by Shakespeare to discuss love more broadly, as in her final act, Juliet dispenses with the conventions and duties that have restrained her, personified by Lord Capulet.[8] Juliet has consistently resisted the societal pressures that have been placed on her, and rejected her duty as daughter in order to pursue Romeo. Juliet’s final sacrifice and suffering confirms the magnitude of her love for Romeo, as Shakespeare uses the character as a cipher to argue that love can be measured by the acts that lovers perform for each other.[9] Her reunion with Romeo in death advocates the idea of free choice, as Juliet is rewarded for her loyalty to her husband in death.[10]

Ophelia’s death is somewhat more peaceful as she is pulled ‘to muddy death’ (4.7.181). The ‘willow’ (4.7.164) is a symbol of unrequited love, again referencing the fact that her expressions of love for Hamlet have led to her suffering, and subsequent death.[11] Her lack of will to stop her drowning leads some critics to argue that Ophelia’s death was suicide, much like Juliet’s. In contrast to Juliet, Ophelia is not reuniting with any lover in death but instead seeks to escape the suffering that she has endured in her life, exacerbated by her love for Hamlet. Elaine Showalter opines that Ophelia’s madness and death is representative of women’s oppression within society, suggesting that, like Juliet, Shakespeare uses Ophelia to discuss the wider issues and treatment of women.[12]

Juliet and Ophelia’s love and loyalty for their male counterparts leads to their suffering and eventual deaths, which is preceded by suffering in the forms of exploitation, verbal abuse and grief. Although Shakespeare endorses free love in the character of Juliet, such emotions can be dangerous for young women. Love is portrayed as a destructive force that leads to multiple character deaths, and draws women away from their duties, thus imploring them to break free from societal restraints. Only Juliet succeeds in this, as her suicide subverts societal expectations and allows her to succeed in being with Romeo. Ophelia, in contrast, is destroyed by the men in the play, most specifically Hamlet, and is exploited by Polonius and Claudius because of her love for Hamlet. Her freedom comes in the form of her madness, suggesting that Ophelia is used to open discussions about female oppression. The sufferings and subsequent deaths of both heroines can be used to discuss issues that are still prominent today concerning the freedom and oppression of women.

Thanks for reading!

[1] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2016).

[2] AC Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992) p. 129.

[3] Emi Hamana, ‘Whose Body Is It, Anyway? – A re-Reading of Ophelia’, in Hamlet and Japan, ed. by Yoshiko Uéno, (AMS Press: 1995) pp. 143-154. p. 145.

[4] Avi Erlick, Hamlet’s Absent Father, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) p. 171.

[5] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. by René Weis (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2012).

[6] Cedric Watts, Romeo and Juliet, (Conneticut: Twayne Publishers, 1991) p. 92.

[7] Ibid., p. 72.

[8] Cedric Watts, Romeo and Juliet, (Conneticut: Twayne Publishers, 1991) p. 97

[9] Ibid., p. 115

[10] Ibid., p. 114

[11] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. by René Weis (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2012).  p. 436.

[12] Elaine Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in Shakespearean Tragedy, ed. by John Drakakis (London: Routledge, 1991) pp. 280-296. p. 281.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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