Teen Queens of Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet’s leading lady, Hamlet’s Ophelia and the Men


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Shakespeare’s famous young female characters in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and their relationship to their men and families

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Teen Queens of Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet’s leading lady, Hamlet’s Ophelia and the Men

  1. 1. It’s not easy being a girl, especially a young girl in love. First, you have to worry about what yourparents will think about your new boy. Secondly, you have to figure out how far intimately youwant to go with said boy. Then, of course, there’s the whole boyfriend-killed-a-relative-and-has-been-exiled thing. Well, that’s how William Shakespeare writes about young tragic love: foreverfraught between the boy and family loyalties. What’s a young girl to do?Well, given Shakespeare’s literary record in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, young girls killthemselves when divided between lovers and families. Of course, those incidents are for tragiceffect, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. In fact, Romeo’s Juliet and Hamlet’s Opheliahave become sort of teen female idols—for better or for worse. Juliet, probably the most famous13-year-old wife for the past 400 years, is often high schoolers’ first introduction toShakespearean female characters. Ophelia is also another relatable character, often used as asymbol for disenfranchised adolescent girls in countless psychological and feminist works,including books from Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia to Sara Shandler’s Ophelia Speaks.Yet, what makes these two female characters such figures of interest, beyond their emotionalpassion and tragic ends, is their relationship to the men in their lives and how they manage.Ophelia is often seen as a victim of good ole patriarchy, thanks in part to Shakespeare’ssympathetic portrayal. She’s entirely obedient to her father and brother, who both are constantlyusing her as pawns to entrap Hamlet or instructing her how to protect her euphemized “button”—or flower bud—because a “deflowered” woman is the worst thing ever.In fact, a quick study of some select Hamlet quotes shows that the play is consistently concernedwith her sexuality, as well as Queen Gertrude’s, hence why many literary scholars are keen topoint out some incestuous inklings in the Danish prince. Most of prominent quotes—such as thefamous “get thee to a nunnery” tirade against Ophelia— are accusatory or condemning spoutsfrom Hamlet, whose misogyny runs rampant in the story about the murder of his father and hisuncle’s fratricide. In fact, the whole murdered dad thing occasionally takes a back seat toHamlet’s concerns with Ophelia’s and his mom’s sexual purity or lack thereof, which isemphasized as a woman’s only value in the play.Back to Ophelia. After Hamlet unintentionally but not regretfully kills her dad, she goes bonkers,handing with symbolic flowers and herbs from the garden—there’s a whole botanical theme goingon here—and then sort of falls into the river and drowns. It is left uncertain if it was intentional oraccidental, but many critics are in the suicide camp, quick to argue that her death came aboutbecause the loss of her dad destabilized her life so drastically she couldn’t cope and muster anypersonal agency for herself. A victim of oppressive patriarchal society.Juliet has different but equally trying situations with the men in her life. Yet, unlike Ophelia, shewields an unexpected amount of maturity—despite being only 13 years old. Girls do mature fasterthan boys, apparently. She starts out heavily dependent on her family (again, she’s only 13) butevolves over the course of the play as someone who makes her own choices, family be damned.In fact, she decides to choose Romeo over her family, especially after they try to push a marriageto Paris on her. Little do they know she’s already married (TWIST!) and she’s sticking by herman, despite the fact he killed her cousin. While that may seem naïve and slightly unhealthy—staying with someone who violently killed a blood relative—she makes her bed and lies in it too.In fact, she’s got the gall to fake her own death in that same bed and evade her family so she canlive happily ever after with Romeo. Too bad Romeo didn’t get the whole fake death memo,though. Moral of the play: check your messages.For a young woman of this time, she’s sure breaking a lot of rules, but she is unapologetic aboutit, throwing off the demands and restraints placed on her purely because of her gender. Ofcourse, she does it for a guy, but she does it nonetheless. When she decides to follow Romeo’ssuicide, she does it by choice and with conviction, something we can’t say about Ophelia. Ofcourse, Juliet had bet her whole family on her relationship with Romeo and cannot easilyreconcile with them, especially since they think she is dead while also threatening to disown her if
  2. 2. she didn’t marry Paris. In fact, that is an area where Ophelia and Juliet share some commonground: loss of familial support and stability. Their shared situation—whether it was by choice ornot—points to the larger theme at hand that envelopes these iconic Shakespearean femalecharacters. They operate in a world that is not only unforgiving to them, but one that isconstructed with a built-in trap door if they should step out of bounds. They have no real safetynet, no back-up plan, no agency and no survival skills. Ophelia goes mad at the thought, whileJuliet chooses suicide due to the lack of viable options. Shakespeare, a playwright who VirginiaWoolf lauded as someone who could write knowingly from both the male and female perspective,understood this. Their deaths, prompted by lack of support, are the real tragedy.
  3. 3. Romeo and Juliet. HamletUnhealthy relationships.Much like Ophelia, Juliet commits suicide at the end of her tragedy. Romeo and Juliet can fairlybe called “her tragedy” because she alone makes up half the title. It would then be unfair to callHamlet Ophelia’s tragedy because while Ophelia is important to the story she is not the intendedfocus of it. Hamlet is clearly the focus and tragic hero yet some critics have argued that Ophelia’sacts just foreshadow Hamlet’s own later action.Even though one play can be called Juliet’s tragedy and the other cannot rightfully be calledOphelia’s tragedy both ladies are key players in their own way. Ophelia and Juliet are necessaryto their respective stories.How would Hamlet function if there were no Ophelia? What would Romeo do and what wouldbecame of the infamous feuding families if it were not for Juliet?These questions are unanswerable because the characters of Ophelia and Juliet have beencarefully placed into the world of the plays by Shakespeare, the playwright. Within the dramatictragedies both Ophelia and Juliet are necessary players and their deaths at the end of the playsare crucial to how the tragedies function.Ophelia’s ambiguous suicide (accident or intentional) versus Juliet’s death.Killing herself over a man? Ophelia—dad, Juliet, Romeo.Abusive/.unhealthy?Well, each boy kills someone of their family. Hamlet berates her—some scholars would attributeto his ever-growing misogyny in the play, one of the things that fuels him.A tale of two romances.Why does Hamlet even had a romantic interest? What purpose does it serve.