Ophelia and Laertes
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) probably didn’t know the impact of his words writing “Hamlet” would affect the history of literature, playwriting and poetry. Written at the peak of his career, it’s considered his masterpiece and the most controversial of his works, not only because of its philosophical insights into human nature but for showing the reality of the political system during Elizabethan times and the abuse of power. If Shakespeare portrays these issues through strong male characters and their concerns about life, he on the other hand portrayed women still in the way they were supposed to behave and act.
Elizabethan women were submissive, subservient to men and they had no voice other than ‘I do’ the day they married. Such a paradox, as the chief of state at the time was Elizabeth I, considered almost as a supreme being and who intentionally never got married because that would’ve made her the consort of the King and therefore she would’ve lost her authority for issues far more domestic. This submission and the fact that they were also dependant on their men relatives made them the perfect tool to forge alliances with powerful families normally through arranged marriages.
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Ophelia, the main female character in ‘Hamlet’ is representative of this alliance. Madly in love with Hamlet, the prince of Denmark and future king, is hugely influenced by her relatives: Her father Polonius, with whom she adopts a very submissive and respectful attitude and her brother Laertes with whom she’s got a relationship based on respect and certainly more relaxed than most brother-sister relationships at the time. He cares for her, advises her and supports her; he’s more concerned about the happiness of his sister than his social status. Perhaps he loves you know,/An now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch/The virtue of his will”. Shakespeare in this moment is showing a brother truly concerned about her sister’s future but also worried about his own reputation.
Shakespeare pairs two words like ‘soil’ and ‘besmirch’ to mark the consequences of Hamlet not loving her, the loss of respect and social status, but accepting that he might love her presents us with a brother that is somehow believing in her sister and encouraging her. Later on he somehow scares her “but you must fear,/… is will is not his own”. Shakespeare points out with this the necessity for any monarch at the time of the consent of the people if they wanted to get married, so Laertes bringing up this issue is supporting and caring for his sister far more than his status, otherwise he wouldn’t warn her at all. Elizabethan women were supposed to be virgin before matrimony. Purity and chastity was virtuous and godly. Women who weren’t virgin or had the reputation of not being so, were rejected and occasionally thrown out of their homes to live a life of misery.
Shakespeare decided that Laertes was the one to speak almost in detail about this issue, and advise his sister about it. Sex and virginity were themes normally reserved for women, in this case having a man talking openly about it is seen as he is like a mother figure to Ophelia. “The canker galls the infants of the spring/Too oft before their buttons be disclosed/And in the morn and liquid dew of youth/Contagious blastments are most imminent. ” Shakespeare describes metaphorically not only the loss of virginity but it’s consequences.
The canker” as a flower or plant disease that rots “galls” the “infants”, a type of flower, in this case Ophelia’s genitalia. Shakespeare used in most of his work a literary and poetry technique called iambic pentameter, verses formed by ten syllables in five pairs of two alternate stressed and unstressed ones. In this case he followed that pattern accurately but if we take the word “blastments”, where the stress is in “blast”, the onomatopoeia for explosion or something bursting, we find a very interesting and graphic way of describing the loss of virginity and how important keeping that purity was for Elizabethans.
If Ophelia is shown throughout the play quite submissive, quiet and naive, it’s only with her brother when we can see her showing personality and free to express what she feels. When Laertes is living for France and he’s warning her about her future and her decisions, she responds in a way that could’ve been seen as insolent or inappropriate from a lady. “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whilst like a puff’d and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads”. Shakespeare’s work is full of metaphors comparing good and bad as hell and heaven.
If in the modern world we live with the idea of evolution and mostly assume its theory as post-Darwinians, Elizabethans where ruled by the believe of “The Great Chain Of Being” where on top of this pyramid of beings sat God as creator of the universe and included from angels to rats and from monarchs to rocks. Ophelia is taking her brother’s advice, and compares it as a “steep and thorny” way to heaven, happiness. Ophelia responding her brother and advising him on not doing the opposite of what he proclaims, gives the spectator the sense that they care about each other and they also need each other.
Ophelia after learning about her father’s death goes mad. Shakespeare portrays her speaking rhymes and singing songs about death giving pathos feelings to the audience. In a moment during her mental delusion, she hands out flowers to certain characters, it’s at this time where brother and sister next and last interact. He’s came back from France to challenge the king about his father’s death showing bravery and impulsiveness. “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember”. Even though Shakespeare doesn’t specify to whom are directed those flowers, I assume Rosemary is for Laertes.
Elizabethans believed that every flower represents feelings, and in the case of rosemary as she well said it was remembrance. Asking her brother to remember her but also don’t forget what happened to their father, almost encouraging him to avenge Polonius. Ophelia’s madness is portrayed by Shakespeare with the character speaking in prose, a way characters speak when they didn’t have any social status. Ironically, Ophelia when is mad seems more rational and naked of social codes, probably as a way of saying that ignorance is truly the road to happiness.
The death of Ophelia drowned in a pool of water after she falls from a tree triggers the tragedy in the play. During her funeral, Laertes impulsively and almost irrationally leaps into her grave. “Hold off the earth awhile,/till I have caught her once more in my arms”. Shakespeare presents Laertes as someone brave and impulsive, exactly the antagonist of the dubious and rational Hamlet. Two different kinds of love orbiting Ophelia’s heart, the reason in her lover Hamlet, and the passion in her familiar love Laertes. Passion, something she truly longs from Hamlet. Laertes is for Ophelia that Hamlet she sadly will never have.