When I hear Shakespeare, the first thing that rarely crosses my mind is girlhood. Throughout most, if not all, of Shakespeare's great tragedies the main focus is on the torment and pain that the male lead is currently suffering. In contrast, many female characters, even those suffering in similar ways, are thought of as less than, villainous, or even hysterical. These girls and young women are forever viewed through this male gaze, taking away their agency, and making them something that is secondary despite their importance.
However, as we began our discussion of Hamlet on our first day of our NEH Institute “Transforming Shakespeare’s tragedies”, Jennifer Flaherty (co-director of the program) had us focus not on our male lead, Hamlet, but on his love interest, the young woman Ophelia not as a “disturbed and neurotic” young woman, but as a character that represents girlhood in all of its complexity.
As someone who has never taught Hamlet, my focus on girlhood in Shakespeare was Juliet, so I found it interesting how a character like Ophelia has become synonymous with girlhood and adolescence. Yet as we took a closer look into her character and circumstances, it became clear that much of what Ophelia struggles with, in her society and circumstances, can be used to gather a better understanding of our female students and the trials and tribulations of their adolescent lives. She, like many female students that I have encountered as a high school teacher, has been told by society that by a certain age if you do not fit the mold of what a young woman is supposed to be you will not be accepted among those in your friend group, society, or even your family. They are told, very much like Ophelia, that their self-worth is in connection to those around them and that they need to think about those around them and how to make others happy instead of themselves.
Ophelia, like many adolescent girls, is solely focused through her connections with male characters such as Hamlet and her father Polonius which shows us only a shadow of who she is and what she could truly represent as a character. Ophelia is more than just a mad young woman but one with thoughts and feelings that she is unfortunately told to push down and repress. It is expressed that her feelings do not matter due to her being a young woman and not having a place in society to have a voice or express herself as Hamlet does. Yet, when we think of Ophelia as an individual and her connections to girlhood, we allow her to have a narrative separate from the male characters that control her life. As Jennifer Hulbert expresses in her article Adolescence, Thy Name Ophelia! The Ophelia-ization of the Contemporary Teen about Pipher’s work in Reviving Ophelia that “By removing Ophelia from the misogynistic world of Hamlet and declaring her and the girls she represents as the Self, these young women become people in their own right, no longer part of the definition of someone else” (205). Focusing on Ophelia separate from her ties to the men in her life, allows the reader to see her in a different light, to view her with agency and self-worth, and allows our students to do the same.
What do you think of when you hear the word “girlhood”? Dresses, dolls, and horses? First kisses, first dances, first crushes? In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia has become the unofficial representative of girlhood and what it means, even as she unravels into insanity after she experiences the same, if not more, tragedy as the titular male character. During this symposium, we had the opportunity to discuss the effects that Ophelia as a character has had on society’s ideas of girlhood and what it means.
Ophelia is everything that a girl should be - polite, loving, devoted to her father and to her love, Prince Hamlet, despite his strange and erratic behavior after the death of his father, the king. She keeps the letters that Hamlet sent her; the little tokens of his feelings for her, though he tells her that he never meant them. Her father warns her against loving Hamlet, which could be any father telling any daughter: “Stay away from him, he won’t be good for you.” Her slow unraveling that culminates in her madness in Act 4, Scene 5, and ultimately her supposed suicide, could be the underpinning of girlhood that everyone ignores. How could she not unravel? She is at the mercy of every man in her life – rejected by the man she thought she would marry, controlled by her father, and at the whim of society’s expectations of what her life should look like. Her father is murdered and Hamlet vanishes to England, leaving her to the mercy of the court. Laertes, her brother, is basically off stage for the majority of the play. Ophelia has no one and her girlhood is interrupted. The promises of her life disappear and her madness manifests.
I think that Ophelia would be a character that many frustrated, angry high school girls could cling to; told what to do by their parents, dictated by their expectations: go to college, get a good job, date a person we approve of, be successful but not too successful. What is their definition of girlhood? How do their parents and society condense them into one meaning, just like they condensed Ophelia? Ophelia’s madness could be a complete rejection of the idea of girlhood - good girls don’t go mad, don’t express their pain in clever little rhymes or hand out carefully picked flowers to the orchestrators of their madness. They are something else entirely. Or rather: could that anger, hurt, and damage be a function of girlhood in Ophelia’s society?
After reading multiple interpretations from adaptations like Ophelia by Lisa Klein, and watching clips from the MIT Global Shakespeare database, students could decide their own interpretations of the mad scene - would they want to play into the hurt, or would they want to reclaim their fury? They could fling themselves to the floor, sing Ophelia’s little rhymes, hand out their flowers, or fool the King and the Queen who orchestrated so much tragedy. But the one that struck me the most was Julia Stiles in the Almereyda version. After trying to confront Gertrude, her words fail her; instead, Ophelia leans over the open railing of the Guggenheim and lets out a primal scream that echoes through the galleries. In the text, Shakespeare ties Ophelia’s madness into pretty rhymes, perfectly packaged with stanzas and rhythm - just like a girl should be pretty and perfectly packaged, neat and tidy even in her madness. Stiles and Almereyda burst through the seams, completely tearing it open by allowing Stiles to let out a violent, furious, frustrated scream over the edge of the railing for everyone in the museum to hear.
Girlhood can mean a number of things - for Ophelia, it can mean tragedy, loss, heartache. It can mean being controlled until she’s not, and she controls her narrative when she comes in rhyming until the moment she falls into the water.
And, really, what is girlhood if not letting out a primal scream over the railing of the Guggenheim, because no one will listen to you?