The first conversation I ever had about Ophelia, the doomed and lovely girlfriend of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, was about Taylor Swift and went something like this:
“I’m just saying, her stuff is like – I don’t know, candy music. For, you know, Ophelias. It’s shallow.”
And then I came in, nodding like I knew anything about Hamlet, because I considered myself much too sophisticated for Taylor Swift. “Yeah, totally.”
When I finally did read Hamlet, it was in drama class, and the girl selected to read Ophelia’s lines aloud adopted a Minnie Mouse voice that made everyone snicker. “I do not know, my lord, what I should think!” she exclaimed, batting her eyelashes and tilting her head from side to side. After class, we made up a Hamlet drinking game, which included “take a shot every time Ophelia weeps.” We decided we would die of alcohol poisoning.
“All I’m saying,” my friend Josh said, “is that you know you’re a pathetic character when you’re so passive that they can’t figure out if you drowned yourself or if you fell into a river.”
Elsewhere, Ophelia is shorthand for the same image we created in Drama class: moody, naïve, vain, melodramatic. Parenting books invoke her name when instructing on dealing with troubled teenage daughters. Online, she’s described as “the most static and one-dimensional” character in the play. While a Google Images search yields hundreds of beautiful paintings of her drowning, it is surprisingly difficult to find a discussion of Ophelia outside of how Hamlet perceives her. To quote one critic, “we can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet.”
In the halls, I could’ve sworn I saw Ophelia everywhere: girls wearing lipgloss and clinging to their boyfriends’ arms, girls clutching notebooks of bad poetry and doodles, girls examining their fingernails and proclaiming to be misunderstood.
It was frustration with the “petty” girls around me that made me decide to spend some quality time with Ophelia. I expected this research to become a criticism of contemporary teenage girls, who I considered privileged and conceited. (With a pixie cut and Doc Martens, I was obviously outside of this category.) So when a friend replied to my explanation of the project with simply, “do her justice,” I was taken aback.
Do her justice? Do who justice? There was hardly a “her” to speak of, little more than a lovely waif whose death is gorgeous but whose “words, words, words” are pretty dull. Give me Lady Macbeth any day, I thought; at least she has some character development. Ophelia, I decided, just needed to “lean in.” She should’ve taken some control in her relationships. Really, Ophelia? I thought. Get it together. Read a book. Care about something – you’re dating the greatest figure in Western literature, for chrissakes!
Except the closer I looked, the less the greatest figure in Western literature seemed great. It’s no secret that Hamlet is a misogynist, but rereading the “play scene,” at the beginning of which Hamlet taunts Ophelia sexually, I began to feel sick. The quips that had once seemed funny now felt like harassment. Her father Polonius’s initial conversation with her, where he instructs her on the importance of keeping her chastity, was unsettling, especially when paired with Polonius’s instructions to his son on the importance of being himself. Every “pretty Ophelia” or “fair Ophelia” that had once seemed like an affirmation of her vanity now seemed a refusal to recognize Ophelia’s autonomy, her importance beyond her appearance.
How can someone lean in, I wondered, if she doesn’t even realize her back can arch?
Ophelia’s suicide is generally accepted as the culmination of a very brief and very beautiful madness. When Ophelia is mad, she is still lovely; when she kills herself, the scene is described prettily; when she is buried, Gertrude bemoans that now Ophelia cannot marry Hamlet. What in reality is the jarring end to a period of mental illness is portrayed as little more than a naïve girl’s melodrama.
Today, too many teenage girls who self-harm are derided as attention-seeking; their stories are written into novels that portray sadness as beautiful. When we express our sexuality, we’re sluts; when we’re celibate, we’re symbols of purity instead of people. Girls who are passive or unsure of themselves are anti-feminist, perpetrators of patriarchy instead of victims. Ophelia “contributes to her own demise” because she is “untrue to herself” – never mind she isn’t allowed to be anything beyond a pretty virgin. How dare she eventually accept the identity forced onto her!
It’s impossible to describe the quintessential teenage girl, because we come in every variety: shy, outgoing, athletic, witty, outspoken. But if there is one woman who captures it all, it’s Ophelia. Not because she’s vapid or dramatic, but because she struggles with a society that insists that she’s unimportant, that her emotions aren’t real, that wearing pink and listening to Taylor Swift makes her inferior—a society that then blames her for finally accepting the messages that surround her.
I’m an English major, and I know eventually I’ll be asked the popular question, “Who’s your favorite character?” Without hesitation, I’ll reply, “Ophelia.” More than Hamlet’s tragic girlfriend, she’s a reminder of how easy it is to fall into the tropes of self-consciousness, of the pervasive stereotypes about teen girls still left to combat, of the pressures that turn young women into dolls. I secretly like Taylor Swift too much to have it any other way.