In the Act I Sc III of Hamlet, the readers get three sets of conversational exchanges that illumine Shakespeare’s assured grasp over the many threads of his complicated plot. It is often argued by Feminist critics like Lee Edwards that: “We can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet”. Except the Little digressive episode of the “few precepts” (202) of Polonius to his son, the scene throws light on the characterization and representation of Ophelia as purity and innocence personified, establishing femininity in a patriarchal discourse as passivity, subservience and lack.
Laertes feels sincere anxiety for Ophelia because of Hamlet and “the trifling of his favour” (197). He warns Ophelia against the youthful Hamlet in brilliant rhetoric, who might love her for the time being, but “His greatness weigh’d, his will is, not his own”(199). The most intriguing aspect of his advices is the unmistakable anxiety for the loss of his sister’s “chaste treasure” (199) or virginity. Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain If with too credent ear you list his songs, Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster’d importunity. (199) This leads to stage productions of Hamlet since the 1950s where directors have hinted at an incestuous link between Ophelia and Laertes. Trevor Nunn’s production with Helen Mirren in 1970, for example, made Ophelia and Laertes flirtatious doubles. Also in the delightful text of Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor (1982), he noted that in other productions of the same period, Marianne Faithful was a haggard Ophelia equally attracted to Hamlet and Laertes.
In the classic study by Elaine Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, she notes that in one of the few performances “directed by a woman, Yvonne Nicholson sat on Laertes’ lap in the advice scene and played the part with rough sexual bravado”. The parental advices given by Polonius to Laertes were a tradition of the period. Those conventional advices establish Polonius as a man of practical prudence, experience and underline his role as the father.
However, his advices for Ophelia open up deeper possibilities of thematic expansion. All his advices carry specific messages about femininity and sexuality. In a psychoanalytic seminar on Hamlet, held in Paris in 1959, Jacques Lacan argued: “As sort of a come-on, I announced that I would speak today about that piece of bait named Ophelia …” In his paper, he established Ophelia as the object of Hamlet’s male desire; in his words, “she is linked forever, for centuries, to the figure of Hamlet.
” Such conceptions stem from the announcement of Polonius that Ophelia is nothing but a “green girl” (204) and advises to “Tender yourself more dearly” (204). The phallic bait game is assured when Ophelia finally utters: “I shall obey, may lord. ” 9207). Critics like Theodor Lidz present the view that while Hamlet is neurotically attached to his mother, Ophelia has an unresolved Oedipal attachment to her father. In this scene, it is Ophelia’s unquestioned obedience to her father, which is in other words her subservience to the phallic order that infers her inevitable tragedy.
Ophelia’s role as a sister and a daughter in a self-assertive male world obscure her sense of agency; as Polonius and Laertes not only make her doubt her own instinctive understanding of Hamlet, but also make her fear her own self by pointing out her inexperience in resisting temptation, she is “Unsifted in such perilous circumstance”(204). Confused, she takes the recluse of passive obedience. And it is the precise reason why A. C.
Bradley speaking for the Victorian male tradition in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) pointed out; “Large number of readers feels a kind of personal irritation against Ophelia; they seem unable to forgive her for not having been a heroine. ” The most potential aspect of the scene is the brilliant contrast between the eloquence of the male characters and the silence of the female; that underlines Ophelia’s role of the powerless creature cornered in a fiery game of male power play who can only find meaning in madness in a patriarchal discourse. Hamlet: The Arden Shakespeare. U. K: Methuen, 2000.
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