Ophelia’s reaction to Laertes advice is one that may be emphasised by a director who is portraying her as a strong character; “… Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,” She is clearly demonstrating the fact that feels comfortable with her brother as an equal, and as such, is not afraid to accuse him of hypocrisy.
A retort to this, coming from a director with a weaker Ophelia in mind, would be that she immediately accepted the ‘advice’ of her brother and possibly even acted to destroy a relationship, in which she was deeply involved. Polonius’ involvement in the conversation about Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is another defining factor in the debate over Ophelia’s strength (or lack of it). It is the first conversation between them, and depending on the direction, it could dictate the character of Ophelia throughout the play.
It is inarguable that Ophelia is dominated by her father, but to portray her in any other way is unrealistic; all women of the time were forced to follow the will of their parents. It is the manner in which Ophelia accepts her father’s orders that would show her strength. In this scene her body language would be the factor which dominated the interpretation; if Ophelia appeared to be alert and attentive, it would show her as listening to her father and brother, and considering their words, demonstrating, again, Ophelia’s intelligence and strength.
She would consider her course of action, viewing the advice as just that; advice, not an order. When performed to a modern audience, this scene would undoubtedly be less unexpected; a women’s potential to attain positions of power has greatly increased since Shakespearean times, and a strong casting of either Ophelia or Gertrude would be far more likely to be anticipated.
Ophelia is dominated throughout the play by all of the males she comes into contact with, and while, in a contemporary setting, this would lead to Ophelia appearing as a very definitely weak character, if the historical context of the play is considered, it leaves the debate over her strength open; it was expected for a female character to suffer a certain degree of oppression, it is the manner in which Ophelia deals with this which defines her character.
Shakespeare’s trait of using minimal stage directions throughout the play leads to a largely open-ended character, which can be manipulated by the director to either extreme. An example of this open-ended approach towards Ophelia is when Claudius and Polonius plot to expose Hamlet’s madness, using Ophelia to do so. They plan to overhear Hamlet’s reaction when Ophelia returns some trinkets that were of importance to them, as a couple. This scene is particularly open to interpretation, in that it is never made clear as to whether or not Ophelia and Hamlet are involved together or not.
If it is assumed that they were involved, and Ophelia was being portrayed as weak, it would be yet another example of her sheer feebleness in the face of a man; being bewildered by his reaction to her rejection. “… What means your lordship?… ” It seems as though Hamlet doesn’t care at all. If, however, she is portrayed as a strong character then Hamlet’s reaction takes on a new light; he would appear stunned by her rejection, his reaction not being one of indifference, but of disbelief.
Instead of a demonstration of her weakness, the scene becomes a showing of Ophelia’s influence over hamlet. This is typical of the type of power that Ophelia may be argued to posses; it cannot be claimed she has any political or likewise influence, but it could be put forward that she possesses power through her ability to manipulate those around her, Hamlet being a case in point. A central point of the debate over Ophelia’s strength of character is her father’s death, and her resulting madness.
It can easily be interpreted to support either side of the argument. It could be argued that by losing her sanity, Ophelia is demonstrating her dependence on both her father and Hamlet. She is torn between her love for Hamlet, and her love for her father, the resulting clash leaving her no choice but suicide. The opposing argument would be that she resents Hamlet for the murder of her father, and the insanity she is under the influence of is brought about through intense anger.
I feel that the interpretation of Ophelia is a very interesting debate, and that both extremes have certain merits, but that the interpretation most in keeping with the rest of the play is that of a weak Ophelia. I do not feel that she was a completely pathetic character, and believe that she perceived a lot more of what was going on than could be assumed from first impressions, but, her madness, and eventual death, both lead to an inherent feeling of weakness, and as such to portray Ophelia as a strong character would seem to be somewhat misrepresentative of Shakespeare’s intentions.
The second major female in the play is Gertrude, and her role, especially with regard to her involvement in the death of Hamlet senior, is just as debatable as Ophelia’s. Where interpretation of Gertrude differs from that of Ophelia, is that it is not merely the strength of her character being judged, but also her moral fibre; A weak Gertrude could be seen as having abandoned her principals, and attempting to make the best of a bad situation, viewing the murder of her husband by his brother as inevitable.
The counter to this interpretation would be that Gertrude was in fact a strong character, who, suffering a moment of weakness, joined the plot to murder her husband, and instate Claudius as king. While traditional interpretations show Claudius to be a villain (although the final scene often contradicts this, his redemption does not counteract the fact he was evil throughout most of the film), an interesting point was raised in a discussion; Hamlet senior’s apparently benevolent rule may not have been as perfect as is often assumed.
There is, in fact, a large quantity of evidence to support a claim to the contrary, and if this is the case, Gertrude could be seen as a very strong character indeed, having defied not only cultural convention (by standing against her husband), but one of the most sacred laws of most civilisation (treason). This view would suggest that Gertrude was in fact and incredibly strong character, placing the good of her nation above that of even her own son. A key scene in defining the significance of Gertrude’s role in the play is when Hamlet confronts her, revealing his true feelings about her, and her marriage to his uncle.
A weak interpretation of Gertrude would show her as remorseful and genuinely upset by Hamlet’s revelations. The scene would become Gertrude’s realisation of what she had done, and as such she would be consumed with both guilt and regret. An idea raised during discussion was that if Gertrude were a strong character, and then the scene would be almost entirely different; Gertrude would be aware of how Hamlet felt, and be expecting his outburst. She would be acting surprised and shocked at what he was saying, but in reality merely playing with him.
She would be trying to diffuse the situation, aware that Hamlet would be unable to cope with the truth that his father had to be dealt with in the manner in which he was, for the good of the nation. Gertrude would be making yet another personal sacrifice in order to maintain the fragile state of harmony that she and Claudius had created. This sacrifice would not only serve to demonstrate her strength, but also to enhance it further, showing that she was prepared and able to isolate herself even from her own son, in order to maintain order and harmony.
There is little evidence to support this in the text, it is merely a suggestion, and no strong argument against it was presented in the discussion. Personally, I feel that a strong interpretation of Gertrude represents the script to its fullest. The series of sacrifices made by Gertrude, in order to obtain her goals, portray her as a woman of immense conviction, one who is willing to sacrifice her marriage, family, and even her life, in order to obtain her goals, and uphold her principals.
I feel it is unrealistic to portray Gertrude as little more than a prize, coveted by Claudius, and manipulated in a manner suitable for such a character. I feel that, while perhaps not the most entertaining of choices, the weak Ophelia, and strong Gertrude are the interpretations that seem most appropriate to the text, fulfilling what seems like the demands laid out by the script. Show preview only The above preview is unformatted text This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level Hamlet section.