“I shall obey, my lord.”
– Ophelia (I.iii.623)
Ophelia. The lovely and virtuous maiden, wearing innocence and obedience like flowers in her hair—that’s you, is it not? You, sweet beauty, were named after the flower gypsophelia, a flower known for its innocence and purity, a flower that represents self-discipline in the face of love – honour and chastity in the face of temptation. You, whose name means ‘help’, you, who have suffered silently and quietly in the wake of masculine forces, you, a little white flower weathered by storms and bent by winds, forever destined to be a receptacle to the will of the men around you. Did you know that you say ‘my lord’ almost every time you speak? Allowing yourself to be dominated by the men around you is an art you have become quite skilled in. The Art of Obedience—yes—that is the only art you know.
Chaste Ophelia, passive Ophelia, innocent Ophelia. Uncertain Ophelia, honourable Ophelia, Ophelia – the pawn in her father’s game. Your reputation precedes you. You, Ophelia, were never more than a flower destined to die. You are the victim of a patriarchal society, the victim of expectations to be virtuous, objectified and dominated by the men around you, rendered passive and obedient as a way to uphold the honour of these men. You are just a pretty little girl lacking any sense of certainty or identity without the instruction of a dominating male. Sad, isn’t it?
So, allow this to be a mirror for you, darling, obedient, Ophelia. A lens through which you are to see yourself, you lovely creature. Let us see how your value is totally dependent upon your honour. Let us see what happens to an individual with an uncertain identity and a reliance upon others attempts to safeguard this honour.
Let us look beyond this loveliness, this obedience, dear girl – let us look at who you really are.
The Loveliness of Being
I am not delicate.
I’ve always been a little too much of something
and not enough of everything else.
A little too quiet
(and far too loud),
(but not too pretty),
(but not smart enough).
See, the problem with me
is I have always been too
like the sunlight in your eyes during a hangover;
something that should have been soft
but wasn’t soft at all.
Perhaps that’s why
I’ve taken to standing
on the roof of my house
when it rains,
because I hope that
the storm will blow me
and then I’ll just feel
this incredible lightness of being,
that comes with being
Can you imagine that?
My eyes will be cool and pale,
pearly like daisy petals,
and my bones–
oh, how they will
rise to the surface of my skin,
shyly at first,
like a bashful virgin
gazing up through her eyelashes
at her lover,
and then with growing confidence;
they will ripple within me,
blades of grass breathing in the wind,
and for the first time,
I will believe that these bones of mine exist,
because I wasn’t sure before.
But now, I can see them,
and what lovely bones they are!
I will float
from the lightness
in my stomach,
and my heartbeat will
grow faint with time,
until eventually, I find
that it ceases altogether,
I’ve been feeling less
with my heart
and more with my eyes;
my heart never felt
what my eyes chose not to see–
I have taught those eyes
to only see the beauty
because the ugly
reminds me too much
of what I was like before.
How divine I will be–
a dwindling woman–
with these dainty wrists
and exquisite collarbones,
swaying to the low hum
of dead poet’s voices
singing love songs
on the record player.
And I will be thin as smoke,
and white as snow,
in my hair
and water in my lungs,
I think I might drown myself
when I don’t feel lovely enough.
And I will only wear light colours;
periwinkles and lilacs,
silvers and greys–
the colour of cobwebs.
And when they all see me,
they will gasp,
because they will think
that I look astonishingly similar
to a butterfly.
And I will be graceful,
and some man will be able
to sweep me up into his arms
as if I were a feather,
and he will be able to look deep
into my hollow eyes without flinching,
because they always say
everything feels so much better
when you are thin–
and how right they are!
I will be delighted
at how little I have become,
because he will be able
to fit his hands all the way around
and when he spins me
as we dance,
he will admire how fragile
because ‘they don’t make
women like that these days.’
I will be simply dizzy
from how slender I’ll be,
for I will never have felt so
in all my years
I’ll be like
the fluffy white seeds
of dying dandelions–
the ones you make wishes on
when you’re just a kid,
and I will hang,
in the breeze,
waiting to be planted and grow roots
that stretch down past the ashes
from the parade of lost souls
that are buried beneath the ground.
I’ll be so soft,
And I’ll be top-filled
to the brim
with the most
remarkable loveliness of being
that only comes
Isn’t that a wonderful thought?
The narrator of this piece is someone who is, by nature, harsh and strong, though she wishes to be delicate and soft, much like Ophelia naturally is. She knows with certainty who she is but does not believe herself to be honourable. The narrator of this piece desperately wants to be delicate. Lovely. And she’s not. I think women in this day and age are expected to be soft, (in speech, opinion, and nature), gentle, and lovely. This is a standard that Ophelia meets without trying, and it can be seen that Ophelia, therefore, possesses the traits that are thought to make a woman honourable. From this outside perspective, Ophelia is seen as someone who is certain in her sense of honour. She is someone who is naturally passive and agreeable–everything that a ‘natural’ woman should be. She does not speak out against her male counterparts, nor does she attempt to ‘break the mould’ because she fits it flawlessly and because it is the only mould she has ever known. Yet the perspective of the narrator does not consider how Ophelia’s honourability becomes the trait that her value is defined by, more precious even that her life, and how her sense of certainty is dependant upon instruction from those around her; rather the narrator romanticises the qualities possessed by Ophelia, glorifying passivity and obedience because of the societal expectations for women to be these things.
The piece is written in poem form because poetry is so much rawer than prose–it is raw and true and real–and this is a story that needed to be told as rawly as possible. The narrator of this piece is unsatisfied with who she is because she is strong. There is no doubt about whether or not she is able to recognize her own identity, but despite this certainty surrounding who she is, she is struggling to restore honour to herself after being viewed as ‘displeasing’ in the eyes of both her and society because of her strength and ‘harshness’. Women are supposed to be soft, and delicate, and lovely, and therefore women who are not these things are seen as unfeminine and disagreeable.
Softness, delicacy, loveliness – these are the things that make a woman honourable and respectable. These are the qualities that Ophelia has been taught to embody, the qualities she tries to safeguard, the qualities that give her value as a human being. These are the qualities that the narrator of the poem wishes she could embody so she, too, might think of herself as honourable.
The role of women in society was established by men long ago, and – as expressed by the narrator – this takes its toll on women who simply do not fit into the role they are expected to play.
be Sweet (they say)
be Sweet and smart,
but not so smart that your mouth
learns to make music
and your tongue
learns to dance to it:
it is better to be kind than to be right.
be Sweet and submissive,
but not so submissive that your petals
shiver under his touch
and fall to the ground,
your passivity should be selective:
only obey certain kinds of men.
be Sweet and silent,
your lips are well trained
in the art of sitting still,
your mouth is a flower
that will never bloom,
swallow bouquets of baby’s breath,
inhale handfuls of daisy petals
your words will be strung
like pretty pearls on
a chain around your throat:
after all, they and
you are better seen and not heard.
be Sweet and saintly,
wear a crown of wildflowers and
never let anyone touch it –
you see, they will try gathering
posies of your virtue
you are nothing without your flowers.
be Sweet and suffer,
just pretend that pain is pretty,
these bloodstains swelling
between your thighs
look a little like blooming roses
so we’ll just let them bleed,
and even if it hurts
at least the hurting looks lovely:
and your job is to make yourself beautiful.
be Sweet and smart,
but be Sweeter than you are smart
only be as smart as
your Sweetness permits you;
there is no use for a flower
whose petals have all been
This poem expresses how the contradictory expectations placed upon a woman can make it difficult to develop an identity independent from these pressures. Ophelia, for example, is duty-bound to the men in her family and having been raised with their inflexible ideas regarding the role of a woman is left with little room for her own beliefs to develop. The rigidity of the poem’s structure and the repetition emphasize how Ophelia is continually manipulated by the men around her, victim to their control, coerced into relying upon them for strict direction. As the narrator implies, she has no desire to break this pattern as it is the only pattern she has ever known; how can she rebel against something when she doesn’t know there to be an alternative?
In the poem, the narrator herself is given no opportunity to express herself; instead, she acts as an instrument to express the will of the men around her. Her voice breaks through only in one recurring line, and even this is censored by the brackets. Similarly, Ophelia is limited in her ability to express her own desires and opinions because she has learned to rely on her father and brother for instruction, only ever speaking when she is spoken to first and even then she is often disregarded, as if her words too have brackets closing in on them. Just as the poem illustrates, Ophelia is defined – by her father, her brother, and her lover – by her sexuality. Her value is decided by her virginity and her ability to obey her father. Therefore, she attempts to uphold her honour and prove her worth by allowing herself to be used by Polonius. Her sense of self is entirely dependent upon the constant direction she receives from him – just as the narrator of the poem is totally controlled by the instructions given to her at the end of each stanza – which makes for a fragile nature and an uncertain identity. The narrator, too, is so used to being controlled and told to be quiet that her own identity is underdeveloped so as to make room for the swollen influence of those who would prefer her to be an object. Polonius himself shows himself to have a need to control his daughter in this way, making her sweet rather than smart and obedient rather than independent, and does not appear to recognize her as a human being with her own complex thoughts and emotions.
Ultimately, the poem reflects Ophelia’s own circumstance and her inability to exist without the structure provided for her by Polonius.
Ophelia, you have been raised to be lovely. You grew up under the influence of your father, who disregarded your autonomy and discredited your beliefs, a father whose controlling presence contributed to your mental deterioration long before his death. He taught you that your honour was synonymous with your virginity, he taught you that the only way to be certain was to let your identity be crafted by the direction of men. He taught you to be Sweet. Be smart. Be submissive. Be silent. Be saintly. Be defined by your sexuality.
You, Ophelia, are a slave to your gender – the rigid constructs of your culture and your circumstance tell you that you are a woman, and nothing more.
It’s funny, though, don’t you think? Your purity, the one quality that makes you the most desirable would be the same quality that would destroy you if they succeeded. Your virgin eyes and ears, your virgin lips and tongue – yes, that is what they all love about you, but is also what they all want to take from you. Interesting, don’t you think?
You had no choice but to be defined by qualities decided by men, because this is a man’s world and you are only living in it. Did you even notice how Sweet you were? Did you not realize that you had what every other girl wanted? Your innocence, your purity, your obedience–not everyone is born with that, Ophelia. But you were.
And now, Sweet Ophelia, you are the candle to which everyone else pales in comparison. You are the standard that every other girl is held to, but no one can truly have what you did. No one. Perhaps that’s why you left this earth so young. Don’t you think? Not to mention that your death was a lovely one. So I supposed you played your perfect little role right to the very end. Didn’t you?
Don’t you see how you influence people? In the poetry we write for you, in the portraits we paint of you, in the songs that we sing for you. We, Ophelia, want to be you.
The poetry we wrote for you, Ophelia, was a tribute of sorts; the first expressing how you have something that we don’t, that you are someone we want to be, because you are gentle and delicate and soft, and they don’t make women like that these days, do they? And the second, a cautionary tale for those who model themselves after you–a tale that warns to be both Sweet and smart, though we both know that’s not possible, don’t we?
Sometimes I think I am like you. Perhaps not in the most obvious way, and perhaps not in the eyes of others–people these days have been too intent on creating a version of myself that is easier for them to see; a version of myself that is arrogant and antagonized, harsh and hated. They want to see a monster in me, Ophelia. And so they do.
They would not compare me to you in terms of a likeness–they would compare me to you in terms of everything that I should have been, but wasn’t. I don’t know why they hate me so much, my dear friend. I don’t understand.
Because, you, Ophelia, you are soft, and passive, and lovely, and obedient. Those are the things they want me to be, I think. I would be easier to control that way, wouldn’t I?
You have it easy, Ophelia. Had it easy. And sometimes, I wish I was you. Because you were suppressed, yes, but didn’t even realize it. You didn’t see what was wrong with the world you were living in, but I do. You didn’t know anything different. You couldn’t have. You were born lovely. You were born soft. Delicate. You were born into everything that a woman is supposed to be and you were loved for it. Revered. Your innocence charmed people, your beauty enchanted them. You never had to be anything more than you.
But I–I have to be everything I’m not. Day after day, another skin, another voice, a new set of bones–I have made myself again and again, and it is never good enough. Never good enough for them and never good enough for me.
Because, Ophelia, they say I am unlike you. They say that I am frigid, and rude, and pretentious–they say that I am rough, and arrogant, and entitled. I cannot tell you how much it hurts me to know that I am not truly liked. Not really. And perhaps if they saw me to be more like you, I would be.
But the thing is, Ophelia, despite what they say about me, I am. I am you.
I have been used like you, abused like you, trodden on like you.
Because you are lovely, and soft, and gentle, and when I am just me, I am too. Despite what they say. Despite how they go out of their way to smear me–I know I am like you.
I know I am like you.
Because, I am not cruel, and neither are you, though they would have you believe I was–I think it makes it easier for them to look me in the eye; breaking me down brick by brick, stone by stone, rock by rock. It makes me less human and gives me animal qualities, and I think they like that. I think it makes them feel better about themselves. I think it gives them their own deluded sense of honour.
But it’s not honourable, Ophelia–they have no regard for how it makes me feel dead when I am alone at night. Because they strip me of my honour to try and regain theirs.
I nearly drowned once, you know. Nearly drowned myself, like you did. Sometimes, I think that would be the best way to go–I would put on a pretty dress, and wear flowers in my hair, and breathe in the icy water, and for once I would not be empty. And I would float down the river half-alive, and maybe then they would not hate me so much because they would think I was so beautiful with the flowers in my hair and water in my lungs that they would not be able to think about anything else.
Because that’s all anyone remembers about you, isn’t it? How you were beautiful in life and in death. A beautiful, virginal, obedient girl. That’s what you are.
And that’s what I should have been.
Do you see it, now, Ophelia?
You, having been coerced into surrendering your independence, suffer from a smothered and uncertain identity, so inextricably reliant upon direction from your father that when you are forced to confront freedom, you lose all sense of self. You are nothing without a controlling male presence to give you a purpose. Ophelia, it is through you that we see how when an individual with an uncertain identity and a limited ability to function independently attempts to safeguard their honour, their sense of self will only deteriorate further.
You, who only ever knew obedience, never had the opportunity to develop any sort of sophisticated identity. All you ever knew to do was listen and obey. How could you have known what would happen to you when this was taken away? You lost all sense of yourself, dear girl, because your father is dead and your brother is gone and your lover has rejected you. You simply weren’t made to endure that kind of abandonment, were you? It shocked you into madness.
You live in a world where honour is tied to your virginity and your ability to be silent and obedient, where your honour is all you have, where certainty is hard to come by. To have your purity blemished, your reputation tainted would cause you an impossible amount of shame. And the pressure to safeguard your honour when limited by an uncertain identity and dependent on external direction lead you to your downfall.
Your sense of certainty is dependant on the men around you and without them you are only a broken little girl, struggling to restore your honour. Your honour, your virginity, defines you, and your own sense of self, removed from others, is so fragile, so underdeveloped.
You were reliant on others to build an identity for you so you didn’t have to be uncertain. This is what killed you.
It is through you that we understand all of this, Ophelia. We understand how your obedience leads others to take advantage of you, that it made you easy to control. Conformity does that to one, you know. Obedience and conformity are the least honourable paths one can walk, for blind trust will only lead to betrayal. Hurt, and lies, and betrayal.
From you we learned the dangers of becoming what others want you to be; your own father’s pursuit of honour and certainty is what influenced yours, and you became a vessel for the achievement of his pursuit.
You taught us that when an individual’s value is tied to an uncertain sense of honour and this honour is diminished, one will go to extreme lengths to pursue its restoration. Your father and your society taught you that honour was more important than anything else, even your life. And so, a lost little girl whose sense of certainty died along with her father, you went to extreme lengths in order to protect this honour – you let yourself drown to protect yourself from your own voice, a voice that was surfacing in the wake of your madness, a voice that would have tarnished your reputation and tainted your honour.
From you, darling Ophelia, we learned that when an individual with an uncertain identity, reliant upon the instruction of others to provide them with certainty, is forced to forgo the direction they have depended upon their whole life, the individual will attempt to exchange their identity for a restored sense of certainty. That is what you did, isn’t it? Your whole life, you didn’t have to know who you were because the men around you told you who to be. You identity never represented value to you because you were never free to imbue it with any, and so when the freedom to do so was forced upon you, you were uncertain. You floundered like a waterlogged dress and in the end, you decided drowning – going to a place where you would find some certainty, a place ruled by a divine director – was better than remaining in a place where nothing was definite anymore.
In the end, poor Ophelia, this is all you ever were: a flower plucked from the earth for its beauty and cast aside after it began to wither and die.
Ophelia. Obedient, sweet, passive Ophelia.
The lovely and virtuous maiden, wearing innocence and obedience like flowers in her hair—that’s you, is it not?
Only it isn’t. Your loveliness is forced upon you, your virtue defines your worth, innocent by habit and obedient by practice. And now, Ophelia, after having been used by the men in your life, you have been left with no certainty to call your own, for you never truly had any in the first place. Did you? No certainty about yourself, your love, your identity. There was nothing left for you, Ophelia, and you were not taught how to make your own.
And your honour – dare we even speak of that? Death, for you, was the ultimate way to safeguard and restore your honour; you can’t tarnish your own reputation if you’re dead, can you? And who dares speak ill of a dead girl? In death, the wolves can’t take your honour away from you anymore, and you don’t have to restrain yourself from temptation any longer. Right?
Perhaps death was the only way for you to be certain about something, the only way for you to protect your honour.
Perhaps that’s why you drowned yourself – after living with constant pressure to be honourable, after living a life of uncertainty, it must have felt nice to do the dishonourable thing for once, to do something that you were finally sure about.
Guiding Prompt: The ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty.
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Ziyana–Quotation, Introduction, Creative piece 2 and Explanation, Transition, Insight, Conclusion