Discuss the ideas developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty to their lives.
A woman is expected to be three things: beautiful, passive, and honourable. Throughout history, women have been reliant on the perceptions of men to validate both their sense of certainty and their sense of honour. It is also exceedingly more difficult for women to understand the true meaning of honour when it is so often confused with purity – and therefore they are left to balance sanctity and sexuality while attempting to appease the individuals around them. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this reality is Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia is unable to restore any honour or certainty to her own life when she is so reliant on the opinions of uncertain, and arguably psychotic men around her. As lovely as she was obedient, her inability to separate herself from the contradicting viewpoints of her father, Polonius, brother, Laertes, and former love interest, Hamlet, leads to her eventual madness and ultimate demise. Furthermore, as her relationships with the men around her disintegrated, so did any sense of honour and certainty. William Shakespeare illustrates the idea that when an individual becomes reliant on others to provide a sense of honour and certainty to their life, he or she will be unable to restore these ideals in their absence.
It is impossible for one to pursue honour and certainty when they are reliant on others to understand the concepts – which are often convoluted and contradictory. Readers are introduced to Ophelia as the scapegoat for Hamlet’s sudden and frightening “madness” as a result of her love and sexuality influencing him. Her honour is being diminished from the very beginning, as her sexuality and beauty are regarded to almost as a curse on Hamlet. Both these concepts are the ideas providing her with some semblance of self worth, though she has no control over them. The contradicting ideologies around her femininity exemplifies her constant world of uncertainty. Her brother, Laertes, and father, Polonius then proceed to instruct Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, therefore providing her with a sense of certainty in regards to her actions. Though she may not agree with their commands, Ophelia is first and foremost an obedient woman, replying “I shall obey, my lord.” (1.3,135) It is evident that her perception of the men in her life surpasses just familial relations; she looks up to them as if they were her God. The repetition of “my lord” is not only used for her father and brother, but also a term of endearment and respect for Hamlet. Furthermore, she sets aside her own feelings of love and longing for Hamlet in order to conform to her family’s desires, sacrificing her certain feelings for these uncertain accusations. Reliance on others coupled with obedience allowed her to have a superficial sense of security in her identity and actions, but separates her from any sense of independence. The dangers of reliance and obedience become apparent – when one’s identity is linked to the perceptions of others, there is no true sense of self. It is also impossible for one to attain certainty through external forces, because there exists no certainty in perspective, which is so often changing and ambiguous. Ophelia is disadvantaged as soon as she is introduced through attempting to maintain her honour in a contradictory world and holding on to certainty in her relationships with men.
When one begins to lose the individuals they are so dependant on for honour and certainty, their grasp on these concepts begin to shatter with their relationships. Initially Ophelia had begun to lose her sense of honour, she still assumed some sense of certainty with the guidance of Polonius and Laertes, though not with Hamlet. However, as Laertes leaves her to pursue his education and Hamlet descends into his madness, murdering Polonius, her world is as chaotic as it is uncertain. Hamlet in particular decides to cruelly reject Ophelia, diminishing any sense of honour that was rooted in their relationship. He even goes so far as to command, “Get thee to a nunnery,” (3.1. 121) implying that Ophelia is impure and therefore dishonourable, and needs to somehow cleanse herself. She is losing her worth as a woman, and has seemingly no purpose anymore, as her role prior to Hamlet’s rejection was to fuel his masculinity in any way she could. If Hamlet respected and loved Ophelia, she could respect and love herself, and in turn, consider herself honourable. She is so desperate to hold on to any semblance of honour and certainty that she is willing to completely disregard Hamlet’s heartlessness and inappropriate actions to maintain these ideals. For example, Hamlet publicly lays his head “between maids’ [Ophelia’s] legs” (3.2, 121) after his rejection of her, manipulating her for his own selfish desires and exploiting her sexuality. Ophelia is compliant, allowing him to use her – she clings on to the honour and certainty Hamlet once represented and is too obedient to push him away. This proves the extent at which individuals will go to restore their certainty, even when the consequences include forsaking one’s honour. It is after the death of Polonius and her rejection from Hamlet that Ophelia starts to understand how alone she really is. When one begins to understand their reliance on the perceptions and standards of others, it is extremely difficult for them to learn how to exist independently and restore honour and certainty when the individuals representing these ideas are gone.
Once an individual understands that he or she is unable to restore honour and certainty oneself after being reliant on others for so long, there is often a devastating loss of hope leading to one’s ultimate demise. At this point, every influential man in Ophelia’s life has left her. Her name and honour has been tarnished by Hamlet, and the certainty she once had through obeying Polonius and Laertes has been completely destroyed. Incapable of restoring honour and certainty while living, Ophelia’s death was her last attempt at restoring honour to her name while finally obtaining certainty in the only way she deemed possible. Her suicide was perhaps her only independent act, but may also be her most dishonourable. Ophelia had perfected the art of obedience, but now needed to perfect the art of escapism. Innocence and fragility can only bear the burdens of uncertainty and dishonour for so long before descending into madness. The act of drowning herself was also extremely symbolic of Ophelia’s attempt to wash away her sins, restoring honour to her name as her loved ones mourned her loss. However, Ophelia’s dishonour is made clear in the scene after her death. The gravediggers actually argue about whether or not it was righteous for Ophelia to receive a proper Christian burial when she committed one of the most unforgivable sins in the line, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that/ wilfully seeks her own salvation?” (5.1, 52) Therefore, one could argue that an attempt to restore their honour through an act of certainty will be unsuccessful unless the act itself is honourable. Ophelia had no moral compass or independant thought after the men in her life had left her. There was no way for her to understand the dishonour of her suicide without guidance from external forces. Thus, her cycle of dishonour continues after her death. In the absence of Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes, Ophelia is rendered unable to restore honour and certainty to her life, though certainty was attained in her death. When external forces are one’s only gateway into honour and certainty, reliance can lead to one’s downfall. It is only through security in independence that one will be able to restore honour and certainty to his or her life.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the playwright exemplifies the dangers of relying on others for honour and certainty through the innocent character of Ophelia. Initially, her world revolved around the men around her: Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet. As each of these relationships deteriorated, so did her certainty, and her honour was stripped from her by the conflicting perceptions of her sexuality and virginity. Ophelia eventually escaped into a world of madness, as she was unable to cope with her dishonour and uncertainty. Shakespeare portrays the idea that an individual dependent on others to provide them with a sense of honour and certainty will ultimately be lost without their guiding presence. Therefore, he or she will be unable to restore honour and certainty to their lives because they have never understood the concept of honour independently, nor have they had any real sense of certainty that was not tied to another person.