Prompt: Discuss the idea(s) developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty to their lives.
Honour is more than just a quality – it is an expectation. To be honourable is to be valuable, and therefore an individual’s honour is most precious. Yet the ability to protect one’s honour is dependent upon their certainty; without certainty, dignity and reputation will suffer. In his play Hamlet, William Shakespeare uses Ophelia as a means through which to demonstrate that when certainty – provided by others – is compromised, an individual will lose their capacity to be honourable. Using Ophelia, Shakespeare argues that just as being certain allows an individual to pursue their honour, a lack of certainty prevents an individual from being able to restore a tarnished honour. Initially, Ophelia’s certainty, derived from the men around her, allows her to preserve her honour. But as the stability of her relationships with these men wavers so does her certainty, and thus her ability to restore her honour is challenged. Finally, in the absence of any certainty at all, Ophelia devolves into a state of dishonourability and is entirely unable to restore her honour.
At first, Ophelia’s sense of certainty is stable, thus demonstrating how an individual with a stable sense of certainty is able to pursue the security of their honour. Influenced by dominating male forces around her, her actions and even her thoughts are directed by the men in her life. Ophelia grew up without the presence of a mother figure or female role model and instead was brought up by a father and older brother. Therefore, Ophelia was raised with masculine ideas regarding the role of a woman. She had little opportunity to develop a sophisticated identity independent from the certainty provided to her by the men in her life. As such, Ophelia’s certainty is tied to the direction given to her by the men who surround her. Therefore, when Ophelia is warned by her brother to “be wary” (1.3.527) of her relationship with Hamlet, as it may cause her to “lose [her] heart, or [her] chaste treasure to open,” (1.3.515) she listens to his advice. In advising Ophelia to “fear” (1.3.517) the potential repercussions of her relationship with Hamlet, Laertes emphasizes how Ophelia’s virginity and reputation as a woman of purity are what determine her honour – and it is her honour that determines her value as a person. Ophelia responds to the requests of her father and her brother with, “I shall obey, my lord,” (1.3.623) which demonstrates how her lifelong practice of obedience to the men in her life has caused her sense of certainty to become tied to the directions given to her. She is being provided with certainty in the form of guidance from Polonius and Laertes, and this provision of certainty is what allows her to be able to distance herself from Hamlet as a means through which to secure her honour. Thus, we see how when an individual is provided with certainty by others around them, they are able to engage in a pursuit of honour.
When an individual’s sense of certainty begins to be threatened, it challenges their ability to safeguard their honour; as such, when Ophelia is confronted with doubt, she becomes somewhat less capable of stabilizing her honour. With Hamlet descending into apparent madness and Laertes having left for France, Ophelia finds herself removed from their influence. With less direction from masculine powers around her, Ophelia becomes increasingly uncertain. Because Hamlet’s ‘madness’ is thought to be caused by a consuming love for Ophelia, this also adds to her uncertainty, as she is now unsure as to whether or not she is to blame for the state he is in. Without the once stable presences of Hamlet and Laertes there to guide her and because she is being blamed for Hamlet’s madness, Ophelia’s ability to uphold her honour is diminished. However, when an individual’s value is determined by how honourable they are perceived to be, the individual must attempt to uphold their honour in order to secure their value – even in the face of uncertainty. Therefore, Ophelia, even with a shaky certainty, attempts to preserve her honour. Hamlet, in his apparent madness, constantly challenges Ophelia’s sense of certainty and continually puts her in positions that threaten her honour. He tells her to go “to a nunnery” (3.1.1814) and asks if he may “lie in [her] lap.” (3.2.1992) In these ways, Hamlet is straining her honour. However, since Ophelia’s worth is inextricably tied to her honour, she shakily meets the challenge while still trying to uphold her dignity. As such, we see how when a doubtful individual still has some sense of certainty through others, they are still relatively able to pursue the restoration of their honour, though their ability to do so begins to be compromised.
When an individual loses their sense of certainty completely, they will find themselves unable to pursue the restoration of their now damaged honour. In this way, Ophelia shows herself to be incapable of repairing her honour after her own certainty is destroyed. Being as Ophelia’s identity and her sense of certainty are totally dependent upon direction from the men around her, the death of Polonius – as it is compounded with abandonment from Hamlet and Laertes – shocks her into madness. Ophelia has spent her life being defined by the men around her, her father in particular, so, when she is no longer provided with the certainty of definition from others, she undergoes a total loss of identity. It here that we see it: nothing about Ophelia is certain or honourable without a controlling male presence to give her a purpose. When an individual is removed from the influence of those who provide them with a stable sense of self, in the process of losing their identity, an individual will also lose their sense of certainty. Uncertain and unable to restore her honour, Ophelia begins to “speak things in doubt, [things] that carry but half-sense.” (4.5.2863-2864) She resorts to madness, retreating inside of herself as a way to escape the instability of the freedom she has been confronted with. Ophelia’s nonsensical ramblings about men and virtue place her honour at risk. Therefore, we see that when an individual has no certainty, they lose the ability to uphold their honour and instead will become a danger to it. In the unpredictability and inconsistency of her madness, Ophelia commits the ultimate act of dishonourability by killing herself. Without the moral guidance of men around her, Ophelia ends up drowning herself in the river, with “clothes spread wide and mermaid-like while they bore her up.” (4.7.3324-3325) Suicide is a final attempt by Ophelia to restore her honour by cleansing herself of her sins, yet because she has no sense of certainty whatsoever, her death only reinforces her dishonourability, to the point where she is thought to be unworthy of a “Christian burial.” (5.1.3350) Ophelia, therefore, demonstrates how when an individual is uncertain, they lose the capacity to be honourable altogether.
Ophelia, initially having certainty provided to her by external influences, has now lost all certainty as the men in her life have one by one abandoned her. Ophelia, initially able to secure her honour with certainty, now has a besmirched honour and is unable to repair it due to a lack of certainty. It is through Ophelia that we see how when an individual is certain, one is also able to safeguard their honour. Conversely, when an individual lacks any certainty, one loses their ability to be honourable. Honor and certainty are inextricably tied to one another; it is only when an individual is certain that they are able to be honourable. In the end, honour shows itself to be capricious; an individual has no value without it, but it is also the very quality that may bring about one’s downfall. As such, we see that there is nothing certain about honour at all.