Prompt: 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.
To lead a life as a woman of honour, it is essential that a lady adorn herself with the flower chains societal expectations demand, chains formed from the passivity and obedience that distinguish her standing as a lady of grace. Only through achieving these two qualities of conformity can a woman truly obtain certainty- defined as the sense of security provided by her lack of ambition. In sacrificing a personal means of obtaining honour and certainty in favor of the path paved by passivity and obedience, the certainty held by the woman becomes dependent on that of those around her. As such, the loss of honour results in the destruction of an individual’s certainty. However, it is not passivity that provides a woman her sense of honour, but rather the ability to live by an individual’s own sense of honour, free from conformity. Living in accordance to societal expectation fails to provide one with a sense of honour; alternatively, living by a self-established sense of honour and certainty enables an individual to progress from the stagnation of inaction towards instead the liberation that action provides. The fault that lies in the intrinsic weaving of a woman’s honour and certainty with society’s standard of inaction towards external influence are themes thoroughly investigated in the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark– penned by poet William Shakespeare- through the maiden Ophelia, titular character Hamlet’s rejected lover. By conforming to the societal means of reiterating honour and certainty through compliance, Ophelia fails to create a personal source of honour, resulting in the shattering of certainty in herself and in those around her. By way of her death, however, Ophelia was finally able to restore a personal sense of distinction and conviction, while also pushing Hamlet to action. Through the character of Ophelia, Shakespeare demonstrates that when attempting to reconcile the conflict between individual and societal expectations of certainty, an individual’s pursuit of honour in a socially conventional way may well be the very chains binding them to uncertainty and dishonour.
When an individual fails to learn how to cope with uncertainty, their sense of honour and certainty becomes entangled with the sources that seem to provide-or, at the very least, feign- a sense of socially acceptable certainty, regardless of how superfluous it may seem. In her maidenhood, Ophelia’s sole responsibility is to bend to the beck and call of the male influences that dominate her life. When Laertes is leaving for France, he lectures Ophelia on being wary of Hamlet and his advances, for “…his will is not his own” (1.3. 17) but that of the people of Denmark; he also warns her that the “best safety is in fear” (1.3. 43) towards what Hamlet’s desire could do to Ophelia’s virtue; in essence, Laertes is saying that, being the crown prince and the voice of Denmark, Hamlet’s vows of love are only superficial expressions of his lust. He, too, must conform to the stereotypical expectations of honour and certainty, and Ophelia’s social standing is insubstantial in comparison to that of Hamlet’s. Just as Laertes tells Ophelia that Hamlet’s will is not his own, so too is Ophelia’s will not her own; though they’ve grown up as nobility, they are slaves to the uncertainty that comes with reconciling personal morals with societal ones. Following Laertes’ departure, Polonius too attempts to make use of Ophelia’s conditioned passivity and doubt to convince her to think of his honour, telling her to “think [herself] a baby” (1.3. 105) in her foolish pursuit of Hamlet, lest she “tender [Polonius] a fool” (1.3. 109). In saying this, Polonius is referring to Ophelia as a child for having believed Hamlet’s vows of love. He’s also telling her to respect herself, for fear that her mistakes may make him look a fool. Through this quotation, one realizes just how intertwined Ophelia’s sense of honour and certainty is with that of her father and brother; in the face of uncertainty regarding Hamlet’s love, Ophelia responds with her familiar inaction as she replies to Polonius with a simple, “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.136). The domineering male influences in Ophelia’s life serve to act as an obstruction towards her ability to obtain certainty and trust in herself. Consequently, Ophelia is inexperienced in the dealings of uncertainty and certainty, and thus, when she trusts, she does so blindly, conforming to the honour her father has spoonfed her instead of finding individual certainty. In holding on to the societal concept of a woman’s honour being related to her passivity, Ophelia’s will-her own honour and certainty- is not her own, but rather, a building block for her family’s honour and certainty. Through these quotations, it is made evident that failure in learning to reconcile societal duty with personal morality results in a fragile sense of honour and certainty that others desperate to seek certainty can exploit. This vicious cycle leads to one becoming reliant on others restoring their sense of chastity and conviction in society, but inability to act for oneself results in a faltering ability to deal with the inherent uncertainty of socially conventional honour.
As an individual whose certainty lies in their relations with others experiences the demise of said relations, they will be forced to confront uncertainty; however, the absence of a self-constructed moral code results in an inability to restore themselves to certainty, as they have lost the dignity societal honour once provided them. In order to find certainty and reiterate his sense of honour in front of Claudius, Polonius uses Ophelia as a tool to discover the reason behind Hamlet’s “antic disposition” (1.5. 192). When Ophelia meets Hamlet and attempts to give back his love letters, Hamlet berates her, telling her, “Get thee to a nunnery. / Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? ” (3.1. 123-124). He then goes on to condemn her, telling her that though she may be, “as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, [she] shalt not escape calumny.” (3.1. 137-138). Through these quotes, Hamlet is telling Ophelia that her only role lies in birthing sin upon sin, and that, despite her best efforts to remain pure and quell the flames of her desire with the snows of chastity, and her attempts to reflect society’s expectations of her already wavering honour, she will forever succumb to the fires of sin and uncertainty. In saying so, Hamlet effectively rids Ophelia of her former certainty in his love- and her own honour in front of Claudius and Polonius- whilst also forcing her to confront immense uncertainty regarding her honour. When everyone has gathered to watch The Mousetrap, Hamlet further attacks Ophelia by asking if he “shall lie in [her] lap” (3.2. 102). Ophelia’s confusion and uncertainty can be seen when she replies with “no, my lord” (3.2. 103) only to passively and obediently allow him to do so moments later. Through the course of The Mousetrap, Hamlet batters her with innuendo after innuendo, and by feigning innocence towards his implicit messages, Ophelia desperately tries to restore her honour by maintaining its appearance; however, Hamlet’s systematic eradication of her virtue leaves her to confront, ill-equipped as she is, only vast uncertainty. The death of Polonius and Hamlet’s rejection lead to Ophelia finally breaking. Because Ophelia’s honour and certainty has always been bound to that of others, losing these relations-and thereby, her value in the eyes of both males and society- results in an absence of honour, despite Ophelia’s adherence to a socially acceptable concept of morality. It is this very discrepancy, however, that pushes Ophelia away from societal convention and towards developing her own sense of morality. When one has been constantly conditioned to respond with passivity and blind obedience, their self-esteem will have dwindled significantly as they rely on societal standards to determine what to do. In this way, one can observe that when an individual’s honour is compromised by the very social standings that were to safeguard it, it leads to the utter devastation of any semblance of honor-and therefore certainty- they may have formed, leaving them unable to restore their own honour and esteem.
Upon the dissipation of one’s societal honour at the hands of another, an individual may pursue unconventional means to develop and restore a personal code of honour and certainty, thereby freeing themselves from the chains of dishonour and uncertainty. So far, Ophelia’s life has been an amalgamation of lost honour and certainty; however, her breaking point- and subsequent descent into madness- serves to be the moment she finds out that her father Polonius has been murdered by Hamlet. Her demands to meet Queen Gertrude seem almost to assail the Queen with guilt, noted through Gertrude’s aside: “So full of artless jealousy is guilt,/ It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.” (4. 5. 20-21). This time, regret is being felt by the only other female in the play, one who is still preoccupied with maintaining the guise of honour society has dressed her in. Ophelia’s rejection of society’s perceptions on honour, and her subsequent development of a personal moral code, juxtaposes Gertrude’s constant pursuit of socially conventional certainty in the men around her, and the dishonour she suffers because of it; the contrast seen between the two characters serves as a reminder about Ophelia’s initial standing and where she chooses to make her last stand. Barging into the throne room, Ophelia’s madness allows her to sing her thoughts to Gertrude with the most certainty she has ever allowed herself to express. Upon being interrupted by either the King or Queen, she interjects with, “Say you? Nay, pray you, mark.” (4.5. 24). The former passivity and obedience is replaced with self assertion, which proves a stark contrast to the once-sane Ophelia; the Ophelia that allowed her honour to be defined by the stereotypical expectations of her father and brother, the Ophelia that allowed her honour to be demolished by the uncertainty of Hamlet. Through her madness, Ophelia is finally given a voice. She is the most vocal, the most upfront when she is supposedly insane, because for a woman, societal pressure makes it insane to speak out. In expressing her innermost thoughts to the two beings most representative of a societal construct of honour and certainty, Ophelia is able to reject the social conventions of honour and certainty. Her honour and certainty are restored by way of this newfound-albeit unconventional-virtue and moral code. Through the shocking finality and certainty of her death, Ophelia pushes Hamlet from his previous state of inaction into a state of acceptance regarding his love for her, remorse towards Laertes and, finally, action towards revenge, finally enabling him to kill Claudius and die peacefully. Thus, the ability to dissociate oneself from unjust societal constraint allows one to discover and develop an individualistic sense of honour from which they can draw concrete certainty and thereby enable themselves to live and die on their own terms. The strength that comes with developing honour and certainty free from societal standards serves to provoke others who may be steeped in the intoxication of inaction, providing a source of inspiration towards taking action to restore one’s own honour and certainty.
Throughout the course of the play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare uses the character of Ophelia to demonstrate that the disconnect between labeling oneself with a societal moniker of honour as opposed to developing a personal sense of it results in a constant struggle against dishonour and uncertainty. Ophelia experiences this initially through allowing her sense of honour and certainty to be guided by that of her father and brother, as was socially acceptable. This sense of dependent passivity leaves her unable to cope with the vast amounts of uncertainty she faces as Hamlet demolishes any semblance of social dignity and conviction she once held, and with it her ability to restore said honour. Finally, through her madness, Ophelia forms a moral code that is fully her own, restoring her honour through her personal, unconventional means and inspiring Hamlet to do so as well. To live by a self-established sense of honour and certainty enables an individual to progress from the slums of tired inaction and move instead towards the liberation that action provides. It is the ability to find honour- and thus, certainty- in oneself that raises an individual to a distinguished standing in the esteem of both society and themselves, for living true to one’s self graces them with a purpose to fulfill in their lives and the lives of others.