Honour and certainty are the two pivotal components of an individual’s identity; certainty for the sake of knowing who one truly is, and honour for the sake of being proud of the identity that one has. This sureness of self, combined with pride in one’s reputation, bring an individual a sense of purpose. For this reason, individuals who are uncertain about their identities struggle to find honour within themselves, for when one does not know who they are, they are unable to live authentically and with purpose, instead turning to the influence of others to make decisions for them, thereby painting them with a persona of who society believes they should be. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this idea of being given an identity by the influences in one’s life is explored through the feminine lens of the obedient Ophelia, who relies on the men in her life to dictate to her who they think she should be, which only ends up furthering her uncertainty surrounding her identity, as she struggles to find who she truly is, while still attempting to be who everyone says she is. Shakespeare delves into the idea that when an uncertain individual is wavering in their identity, they may rely on the influence of others for a sense of direction. However, when these outside influences disappear, one may struggle to restore honour to themselves, and instead turn to dishonourable conduct as a way of finding their true identity by themselves.
Initially, Ophelia is a passive young woman who is overpowered by the men in her life, and who is seemingly unable to make decisions for herself without the counsel and approval of these men. Because she lacks an identity of which she can be certain, Ophelia is incredibly obedient, not hesitating in following the advice and instructions of her male counterparts, with she, herself declaring, “I shall obey, my lord,” (I.iii.5) after being advised by her brother and father to not pursue her love with Hamlet. Ophelia continually fails to question whether or not what she is being told to do is true to who she really is, and therefore she is unable to find herself to be an honourable woman. Furthermore, after Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, leaves to attend school in France, Ophelia’s male influences are slowly beginning to disappear–some of Laertes’ parting words to Ophelia were ‘orders’, so to speak, cautioning against pursuing a love with Hamlet, and naturally, Ophelia obeys. This shows that, even as Laertes is about to take a step back in Ophelia’s life, he still is able to have some sort of control over her, and influence her to make decisions, despite whether or not it is something that she actually wants. Ophelia does not have certainty within herself to know this, and so it is up to the men in her life, who know and love her, to make these decisions for her. Additionally, because a woman’s honour was so closely tied to her virginity in this time, it only makes sense for Laertes to caution Ophelia against pursuing a love that would lead to the tarnishing of her ‘purity.’ Ophelia, as a woman, was only as good as her reputation–if the outside world perceived her as not having honour, she would not have survived in the society into which was born; she would have been scorned for being ‘impure’, and as a result, her already fragile identity would collapse all together without the support of the outside influences, who were responsible for painting her with some sort of identity.
After Laertes leaves, the illusion of Ophelia’s identity is still able to be supported by the two remaining men in her life; Hamlet, her almost lover; and Polonius, her father. However, as Hamlet descends deeper and deeper into his perceived (yet feigned) ‘madness’, he becomes an unreliable source of influence for Ophelia, thereby ‘leaving’ her in a different way. Without Hamlet as a reliable male influence in her life, Ophelia’s uncertain identity wavers even further, and threatens to shatter when Hamlet, faking insanity, calls into question Ophelia’s (nonexistent?) honour by telling her to “get thee to a nunnery,” (III.i.6) with the term ‘nunnery’ being synonymous with ‘brothel.’ This insult, because it was aimed at such an already fragile identity, was intensely destructive; Ophelia was already struggling to restore honour to herself through gaining an identity with the aid of the influences of those around her, and this threatened to destroy that certainty. In a time when honour was so closely linked with virginal purity, and when identity was so closely linked with reputation, Hamlet telling Ophelia to essentially ‘go to a brothel’ was very damaging and offensive to the reputation that had already been built for her by her sweet disposition, and by her father’s and brother’s influences. Additionally, after the death of her father, Polonius, Ophelia had been left alone, without any male influences to guide her life, and aid her in restoring honour and certainty to her fragile identity.
Finally, after Ophelia had been left completely isolated and alone, without any male influences to give her an identity, she descends into a state of madness. Because Ophelia was someone who looked heavily to outside guidance for a sense of honour and certainty surrounding her fragile identity, this loss of support proved to be, ultimately, fatal. Ophelia did not know how to be sure of herself, by herself. She did not know how to find honour within herself when her reputation was called into question, and threatened (“get thee to a nunnery!”). She was unable to drag herself out of the dark pit of uncertainty following her ‘abandonment’, and for this reason, without any structure to make decisions for her, she eroded mentally, and beyond repair. This mental vacancy is displayed through her nonsensical and random singing when she is approached by Gertrude; “He is dead and gone, lady,/He is dead and gone,/At his head a grass-green turf,/At his heels a stone.” (IV.v.2) The fact that Ophelia, a ‘proper’ lady, would sing in response to a question asked by the queen shows just how unhinged she has become, and how deeply she depended on the men in her life to bring her certainty in terms of her identity and honour in terms of her reputation. Ophelia, after much turmoil following the death of her father, subconsciously comes to the realization that she, herself, will never be able to find honour within herself and certainty within her identity without the constant guidance of a man. This is, one could argue, the reason why Ophelia opted for death over living a life filled with an irreconcilable uncertainty. In committing suicide, Ophelia took control of her life, independently, for the first time, and in making this decision, solidified her own fate, without the help of a controlling male influence. In life, death is the only certain thing. Therefore, it only makes sense that Ophelia chose to die, for it was not only the most obvious choice, but also the most easy. Additionally, there has always been a certain kind of honour and glory associated with those who have died–in choosing to take her own life, Ophelia made a bold claim on some of this honour and glory, for it was likely the only way she knew how. In contrast, however, suicide is known as a sin, and though she perhaps found honour within herself for having the courage to commit suicide, the act itself is one of cowardice. Additionally, in choosing to die by drowning with water in her lungs and flowers in her hair, Ophelia solidified her identity, for better or worse–she would no longer be merely ‘Ophelia’. She would, from now on, be known as ‘Ophelia: the girl who drowned.’
All in all, Ophelia was a passive, obedient girl who was also hopelessly at a loss. She did not have an identity of her own; she did not have an identity in the absence of male influence. Perhaps Ophelia was honourable–perhaps in her manner, in her temper, in her beauty. But Ophelia was never certain. Not until her death. And even in this death, she was not truly honourable–she picked the coward’s way out. There’s no way for her, or any male influence, to fix that now. As such, it is proven that when an individual relies on others for the construction of an identity, and those outside influences disappear, one may turn to unorthodox means to restore honour and certainty to themselves and their wavering identity.