Discuss the ideas developed by the text creator in your chosen text about the ways in which individuals struggle to restore honour and certainty.
Ideally, the ability to balance honour and certainty comes naturally to individuals who are confident. For those who are more submissive in nature, however, the scale is often tipped, and balance between one’s honour and certainty becomes unattainable. For these people who rely on acquiescence rather than individuality to live, uncertainty is created in their lack of self determination to govern themselves. In William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Hamlet for example, the ever so “feminine” character of Ophelia is one that struggles to find the balance between her own honour and certainty. Torn between her love for Hamlet and her family’s advices against her individuality, Ophelia is doomed to a life of uncertainty. In order to cope with this fate, she turns to submissiveness towards others – particularly male influencers – in her life to provide that sense of certainty for her that is bound to be given to her due to her sexuality. She does so in the name of upholding a sense of honour and dignity as a “woman” of the times and prides herself on her respectable values, however she relies solely on the advices of others to prove these feelings to be valid. As the decline of Denmark ensues however, Ophelia is caught in the middle of the turmoil without any individual defences. Her honour and certainty, initially sculpted by the men in her life, both fall to pieces as the men who guided her entire life are quickly plucked from her grasp. Ophelia is then left alone and without any dependable source of honour or certainty for her, which leads to her untimely madness and suicide. This demonstrates the notion that when an individual who relies on submissiveness to determine their honour loses all sense of authority in their life, they struggle to restore their certainty of self due to their lack of identity.
Initially, Ophelia’s submissiveness acted as a strange sense of security for her, as she had been conditioned to be obedient for her entire life. In a way, her passivity became her virtue, and due to the social hierarchy that existed in Hamlet’s Denmark, this was expected of her; this was considered honourable. It was not that Ophelia lacked any sense of self, but rather it was that her sense of self existed only within her honourability. Polonius and Laertes, her father and brother, were the initial catalysts for her compliant behaviour, as they were the men that brought a sense of self control to her life. There was no need for individuality because surely her honour as a female was more important, and these men provided that comfort of affirming that for her. She lived a life of rigid certainty as she was conditioned to accept that her honour was predetermined for her. Beauty, chastity, complacency, and fear were the virtues she was given, and therefore she wore them with dignity, even if they were not exactly what she wanted. Ophelia refers to both Laertes and Polonius as “my lord”, despite them being of the same blood. By giving them the title “lord” and creating a sense of objectivity with the use of the possessive determiner “my”, Ophelia both renounces her individuality, yet openly embraces her oppressive “female honour”. One can assume that Ophelia was accepting of her diminishment because she found certainty in the male influences around her, whether they be family related or romantically. After all, the belief at the time was that without a male’s control, a female’s honour did not exist. This parallels her romance with the young prince Hamlet as well as she too refers to him as a “lord” and claims that he “hath importuned me [her] with love In honourable fashion.” [1.3. 110] Ophelia describes Hamlet’s love and yet stills mentions honour and how his romantic advances towards her are of an “honourable fashion” – meaning they too reflect her uttermost values. Obviously this brought Ophelia a same type of certainty as the authority from her father and brother, as Hamlet too was a man that highlighted her obedience as a fair feminine value. This affirmation of self built Ophelia into a strong woman, not because of her individuality, but rather because of her reputation. She was built like a shell, with layers of defences from others built around in order to maintain her honour, yet on the inside she housed little substance: a small innocent lover and obedient daughter; lost without a man’s hand to guide her to certainty.
Because Ophelia was built as merely a byproduct of other’s interests, both her naivety Hamlet’s descent into vengeful madness led the first of many of Ophelia’s shells of certainty to break. In the later progression of the play, Ophelia allows her interests in Hamlet to further slightly as she lets her guard down, trusting that he may still uphold his promises of a respectable romance.With Laertes gone to France, and Polonius watching from a distance (with a vague eye), Ophelia’s pursuit of romance with Hamlet is one of of her first individuals decisions that she makes for herself. Hamlet’s gaudy advances on her, driven by his own personal dilemmas, jar Ophelia and she (with the little experience she has) tries to discontinue the relationship after an incident right before watching the play ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. Hamlet displays inappropriate behaviour with her in front of both her father and the King Claudius. Ophelia, despite being absolutely mortified, attempts to remain dignified as she tries to hold on to whatever honour she may have in moment. Hamlet says to her in front of the entire court, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” [3.2. 102], and jokes that his behavior resembles those of “country manners” [3.2. 106] – country manners referring to sexual and socially unacceptable behaviour. Up until this point, Ophelia’s trust in the men in her life had not let her down as their influences sculpted her to to be a kind and honourable woman, however once she took a step forward and allowed herself to be more individual this happened to her, leaving her with a seed of uncertainty that would eventually blossom into her decline into madness. This act of failed individuality only reaffirmed her beliefs of submissiveness, and pushed her further to rely on her false ideals of honour in the form of obedience to survive in a man’s world. Ophelia had no control of Hamlet’s actions, and because of her strict moral teachings of female honourability, there was no way for her to protest the indecency, thus leaving her with a poisonous feeling of uncertainty. Furthermore, in the midst of Denmark’s collapse and Hamlet’s madness, Ophelia was pulled further into the conflict by Hamlet as he frantically stabs her father Polonius. This tragedy, once again fuelled by a man she once trusted with her honour, came suddenly and without warrant towards her, thus leaving her feeling even more helpless and uncertain. With Laertes gone, her father dead, and her love interest Hamlet crazed and undependable, Ophelia was left with no one to lean on and no one to provide that sense of certainty she so desperately depended on.
As a final attempt to salvage whatever honour and certainty, Ophelia’s madness and choice to commit suicide was her way to restore what little honour she had left in herself. After being diminished by the people she relied on most, and having faced the harsh realities of submissiveness, Ophelia’s entire sense of self had been shaken and she no longer had anyone to provide a sense of certainty for her. Her madness was stemmed from the lack of control she had over the tragedies that affected her combined with her inability and lack of knowledge to govern herself. There is irony in the sense that all the the behaviours Ophelia displayed during her madness were exact representations of the things she scorned most as an “honourable woman”. As Claudius tries to convince Gertrude to speak to the delusional Ophelia, he explains her crazed actions as such: “She speaks much of her father, says she hears/ there’s tricks i’ th’ world[…] and beats her heart/ Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt/ That carry but half sense” [4.5. 4-7]. Ophelia’s honour had been completely shattered, and without anyone’s authority cautioning her against acting out, she spiralled into insanity. As she acts out violently, “beats at her heart”, and “speaks out in doubt”, she effectively manages to throw away whatever honour she had left for herself as a woman of the time. Speaking out distastefully and without permission, questioning the actions of herself and others; she allowed her uncertainty to drive her so far away from her identity that was shaped around submissiveness. There is a great truth that exists in Ophelia’s madness however, as the the things she spoke that carried “but half sense” were honest in the sense that she was really was that lost without anyone to govern her. Her hysteria was truthful because without any authority to guide her, she was lost in a world of misfortunes she knew not how to handle, and her lack of control pushed her over the edge. As she sings and dances in her madness, she speaks truths about the mistreatment of women – but it is these truths themselves that are dishonourable, because they are not pretty or passive the way a woman is expected to be in the context of the time period. In this way, Ophelia demonstrates that when an individual loses all sense of certainty, they resort to dishonourable conduct to fill the void of dishonour. Ophelia’s final attempt at reconciling her lost honour is when she finally commits the final, most dishonourable deed – suicide. As Ophelia falls into the water and does not protest her drowning, we see her going against all virtues we previously knew her to cherish so deeply, including the Christian beliefs against suicide. Living a life of passivity others had left Ophelia without the fundamental life skills or perception of herself needed to live independently, causing her honour to be destroyed far before she even realized. As her uncertainty grew, her honour declined, eventually leaving her in a maddened where she could not find the balance any longer. Her suicide was ultimately the most dishonourable decision of her life, but also the most independent. A sliver of Ophelia’s identity shone through as she took her life in the name of finding even the slightest ounce of certainty left in her.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic life and untimely death of Ophelia serves as a cautionary tale for submissive individuals who chooses to rely on others affirmations for a sense of certainty. As demonstrated in Ophelia’s character, the exaggerated dependency on another’s authority to bestow a sense of honour is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Ophelia relied too deeply on submissiveness as a means of providing a sense of identity for her. Her identity – which revolved around her honour as a woman – was only shown to her through the lenses of others, and so when these male presences were removed from her life, she was left with nothing but a broken sense of honour and a life of uncertainty. Ophelia was never a confident individual, so therefore she did not have the capabilities to balance the scale of honour and certainty in her own life. Her scale was built upon a lack of conviction and the governance of others, and once being deserted without either force to guide her she was left mad and confused. Her uncertainty of her own self drove her to the realization that she possessed no identity whatsoever, ultimately driving her to madness and death, thereby demonstrating how submissive individuals, no matter how well accustomed they may be to passivity in order provide a sense of honour for themselves, are bound to a life of uncertainty as they live without ever really having an identity of their own.
“Black Ophelia” Daniel de Jesse (Saatchi Art Artist)