When A Flower Blossoms Essay, Research Paper
When a Flower Blossoms
William Shakespeare addresses the question of identity in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark through the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. Although the play is centered on Hamlet?s struggle for identity, a more important issue is addressed through Ophelias? struggle. She is ignored and left alone to find the truth about what it means to become a woman, while Hamlet receives constant concern while struggling with his identity issues as an adult. Her struggle of identity may be similar to his, but it is different in that she is not a man, but an adolescent girl who lives in a society that revolves around men. The dysfunction of her family, deterioration of her intimate relationship, ultimate death of her father, and absence of a mother figure worsen her internal struggles. She is an adolescent facing the internal conflicts of acceptance, identity, and self-worth, which commonly plague pubescent girls. Puberty for a young girl is perhaps the most difficult time of life, and is often misunderstood by adults. In society, men receive more concern than women do as they struggle to adulthood, which is demonstrated through the character of Hamlet. Adolescent girls often feel confused about their bodies and identity in that they are becoming different from boys for the first time. In Ophelia?s case, she is left completely alone to figure out what is happening to her body and to understand her emotions. If Ophelia were a man or a pubescent boy struggling with identity as is seen in Hamlet throughout the play, she possibly would have survived these tragic situations.
The most devastating moment for her was when Hamlet no longer appeared to be her safe haven. She thought that she could trust him and some how he would help her get through her confusion of adolescence, and therefore, make her way to adulthood. She proves her naivete in the way she reacts to him when he attacks her in her room and she does not fight back, but instead runs to her father, Polonius, for comfort and safety. His motives as a father are not what they need to be to help her understand what has just happened to her. Instead of comforting or explaining to her what has happened, he feels that he needs to defend the idea of her being a whore, and more importantly his ability to raise an upstanding young woman. In Polonius? eyes, Hamlet?s attack represents his opinion of her being a whore, which he feels must be avenged, conveying to her that she has done something wrong. From his effort in avenging her honor, he creates more turmoil in her life when he forces her to allow him and the King to spy on her with Hamlet. Hamlet tells her in ears shot of them:
Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will
Sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd
Than the force of honesty can translate beauty into
His likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now
The time gives proof. I did love you once. (III.i.110-14)
He loved her innocence as a girl and the fact that she was not a woman, but now that she is appearing more like one, he does not love her anymore. The more important message is that men are not thought of as beautiful, therefore they have no reason to mislead others. He is relaying to her that it is bad to become a woman because her becoming beauty will make her dishonest. He is saying that women use their beauty to deceive men. His mother has imbedded this thought in his mind through her actions of marrying his uncle too soon after his father?s death. Hamlet feels like he has been deceived, in that his mother is not virtuous like he imagined when his father was still alive. His father was a man, and therefore, has been decieved by a woman who he thought to be virtuous, his own mother. He now is punishing Ophelia for being a woman because of his mother?s actions. For a young girl who is dealing with identity issues, it is devastating to find out that she is going to grow-up to be a whore like the Queen and has no control over it.
If she were a growing young boy, she would be celebrated, not doomed. She found comfort when she was with him. Now, he tells her it is all a lie, and her development from a girl to a woman is the cause. He goes on to tell her:
If thou dost marry, I?ll give thee this plague
For thy dowery: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
Snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
Nunn?ry, farewell. Or if thou wilt needs to marry, marry
A fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters
You make of them?. (III.i.134-140)
Here he is saying that all women are evil and will make fools of their husbands like his mother did of his father even though he is dead. Simply stated, men are victims of women. What kind of message is this for a young girl to receive? She does not even know what it means to be who she is, which is in the middle of a woman and a girl. If being a women is so horrible and everyone hates them, why become one is her question. Her response of, ?Heavenly powers, restore him!? emphasizes her need for validation of this idea being false, and she looks to God for the answer because she has no one else to turn to. God will not deny her or lie to her; she looks to the last place we all look in desperation, God. Hamlet?s statements seem as if he has been possessed, and that none of this is truly coming from him. He continues to wear her down into believing what he is saying is fact until finally she sinks into a depressed state and says the following to herself:
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck?d the honey of his [music] vows,
Now see [that] noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh,
That unmatched from and stature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T? have seen what I have seen, see what I see. (III.i.155-162)
This passage is the only time in the play that she speaks more than one line, and it is all said to herself. Shakespeare is demonstrating what many young pubescent girls do when they are confused and feel as though they have no one to talk to. They sit alone and begin to convince themselves that they are everything that society says they are, fat or ugly. He has convinced her that she is a good for nothing whore. She believed everything he said to her in his letters because she trusted him, as many trust advertisers and their billboards. She realizes that she is worthless because she is becoming the age where her innocence disappears. Everything that she has seen before this conversation represents love and affection on his part. Now everything represents lies and confusion. Because he feels threatened by her sexuality, he discards her. Her world has ended because she had all of her hopes and desires set on the identity she set for herself with Hamlet. Her father gave her nothing to believe in besides what he told her of the hardened cruel world, and she wanted to believe in the optimism of the world. She wanted to believe Hamlet was different, and that he would help her find her true self, her identity. A mother figure could have really helped her understand the difference between the two better.
Perhaps if her mother were present and talked to her about this conversation, she would understand Hamlet?s perception of her is not fact. She has no one to turn to for advice. The only mother figure that is present is Hamlet?s mother, her potential mother-in-law. Hamlet?s mother, Gertrude, is dealing with issues of her own in that she does not want to loose her son to madness or better yet, another woman. She in no way can offer good advice of the current situation because in reality she wants Ophelia to leave the picture. Hamlet is aware of his mother?s jealousy and uses it to drive his point that all women are whores, and to hurt her. Ophelia becomes the victim once again. Hamlet is playing word games with her in the following conversation:
Queen. Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.
Ham. No good mother, here?s metal more attractive
Ham. Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Oph. No, my lord
Ham. I mean, my head upon your lap?
Oph. Ah, my lord
Ham. Do you think I meant country matters?
Oph. I think nothing, my lord. (III.ii.108-117)
Here he is telling Gertrude that Ophelia has one thing that she can not give him. Ophelia is virtuous and can give him honor by sitting next to him, which is something that Gertrude lost in her son?s eyes when she married his uncle to occupy his side. Therefore, the question is, is becoming a woman, becoming a whore, or is becoming a woman virtuous. Hamlet just called her a whore, and now he is telling his mother that she is more virtuous to sit by. Ophelia is being stretched back and forth for the purposes of those around her to make their point that all women are evil weather they are whores or not. Ophelia is portrayed as evil in the Queen?s eyes because she holds something that the Queen wants, her son. His idea of playing them against one another completely destroys any chance of there being any future relationship between them. Hamlet not only just confused her of her self-identity; he destroyed any chance for her to have a mother figure in her life.
In the conversation above, Hamlet also plays word games with her to trick her into admitting that she thinks dirty thoughts. For Ophelia, this is her confusion. She does not know what it means to be a whore. Does it mean dirty thoughts or possibly dirty actions? Ophelia does not even know what dirty thoughts or actions are. One minute she is used as a measure of virtue against a whore, and the next called one. Because she is naïve, he knows that he can play with her emotions to achieve the result of control. He figures that if she is scared of becoming a whore; she will never become one because she will be too scared to do anything dirty. It is amazing that no adult takes the time to explain what any of this means. Ophelia has no peers to talk to, and the closest one, her brother, left for France to study. Ophelia will not figure out what being a woman means until it is too late when hysteria begins to consume her in her search for herself. The idea of becoming a woman will be the ultimate reason why she takes her life.
Amongst all of the chaos in search of Hamlet?s sanity, Ophelia?s broken heart is over looked. Her father is trying to prove Hamlet?s madness to avenge his daughter?s honor. The Queen wants to know what is the matter with him because she wants her ?little boy? back from where ever his mind has gone. The King, however, wants Hamlet contained because he holds the truth of how his father, the previous King, died. Where is Ophelia in all of this? She is thinking of how much a whore she is and how worthless it is to be a woman alone in a corner. Their efforts to solve Hamlet?s problem only communicate to her that because she is a girl/woman she is not worth helping. Her honor is the only thing that means anything to anyone, but that to has already been tarnished. Everyone thinks she is a whore, whether it is communicated through outright name-calling or through avenging her honor, it is understood by Ophelia that she is in fact a whore.
The question now becomes for her, ?what is the point of living if I am worthless?? In reality, she is faced with the same problems as Hamlet. ?To be or not to be,? that is both of their questions. Hamlet is facing the choice of avenger or not, and Ophelia with a whore/woman or not. Hamlet knows what being an avenger means; he knows that he can no longer be a boyfriend, son, student, or friend. Ophelia on the other hand, has no idea what it means to be a woman, let a lone a whore. The fact that no one is around to define or assure her that she is not one will ultimately lead her to take Hamlet?s advice of ?not to be.?
After her father is killed by Hamlet, Ophelia really looses her mind. Now she has no one at all on her side. Her brother is away at school, her father is dead, her boyfriend does not love her, and the Queen hates her for being virtuous and a whore at the same time. She has no one. The Queen reluctantly allows her to come in because a gentleman has conveyed the magnitude of her hysteria. She says to the side upon granting her entrance:
To my sick soul, as sin?s true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss,
So full of artless jealousy is guilt
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt. (IV.iv.17-20)
Here it becomes evident that the Queen is boiling with envy for the control she believes Ophelia has over her son, and the madness she has caused him. What the Queen fails to realize is that Ophelia has no control at all over anything in her life let alone the Queen?s. How can she, if no one has informed her of the control she has? She has no idea what is happening to her and why all of a sudden she is different from Hamlet. The news of her madness is somewhat a relief for the Queen because this means that she is unsuitable for her son, and there will be no more competition. Also her madness will cure her son?s and everything will be back to normal.
The Queen wants Hamlet all to herself. Ophelia babbles a few insults to the Queen and expresses anguish over her father?s death. At this point the King comes in and says, ?Pretty Ophelia.? (IV.iv.56) Ophelia?s response to him reflects a pessimistic change in her personality.
Young men will do?t if they come to?t,
By Cock, they are to blame.
?Quoth she, ?Before you tumbled me,
You promis?d me to wed.??
??So would I ?a? done, by yonder sun,
and thou hadst not come to my bed.?? (IV.v.60-65)
Anger seems to be the emotion she is feeling toward men and the fact of being pretty. She is incapable of communicating any other way than through this hard to understand babble. She may be feeling all of these pessimistic views about life, but because she is ?mad,? she can not apply them to what has happened to her. She is angry because she is not a man and is faced with beauty and its dishonesty. Obviously because of her problem with Hamlet, she wishes she were a man, then maybe she could get some of her questions answered about what is going on. Why do men get all of the say because they have a penis, and why do they have the right to discard of women when ever they please? Not once has anyone asked her what is wrong or made secret plans to find out as were done for Hamlet. Hamlet denied her for being pretty, her father died avenging that beauty, and now the King is reminding her of the reason she has lost everything of importance. She is stating that all men want women for is for their beauty, and at the same time for them not to be too pretty. The prettier a woman is the more dishonest and whore-like she is. The devastation of her beauty has caused her hysteria. She has only desired acceptance and approval from the adults that surround her, but instead has received negative reinforcements because she is a girl.
When all of her identity and will to live have been lost, she goes to the only thing that gives her comfort, nature. She begins to give parts of her innocence to those who tarnished it in the first place by giving them flowers. The flowers represent her sexuality, innocence, and virtue. She gives fennel and columbines to the King to symbolize her flattery for his compliments and ingratitude for his unwillingness to help her discover her place in this mean society of men. She gives the Queen rue and takes some for herself, and says, ?we may call it herb of grace / a? Sundays. You may wear your rue with a difference.? (IV.v.181-3) Rue is a symbol of sorrow and repentance. While Ophelia is sorry for her father?s death and the rejection of Hamlet, she is implying that the Queen should be sorry for being the whore that drove him to hate and reject her. It is too late at this point for her new found discoveries to make a difference in her ultimate death because she does not connect them to reality. She is like an overfilled pot of pasta that finally boils over once it becomes too hot. She has realized that women can be perceived as evil because of the few that act like whores, and that men are just as evil when they condemn women for being whores. When she gives her innocence to them by giving them her flowers, she is essentially giving away the one thing that has been in question the entire play, her virginity. She knows that nature will not lie to her or abandon her, and will accept her with or without faults.
When she finally gives her life back to nature by first hanging herself and then drowning, she is giving away the one thing that has caused her hysteria, her virginity. She knows that she has to give it away to die peacefully. She does not want to take this sadness with her when she dies; she wants to give it back to nature. She does not want it because all it did was cause her pain. However, once she gives it away, she knows that she must die or she will be condemned for really being a whore. She kills herself, ultimately giving herself back to nature where judgements do not exist.
The Queen comes to her brother, Laertes, with the news of her death in surprising accurate detail. She describes it:
There is a willow grows askaunt the brook,
That shows his hoary leaves in the glass stream,
There with fantastic garlands did she make
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name
But our cull-cold maids do dead men?s fingers call them. (V.i.166-171)
It seems that the person telling the story would not be able to tell it in such detail if that person was not watching it take place. Some questions of her death become evident. Did the Queen kill her? Did the Queen watch her die, and if so why did she only watch, and not try to stop her? For argument sake, the Queen did not kill her, but by not doing anything to prevent such an innocent life from death is just as horrible. Again, this reflects the Queen?s desire to have her son all to her self. In her gut, she must believe that her son was really mad for Ophelia?s virtue, or she would have helped her from the beginning. Gertrude does not want to admit that her decision to marry his uncle drove Hamlet insane. No mother wants to believe that they are the reason for their child?s insanity.