Ophelia and Desdemona: Women as Plot in Tragedy
Women in William Shakespeare’s plays typically have very defined, very distinct purposes, fulfilling roles of daughters, lovers, and confidants. In tragedies it is the men who rule and ultimately determine the plot, though they require women to do so; therefore, women become tools to advance the plot rather than individualized characters with depth (excepting perhaps the notorious Lady Macbeth, though even she appears to exhibit simple motivations and desires). Even when Shakespeare’s female characters occupy minimal time in a play their presence is felt. Though they appear only a few times in their respective plays, Ophelia and Desdemona are two women who engender heated debate in the academic sphere. Without Ophelia and Desdemona, Hamlet and Othello could not exist or be the success they are today. These two women provide the hinge on which both plays stand.
Both Ophelia and Desdemona are lovers in their respective tragedies. The reader learns of Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet from Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who warns her to “hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,/A violet in the youth of primy nature,/Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting […]/No more” (1.3.6-9). He warns Ophelia against the capricious whims of desire in youth, and emphasizes his concern that she not be naïve and fall prey too easily to Hamlet’s pursuits. She herself admits that Hamlet “hath, of late, made many tenders/Of his affection to [her]” (1.3.100-101) and that “he hath importuned [her] with love/In honorable fashion” (1.3.111-112). This information reveals that Hamlet and Ophelia are involved in a romantic relationship that appears to be mutual and even hopeful, as both Laertes and Polonius mention that Hamlet’s position could not allow him to seriously be involved with Ophelia. Ophelia’s father, Polonius, repeats Laertes’ warnings and encourages Ophelia to “think herself a baby” (1.3.106) and “tender [herself] more dearly” (1.3.108) so as not to be deceived by the prince. She obeys, and when Ophelia obediently relates Hamlet’s odd behavior toward her, Polonius interprets Hamlet’s actions as madness
and ravings of love (2.2.48). This perceived madness escalades when Hamlet learns of Ophelia’s death and competes with Laertes for who loves her most (5.1.269-274). Ophelia’s death incites “mere madness” (5.1.287) in Hamlet that provides additional agitation and torment as he attempts to act as his father’s ghost compels. Ophelia’s hold on Hamlet plunges the prince further into a state of despair and anguish that only emotional vulnerability produces as it leads to his demise. Ophelia’s role as a lover in Hamlet is an additional emotional undercurrent that creates a climate of disaster for the prince and leads to tragedy.
Ophelia’s relationship to her father is a pivotal one that greatly differs from the relationship of Desdemona to Brabantio. The ever-loquacious Polonius continues to exhort Ophelia to not believe Hamlet’s supposed “holy vows of heaven” (1.3.115) and to guard herself, demanding finally that Ophelia does not “so slander any moment leisure/As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet” (1.3.134-135). Such violent language demonstrates his clear disapproval of Hamlet’s attentions, and it is shortly thereafter that he imposes tyrannical rule to which Ophelia unquestionably submits. She passively obeys her father’s orders to “repel [Hamlet’s] letters and den[y]/His access” (2.1.112-113), informing on his actions as she believes her duty calls. Ophelia accepts her father’s tyranny and does not resist, allowing him control by admitting she does not know “what [she] should think” (1.3.105) about her situation with Hamlet on her own. Ophelia allows her father to define her and her actions. It is through Polonius that the reader learns of her compliance to “lock herself from [Hamlet’s] resort,/Admit no messengers, receive no tokens” (2.2.143-144) and agree to participate in a scheme as bait for her father and Claudius to spy on Hamlet (2.2.162-164). Blind obedience to her father not only leads Ophelia to deceive Hamlet by becoming part of a plan to trap him, but also enables Ophelia to destroy herself when she realizes that Hamlet’s mind is overthrown (3.1.153) and she “deject and wretched” for “suck[ing] the honey of his music vows” (3.1.158-159). Her story culminates with the Queen’s explanation of how Ophelia drowns. The language used paints a
disturbing image—once again defined by someone else—of Ophelia’s death. This
event triggers the duel between Laertes and Hamlet that leads to their deaths and others’ at the end of the play. Without the emotional impact of Ophelia’s death, the final events in Hamlet would be quite different.
Just as Ophelia is Hamlet’s lover and her death triggers the tragic deaths at the end of Hamlet, Desdemona is Othello’s lover and her death triggers the tragic deaths at the end of Othello. A soldier accustomed to bachelor life, Othello reveals the depth of his love for Desdemona when he tells Iago to know he loves her and “would not [his] unhoused free condition/Put into circumscription and confine/For the sea’s worth” (1.2.28-31) otherwise. Likewise, Desdemona unquestionably loves Othello, stealing from her home to marry him and admitting that her “heart’s subdued/Even to the very quality of [her] lord” (1.3.285-286). It is this bond that Iago conspires to break in order to exact revenge by taking advantage of Othello’s devotion. Othello is so sure of his love for Desdemona and her love for him that he pledges his “life upon her faith” (1.3.335). Little does he realize how true that statement becomes later in the play. After working himself into what he would consider a kind of righteous anger at Desdemona’s supposed affair, Othello justifies that Desdemona must die for her “crime/Unreconciled […] to heaven and grace” (5.2.30-31) with Cassio. The “bloody passion” that “shakes [his] very frame” (5.2.53) takes control, and it is not until Iago is revealed that Othello considers the deaths that ultimately occur. Once he does, he experiences a moment of desperation and lamentation like Hamlet’s in which he mourns his grim and horrible (5.2.243) actions and questions where he should go (5.2.322). Desdemona’s death, especially as a direct result of Othello’s behavior, triggers the environment of the deaths at the end of the play: Othello helps orchestrate the plan that results in Roderigo being killed instead of Cassio, Iago killing himself out of a sense of honor, and Othello stabbing Iago. Add these factors to the already emotionally vulnerable person of Othello and only tragedy can ensue. Desdemona’s death pushes Othello over the edge, and her presence creates the climate of tragedy that occurs in the play.
Desdemona’s role also contrasts Ophelia’s in Hamlet, specifically in her choice to disobey her father, Brabantio, and marry Othello. She “run[s] from her guardage to the sooty bosom/Of such a thing as [Othello]—to fear, not to delight” (1.1.89-90), according to Brabantio, who does not believe she could go “against all rules of nature” (1.3.119) in this way. Brabantio disapproves of Othello like Polonius disapproves of Hamlet, but for different reasons. Polonius is overprotective and tyrannical, wanting to preserve his daughter’s virtue, while Brabantio is pretentious and discriminatory, rejecting Othello because the man is a Moor. Brabantio’s anger directly comes from Desdemona’s “treason of the blood” (1.1.191) that “deceives [him]/Past thought” (1.1.186). His reaction also demonstrates an obliviousness to Desdemona. Brabantio only sees her as a “maiden never bold,/Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion/Blushed at herself” (1.3.112-114) and therefore attacks Othello as a culprit, desperately claiming he is “an abuser of the world, a practice/Of arts inhibited and out of warrant” (1.3.97-98) in order to restore his authority as patriarch. Desdemona further strips him of this authority when she defers not to Brabantio but to Othello before the Duke, describing her “divided duty” (1.3.208) between her father and her husband. She chooses her husband, citing to her father that “so much duty as [her] mother showed/To [him], preferring [him] before her father,/So much [she] challenge[s] that [she] may profess/Due to the Moor [her] lord” (1.3.215-218). Though this is not the answer or recognition Brabantio hopes to hear, he grudgingly relents and “give[s] [Othello] that with all [his] heart […]/[He] would keep from” (1.3.223-225) him. Brabantio’s reaction to Desdemona’s elopement shares some of the frustration and indignation Polonius exhibits with Ophelia, but with more direct correlation. This initial deception sets up the plot between Othello and Desdemona for the rest of the play by establishing the nature of their relationship and their relationship to others. With only Othello in the world as a result of burning bridges with her father, Desdemona is essentially alone and defenseless. Her position therefore easily turns to tragedy when Othello accuses her of adultery and finally murders her. The love between Othello and Desdemona is the inciting emotional force in the play that fuels all action.
Ophelia and Desdemona each demonstrate power over their respective plays and the course tragedy takes in them. As both lovers and daughters they control the emotional undercurrent of the plays and inspire action. Though Ophelia’s influence is far more passive than Desdemona’s, the two women prove that they are key characters that cannot be ignored.