According to men, women fall into three generic and degrading categories. Seen only as temptresses, possessions, or submissive wives, women in Elizabethan times were often characterized as being dumb sexual objects. Over the years, women have attempted to overcome these harsh stereotypes with idealisms like feminism that empower women, not degrade them. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia and Gertrude, the only women present in the play, fall into these three literally man-made categories. Yet, in many aspects Hamlet shows the hidden feelings that women have towards their treatment. Characters, such as Ophelia often go against the societal norm and display the obscured side of early feminism in women.
For the longest time, women could not create their own thoughts; they were often advised and accompanied by their male relatives, as in the play. As a consequence, Ophelia is unable to make her own choices throughout the play, except at the extremity to end her own life. Ophelia depends so entirely upon this relationship to male characters that beyond it she cannot think nor act for herself--in effect, she does not have an identity. Identity is a central part of society, but since Ophelia is characterized by a patriarchal society, she has a lack of identity and meaning. In Ophelia’s first conversation with her father about her relations with Hamlet, Ophleia comes across as weak and ignorant. During the conversation Ophelia is unable to conjure up her own thoughts, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think,” (1.2.104) however, rather than protect Ophelia’s interests, Polonius protects his own by misadvising her to forget about Hamlet.
Ophelia’s lack of identity and self-value causes her to be used as a pawn for the male characters’ bidding. Polonius, being the sneaky, conniving rat that he is, continually uses Ophelia and her feelings for Hamlet to control his rise to power under Claudius. Since Ophelia has no true identity, many identities are faked, or molded for her by the men of the play. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf reinforces the idea that men would not be where they are now or in places of power without their use of women, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. [...] Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge.” This quote truly explains the male perception of Ophelia’s purpose in the play. Ophelia appears to act only as a mirror, in other words a way for men to see themselves as powerful because they are able to lord over Ophelia.
Without the male perspective and manipulation, Ophelia seems to serve no purpose in the play. Nearing the end of the play, Polonius is slain by Hamlet, mistaken for...