Contrasting the Ladies in Hamlet
How can anyone view or read the Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet without observing an obvious differentiation between the characters of the two female characters? And yet, not all critics agree on even the most salient features of this contrast.
Quite opposite the criminality of the king’s wife is the innocence of Ophelia – this view is generally expressed among Shakespearean critics. Jessie F. O’Donnell expresses the total innocence of the hero’s girlfriend in “Ophelia,” originally appearing in The American Shakespeare Magazine:
O broken lily! how shall one rightly treat of her loveliness, her gentleness and the awful pathos of her fate? Who shall dare to hint that she was not altogether faultless? One feels as if wantonly crushing some frail blossom in criticising so beautiful a creation, yet such is my thankless task.
To my mind, Ophelia has been much over-rated by writers on this play of Hamlet, and when stripped of the glamor of Shakespeare’s magic verse and the lenient tenderness we give always to the dead . . . she will be found a simple, shallow girl, pure and delicate as a snowflake [. . .] . (241)
Contradicting O’Donnell’s view is some evidence that Ophelia is not innocent in her relationship with the protagonist (West 107). Moral concerns are in the forefront of any discussion about dissimilarities between the queen and the lord chamberlain’s daughter. John Dover Wilson highlights moral differences in What Happens in Hamlet:
His [Hamlet’s] mother is a criminal, has been guilty of a sin which blots out the stars for him, makes life a bestial thing, and even infects his very blood. She has committed incest. Modern readers, living in an age when marriage laws are the subject of free discussion and with a deceased wife’s sister act upon the statute-book, can hardly be expected to enter fully into Hamlet’s feelings on this matter. Yet no one who reads the first soliloquy in the Second Quarto text, with its illuminating dramatic punctuation, can doubt for one moment that Shakespeare wished here to make full dramatic capital out of Gertrude’s infringement of ecclesiastical law [. . .] . (39)
In the Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet, David Bevington analyzes the dissimilarity: “Characters also serve as foils to one another as well as to Hamlet. Gertrude wishfully sees in Ophelia the blushing bride of Hamlet, innocently free from the compromises and surrenders which Gertrude has never mastered the strength to escape” (9).
Ophelia is so despondent at the death of Polonius and the alienation of Hamlet that she slips into madness – something that would never happen to Gertrude at the loss of a man. The queen has difficulty empathizing with the masculine point of view, even with that of her own son. She sees him attending the courtly social gathering in black, and refuses to tolerate it: