Shakespeare’s works can be analyzed through many lenses, including through a Poststructural approach onto the idea of gender and its influence on the performance of his characters. Throughout the play Hamlet, the audience can see how the character, Ophelia, is subjected to the pressures of acting as her gender role of being a woman. By incorporating Judith Butler’s ideas of the blurry lines between what actually defines gender and how it is ultimately unattainable, we can see how Ophelia’s actions reflect her inner struggle of her attempt to accept, perform, and be a woman. Feeling the pressure to follow the fictional rules of femininity throughout the play, Ophelia struggles to keep her sanity and eventually surrenders to madness.
In Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, she uses deconstruction to pose questions towards the stereotypical, biological and emotional aspects of a gender to prove that there is no single, clear depiction of female or male genders. She writes, “…the body implies a corollary redescription of gender of a disciplinary production of the figures of fantasy through the play of presence and absence on the body’s surface” (Butler 2496). She implies that people are not reluctant to separate their autonomy from the matching gender that society demands. This is due to the constant pressure the individual feels to act under the surveillance of society although, the associations between a body and its social expectations are actually invisible and strictly socially constructed. Butler further explains, “The loss of the sense of, “the normal”…when “the normal” “the original” is revealed to be a copy and an invariably failed one, an ideal no one can embody” (Butler 2499). She brings to light that people are actually just copying those around them, therefore, there is ideally no way to pinpoint a gender based on behavior or biology. Butler further explains that gender is a performance, “a strategy of survival within cumplosary systems…the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all” (Butler 2500). This claims that gender is a culturally constructed and each gender feels obliged to produce the expected act of their gender. Even if one were to fall into a binary category of male or female, the performances associated with each gender still oppress the individual to perform their gender correctly in order to be humanized by the rest of society. Due to the imaginary essense of gender and the pressure to perform its false acts, it could all, hypothetically, lead one to madness which is the process we witness in Shakespeare’s character of Ophelia and her struggle to embrace a women’s role.
Ophelia, a young maiden in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, faced much gender repression by the male figures in her family, particularly her father, Polonius. The following quotations are from a scene where Ophelia has opened up to father about how Prince Hamlet has declared feelings of love for her:
OPHELIA: He hath my lord, of late made many tenders
Of affection to me.
POLONIUS: Affection, puh! You speak like a green girl,
Unshifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
OPHELIA: I do not know, my lord, what should I think?…(1.3.99-106)
POLONIUS: Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways
OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord.(1.3.133-136)
This dialogue between Ophelia and Polonius shows how societal norms of gender are expected for everyone to perform. Her father’s response is laced with assumed stereotypes of the ‘innocence’ of young women. Polonius is viewing Ophelia as a naive, young, girl and by calling her a “green girl” he is degrading her by acting ‘too femininely foolish’ towards the news of Hamlet’s interest in her. By doing this, not only is Polonius is viewing Ophelia through a structured lense of how young women are expected to act, he is further confusing and pressuring his daughter to follow her imaginary, undefined, and unclear rules of femininity. Because there is no such thing as gender or any true acts associated with it, any gender script handed to Ophelia throughout the play is completely contradictory to reality. Further in the passage, Polonius then asks Ophelia to confront Hamlet after being given these rules so that he can witness her performing herself correctly in this situation. It is impossible for Ophelia to embody these expectations, yet she is so oppressed by the culturally constructed views that her father has for her. The confusion and burden of correctly presenting her gender affects her so greatly that through the play’s progression, we see her slowly lose her grip on her sanity.
Upon the forces of her father, Ophelia continues to feel the pressure of her gender through her own self surveillance. An example of Ophelia struggling to perform her gender was during the play scene under the testing, provocative behavior of Hamlet:
HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in you lap?
OPHELIA: No, my lord.
HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap?
OPHELIA: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA: I thinking nothing, my lord (3.2.105-110).
This shows Ophelia acting as her gender, a woman and performing the expectations associated with being a woman by politely responding to Hamlet, even though his remarks are rude and inappropriate. She attempts to follow the social script attached to her gender even as Hamlet is testing her to act out of her role. In reality, as Butler brought to light, Ophelia is copying others perceived as ‘women’ under the pressure of surveillance of their peers, therefore, it is invalid to label her as a woman due to the way she acts and carries herself. Because the behavioral expectations of being a woman are ill-defined and ultimately nonexistent, Ophelia is slowly losing her sense of what the reality of being a woman truly is. With all the pressure building inside, it brings forth a question to the audience if it is actually possible for Ophelia to live out her gender?
Towards the end of the scene we see Ophelia at her breaking point. The other characters have noticed that she is singing and talking in rhyme and riddles. They cannot understand her and deam her condition as madness:
OPHELIA: O heat, dry up my brains! Tears seven times salt
Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!
By heavens, thy madness shall be paid with weight
[Till] our scale turn the beam. O rose of May!
Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!
O’heavens, it isn’t possible a young maids wits
Should be as mortal as [an old] man’s life?…(4.5.154-160)
Although Ophelia’s madness is usually thought to be an aftermath of her father’s death, it could be very well induced from the constant pressure of her performance of her gender. The surveillance of the other characters in the play and society as a whole drove her to madness, her father’s death being the last nudge needed for her to slip off the edge. Ophelia’s insanity finally collapses into defeat, in the realization of the unattainable acts of gender. Because there is no way to pinpoint gender and all behavioral expectations associated are imaginary, Ophelia lost touch in what was fiction and what was reality. As the play progressed and pressures intensified, she could no longer hold herself to perform her social expectations of gender.
Judith Butler’s claim of the inability to define gender reflects on Ophelia’s interactions and performances throughout the play of Hamlet as she attempts to perform the unattainable task of being a woman. By looking through Shakespeare’s work, we can see that there are socially constructed aspects that society must follow based on their autonomy, and through the deconstruction of gender, we see that all the expectations and pressures are an illusion to the imaginary idea of gender.
Butler, Judith. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: Gender Trouble. W.W. Norton Company and Inc., 2001
Wofford, Susanne. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: William Shakespeare Hamlet. Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1974