“Frailty, do not understand yourself so clearly

“Frailty, thy name is woman!”(1.2.150).

Many men believe that women are fragile, but men are oblivious towards the fact that they are the ones that try to control every single factor in a woman’s life. This quote in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, expresses the common viewpoint from men that women cannot fend for themselves. Women are subject to the decisions men make for them because they are seen as weak, and have little chance to redeem themselves.

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Women are depicted to be dependent on men because they are unable to make decisions on their own. This is evident through Ophelia’s passiveness throughout the play. For example, Polonius and Laertes dictate most of Ophelia’s life, in fact, when she is first introduced, Ophelia barely speaks because Polonius and Laertes spend the most of the scene telling her how to live her life. Polonius and Laertes warn Ophelia about trusting Hamlet. Clearly, it is important to Laertes that Ophelia remains “pure”, and he warns, “Keep you in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire. The chariest maid is prodigal enough if she unmask her beauty to the moon”(1.

3.35-37). During this time, it is seen as important for a woman to keep her chastel status, however, it is wrong for Ophelia’s brother to tell her how to take care of her body. This illustrates how if Ophelia is not completely “pure,” then no man will want to marry her. Later in the scene, when Polonius forbids Ophelia from seeing Hamlet, his authoritative power is seen. When Polonius speaks to Ophelia, he uses patronizing language, he tells her, “You do not understand yourself so clearly as it behooves my daughter and your honor”(1.

3.96-97). Not only does Polonius refer to Ophelia as a baby, but his tone differs greatly than the one he uses when speaking to his son. When Polonius gives advice to Ophelia, it is clear that he assumes she is entirely helpless to do anything for herself. Polonius also adds that “with a larger tether may Hamlet walk than may be given you.” (page 471, lines 134-135). Although Hamlet and Ophelia are around the same age, they are held to different expectations. While Hamlet can afford to flirt and sleep around, these are opportunities that Ophelia does not possess.

It seems as though Ophelia’s father and brother indicate that her only duties as a woman are to remain “pure” and obey her family. Perhaps Ophelia’s acceptance of Hamlet’s proclamations of love can be seen as an act of disobedience. In the end, however, Hamlet was cruel to Ophelia, which only proves the reinforced the idea that she must obey the authoritative men in her life in order to survive.

This can also be seen in a woman’s life today. Many women are not able to freely express their emotions, and in order for them to get what they want, they must succumb to being obedient. Higher standards and expectations aren’t the only things Ophelia is held to. While men can freely express their emotions, women lack this opportunity. The male characters are able to act however they want throughout the play. Even though Ophelia goes through horrific times, like her father’s death and Hamlet’s insults, she has nothing to help her cope with her emotions of fear or anger. One thing Hamlet and Ophelia share after act 4 is the loss of their fathers.

While it is completely normal for Hamlet to seek revenge, Ophelia is expected to remain passive. This shows that reactions to horrible circumstances exhibit themselves differently in men than women. Since Ophelia is not allowed to express her grief, Laertes is the one who takes action. He returns to the kingdom and proclaims he will, “be revenged most thoroughly for his father”(4.5.

153-154). Because Laertes is a man, he has the privilege of being able to take action due to his pain, while Ophelia, who shares the same feeling, is expected to mask her pain and remain silent. This is similar to women lives today. Women are often frowned upon for letting their feelings run wild.

While men are allowed to freely express themselves, women are expected to hide their feelings within. The guidance and demands Ophelia typically receives begins to disappear towards the end of the play. She is suddenly left to act on her own. Since men constantly dictate women lives, when left on their own, women are so accustomed that they are unable to act at all. When Ophelia’s father dies, she becomes mad. Ophelia sings,  “And will he not come again? No, no, he is dead” (4.

5.214-215). When all of Ophelia’s guidance is taken away from her, she has no idea how to take care of herself, which ultimately leads to her death. When Ophelia makes multiple references to her father during her madness, she further proves that she still has the tendency to turn to the men in her life so they can tell her what to do, even when they are gone. This ultimately proves that when women have been living their whole lives under male authority, when left to fend for themselves, they will not have success at surviving.   Ophelia did not have any control over her faith, but in the end, the roots of her madness can be linked to the realities of a woman’s life today. Unfortunately, it would be false to say that Ophelia’s life is unlike lives of women today.

Her passiveness throughout the play,  her unequal relationships with men, and her helplessness, all sound familiar. To this day, women still live in a society and where they are held to unrealistic standards by dominating men. Even though it is not true, men clearly still think they need to guide women because they are incapable to do anything for themselves.


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