You probably read Hamlet, either the play or its Sparknotes, in English class. Maybe you wrote an essay about “to be or not to be” or captioned an Instagram post “To thine own self be true.” However, you most likely didn’t think Hamlet was relevant to your life.
My experience reading Hamlet was cathartic because I saw myself in Ophelia (Yes, she’s the one who went crazy). In her book Reviving Ophelia, psychologist Mary Pipher compares the mental health of teenage girls to that of Ophelia:
“As a girl, Ophelia is happy and free, but with adolescence she loses herself. When she falls in love with Hamlet, she lives only for his approval. She has no inner direction; rather she struggles to meet the demands of Hamlet and her father. Her value is determined utterly by their approval. Ophelia is torn apart by her efforts to please. When Hamlet spurns her because she is an obedient daughter, she goes mad with grief. Dressed in elegant clothes that weigh her down, she drowns in a stream filled with flowers.”
Shakespeare scholars label Ophelia as a product of Elizabethan misogyny. She is ordered around by her father and brother, falls recklessly in love with a man who breaks her heart and goes clinically insane. This doesn’t make her a literary trope; it makes her a teenage girl. That’s not to say all teenage girls do these things, but Ophelia certainly wouldn’t be an anomaly in the 21st century.
Ophelia may have drowned, but she is alive to this day in the emptiness of teenage girls who don’t know who they are. In “Clean” (1989), Taylor Swift sings, “The drought was the very worst / When the flowers that we’d grown together died of thirst….The water filled my lungs, I screamed so loud but no one heard a thing.” Complete with references to flowers and drowning, Taylor’s lyrics are reminiscent of Ophelia’s downfall. With a name that means “help” in Greek, Ophelia proves a teenage girl drowning in what Pipher dubs a “girl-poisoning” culture to be Shakespeare’s most timeless tragedy.
Is Ophelia a strong female protagonist? Absolutely not. She is no Hermione Granger or Katniss Everdeen. When girls read “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games,” we are reminded of all that we are capable of. We are strong, smart and don’t need a prince to rescue us. However, we can also be broken, make mistakes and yearn for romance. We are not fearless, nor are we hopeless. We are simultaneously Katniss and Ophelia. We can be heroines, but we are more complicated than a single characteristic. Women should be defined not by their strength, but by their humanity.
Modern society attempts to hide the adolescent remnants of Ophelia. Why do we see brokenness as something that makes a woman weak rather than a merely human attribute? We need to stop cowering from the Ophelia within us and revive her, for only with revival can come healing.