It’s not easy being a girl, especially a young girl in love. First, you have to worry about what your parents will think about your new boy. Secondly, you have to figure out how far intimately you want to go with said boy. Then, of course, there’s the whole boyfriend-killed-a-relative-and-has-been-exiled thing. Well, that’s how William Shakespeare writes about young tragic love: forever fraught between the boy and family loyalties. What’s a young girl to do?
Well, given Shakespeare’s literary record in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, young girls kill themselves when divided between lovers and families. Of course, those incidents are for tragic effect, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. In fact, Romeo’s Juliet and Hamlet’s Ophelia have become sort of teen female idols—for better or for worse. Juliet, probably the most famous 13-year-old wife for the past 400 years, is often high schoolers’ first introduction to Shakespearean female characters. Ophelia is also another relatable character, often used as a symbol for disenfranchised adolescent girls in countless psychological and feminist works, including books from Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia to Sara Shandler’s Ophelia Speaks.
Yet, what makes these two female characters such figures of interest, beyond their emotional passion and tragic ends, is their relationship to the men in their lives and how they manage. Ophelia is often seen as a victim of good ole patriarchy, thanks in part to Shakespeare’s sympathetic portrayal. She’s entirely obedient to her father and brother, who both are constantly using her as pawns to entrap Hamlet or instructing her how to protect her euphemized “button”—or flower bud—because a “deflowered” woman is the worst thing ever.
In fact, a quick study of some select Hamlet quotes shows that the play is consistently concerned with her sexuality, as well as Queen Gertrude’s, hence why many literary scholars are keen to point out some incestuous inklings in the Danish prince. Most of prominent quotes—such as the famous “get thee to a nunnery” tirade against Ophelia— are accusatory or condemning spouts from Hamlet, whose misogyny runs rampant in the story about the murder of his father and his uncle’s fratricide. In fact, the whole murdered dad thing occasionally takes a back seat to Hamlet’s concerns with Ophelia’s and his mom’s sexual purity or lack thereof, which is emphasized as a woman’s only value in the play.
Back to Ophelia. After Hamlet unintentionally but not regretfully kills her dad, she goes bonkers, handing with symbolic flowers and herbs from the garden—there’s a whole botanical theme going on here—and then sort of falls into the river and drowns. It is left uncertain if it was intentional or accidental, but many critics are in the suicide camp, quick to argue that her death came about because the loss of her dad destabilized her life so drastically she couldn’t cope and muster any personal agency for herself. A victim of oppressive patriarchal society.
Juliet has different but equally trying situations with the men in her life. Yet, unlike Ophelia, she wields an unexpected amount of maturity—despite being only 13 years old. Girls do mature faster than boys, apparently. She starts out heavily dependent on her family (again, she’s only 13) but evolves over the course of the play as someone who makes her own choices, family be damned. In fact, she decides to choose Romeo over her family, especially after they try to push a marriage to Paris on her. Little do they know she’s already married (TWIST!) and she’s sticking by her man, despite the fact he killed her cousin. While that may seem naïve and slightly unhealthy—staying with someone who violently killed a blood relative—she makes her bed and lies in it too. In fact, she’s got the gall to fake her own death in that same bed and evade her family so she can live happily ever after with Romeo. Too bad Romeo didn’t get the whole fake death memo, though. Moral of the play: check your messages.
For a young woman of this time, she’s sure breaking a lot of rules, but she is unapologetic about it, throwing off the demands and restraints placed on her purely because of her gender. Of course, she does it for a guy, but she does it nonetheless. When she decides to follow Romeo’s suicide, she does it by choice and with conviction, something we can’t say about Ophelia. Of course, Juliet had bet her whole family on her relationship with Romeo and cannot easily reconcile with them, especially since they think she is dead while also threatening to disown her if she didn’t marry Paris. In fact, that is an area where Ophelia and Juliet share some common ground: loss of familial support and stability. Their shared situation—whether it was by choice or not—points to the larger theme at hand that envelopes these iconic Shakespearean female characters. They operate in a world that is not only unforgiving to them, but one that is constructed with a built-in trap door if they should step out of bounds. They have no real safety net, no back-up plan, no agency and no survival skills. Ophelia goes mad at the thought, while Juliet chooses suicide due to the lack of viable options. Shakespeare, a playwright who Virginia Woolf lauded as someone who could write knowingly from both the male and female perspective, understood this. Their deaths, prompted by lack of support, are the real tragedy.