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  • Writer's pictureMackenzie Elisa

I watched "Ophelia" 2018 so you don't have to

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Ohhhhhhhkay where to begin?!?!?! I've seen this film before, but it was before I truly appreciated Shakespeare and Hamlet. This might be a toxic trait of mine, but I do consider Ophelia to be a comfort character for me. I think she is a lot more complex than people give her credit for, and I also think that she is generally not portrayed the way she deserves to be... Hamlet is my favorite play of all time (I know I'm basic). Also, I'm taking a European Women's history class right now and I read a lot of Feminist criticism on Shakespeare (I'm writing an extensive paper on it) so I have very strong opinions about this film.

To start, I think Daisy Ridley's performance as Ophelia was amazing. I think she's a very gifted actor and the film as a whole was gorgeous, and I mean Tom Felton as Laertes!?!?! HELLO!?!? I love how they gave Gertrude more of a story, it was interesting to see how the death of King Hamlet played out in this version. However, I don't think that this film was a good feminist interpretation of Hamlet. Was Ophelia given more agency and more of a backstory? Yes, but the story told was not about the same Ophelia that Shakespeare wrote.

Firstly, the backstory they gave Ophelia was just flat out not supported by the text. Ophelia was supposed to marry Hamlet and everyone knew it. She IS from a wealthy family because in the play, Gertrude does not have a problem with her marrying Hamlet. Also, historically speaking, wealthy women tended to have less agency than poor women because they served as political pawns of their fathers and/or husbands. Do I believe that Hamlet and Ophelia were in love? Yeah, I do. But I do not think that the Hamlet that we see in the play is the *real* Hamlet. We see a traumatized and grieving Hamlet, not fully there. It isn't until the scene in the graveyard where he is talking about Yorick that we get to see THE Hamlet that everyone knew and Ophelia loved (this is a whole separate issue that I'll get into at some other time).

The one thing that the film did get right was that Ophelia and Hamlet slept together. I will die on this hill. The film just messed with the timeline a lot. Ophelia and Hamlet 100% slept together which is why he talks so much about her virtue and sees her as the embodiment of lust and sin in the original text. I do think they were in love, and that's one of the things about their relationship and Ophelia's "fall" that is so tragic.

Feminist crititicism of Hamlet often focuses on Ophelia's death. Ophelia is living in a world entirely controlled by men. She is constantly manipulated by them and is never allowed to truly make any decisions for herself. The first choice she actually makes of her own free will is to take her own life. That is her breaking away from the patriarchy and taking control of her own life, which in this case is her death. We also have to bring to light how she is categorized as hysteric by those around her after her father is literally murdered, but Hamlet is allowed to grieve. Hamlet as a play is inherently misogynistic.

This movie turned into Romeo and Juliet with the whole faking her own death thing. I was like "wow this isn't Hamlet, this is R+J with a happy ending." AND THEN Ophelia cut her hair and dressed like a guy and I was like "wait so now she's Rosalind leaving the Duke's court to live her life in the country." There's a lot of feminist literature concerning how Ophelia had the potential to be like Rosalind, if she had just been "stronger". There's a lot of parallels between Ophelia's life and Rosalind's in Act I of As You Like It. Both Rosalind and Ophelia are living in patriarchal societies and have little to no agency AND no mother. Shakespeare was also writing these two plays relatively close together, so of course we're going to see some similarities. We actually see Rosalind chastise Orlando for "acting in love", and she uses the same adjectives that Ophelia uses when describing Hamlet's madness to Polonius. Here's the thing, I see where they're going with this argument, but I don't agree with it. I don't think Ophelia and Rosalind are the same person. They are inherently different, and Ophelia's "madness" is not simply a product of her lack of strength. Arguably, Ophelia's madness was partially genetic (I mean look at Polonius). Additionally, Ophelia lived through events that were more psychologically traumatizing than Rosalind did! It's like comparing apples to oranges.

Anyways, thank you for coming to my Ted Talk. This probably won't be the last time you hear me psychoanalyze Ophelia.

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