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Shakespeare’s Hamlet – The Character of Ophelia

Hamlet: The Character of Ophelia

Concerning the Ophelia of Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet, is she an innocent type or not? Is she a victim or not? This essay will explore these and other questions related to this character.

Rebecca West in “A Court and World Infected by the Disease of Corruption” viciously, and perhaps unfoundedly, attacks the virginity of Ophelia:

There is no more bizarre aspect of the misreading of Hamlet’s character than the assumption that his relations with Ophelia were innocent and that Ophelia was a correct and timid virgin of exquisite sensibilities. . . . She was not a chaste young woman. That is shown by her tolerance of Hamlet’s obscene conversations, which cannot be explained as consistent with the custom of the time. If that were the reason for it, all the men and women in Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet, Beatrice and Benedict, Miranda and Ferdinand, Antony and Cleopatra, would have talked obscenely together, which is not the case (107).

West’s interpretation of Ophelia’s character is not a consensus feeling among critics, so her innocence is challenged but not overturned. Beginning now with the play, the reader/viewer sees that the protagonist of the tragedy, Prince Hamlet, initially appears dressed in solemn black. He is mourning the death of his father, supposedly by snakebite, while he was away at Wittenberg as a student. Hamlet laments the hasty remarriage of his mother to his father’s brother, an incestuous act; thus in his first soliloquy he cries out, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Ophelia enters the play with her brother Laertes, who, in parting for school, bids her farewell and gives her advice regarding her relationship with Hamlet. Op…

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…Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint of Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995.


Life as a Prostitute in The Painted Cohorts

Life as a Prostitute in The Painted Cohorts

It was a dark, menacing night as she stood there in the shadows. Waiting for the finale of the show that was playing, she glanced toward the exit through which people would soon be leaving. The rich, as patrons of the theatre house, promised her a salary at least for today. Her tattered clothes revealed the effects of personal destitution; the emaciated frame, that presently existed, harked back upon a body she must have once possessed. Driven by poverty to the realms of “painted cohorts,” she makes up her face daily, distinguishing her life from the respected (264). She is an outcast, a leper, a member of the marginalized in society; she envelops the most degraded of positions and sins against her body in order to survive. As she looks up, her eyes reflect a different kind of light, a glimmer of beauty that has not yet faded despite her present conditions. She was, at one time, a “virtuous” woman, most likely scorned by a dishonest love. Finding no comfort or pity for her prior mistakes, she must turn to the streets and embrace the inevitable – the dishonor and shame from her previous engagement will follow her unto death. Shunned from society she becomes the woman who sells herself for money and sadly finds no love. She is the abandoned, the betrayed, and the lost, embarrassed girl; she is “of the painted cohorts,” the female prostitute of the streets (264).

Prostitution in the nineteenth century was perhaps one of the most degrading positions for a woman during the era. Identified by dress, makeup, and forward mannerisms, a woman employed within the business was avoided by all respectable persons. Once tainted by the immoral sin a woman could never return to good g…

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…ation” shows, as do the houses of assignation, she is a woman driven by her own thoughts and passions, the embodiment of a spirit that while criticized will not be broken. She is a sexual being, independent and unique, and she hints at the hope of society respecting her as such.

She stands beneath the streetlight and waits for the theatre to open its doors. She looks toward the ground, knowing her unworthy position in her culture, and waits for a person to understand her circumstances, to see her not as the prostitute but as the woman who needs money, love, passion, or excitement to replace the emptiness that led her to first begin her walk on these streets.

Work Cited:

“The Painted Cohorts”: selected readings on nineteenth-century prostitution from Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999).

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