Ophelia: Hamlet through a Female Lens

I like stories told from the woman’s perspective, especially if they shed insight into a familiar story. So when I found out they were filming Ophelia, the story of Hamlet, but with some changes, I was so impatient to see it I rented it the morning of its streaming release.

Shakespeare has never been one of my passions. I love his plots but not the difficulties entangled in untangling his complex prose. I lack the patience for it. Ophelia doesn’t try to be Shakespeare in terms of language, although it has beautiful dialogue. It’s the story of a scrappy little redheaded girl who speaks out in court, lands among the queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and then sees and hears too much… more than she should. Along the way, she discovers the queen’s terrible secret, the true identity of a mysterious woman in the woods, and falls in love with a tempestuous and impulsive prince named Hamlet.

If you’ve seen the play or read it, or even watched The Lion King (one of the more obvious, if creative, retellings of Hamlet), then you know the basic plot. Hamlet’s evil uncle murders his father and steals his throne. Shakespeare leaves the audience uncertain about whether Hamlet has truly gone mad from discovering this, or if it’s all a plot to unnerve those around him, but in the story, Ophelia has a tragic fate. The dialogue of the time suggests Hamlet may have impregnated her, and she commits suicide out of despair when he spurns her (“get thee to a nunnery!”). In this version, Ophelia has more agency. She controls her own fate, makes her own decisions, and even has a happy ending in her own way, despite the loss of her family and lover. She is a modern heroine; a girl who learns to read in a time when most under-class women cannot, who speaks her mind, who does all she can to protect Hamlet from his worst self. Ophelia is no fool. She knows what men are capable of, but defies them anyway, in her own, smart way. And the movie cleverly gives her plot tropes that Shakespeare used in his other works to play with—she cross-dresses for her own safety and a daring mission (Twelfth Night), and uses a potion to disguise her false death (Romeo & Juliet). When Hamlet will not listen to reason, Ophelia walks away from him and makes her own way in the world. Good for her.

Gertrude also has more to work with in this adaptation than in many. She is a woman deprived of love, who covets it above all, but her husband only cares about making war. This desperate need causes her to fall into the arms of Claudius, and attempt to control his mad fits of temper, for the social upheaval it may wreak. She has the duel nature of being a woman of compassion, but also selfishness. Though she tenderly invites Ophelia into her court and singles her out for praise after the other girls bully her, she also demands a tapestry maker “unpick” his entire project and “begin again” after she feels he has made her look too old in it. She becomes angry when she discovers her son’s love for Ophelia, and confronts her about it, asking if this is what her kindness has wrought, that Ophelia would betray her and scheme above her station?

If you’ve seen the film, you know the ending… and if you haven’t, I will spoil it in the next paragraph. Gertrude, in this adaptation, realizes Claudius’ treachery and kills him in a glorious moment of revenge. An invading army charges through the doors, led by her sister who wants to see Claudius’ downfall… and rather than face being raped or forced to marry someone against her will, Gertrude drinks poison and dies in her arms. It’s too late to save her. It’s a haunting end to her story and one Shakespeare did not give her. But it’s glorious in how it’s her decision.

Shakespeare writes many wonderful women of good virtue and bad, compassion and cruelty, shallowness and depth, but in this version, they get to tell their own stories. As Ophelia says, it’s not one you’ve heard before. I appreciate that this adaptation doesn’t trash its male characters so much as draw the attention off them onto its women. It’s not an attempt to rewrite Shakespeare or replace the original Hamlet, but it presents an alternative version of events. It doesn’t suffer from an excess of feminism so much as it lets Shakespeare’s heroines loosen their corsets and shape their own destinies. Some of them choose the grave, and some of them choose life, but all of them are memorable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

4 thoughts on “Ophelia: Hamlet through a Female Lens

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  1. I appreciate that this adaptation doesn’t trash its male characters so much as draw the attention off them onto its women.

    EXACTLY! I love this about Ophelia, and I wish more female-led movies (and books) would do the same. Just like you shouldn’t make a male character look smarter by making the women around him be dumber, so you shouldn’t do the reverse. It’s lazy writing at best and harmful storytelling at worst. And Ophelia completely refuses to play that game, with dazzling results.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ophelia just focuses on the women in the story, and leaves the men mostly as they are in the original, and I like it. It transfers it to the female gaze, and fleshes out their story, but does no more than that.

      Like

  2. I liked this movie so much more than I was expecting to! I saw recently that a movie is being made about Rosaline from Romeo and Juliet and wonder if it’ll kick off a trend of revisionist/”her side of the story” Shakespeare retellings. If they’re anything like Ophelia…I look forward to them. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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