How are the expectations of the female gender from Petrarch's "Sonnet 333" problematic for Shakespeare's Ophelia in Hamlet?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Based upon Ophelia's fate in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Petrarch's "Sonnet 333" might be seen as problematic. 

There is some difficulty in addressing this question because of the way Ophelia's death is described by Gertrude, and how many scholars and readers perceive the circumstances surrounding her death.

There on the pendant boughs her crownet weeds

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide

And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;

Which time she chaunted snatches of old lauds,

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element; but long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death. (IV.vii.187-198)

I have always perceived from Gertrude's sad yet beautiful description of Ophelia's death, that it is Ophelia's madness that drew her out simply to sit on the branch over the water. The "envious sliver" (as Shakespeare so eloquently personifies the branch) breaks. Ophelia neither walks into the water, nor does she jump in, as one would expect of a person committing suicide. Gertrude further notes that in Ophelia's unstable mental state, the young woman is not even aware of the danger she is in.

However, time and again, Ophelia is charged with what was considered a mortal sin—this is borne out by the gravediggers ("Clowns") who discuss Ophelia's funeral taking place as they speak. The first gravedigger notes that unless the water came to Ophelia and killed her, she must have taken her life. The second gravedigger observes that nobles have power enough to arrange for a Christian burial whatever the circumstances, a luxury that a commoner could not hope to enjoy if he or she had taken his or her own life.


Will you ha' the truth on't? If this had not been

a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o' Christian burial. (V.i.22-24)

Here, then, is the initial difficulty with Ophelia and Petrarch's words. He writes:

…cry to her to speak from heaven's sphere. (3)

The speaker is asking that his dead love (Laura) would call out to him from heaven. However, if (as the gravediggers attest) Ophelia died by her own hand, she would not be in heaven to call to him. The speaker in Petrarch's sonnet continues:

…praise of her is all my purpose here

And all my business; that of her alone

Do I go telling, that how she lived and died

And lives again in immortality… (7-10)

One might then assume that Laura would be praised for what she did in life, and it would be believed that the dead woman would live again in immortality (which infers a heavenly reward). However, in Ophelia's case, she would not be praised, and would be deprived of a place in heaven.

In terms of the way Petrarch regards Laura in death, we might infer also that the speaker loved her deeply in life. This is also counter to how Ophelia was treated by Hamlet when he returned from school for his father's death, suspecting that she was spying on him for the King and had no personal regard for Hamlet.

Finally, in terms of specific expectations of the female gender, there is a sense in Petrarch's sonnet that the woman would be expected to have lived a flawless life: that she is praiseworthy and will have passed a perfect existence worthy of such admiration, therefore guaranteed a spot in heaven: "the blessèd place" (14).