A "Silly Girl"?Auden charges that Ophelia is "a silly, repressed girl." How would you respond to the criticism?

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malibrarian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When I taught this play to a class a couple of years ago (I had two students, a boy and a girl, and they were both juniors - high school), the girl I taught felt that way about Ophelia.  She couldn't stand Ophelia - thought she would have been a feminist and told Polonius and Laertes where to go, then done whatever she wanted. It was all but impossible to get this student to look at the character from either Shakespeare's point of view, from the Elizabethans' point of view, or from anyone's point of view but her own.

Jamie and I discussed this briefly the other day - We can't just read these plays from a modern-day pov, because even though the stories are timeless, the writing gripping, etc., they were still written 400+ years ago. My goal as a teacher is to get my students to step out of their own shoes and really think about what was happening to girls like Ophelia back then. I explain that women didn't have a heck of a lot of choices - had a girl like Ophelia rebelled the way my student said she should have, she probably would have been locked away somewhere, cast out of her father's house, or given in marriage to any old man willing to pay a big enough dowry for her.

I disagree with Auden, simply because I feel empathy for Ophelia. She may be repressed by her family, but she certainly is not silly. I think Shakespeare painted her sympathetically, as he did with women so often in his plays, and demonstrated the sad plight many women of his time faced.

clane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to agree with #2. I don't think of Ophelia as silly at all, in fact I think she was as feminist as a woman could have been during this Elizabethan period. The men thought her crazy, men now might think of her as moody, but certainly not insane for her actions, which shows how radical she was then. She did what she could to forge her own way as a woman. She was frustrated with her plight in the world, her lack of freedoms, choices. The only silly thing she did I think was to commit suicide, but for her that was the only path toward freedom she could carve out for herself, it was the only independent decision she felt she could make, it was her only source of control. I think this act shows with distinct clarity how sympathetic Shakespeare was toward women of the time, especially women in slightly elevated socioeconomic positions who seemingly had less freedom than peasants.