William Shakespeare's Hamlet features one of the most complex, interesting and tragic cast of characters ever depicted on the stage and in Western literature. However, of particular interest are the women of the play - depicted solely by Hamlet's mother Gertrude and love interest Ophelia. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dystopian future of "The Party" is seen through the eyes of Winston Smith and his lover, the seemingly-prim Julia. Far from the stereotypical damsels in distress, these characters are strong, complex and multifaceted. In this paper, we will examine these characters in detail to show just how interesting these characters are, and their pivotal roles in their respective works. Both Ophelia and Julia are at once attracted to and repulsed by their lovers (Hamlet and Winston), attempting to find personhood in a very male-dominated state that controls their sexualities.
Ophelia is the young, nubile daughter of Polonius, who is set to marry Hamlet. However, over the course of the play, Hamlet's own manipulation and his desire to act mad in order to lull Claudius into a place where he may take his revenge on him sets Ophelia mad herself. After her father is killed by Hamlet's hand, she begins to go insane and she is later reported to have killed herself. Julia, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League who begins a secret affair with Winston Smith, something that is expressly forbidden by Big Brother.
Ophelia is also portrayed as weak, but her own downfall is infinitely interesting to behold. Lovely and shy, Ophelia at the beginning of the play is a paragon of virtue. She obeys her family even at the cost of her true love Hamlet, as her father Polonius sends her away. She is always closely tied with the symbol of violets, the essence of fragility and sensibility. Ophelia's major downfall comes when she is told to separate herself from Hamlet by both Polonius and Laertes; she loves him with all of her heart, and has tied so much of her identity to him.
When she starts to rip herself from her one true love, her character starts to pull apart at the seams. She breaks into tears when Hamlet talks to her in an abrasive and hostile way, devastated at this betrayal of the man she loves: "And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows now see that noble and most sovereign reason
out of tune and harsh" (III.i.13). Later, when Polonius dies, she finally descends into madness. In the scene in which she falls into madness and shows it to Gertrude and the other characters, she is still behaving in a childlike, innocent fashion, singing songs about flowers and acting like a fair maiden.
Eventually, Ophelia commits suicide by drowning herself in the river; she simply cannot absorb the darkness that surrounds her any longer. "Poor Ophelia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment, / Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts" (IV.v.5). This descent into madness and death for arguably the purest character in the story is evidence of how the characters' actions affect other people. Her goodness was uncompromised, while everyone else's virtue is tarnished by greed or thoughts of revenge. By having her end her life after losing her mind, the effects of this family feud is fully displayed. "Ophelia's drowning signifies the necessity of drowning both words and feelings if Hamlet is to act the role prescribed to him" (Leverenz, p. 303).
Much ado is made of Ophelia's sexuality in life as well; she is perpetually accused of sin, with Hamlet ordering her "to a nunnery" (III.i. 9). She begins to project Hamlet's harsh words about her onto herself, taking his claims of future infidelity to heart. Laertes also tells her to fear intimacy, while at the same time eroticizing her; he likens her to a delicate flower whose "buttons" have not opened yet (I.iii. 3). In this way, Ophelia is a good little girl, and that is seen as a sexual commodity by many of the men - perhaps this passivity is an intentional move by Ophelia to gain sympathy and favor with the man she loves, and the men around her. Regardless of the intention, Ophelia is a kind and gentle spirit, one which is mercilessly crushed by the weight of the tragic events that surround her.
Julia's role in Nineteen Eighty-Four is that of a romantic foil for Winston, much as Ophelia is for Hamlet; the virginal nature of both of them leaves them to be delicate flowers in their own right. As Julia is a member of the Junior Anti-Sex League, she is thought of as unapproachable and out of Winston's league. However, she begins to sow her own dissent when she leaves him a note that states I LOVE YOU, something that turns Winston around for her. To both of their men, Ophelia and Julia are somewhat unattainable figures; Ophelia is too close to Hamlet's enemies for him to truly let her in, and Julia is a sexless member of the Party. However, Julia finds herself to be strong and pragmatic when she propositions Winston, and shows herself to be far from the sexless creature that Winston assumes.
Julia, compared to Ophelia, is a much stronger creature; Julia is a self-sustaining woman, whereas Ophelia is completely codependent upon her father, Hamlet, and her brother Laertes for her sense of self and purpose in life. She is sweet and unspoiled, while Julia embraces her sexuality and the way in which it messes with the system that has been set up. "When you make love you're using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don't give a damn for anything. They can't bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time." (Orwell, Book 2, Chapter 3). The man's world of the Party is similar to the man's world of Denmark, as the male authority figures in each work seek to dehumanize and deny women's place of importance as anything other than wives - Ophelia's suicide almost personifies this, as it "becomes a little microcosm of the male world's banishment of the female, because 'woman' represents everything denied by reasonable men" (Leverenz, p. 303). Also, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, even Winston, under the philosophy of the regime, believes that Julia " had become a physical necessity, something that he not only wanted but felt he had the right to" (Orwell, Chapter 2).
It is not just Ophelia and Julia that can be compared to each other; both Gertrude and Winston's mother have interesting parallels in terms of their relationship and meaning to the main characters of these works. Both Gertrude and Winston's mother experience the loss of their father, and experience quick changes - for example, Gertrude immediately marries Claudius "Within a month," while Winston's mother "seemed to have become completely spiritless. It was evident even to Winston that she was waiting for something that she knew must happen (Orwell, Book 2, Chapter 7)".
Both of the men in Ophelia and Julia's lives are responsible for their deaths. Hamlet, in his quest to act mad, pushes Ophelia away, telling her to go "to a nunnery" and acts disgusted with her. This breaks her heart completely, and paved the way for her eventual suicide. Julia, on the other hand, is directly betrayed by Winston, who begs them to "do it to Julia!" when he is being tortured. Upon meeting her again, knowing that he betrayed her, Julia recounts the mindset that they both have to live with regarding their mutual betrayal of each other -
"And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself." (Orwell, Book 3, Chapter 6).
In conclusion, the women of Hamlet and the women of Nineteen Eighty-Four have very similar roles; that of representing both the oppressive nature of the situations the main characters find themselves in, and the broken promise of love everlasting torn apart by the direct actions of the characters. Gertrude and Winston's mother are broken in different ways by their husbands' deaths; Gertrude gets in bed with her brother-in-law, becoming an accomplice to the murder, and Winston's mother falls into depression. Ophelia, a nice girl in love with Hamlet, is pushed away for the sake of his own blind revenge; Julia, Winston's revolutionary lover, is broken similarly by Winston's betrayal of her to the Party. These women are ravaged by male-centric worlds that have no mercy upon them, and yet they find ways to make themselves known and respected in their brief time.
Leverenz, David. "The Woman in Hamlet: An Interpersonal View." Signs, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 291-
308, Winter 1978. Print.
Orwell, George. 1984. Secker and Warburg, 1949. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Print.