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  • Women's Role Of Obedience


    It is not surprising that the women of Shakespeare's plays reflect the ideas of gender roles of the era. In Shakespeare's time, there was no thinking going to gender equality, which was a concept that would not develop for centuries. Consequently, and as a rule, characters like Juliet and Ophelia behave in submissive ways. These two young women, in fact, strongly represent how females of the time were not permitted the freedoms of men, and lived in ways complying to the expectations of their families. Moreover, that Juliet and Ophelia were of high class status all the more reinforced the obedience demanded of them; they were obligated to follow the wishes of their fathers, and make marriages that would enhance the family's presence. At the same time, however, Shakespeare was incapable of writing one-dimensional characters, and the events in both Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet influence the women to defy what is expected of them, and assert individual identities. As the following explores, Shakespeare's Juliet and Ophelia are obedient young women in their respective worlds, but the force of circumstances overcome this duty and each woman evolves into a powerful and independent person, even as they face their own dooms.


    In examining the characters of Juliet and Ophelia, the first and most striking reality lies in how each woman is initially true to the role models of young girls born into a higher class and raised to obey the will of the men in their lives. This in turn all the more emphasizes the dramatic changes they undergo as the plays develop and their experiences greatly alter. From her introduction, for example, Juliet is the perfect example of the young lady born into an important family. In her first scene, her obedience to the wishes of her parents is plain. Lady Capulet speaks to her about how the time has come for her to consider marriage, which implies that the family has already selected the husband ideal for her. All of this Juliet accepts and she is modest in her expression of how she feels about this opportunity: “It is an honour that I dream not of”. When her mother asks if marrying Paris will please her, Juliet goes further and states that the mother's desire will motivate her to feel this way. In plain terms, she is perfectly presented as a young lady more than willing to fulfill what her family wants of her.

    Famously, Juliet's meeting of Romeo changes everything, and because their immediate passion for one another completely alters Juliet's identity in terms of duty. When he sneaks into the garden and before she is even aware of his presence, Juliet makes a vow powerfully indicating how love has changed her: “Be but sworn my love,/ And I'll no longer be a Capulet”. Within a remarkably short span of time, Juliet sets aside any obedience and is willing to renounce her own identity as a daughter of a great family. The tragedy that follows, as well as the expressions of true love passed between the couple, underscore the force of this love as becoming the only real concern of Juliet. As the drama unfolds, it is seen that Juliet has not completely denied family feeling or her need to honor the men of her family. For example, believing that Tybalt and Romeo are dead, she expresses that her cousin means much to her: “Then, dreadful trumpet, sound the general doom!/ For who is living, if those two are gone?”. However, it is Romeo who most concerns her, and this outweighs any other pain or consideration. Obedience is only relevant now in terms of her being faithful to her husband, Romeo.

    In Act III, the utter change in Juliet finally clashes with the wishes of her parents, and the scene is violent. On learning that his daughter has no intention of marrying Paris, Lord Capulet is disgusted: “Hang thee, young baggage! disobedient wretch!”. The father cannot even comprehend how anything could change Juliet's duty to obey. Before he knows the truth, however, Juliet is both respectful and firm to her mother: “Tell my lord and father, madam,/ I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear,/ It shall be Romeo”. Using the power of love at its most forceful, Shakespeare then reveals dimensions in Juliet and exposes her true and far more independent nature. It is plain that defying the will of her father and mother causes Juliet pain, but this is still minor as her love now commands her. Ironically, even, it may be argued that Juliet only transfers her obedience. Nonetheless, her determination to follow her heart brings out her strength, and obedience to the family is meaningless under the circumstances.

    With Ophelia, a very different transformation of character is presented. This is at least partly due to the different environment of Hamlet as opposed to Romeo and Juliet. Juliet's world has elements of fantasy in it, but it is still grounded in European traditions and realities; in Hamlet, the world and the events are far more marked by the mysterious and unreal, so the changes in Ophelia reflect darker forces at work. She is, like Juliet, an obedient girl of high birth. Her father, Polonius, is the king's highest counselor, as her brother Laertes is a great soldier. Ophelia is obedient to Polonius and shows him proper respect, but it is Laertes who seems to be more sensible and concerned with leading her to the right course. For example, it is understood that Hamlet is romantically pursuing Ophelia and this is fully in keeping with the ambitions of all concerned. It is right that a prince should marry such a high-born young women, just as Ophelia is very much in love with the Hamlet she has known. The stage is then set for these plans to follow through perfectly, as Ophelia's obligation to duty in no way contradicts her own desires.

    Famously, however, the changes in Hamlet alter all of this. Even before the prince is committed to revenge, however, trouble is perceived by Laertes. He warns his sister that Hamlet's love cannot be trusted, as it is: “Forward, not permanent - sweet, not lasting” (I, iii). Ophelia is submissive and listens to the advice, as being guided by her father and brother has defined her life. Still, she seems to trust more in Hamlet's love, but this in itself is what creates the changes in her. Because she is so committed to loving Hamlet, his rude insults and dismissals of her do not anger her; they throw her into complete confusion and she loses her sanity. This is then a change that goes beyond a disobedient nature because any behaviors of the world she has known no longer apply. Laertes, for example, is not enraged by Ophelia's change. He is in a sense as confused as she is: “Is't possible a young maid's wits/ Should be as mortal as an old man's life?”. It is likely that Polonius, had he lived, would have been equally at a loss, as he too would have realized that insanity exists in a way defying personal choices. In a very real sense, then, Ophelia's only defiance is a resistance to all that is normal. Descending into madness, she sings and speaks mysteriously, but doom is at the heart of everything she expresses: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be”. If love transforms Juliet into a fiercely independent woman, then, the violent withdrawal of love alters the obedient Ophelia into a suicidal, lost state of being.


    The plays of Shakespeare consistently reveal human dimension, and this is certainly true regarding two of his most famous women. True to their eras and stations in life, Juliet and Ophelia are dutiful girls, who initially could not believe that they would ever be disobedient. For Juliet, however, the duty to obey love destroys any other obligation to family or rank. For Ophelia, a radical change in the lover goes to the loss of her sanity, which similarly renders obedience meaningless. Ultimately, then, Shakespeare's Juliet and Ophelia are both completely obedient young women in their respective worlds, but the forces of their individual circumstances overcome obedience, and each woman transforms into a powerful and independent person, even as both face their own dooms.

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