Frailty thy name is woman

By Professor Carole Maddern


Probably the second most well-known character in Hamlet is the tragic heroine Ophelia. She represents an ancient trope: the figure of the doomed young woman dying ostensibly for love. But from another perspective, she can be seen as a sacrifice or collateral damage. Her death in the context of vicious political intrigues and endemic warfare acts as a sign of the destructive forces at work in a society which crushes innocence and marginalises suffering.

This theme of extreme innocence and sacrifice, gendered feminine, is prominent in many literary works, of course.

In the world of Arthurian romance, suffering damsels often figure as emblems of purity. Malory’s Fair Maid of Ascalot was especially beloved by the Victorian poet Tennyson, who recreated her as the Lady of Shalott. This influential poem disseminated widely the image of the fragile ingénue who dies of unrequited love. Malory’s straightforward prose has Elaine declare boldly that her physical appetites are natural, ‘Am I not an earthly woman?’, and Lancelot’s rejection of her, by extension, appears unnatural. The gross gender discrepancy operating here is seen in the more successful career of her brother Lavaine. As a man, he is able to accompany Lancelot and become part of the Round Table’s brotherhood of knights, while she, equally enthralled, cannot be assimilated but is repudiated and forced back to the margins.

The scene where Elaine’s dead body floats on a barge to King Arthur’s court has clear echoes of Ophelia’s demise. The Fair Maid is a figure of intense pathos as she confronts the corrupt court with its sordid secrets, operating as an emblem of virtue. In her innocence, she represents a potential antidote to the violence and destruction brewing around Lancelot’s adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere, and her death symbolises the death of hope.

The parallels with Ophelia are clear. She too is manipulated and discarded by the patriarchal figures around her. Shakespeare shows Claudius, Hamlet, Polonius (her father), and Laertes (her brother) each constructing their own partial concepts of who she is: as a pawn, as a victim, and as an excuse for their spying and feuding. The toxic atmosphere of Claudius’s court gathers to catastrophic destruction much as Arthur’s does. And it is the cruel, sudden death of the innocent woman which serves as the most striking indictment of the masculine political sphere predicated on violence and war. The fratricide king Claudius speaks with the astonishing unintentional irony of Ophelia suffering ‘the poison of deep grief’ (IV. 5. 75), but the audience sees the poison spreading from the centre of power. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and it brutalises innocence such as Ophelia’s.

Through – not despite – her suffering and death, Ophelia plays a crucial role in the unfolding catastrophe of the play’s action. The trajectory of breakdown and implosion is set in motion following her demise, leading ultimately to the instigation of a new order, with Fortinbras’s invasion. A kind of brutal cleansing is achieved.

When reflecting on Ophelia’s tragic end, it is almost impossible not to recall Millais’s famous painting of Ophelia, in which she lies supine as if on a bed of flowers, peacefully floating in the stream, her body about to be reabsorbed into the natural world. Much like Millais’s painting, Gertrude’s poetic account of Ophelia’s drowning aestheticises the moment:

There with fantastic garlands did she make

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples (IV. 7. 167-8)

She sings as the water drags her down:

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element. (IV. 7. 177-9)

Both the words and the image offer the audience a carefully curated view, occluding pain and suffering via an artificial tableau of serenity.

It is notable that Ophelia’s death does not occur as an act witnessed on stage but as an event mediated by Gertrude. Given the limitations of Shakespeare’s theatrical space precluding extravagant special effects, it is not surprising that evocative poetry is the medium by which we experience the scene. But we should consider the ramifications of the moment being performed by Gertrude for Hamlet and for the audience. It acts as a piece of art, crystallising an emotional response, and also as a distancing mechanism, controlling our perspective and foregrounding beauty over pain.

Captured in their final moments, frozen in words or oils, these women function in multiple ways. Not simply exquisite memento mori symbols, embodying the brevity and transience of life, and not simply victims, but also catalysts for tumultuous change even as they serve as enduring emblems of the costs of masculine aggression and repression.


  1. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 author. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. [London]: The Folio Society, 1954.




Carole Maddern is a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and Deputy Programme Director of the University of London Worldwide English programme, teaching mediaeval and early modern modules.