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McKenna Johnson
English 382
June 18, 2014
Strong Female Characters: Ophelias Afterlives and the Feminist Hermione Debates
One important issue surrounding the depiction of characters is the tension between
creating realistic, relatable characters and creating role models. This is especially true of female
characters. There is a strong pressure to make strong female characters in order to empower
women and better society. Hamlets Ophelia is a fantastic case study in examining attitudes and
practices concerning the depiction of adolescent female characters because over the years she has
been interpreted and depicted in so many ways. When the things discovered through Ophelia are
combined with an analysis of criticism of Harry Potters Hermione Granger, we can more
readily see how to balance the need for adolescent female characters who are both well-written
and empowering.
Ophelia has been interpreted or portrayed in a huge variety of ways. Initially, Ophelia
was interpreted and portrayed as an ideal, innocent young virgin (Teker 11314). Words used
to describe her character included simple, beautiful, pitiful, winning, gentle, tender, submissive,
fragile, stupid, silly, cheap, and shallow, and she was described as a weak little inanity, a doll
without intellect (Romanska 494). Her madness was explained by the intensity of her emotions,
which in such a frail person led to melancholy and eventual breakdown (Teker 114). In short,
audiences and critics considered her a weak female character.
When feminist criticism began affecting Hamlet, more attention was paid to Ophelias
motivations (Teker 113). Critics noted that Ophelia, with her questions to her brother, answers
with politic ambiguity rather than the acquiescence often attributed to her; her questions open
a protective space (Finkelstein 7).Ophelias manner and purpose in her responses cannot be

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determined from the text alone. She could be clueless and questioning, or she could be keeping
her true thoughts and opinions to herself because it would be unwise to express them.
Additionally, the tradition of Ophelias exit before the to be or not to be speech is not
supported by the text (Romanska 488). Hamlet may have given the speech to her. Since Hamlet
is rather a snob who would have been unlikely to so honestly state his deepest philosophical,
suicidal thoughts in front of someone completely unable to comprehend him, this may indicate
that Ophelia was never meant to be some ditzy beauty (Romanska 492).
Looking at details like these, over the years critics have proposed various motivations for
Ophelia. Her madness came to be viewed as a way that she could make a forceful assertion of
. . . being (Fischer 7). She is, in this view, a silent hero who finds a powerful voice of
critique (Gates 229). In addition to casting Ophelia as resolute, critics and directors interpreted
and portrayed Ophelia as nuanced. Kozintsevs Ophelia, from the 1964 film, is timid but
precociously seductive, innocent but a shrew, and inexperienced but mature (Teker 115). In the
1990 Zeffirelli film, her innocence is mixed with intelligence, keen perception, and erotic
awareness (Teker 116). Ophelias story can even be viewed as a courtly love revenge, an
ambiguously achieved revenge, devastating to lover and family but equally powerful as a
memorializing of her love for them (Gates 230, 232). These more complex depictions of
Ophelia are more varied, personal, and active, and reflect how interpretations of Ophelia have
changed over time.
In more popular retellings, Ophelia achieves even greater variety of character. In
depictions geared more towards adults, Ophelia as been portrayed as a victim of Stalinism and
Nazism, and as a potential female terrorist (Owen 256, 261). For a long time, however, Hamlet
has been popular in juvenile fiction. In an 18501851 story, Mary Cowden Clarke presents

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Ophelia seriously as a subject (Hateley 438). In Hamlet retellings written for young men,
Ophelia tends to be the vision of adolescent femininity as either passive or monstrous (Hateley
440). In one novel, Ophelias ghost possesses young peoples bodies in order to murder their
sexual partners, using methods including the removing of still-beating hearts and decapitation
(Hateley 440). Especially since Piphers Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent
Girls, the origin of the Ophelia complex, or Ophelia syndrome, Ophelia has been portrayed in a
variety of ways in (usually romance) novels written for a female, teenage audience. In these
stories, Ophelia punches Hamlet, is an environmental activist, enjoys reading, swims, is sexually
independent and assertive, physically overcomes men who try to assault her, or works against the
plots of Claudius (Hateley 44142). Ophelia in modern retellings is an assertive, proactive
character who doesnt end up mad or drowned as Shakespeares Ophelia did. The Ophelia of
modern novels asserts her authentic self.
In addition to her character changing, Ophelia has long been an icon or a conceptso
much so that it can be said that the representation of Ophelia has been almost entirely iconic
(Ronk 24). Ophelia was the most frequently represented figure of the nineteenth century, when
there was a fascination with the femme fragile (Romanska 485). It was something of a tradition
to eroticize her drowning (Romanska 485). She is the Other in Hamlet, a Braille rendition of the
heros own progress, or a silent and suicidal question mark (Fischer 1; Romanska 487).
Ophelias madness mirrors the tensions that Hamlet perceives or is a literal enactment of
Hamlets loss of humanity (Fischer 8; Gates 234). She is a sign of outrage, social death, or
corruption, or she embodies female suffering caused by sociopolitical forces (Owen 259, 263,
266, 265). Who Ophelia is changes depending on the audience: historical depictions of Ophelia
alter with changes in attitudes towards women and madness (Ronk 24). These changes are

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extensive enough that critics have criticized critics in general, noting that to liberate [Ophelia]
from the text, or to make her its tragic center, is to re-appropriate her for our own ends (Gates
229). In other words, each time Ophelia is resurrected, she plays the same role she has always
played in Hamletshe is bound to the expectations of those who have power over her. The kind
of woman Ophelia becomes is the kind of woman desired by the audience. One way we can see
this is in how whether or not Ophelia is perceived as pregnant depends not so much on the text as
on the playgoers or readers intentions to Poloniuss daughter(Hunt 641). With Ophelia in
general as with her potential pregnancy, there is evidence for more than one conclusion, but
which is the right conclusion is impossible to tell. Without Ophelias voice, it is impossible to
completely or accurately determine the meaning of her character.
In Mary Piphers Reviving Ophelia, Pipher presents Ophelia as the quintessential
adolescent woman (Hateley 436). This seems appropriate, but not necessarily because Ophelia
is the passive object Pipher, or popular culture more broadly, would have her be (Hateley 438).
In fact, we dont even know for sure that Ophelia had an Ophelia complex. While it is impossible
to tell who Ophelia is, since her voice is largely denied in the play, Ophelia still manages to
display a number of the traits Pipher is trying to develop in adolescent girls. Pipher advocates for
first, androgyny, here meaning a willingness to accept or express stereotypically masculine traits
or roles; second, the owning of ones experience, including emotions and thoughts that are not
socially acceptable; and third, an understanding of the effects of the culture, which leads to
fighting back against negative effects through conscious choices (Levy 3738). Hamlets
Ophelia did not have a lot of room to express these traits, but to an extent manages to do so.
When her father questions her about Hamlet, she adopts the stereotypically masculine trait of
asserting herself, protesting that Hamlet had given countenance to his speech . . . with almost all

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the holy vows of heaven (I.iii.11314). She owns her confusion when Hamlet comes into her
closet, grabbing her and acting like a madman, and, although she is perhaps more concerned with
Hamlets plight than her own, does express her own trauma, asserting in the speech she gives
after she is used as Hamlet-bait that she is of ladies most deject and wretched (III.i.155). This
puts her ahead of many of the girls in Piphers book, who see a sympathetic counselor for weeks
before beginning to open up or own their negative emotions (Pipher 2021). While
acknowledging how gender roles affect her culture, Ophelia is extremely limited in how she is
able to fight back against negative impacts. Although we know from her reply to Laertess
advice that she is conscious of the double standards to which she is subjected, as a
noblewoman she must ally herself with some powerful (male) figure in the court in order to
survive (Hateley 437). Claudius is not close to her and is a murderer, and Gertrude, powerful
though female, is with Claudius. Laertes was right in saying that Hamlet did not have complete
choice over whether or not he could marry Ophelia, and even if he had, Hamlet is not necessarily
reliable. Indeed, Harold Bloom wrote that Shakespeares wisdom avoided the only fate for
Ophelia that would have been more plangent than her death-in-water: marriage to Hamlet the
Dane (qtd. in Hateley 435). Meanwhile, her fathers transparently opportunistic and selfish
handling of her love affair and his narcissistic attachment to her are not very reassuring
(Gates 231; Finkelstein 7). Her only other option, her brother Laertes, is not only gone for most
of the play, but when he returns, mention of her pathetic death is omitted when dying Laertes
magnanimously tells dying Hamlet, Mine and my fathers death come not upon thee, / Nor thine
on me (Hunt 658). No one in the court is clearly willing to either act for her or allow her to act
for herself. Ophelia is not necessarily a passive character; rather, context can shape (perhaps
even determine) personal narrative (Hateley 445).

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Ophelia may well be the quintessential adolescent woman, but this is not because of
passivity (Hateley 436). Instead, it is because Ophelia lives in the ideological present,
transformed and reinvented in response to the cultural needs of each successive society which
adopts her as its own (Hateley 444). It is because she loses herself in the midst of whatever
maelstrom of personal traits and sociocultural forces leads her to her loss of self, and that is
precisely the problem adolescent girls face. This is disturbing as relates to the depiction of
realistic and empowering characters. Ophelia may be a realistic character, but since she is
prevented from expressing her authentic self, she is not a particularly empowering one. If
Ophelia is a strong character who was simply overcome by stronger forces, then what does that
say about the depiction of modern female characters, or modern teenage girls, for that matter?
While the world has advanced considerably since Shakespeares time, and Ophelias
circumstances were bizarre to begin with, the modern world and Hamlet may not be as different
as we would hope. The themes and issues of the play serve as a virtual catechism for the field
of adolescence, and the complexities of romance, gender, sexuality, and mortality which
haunt Shakespeares Ophelia also haunt her afterlives (Hateley 43536). As a story, Hamlet
has rarely been absent from collections of plot-based retellings targeted at preadolescent
readers, a fact indicating its relevance (Hateley 435). Ophelias struggle reflects that of modern
teenage girls. Not only Piphers book, but a number of books and studies, have come to the same
real-world conclusions: compared to both past generations and boys of the same age, girls in the
US are at risk of academic failure, substance abuse, pregnancy, sexual disease, and suicide to a
degree unimaginable to most parents and teachers (Sprague and Keeling 64041). Researchers
find that pre-adolescent and adolescent girls frequently discover that they have a choice
between being, on the one hand, honest and true to themselves, and, on the other hand, being

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loved (Levy 36). Amid the pressure of peers, mass media, and cultural expectations, older girls,
when compared to younger girls, tend to hide their strong feelings, to repress anger and outrage,
so that they will receive approval from peers and adults until they become unable to articulate
who they are and what they value (Sprague and Keeling 640641). Depicting this realistically
could have a damaging effect on the population meant to become empowered.
While on the one hand we learn from Ophelia that realistic characters are not always
empowering, we also learn that role models for women are drastically different in different time
periods. Depicting an ideal role model may not help female readers better develop as healthy
women; it may just help them conform to societys expectations. Additionally, the other extreme
from depressingly realistic settings, showing a safe, happy, equal world and then letting girls
imitate it, isnt a workable solution, either. In forming a booklist that empowered adolescent girls
and encouraged gender equality among students, the criteria Sprague and Keeling looked for in
books included a book that demonstrated real and typical restrictions of females, a requirement
that did not eliminate books of fantasy as long as they contained situations analogous to real-life
challenges, while another was that the heroine had to negotiate society, including males
(Sprague and Keeler 642). Showing a life that readers cant relate to doesnt empower them; it
just hands them a seemingly irrelevant model they arent going to pursue. This leads to the
tension between realistic, relatable characters and role models: readers need both. What balance
between the two is best is up for debate. Based on the research gleaned from Ophelia, we can
look to how Hermione Granger is perceived to explore this balance further.
One of the arguments over Hermiones ability to empower is her need to be saved from
various dangers. The suggestions for girl-empowering novels specifically require that the books
not reinforce the stereotypic role of the woman in fiction, that she is somehow rescued by a

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handsome male and lives happily ever after (Sprague and Keeler 642). Heilman argues that
Hermione is not an empowering character because she is saved or reassured by Harry and Ron,
who are less emotionally shaken, a number of times, such as in the Sorcerers Stone when she
cowered in fear when faced with the troll and shrieks, screams, and speaks nervously on the
journey to get the stone (Heilman 22223). Bell, however, argues that the boys also show fear at
various times, noting that some have gone so far as to call Harry a male damsel-in-distress
because of his constant need for help and rescue (Bell 4). The boys dont save Hermione because
shes a girl, but because the three take turns saving each other as part of their friendship. It is also
important to note that Hermione develops during the series. Hermione is eleven when she is
terrified by a troll, and by Deathly Hallows she overcomes her fear enough to invent a lie in the
middle of being tortured by Bellatrix Lestrange (Bell 77). As the series continues, the
victimization Hermione is subject to does not define her or prevent her from finding a voice. She
literally is able to assert her interests during torture. Helping girls find their voices and express
themselves according to their own wills is an essential point in empowering adolescent girls.
Other controversies over Hermione involve her attitudes toward school, her appearance,
and love. While Mayes-Elma praises Hermione because she is not at all embarrassed or
ashamed of being so studious, she also notes that the identity Hermione constructs for herself
mirrors societys construction of a girlwhich reinforces patriarchal hegemony (Mayes-Elma
8182). However, Hermiones lack of apology for her studiousness and intelligence is one of the
biggest assets to Hermiones character, as listed by feminists in the blogosphere (Borsuk; James;
Richards). While Heilman criticizes Hermiones transformation at the Yule Ball, asserting that
this sends a message that girls have to change their appearances in order to be liked, according to
The Goblet of Fire, Krum became interested in Hermione before she got all dolled up, and

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continued to be interested in her after she went back to being her normal self (Heilman 22829;
Rowling 433, 51013). This can be seen as a message that girls are okay the way they are. In
matters of love, Heilman and Donaldson consider that her thing for Ron is out of bounds, and
that her marriage to him solidifies her dependent identity in the trio (153, 145). Disagreeing,
Bell considers Hermione to hold the majority of power and competence in the relationship
(23). In another opinion, J.K. Rowling said that [Hermione] never tries to make Ron feel better
by pretending to be less than she is (The Women of Harry Potter). This insistence to not
change oneself for love of a boy is an essential component in promoting girl-empowerment.
As is clearly shown in the feminist debates over Hermione, what makes an empowering
female character is not something that is agreed upon. Moreover, even if there was a sort of
female character that was agreed upon as appropriately strong, it would be ridiculous to use that
same mold for every female character. As Ophelias journey also tells, trying to make role
models doesnt always work well as a form of character development because no one knows
exactly what a fully empowered adolescent woman should be. In contrast, real characters who
show strengths can resonate deeply with readers, and through this influence, act as role models.
In creating Hermione, J.K. Rowling addressed the issues facing teen girls:
Its sometimes very difficult as a woman, to say Actually, this is who I am, and Im not going to pretend
otherwise, but thats the only way to be truly happy, so thats what I would want to say to girls particularly.
Hermione is an exaggeration of me, and so I would say that Hermione comes from a very deep place inside
me. I was very insecure . . . . Writing about the time in Hermiones life that I write about, growing from
childhood into womanhoodliterally, because when we finish the books shes eighteenI think it brought
back to me how difficult it is. So much is expected of you as you become a woman, and often, you are
asked to sacrifice parts of you in becoming a girl, I would say. Hermione doesnt. She doesnt play the
game, if you like. (The Women of Harry Potter)

Hermione was initially based on a real person, and as a realistic character, she could
demonstrate how to not sacrifice parts of herself in growing up. However, this real focus does

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not mean that she is not a role model, or that she was not intended to be one. Emma Watson
noted that she has had countless mothers come up to her and say, Thank you so much for giving
my daughter a role model. She absolutely idolizes Hermione (The Women of Harry Potter).
J.K. Rowlings thoughts on the matter also show this concern with role models, but with a focus
on having a realistic character. She said,
I would like to think that Hermione is a role model for girls. . . . I was a very plain, bookish, freckly, bright
little girl, I was a massive bookworm, and I spent a significant part of my reading looking for people like
me. Now, I didnt come up with nothing. I remember Jo March, who had a temper, and wanted to be a
writer, so that was a lifeline. Theres a heroine in a book called The Little White Horse, which Ive spoken
about publicly, who was plain, and that was fabulous! Wow, you get to be a heroine and you get not to be a
raving beauty. But these were pretty slim pickings. And then in creating Hermione I felt that I created a girl
who was a heroine, but she wasnt sexy. Nor was she the girl in glasses, who was entirely sexless. You
know what I meanshes a girl, a real girl! She fancies Ron, but her hopes are initially pretty low. Shes a
real girl, but she never compromises on being a smart girl; she never compromises in acting dumb. She
never tries to make Ron feel better by pretending to be less than she iswhich is why they dont get
together a lot sooner, thats the reality of lifebut Im proud of Hermione! Thats who she is. And if that
spoke to girls like me, then of course Im hugely, hugely proud. (The Women of Harry Potter)

And what do the girls themselves say of Hermiones empowering influence? One girl
stated, I was always the brains and, you know, the bossy one when I was a kid, so its freed us
all. It really has (The Women of Harry Potter). Empowering girls through literature doesnt
mean making Ophelia stronger; it means giving her a voice. Writing strong female characters is
not about prescribing who women should be; it is writing characters so that people notice and
value the strength that is already there.

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