Sunday, January 13, 2013

Analysis of YouTube Shakespeare

Project 1, Analysis of YouTube Shakespeare

Ophelia's Immortality


The character Ophelia in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet symbolizes the patriarchal oppression

forced on most Renaissance women. Ophelia has since become an icon and point of reference for many

feminist scholars by representing adolescent girls on the cusp of womanhood. This project shows

Shakespeare's application of Renaissance gender roles to the character Ophelia and the evolution of

those gender roles through the present, specifically the YouTube genre. YouTube enables adolescent

females the freedom to express their views toward Ophelia's prescribed gender role, thus giving voice to

a generation of “modern Ophelias.” These videos show a divided generation: those that still feel the

pressure of prescribed gender roles and those who believe that Ophelia's oppression is a thing of the


Ophelia is represented in music, paintings,and photography. The subject of numerous psychoanalytic and feminist critiques, generations of women identify with Ophelia because she epitomizes lost female youth and the difficult transition

into womanhood. Her continued appeal lies in the fact that “literature changes and is changed by

popular culture over time” (Murfin 213). Interpretations of Ophelia come to represent the evolution

of female agency and voice. Sexual expectations of women were and are wrapped in the

representation of Ophelia. Susan Shifrin states that “Ophelia's language and her story are ambiguous

enough in terms of her sexual status that commentators, censors, illustrators, actors, and audiences

alike have historically focused on exactly this aspect of her character and its significance”(Shifrin

105). Interpretations of Ophelia's representation change over time and throughout cultures, while the

textual Ophelia represents Elizabethan gender roles. Her patriarchal oppression becomes symbolic in

most feminist theories, but the YouTube genre specifically allows adolescent girls to have a voice, and

by doing so they become the “modern Ophelias.”

Hamlet was written in 1601 and reflected the gender roles of the time. Judith Cook points out

that “there is never anything patronizing about Shakespeare's attitude to the intelligence of his

women” (146). Shakespeare was merely portraying the assumption of prescribed gender roles.

Women's sexuality was feared and repressed at this time thus, “it is the male characters who perceive

free choice on the part of the female character as an inevitable sign of irrational lust, and as the

inevitable prelude to disorder and disaster” (Jardine 72). A woman with agency would be perceived

to be outside of societal norms and “the impulsive offer of love by a woman is most likely to be a sign

of unreliableness and untrustworthiness if the male characters are allowed to the final say in 'reading'

that offer” (Jardine 73). Hamlet, as well as most of Renaissance society, held a madonna / whore

complex regarding women. “Ophelia is honest (chaste) or a bawd (a whore) depending on how

Hamlet now chooses to describe his own behaviour towards her. If he loved her, declared that love to

her, and she accepted his gifts and embraces, then she is chaste. If he never loved her, but attempted

to seduce her only, then she is lewd and lascivious, because Hamlet trifled with her. Either way she

should 'get [her] to a nunnery'--Shakespeare plays on this belief with his double meaning of nunnery.

“'[N]unnery' ... meant both a convent and a brothel in Elizabethan colloquial expression” (Jardine 73).

The use of this double meaning shows Shakespeare's acknowledgement of the double standard in

society regarding women's sexuality. He further states this point with the speeches of Laertes,

Ophelia, and Polonius.

Laertes's speech epitomizes the fact that although Laertes is Ophelia's sibling, he believes he is

able to tell her what to do because he is a male.

Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain

If with too credent ear you list his songs

Or lose your heart or your chaste treasure open

To his unmastered importunity

Fear it, Ophelia; fear it, my dear sister,

And keep you in the rear of your affection (I. Iii. 33-8).

The hypocrisy of the “double standard” is heard in Ophelia's response. This speech voices Ophelia's

recognition of the double standard, regarding sex, that applies to her and her brother.

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep

As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

Whiles, (like) a puffed and reckless libertine,

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

And recks not his own rede(I. Iii. 49-55).

Ophelia points out the hypocrisy of telling one to be chaste while they themselves are not.

Polonius is both the figural and literal representation of patriarchy. While he lectures Ophelia

about his expectations of his daughter's behavior, he holds his son in high esteem and supports his

wishes to travel. He lectures Ophelia:

...In few, Ophelia,

Do not believe his vows, for they are brokers,

Not of that dye which their investments show,

But mere (implorators) of unholy suits,

Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds

To better to (beguile.) This is for all:

I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth

Have you so slander any moment leisure

As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.

Look to 't, I charge you. Come your ways. (I. iv. 135-144)

Ophelia's response to her father's speech exemplifies the fact that she, representative of most women

of this time has no free will. Her only voice is one of obedience. Her response sums up the expected

role of women at this time, “I shall obey, my lord” (I. iv. 145).

Obedience to father and brother must come first for a woman of Shakespeare's time. Polonius

demands filial obedience and Laertes assumes his privilege to demand the same. Polonius' use of

Ophelia as a decoy also exemplifies the notion of women as objects. She is merely a tool used to

obtain information valuable to Polonius. The assumption of male dominant Renaissance gender roles

allowed women no “voice” and therefore no agency.

Although gender roles are still questioned and challenged today, progress has been made in the

area of women's “voice.” The many waves of women's movements have brought attention to

previously unquestioned societal norms. The continued sexual expectations of women (Ophelias) are

still widely believed to hold a double standard. Non-normative behavior is frowned upon in society.

Adolescent women are expected to. The traditional expectation and symbol of a white dress at a

wedding encompasses the two divergent expectations of women to be sexy but not have sex.

In a world of overwhelming media enforcing these ideals, no single type of media can

encompass every viewpoint but YouTube is a great example of an unbiased social study because there

is no charge, criteria, etc. for posting. The allowance of anonymous postings also allows for a wider

demographic to be seen and heard. YouTube could easily be considered the “voice” of the “Internet

generation” While accepting that YouTube gives voice to “modern Ophelias, one must acknowledge

that “in exposing the ideology of representation, feminist critics have also the responsibility to

acknowledge and to examine the boundaries of our own ideological positions as products of our

gender and our time” (Showalter 238). Interpretations of Ophelia will evolve but currently the

YouTube video representations of Ophelia's death are one of three types: those that conform to

original text, those that represent continuation of patriarchal oppression, and those that through use

parody to dispute sexual inequality.

Three videos that closely following Shakespeare's original text are tccinnamon's “Ophelia's

Death,” Kathyhere's “Lacrimosa: Shakespeare's Ophelia,” and magnificitaliani's “Hamlet—Ophelia's

Drowning.” All of these videos have Ophelia wearing a white dress and are set in the woods. The

fact that she is always depicted in a white dress supports the notion of purity and virginity.

tccinnamon's video is a sepia-toned production complete with a professional dancer / actor and

classical music. Kathyhere's contribution watches more like a music video. The night-time woods

setting has modern music, subtitle screen shots, and changes between color and black and white shots.

magnificitaliani's video is a student production with a dubbed voice reading from the original text.

Two videos that represent the theme of continued patriarchal oppressions are twirlibird's

“Reviving Ophelia” and nightshift368's “Ophelia Drowning.” Twirlibird's video shows an adolescent

girl in a plaid miniskirt walk directly into a pond. This signifies the helplessness and surrender to

overwhelming societal expectations. The song “Whisper” by Evanescence plays and lends deeper

meaning to the video via the lyrics of the song. nightshift368 chooses to record without sound at a

suburban swimming pool This Ophelia wears the expected white dress and her tears symbolize her

acknowledged oppression. When the actor opens her eyes underwater it can be interpreted as an act

of defiance regarding her death. These two videos support the theories of progress being made in

regards to gender roles, yet emphasize the need of continued work for change.

The third type of video to interpret Ophelia's death are parodies. These videos dismiss the

concept of gender inequality and ultimately work toward equality by the very act of their production.

causeobviouslyx posts the video “Hamlet: Ophelia's Death #13”of girls giggling at “drowning” a

Barbie doll in a tub of water. The metaphor of Barbie is particularly strong and allies with women as

sex objects. krabbiepattie15 uses the role reversal of a female playing a male role in a Shakespeare

play. While using the classic devices of disheveled hair and inappropriately applied make-up to show

insanity, the actors incorporate modern colloquial speech to further express their interpretation of the

scene. The use of a straight jacket and water wings as prescriptions draws attention to adolescent

girl's mental health issues, and the fact that Gertrude kills Ophelia in this video opens an

interpretation of “harm” done to women with feminist movement. BaaBumMum chooses to portray

Ophelia as happily floating down a creek. She dons a red bikini top and black swim trunks. The outfit

choice itself represents an equality of gender roles. This rewriting of the scene to allow Ophelia to

live expresses Ophelia's plight as an antiquated notion no longer applying to the video's producers.

It is important to note that many of Shakespeare's female characters “with rare exceptions, like

Ophelia,[are] girls [that] defy their families and marry for love, disguise themselves as boys and

follow their hearts, [and] play a decisive part in determining their own fate” (Cook 1). Shakespeare

created Ophelia to represent the Renaissance expectations. As those expectations change and

continually evolve, Ophelia becomes a reference point to foil current expectations or perceptions.

Continued interpretations allow Ophelia to morph, adapt, and defy. Ironically, interpretations of her

textual death allows her immortality.

Works Cited

BaaBumMum.“Ophelia Floating Down Eli Creek.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).Murfin,

Causeobviouslyx.“Hamlet: Ophelia's Death #13.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

Cook, Judith. Women in Shakespeare. Harrap & Co. Ltd. London 1980.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare.

Barnes & Noble Books Totowa 1983.

Kathyhere.“Lacrimosa: Shakespeare's Ophelia.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

Krabbiepattie15.“Hamlet Missing Scene: Ophelia's Death.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

magnificitaliani. “Hamlet—Ophelia's Drowning.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

Nightshift368. “Ophelia Drowning.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia. G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York 1994.

Ross C. Feminist Criticism and Hamlet. Hamlet Shakespeare Bedford Books: Boston 1994.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Folger: New York 1992.

Shifrin, Susan edited by. Women as Sites of Culture. Ashgate: Burlington 2002.

Showalter, Elaine Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of

Feminist Criticism. Same citation as Murfin?

Tccinnamon. “Ophelia's Death.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

Twirlibird.“Reviving Ophelia.” YouTube. 16 September 2009. (accessed 20 September 2009).

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