Project 1, Analysis of YouTube Shakespeare
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.
BaaBumMum.“Ophelia Floating Down Eli Creek.” YouTube. 16 September 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cSoDfPObWE (accessed 20 September 2009).Murfin,
Causeobviouslyx.“Hamlet: Ophelia's Death #13.” YouTube. 16 September 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhA9TkCEG0c (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.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE3YYJCsSug (accessed 20 September 2009).
Krabbiepattie15.“Hamlet Missing Scene: Ophelia's Death.” YouTube. 16 September 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zm3a4erxE8s (accessed 20 September 2009).
magnificitaliani. “Hamlet—Ophelia's Drowning.” YouTube. 16 September 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7TeQQi915E (accessed 20 September 2009).
Nightshift368. “Ophelia Drowning.” YouTube. 16 September 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyMtrZ0pukQ (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.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpcOV3ATVaQ (accessed 20 September 2009).
Twirlibird.“Reviving Ophelia.” YouTube. 16 September 2009.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=af-A1TjIxNo (accessed 20 September 2009).