Literature has a way of continuing to explore many of the same themes that seem to plague mankind throughout history. One of the common themes that continues to appear throughout much of earlier literature is a representation of women as nearly hysterical creatures that needed the guiding and calming hand of men in order to live peaceful and productive lives. When women’s emotions are allowed to reach high levels of involvement, though, the women self-destruct. This process can be seen in both William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet in the character of Ophelia as well as in Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights in the character of Catherine Earnshaw as they struggle between conflicting passions.
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Ophelia’s role in Shakespeare’s play is to be a tool or ‘puppet figure’ for the more important protagonists. Her role as Hamlet’s love interest exemplifies her as a pawn for the men around her. Not only conforming to the traditional concept of a submissive, malleable female with little to no educated thoughts of her own, Ophelia also conforms to the traditional concept of a hero’s love interest. After her brother has told her to be careful, her father demands to know what’s going on and she tells him, “He [Hamlet] hath, my Lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me” (I, iii, 99-100). Because she is loving and obedient as a proper young lady of the 17th century should be, she readily accedes to her father and brother’s directions to stay away from Hamlet. Although she is very obviously in love with Hamlet, she is also very obviously torn between her maidenly duty to obey her male elders and the feelings of her heart. Seizing upon any tool they can lay their hands on, the King and Polonius readily employ Ophelia as a weapon for their own purposes. At the beginning of the play, she is told by her father to stop talking with Hamlet: “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” (I, iii, 132-135). Without even realizing it, Ophelia becomes the pawn of the play. Her inability to rectify her desire to please her father and her desire for Hamlet that is, by turns, encouraged and rejected by the prince drive her insane and she willingly drowns in a pool of water. The queen relates how Ophelia had been gathering flowers to twine into a garland for herself when she fell into the water. “There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds / Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke, / When down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook” (Iv, vii, 171-174). Her lack of struggle as the weight of her clothes dragged her down suggests she was incapable of understanding her surroundings.
Catherine’s struggle is between her need for social acceptance and her passion for the unacceptable Heathcliff. Edgar alone can provide Catherine with the luxurious comfort of the crimson upholstered room she first viewed from the parlor window and he alone who can impart to her the air of respectability she longs for. She knows she does not love Edgar with the same depth of passion she feels for Heathcliff as she states herself late in chapter nine, “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees.” However, her passion for Heathcliff is compared with lightening and fire. “My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I AM Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable” (Bronte 101). Heathcliff’s return forces Catherine to choose between her passion for comfort and acceptability and her passion for Heathcliff. She tells Nelly in chapter 12, “I remember being in the parlour after they had quarrelled, and Edgar being cruelly provoking, and me running into this room desperate. As soon as ever I had barred the door, utter blackness overwhelmed me, and I fell on the floor. I couldn’t explain to Edgar how certain I felt of having a fit, or going raging mad, if he persisted in teasing me! I had no command of tongue, or brain, and he did not guess my agony, perhaps: it barely left me sense to try to escape from him and his voice.” Because she cannot reconcile herself between her matrimonial vows and her passion for Heathcliff, Catherine wills herself to death.
It may seem that there is little similarity between these two women given their personalities. While Ophelia’s struggle is between her romantic passion and her familial passion, Catherine struggles with her internal passions for comfort and for Heathcliff. Ophelia “is unaware that her elders are dangling her for their own purposes, she believes they are solely and sincerely concerned to restore Hamlet to his true state and to let her help him if she can” (Walker, 1948: 57), while Catherine purposely places her own welfare on the line demanding that the men rescue her by giving in to her demands. However, in both cases, the woman’s passion is seen to be the catalyst that drives her over the edge of sanity and leads to her inevitable death.
In both of these stories, the women are overcome by their female passions. Because they are unable to find a sense of balance or a means of satisfying both passions, their emotions overcome their fragile minds and they slip into insanity, which leads quickly into death. Although there are differences between the two women, Ophelia is meek and submissive while Catherine is willful and stubborn, both women suffer from an excess of passion reinforcing the concept that women must be protected from excessive emotional experiences.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1942.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.’ The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). London: Penguin Books, 1969, pp. 930-976.
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Walker, Roy. The Time is out of Joint: A Study of Hamlet. London: Andrew Dakers, 1948.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly. Vol. 18, N. 2, P. 1, (1966): pp. 151-74.