Why Ophelia matters: a reflection on International Women's Day
In English class, we are reading Shakespeares well-known play, Hamlet. As the title would suggest, its a play about Hamlet, the main character, and his gradual descent into madness following the murder of his father. Somewhere beneath the lines, though, it is a play about Ophelia, Hamlets love interest, who later ends her own life. (Sorry for the spoilers.)
We just finished reading the scene in the play that details Ophelias death, and I found myself grappling with the manner in which her death seems to fall to the sidelines. Throughout the play, Ophelias voice feels unimportant or secondary. She is always answering to someone and is never allowed to answer for herself.
On March 8, people all over the world celebrated International Womens Day, remembering the voices that fought and continue to fight for womens rights. We considered how much weve progressed in the struggle for womens rights, in our community and internationally, and felt deservedly proud of our efforts.
The progress shows; next year, because of students efforts, a womens studies class will be offered for the first time at Lake Oswego High School. Further, all over the world, people like Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for womens education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, demand that girls receive education and equal opportunities to be heard.
In spite of this progress, though, we still have much to do in terms of womens rights, minorities rights and truly reflecting the idea that people, regardless of gender, race, age and sexual orientation, deserve respect.
So today, in light of International Womens Day, I speak of Ophelia because she is a timeless reminder of where we still need to go. Her suppression highlights these startling truths: in the United States, we still suffer from a gender pay gap; in several countries, such as Afghanistan, girls arent sent to school at the same rate as boys; in China and India, the perception that girls are less important than boys continues to exist in varying degrees.
I speak of Ophelia today because she has a story to tell, and I wish shed been able to tell it. I speak of Ophelia because although many aspects of her life of suppression are tragic, I hesitate to write her off as a tragedy.
I am writing about Ophelia because she is not a tragedy. Instead, her silenced voice and unheard thoughts are stories we have the power to fill in. We have the power to take Ophelias powerlessness and to turn it into action. We have the power to tell every young person that education is something for which we should fight and be grateful. We have the power to tell Mahalas story to our children, and to tell it next to Ophelias because both are equally important.
When reading Hamlet, I often feel compelled to rewrite Ophelias parts and insert a plotline where she becomes Superwoman and miraculously fights off all of the bad guys with a flick of her wrist. In this alternate Hamlet, maybe shell be wearing a blue cape adorned with empowering sequins and Beyonces Flawless will play softly and yet strongly in the background of her noble struggle. I have to resist this impulse, though, for it wouldnt be fair to Ophelia.
My favorite poem, Spelling by Margaret Atwood, is a piece I return to when Im feeling happy or sad or anything else, and it contains my favorite line from literature: A word after a word after a word is power.
Ophelia, as she is, is powerful when we truly see her. So rather than rewriting her into another story an unrealistic one I think Im going to look at her as the beginning of Atwoods poem. After Ophelia, the next word could be the fight for womens suffrage and girls education, and after that, Im not sure. You choose.