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Why Ophelia matters: a reflection on International Women's Day

Laker Notes

MYSOREIn English class, we are reading Shakespeare’s well-known play, “Hamlet.” As the title would suggest, it’s 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, Hamlet’s love interest, who later ends her own life. (Sorry for the spoilers.)

We just finished reading the scene in the play that details Ophelia’s death, and I found myself grappling with the manner in which her death seems to fall to the sidelines. Throughout the play, Ophelia’s 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 Women’s Day, remembering the voices that fought — and continue to fight — for women’s rights. We considered how much we’ve progressed in the struggle for women’s rights, in our community and internationally, and felt deservedly proud of our efforts.

The progress shows; next year, because of students’ efforts, a women’s 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 Women’s 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 aren’t 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 she’d 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 Ophelia’s 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 Mahala’s story to our children, and to tell it next to Ophelia’s because both are equally important.

When reading “Hamlet,” I often feel compelled to rewrite Ophelia’s 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 she’ll be wearing a blue cape adorned with empowering sequins and Beyonce’s “Flawless” will play softly and yet strongly in the background of her noble struggle. I have to resist this impulse, though, for it wouldn’t be fair to Ophelia.

My favorite poem, “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood, is a piece I return to when I’m 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 I’m going to look at her as the beginning of Atwood’s poem. After Ophelia, the next word could be the fight for women’s suffrage and girls’ education, and after that, I’m not sure. You choose.

Lake Oswego High School senior Meghana Mysore is one of two Lakers Notes columnists. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..