Filling the empty circle: women and power in “Hamlet”

Feminist critic Elaine Showalter calls the story of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet “the story of O—the zero, the empty circle” (222). Showalter’s colleague Lee Edwards maintains that while “we can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia…Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet” (Showalter 222). But Ophelia is not empty. She may seem empty on first gloss, but upon closer examination she shows herself a thinking being with a discernable and powerful will. As we can see in an exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet immediately before Hamlet’s players reënact his father’s murder, it is Hamlet, not Ophelia, who is “empty” (3.2.102-121). And Ophelia is far from the naïve dolt she is often taken for—in fact, with some help from Gertrude, Ophelia becomes boundary and backdrop for Hamlet in this passage, combating his urges, guiding his words, and defining his movements. The subtle dominion of women in this passage complicates the traditional view of the relationship between women and patriarchy in the play, suggesting that the women of Hamlet are far more powerful than they appear to be.

Ophelia can be read as an unintelligent character with little complexity and an empty brain. She appears to misunderstand much of what Hamlet says, her speech is uncomplicated and repetitive, and she declares herself unthinking. She repeatedly asks Hamlet for clarification, and seemingly finds it difficult to follow their conversation. When Hamlet asks if he “[should] lie in [her] lap,” Ophelia refuses; but when Hamlet clarifies, saying, “I mean, my head upon your lap,” she accepts his proposition (3.2.105-108). A similar moment occurs when Ophelia becomes confused about what Hamlet thinks is “a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs” (3.2.112). Ophelia also ostensibly mistakes Hamlet’s referring to the reënactment of his father’s death in the play for his father’s actual death, stressing to Hamlet that his father died not “two hours” before but “twice two months” before (3.2.119-120). Not only does Ophelia seem easily confused, her speech seems simple. She is repetitive and brief: each of her seven lines ends with the phrase “my lord”—a phrase that constitutes nearly half of the thirty words she speaks; and only two of the thirty words she speaks are more than one syllable. If Ophelia’s tendency to get confused and her simpleton’s diction were not enough, she says, quite openly, that she “[thinks] nothing” (3.2.110). Ophelia’s apparent addle-mindedness, simplicity and nothingness might indicate that she is empty—playing off Hamlet with no thought process and no will of her own.

But looking deeper at the passage indicates that Ophelia is not empty, that there is a deliberate, thinking psychology at work. Far from being confused and unable to follow Hamlet, Ophelia is in control, carefully choosing her words to avoid engaging conversationally, romantically, sexually, or with Hamlet, lest he perpetuate the severe distress he has caused her (3.1.89-160). Far from being a simpleton, Ophelia passively, and defensively resists Hamlet’s advances, indicating a complex thought process. In short, Ophelia thinks far more than nothing.

The many potential readings of Hamlet’s question “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” demonstrate that Ophelia is able to follow Hamlet’s thought process, and that any appearance to the contrary is a result of her working to avoid a romantic or sexual imbroglio (3.2.105). Hamlet’s question sounds, even on its surface, very much like a sexual proposition. Indeed, later in the passage Hamlet asks Ophelia if “[she thought he] meant country matters”—or meant to be indecent—with his question (3.2.109; 89). Though he never explicitly clarifies whether he means to be indecent or not, his next line ends with “between maids’ legs,” implying that he is certainly thinking about sex (3.2.111).

Less superficial readings of Hamlet’s question show it to be even more sexually charged. Hamlet’s asking whether he should “lie” in Ophelia’s lap can be read as “shall I [tell lies] in your lap?” or, more generally, “shall I [be dishonest] in your lap?” If we take “lie” to mean “tell lies,” Hamlet’s proposition, though not necessarily sexual, is unsavory and comical: Hamlet might wish to tell lies into Ophelia’s lap, or he might wish to sit in her lap like a child and tell lies to others. And if we read “lie” a bit more broadly, to mean “be dishonest,” the sexual energy of Hamlet’s proposition returns with force; for in the world of the play, “honest” is another word for “chaste”—a pun that transforms Hamlet’s question from a sexual proposition to a sexual assault (83). In nonchalantly asking whether he should “[be dishonest]” in Ophelia’s lap, Hamlet strikes a number of psychosexual blows: he asks her to allow him to become unchaste in her lap; he implies that for Ophelia, allowing the unchaste to occur in her lap is a casual occurrence; and, if we hold both readings of “lie,” Hamlet can be read as wishing to occupy her lap while being sexually “dishonest” with other people—an arrangement to which Ophelia would almost surely object. “Lady, may I lie in your lap?” is thus not only superficially sexual; it implies everything from the sexually absurd to the downright kinky—from a grown man whispering lies into a woman’s crotch to a grown man sitting on a woman’s lap while having sexual relations with others. Regardless of which readings of “lie” we take Ophelia to accept, she has more than enough reasons to answer “No, my lord” (3.2.106). Though Ophelia reverses her answer when Hamlet clarifies that “[he means to lie his] head upon [her] lap,” her decision cannot be seen as that of an uncomprehending intellect (3.2.107). None of the potential scenarios Hamlet’s proposition suggests are appealing to Ophelia, who has been scarred by his fickle advances and has good reason to guard against more of them (3.1.89-160).

Once we accept Ophelia as a character who is defending herself against Hamlet’s advances, the “simplicity” that characterizes her speech ceases to be the product of an uncomplicated mind and becomes a tool in her arsenal of passive resistance. The simplicity of her speech—rarely using words larger than one syllable and repeating words frequently—is a form of deference to Hamlet, with whom she wishes to avoid entanglements. Ophelia’s declaration to Hamlet that she “[thinks] nothing” is also a manifestation of this resistance. Ophelia does not think nothing, she simply refuses to think thoughts at Hamlet’s bidding; she refuses to play his game. Ophelia does not act out of confusion, simplicity, or stupidity; she acts out of self-preservation. She is not addled or empty; she is thinking and complex.

In contrast to Ophelia, Hamlet can be read as empty. Hamlet is represented as a character who defines himself as “nothing” and plays roles to compensate for this nothingness. Hamlet tells Ophelia that “nothing” is a “fair thought to lie between maids’ legs” while he is, presumably, lying before her with his head reclined in her lap—between her legs (3.2.113; 3.2.111; s.d. 3.2.103-104; 3.2.109). Hamlet, in implying that “nothing” lies between maids’ legs while he is lying between a maid’s legs, implies that he himself is “nothing.” Furthermore, when Ophelia notes that he is “merry,” he responds that he is a “jig-maker”—which, in the world of the play, is one who “[plays] farcical song and dance entertainments”—or one who plays roles (3.2.114; 3.2.117; 89). Hamlet even suggests that men are especially prone to this sort of farcical role-playing, asking Ophelia, “What should a man do but be merry”? (3.2.117-118). In this passage, Hamlet is literally nothing, a man without identity, and so he makes “merry” and is “farcical” to define himself. In this passage, Hamlet, not Ophelia, is empty.

Scrutinizing Hamlet’s relationships with Ophelia and his mother in this passage shows not only that is Hamlet empty, but that women provide a backdrop or boundary for his emptiness. Women supply a sort of smart, stable revision to his tendency to contort reality; and they frame Hamlet linguistically, physically, and mentally. Ophelia imposes structure on Hamlet by correcting him, refusing to allow him to distort reality through untruths and puns. When Hamlet tells her that “[his] father died within these two hours”—a statement that can potentially apply to the King in his Hamlet’s players’ reënactment of the murder, but is not true in the reality of the play—Ophelia corrects him with “Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord” (3.2.119-120). Ophelia is not confused by Hamlet here; she is revising his distorted version of reality. Similarly, Ophelia’s constantly forcing Hamlet to clarify himself is not evidence of an uncomprehending intellect. Ophelia is simply forcing Hamlet be explicit in his requests and statements. When he asks if he “[should] lie in [her] lap,” she forces him to clarify with “my head upon your lap”; when he says, “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs,” she forces him to clarify that he refers to “Nothing” (3.2.105-107; 3.2.111-113). Though Hamlet persists with his puns in the face of Ophelia’s imposition of structure, she routes his statements with her own statements, and forces him to define his terms.

Women in the passage also frame Hamlet’s linguistic, physical and mental movement. Ophelia’s repetitiveness, which once seemed evidence of her simplicity, can be read as the imposing of a linguistic framework on Hamlet: in ending of each of her lines with “my lord,” Ophelia provides him with stable linguistic reference points, with a linguistic backdrop. Women also frame Hamlet physically. When Hamlet declares himself to be “nothing,” Ophelia’s legs and lap are supporting him—Ophelia’s lap, the seat of her womanhood, is physically framing Hamlet’s head—womanhood is holding up nothingness (3.2.113; 3.2.108). And in Hamlet’s movement between Ophelia and his mother Gertrude, we can see that women frame him physically and mentally. The passage begins with Gertrude beckoning Hamlet to her: “Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me” (3.2.102). But Hamlet refuses his mother’s request, choosing instead to “[lie] down at Ophelia’s feet”—moving both physically and mentally from one woman to another (s.d. 3.2.103-104). The passage ends on a similar note, with Hamlet mentally moving between his mother and Ophelia, directing Ophelia to “look how cheerfully my mother / looks” (3.2.118-119). Women form the foundation of Hamlet’s existence in this passage: he speaks, moves, and thinks within the boundaries they impose and represent.

We would do well to reëxamine Edwards’s claim that “Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet” in light of this passage. Edwards’s claim stems from traditional notions of how patriarchy operates in Hamlet—as an oppressive force that controls and defines the uncomplicated woman. But women here are more complicated and controlling than men. Far from being a void defined by Hamlet, Ophelia is a complex being with a will of her own, and she gives shape to Hamlet’s nothingness. In contrast, the men of the passage, Hamlet and Polonius, are empty. Hamlet is literally “nothing”; and Polonius shows himself a mentally bankrupt fool (as he does frequently) by pointing out to Claudius that Hamlet has “[lain] down at Ophelia’s feet,” presumably to support his erroneous idea that a romance is budding between the two (3.2.107-113; s.d. 3.2.103-104). Even Shakespeare’s choice of words casts women as more complex than men in this passage: the only words that have more than two syllables, “attractive” and “cheerfully,” are respectively used to describe Ophelia and Gertrude (3.2.103; 3.2.118). This passage indicates that the women of Hamlet are not exactly the oppressed pawns they are often presented as. Rather, they surround men like an ether, containing and defining them in word, movement, and thought. Women are not empty circles; they are strong, fluid and full.




Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. 27-154.

Showalter, Elaine. “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Hamlet. Ed. Susanne L. Wofford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994. 220-240.

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