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The Roles of Ophelia and Juliet
Despite the leading roles in William Shakespeare’s plays being taken by male characters such as Othello, Romeo, King Lear and Hamlet, female characters also play equally significant, meaningful and symbolic roles. Undoubtedly, Shakespearean plays emphasizes women’s special place and power in society at a time when women had very little autonomy, authority or recognition. They play both central and supporting roles, occupy different positions, and demonstrate diverse characters. Ophelia in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Juliet in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet are two leading female characters who, in spite of their weaknesses and strengths, play significant roles in the respective plays. Superficially, Juliet and Ophelia appear to be two very different characters although on close examination, a number of similarities appear.
Ophelia and Juliet
Ophelia is a gentle-hearted female character, a noblewoman in Denmark, lover of Prince Hamlet, daughter to Polonus and Sister to Laertes. She first appears in the play with her brother Laertes who while leaving for France, warns her that Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is not free to marry whomever he wants. Ophelia is a naïve young woman who appears to be lost in her surrounding world and who even though loving and childish through her clothing, is mature in her desires. She is involved in a tensioned human world and is always torn between fateful decisions. Despite her love for Hamlet, she is discouraged by her brother and forbidden by her father from pursuing him (Shakespear 1.1.1).
Juliet is the main female protagonist in the love tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, the daughter of Capulet and the lover of Romeo. Due to the short span of the play, she had to deal with multiple issues of love, romance, passion, life and even death in a span of four days. Juliet is torn between her romantic love for Romeo and her status in society. Being the only daughter of Capulet, the head of the Capulet family, she is expected to marry a man of equal status such as Count Paris. She secretly marries Romeo, has a passionate and romantic night with him and is threatened by her father after refusing to marry the Count. The conflict deepens when she is emotionally betrayed by her nurse, spends close to two days sedated and finally commits suicide near the body of Romeo.
Juliet is an intelligent and headstrong character who plays an active and decisive role throughout the text. The play is full of action as evident by the events involving key characters, drama and sequence of proceedings. Despite her young age, having not quite reached her fourteenth birthday, she appears to be more decisive and mature. At the beginning of the play, Juliet appears to be an obedient and loyal child who does not seem to have any mature conception of love. Her meeting with Romeo, however, propels her towards adulthood and comes out stronger and more sober minded. Despite being profoundly in love with Romeo, she sees and criticizes his decisions and tendency to romanticize things without seeing reason.
Comparatively, Ophelia is a gently, obedient and loyal young woman full of inaction (Pipher 2). She is always introspective and seems to belong to a world different from the one she lives in. The play is also full of indecisive and passive characters key among them, Prince Hamlet. Ophelia ends up leading a very passive unhappy life torn between the death of her father, her love for Hamlet and how she is treated by the different males who surround her. While her brother constantly teats her like a child, her lover, Hamlet does not respect her deep feelings for him. Her relationships are controlled by the more dominant characters with whom she interacts until she spins to madness (Pennington 21).
Ophelia is supposed to be in love with Hamlet and play a supportive role even though he rarely thinks of her or even consider her decisions in his plans. She exhibits no heroine qualities even though her life and death have great influence on the major characters. Despite her seemingly insignificant voice, she plays several integral roles in the various plots and subplots of the story. She is always reluctant to defend herself, a reflection of the Elizabethan society’s condition in which women were expected to be completely dependent upon and obedient to their fathers and once married their husbands. Ophelia is a representative of an obedient and perfect daughter who obeys her father without question. When her father asks her to reject Hamlet, she does not oppose and even respond in a subservient way ‘I shall obey, my lord’ (1.3.136).
Juliet’s relation with her parents and society also appears to be quite ordinary at the beginning of the play. When Lady Capulet mentions Paris’ intention of marrying Juliet, she dutifully responds that she will see if she can fall in love with him. The response depicts her as a dutiful and obedient girl who is coming of age, and who knows that at some point will have to meet societal expectations. She seems to have no friends her own age as most of her friends are already married, and she is obviously uncomfortable talking about sex. Nonetheless, while outwardly showing obedience and in harmony with parents and society, her passive rebellion is evident. Even though she accedes to her mother’s wishes to court Paris, she does not go all the way to fall in love with him.
When Juliet falls in love, she breaks societal expectation and cuts herself loose from her prior social moorings; her parents, nurse and even her social position in Verona. Her decision to go against societal expectation is not purely emotional; it is a choice she rationally makes. Juliet’s rationality is evident when she refuses to follow Romeo after he kills Tylbalt and is banished from society. Rather than follow him blindly, she makes a heartfelt and logical decisi.............
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