Month: March 2013

Crazy For Ophelia

“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
― William Shakespeare

20120912190005!Frances_MacDonald_-_Ophelia_1898

Ophelia’s character in Shakespeare’s famous production Hamlet is one of great mystery. With few lines, or even scenes, I found myself thinking “why is so much emphasis placed on her?” I496px-Gabriel_von_Max_Ophelia discovered upon further investigation, however, that even though at first glance Ophelia’s character may seem like an insignificant part of the piece, in reality she plays a vital role in developing its theme of insanity vs. sanity.

From the start of the piece her character’s unparalleled “goodness” is obvious. Despite his persuasion she tells her father that Hamlet has “given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven” (Shakespeare I.III ). Despite her father’s doubts, Ophelia still remains confident in his affections. Yet, the fact that she agrees to cease communication with Hamlet, despite her confidence in his sincerity, shows her immense love and respect for her father. For her to describe his correspondences as using “all the holy vows of heaven” reflects a proper courting. In fact Ophelia prays for the help of hHamlet,_Act_IV,_Scene_V_(ophelia_Before_The_King_And_Queen),_Benjamin_West,_1792eaven several times, including twice during her staged encounter with Hamlet when she proclaims: “O, help him, you sweet heavens” and “Heavenly powers, restore him” (Shakespeare III.II). Not only is she a compassionate woman but also a godly one; which in Hamlet’s era would have no doubt been a very desirable trait because of the values that went along with that. This only makes it all the more cruel when Hamlet tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare III.I). Unfortunately, Ophelia’s kindness also makes her an easy target; which is why Hamlet chastises her for the sins his mother has committed. In many ways she is much like a child; obedient to her father, loves unconditionally, and quite naive in that she has absolutely no idea about what is going on around her. It is this picturesque kindness that makes her such an important part of the plot.

Hamlet-before-the-body-of-polonius

With murders and deceit around every corner, the castle of Denmark is filled with evil. King Claudius, the most guilty of all, confesses himself “O, my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s murder!” (Shakespeare III.III). Yet, he is unwilling to apologize or admit to his sins because of what they have gotten him. Despite the threat of eternity in hell, his greed is stronger than his guilt. Even Hamlet is the cause of six deaths before the play is done. Not only that, but he verbally abuses those he loves most telling his mother:

Nay, but to live

In the rank sweat of an unseamed bed,

Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love

Over the nasty sty. (Shakespeare III.IV)

Though honorable in his intentions, Hamlet is the epitome of an antihero because he wounds everyone around him either mentally or physically; much more than the antagonist. With all of this chaos existing throughout the play, it would be easy to lose sight of the magnitude of what is going on. After listening to Hamlet’s mad rambling long enough, it begins to sound ordinary; and with all the murdering and lying taking place there is danger of becoming desensitized to it. This is exactly why Ophelia’s character is so important. Her innocence shows the opposite side of the spectrum to express the level of immorality of the other characters. This is why Shakespeare molded her into the epitome of kindness. Therefore, she is vital to the theme of insanity because her complete soundness shows just how close to irrationality the others have come.

Ironically, Ophelia is ultimately the only one to become genuinely mad. Gertrude captures this when describing Ophelia’s death pronouncing:

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element: but long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death. (Shakespeare IV. VII)

To describe her as “incapable of her own distress” suggests that Ophelia is so far gone she does not even understand that she is in danger; and thus is a hazard to herself. Throughout the play Hamlet’s sanity is constantly tested and the question of whether or not he has gone totally insane444px-Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_The_First_Madness_of_Ophelia hovers over everything. Yet, in the end Ophelia becomes a true picture of lunacy. Hamlet becomes pale in comparison and instead seems more tormented than senseless. Thus, his actions and dealings with his father’s ghost become legitimized because one can no longer argue the ghost is simply a hallucination of a mad man. Hence, Ophelia also plays a key role in the matter of insanity because she depicts the demeanor of a truly insane person, thereby proving Hamlet’s stability; which in turn proves his father’s ghost is real and that his quest for vengeance is valid.

Through her journey from complete kindness to utter madness, Hamlet’s theme of sanity vs. insanity is completely dependent on Ophelia. Her sanity helps to portray the level of evil taking place throughout the acts, and her insanity reveals the saneness of others; particularly Hamlet. Because of Ophelia, Hamlet is proven innocent and the king guilty. Her part may seem small, but she does not speak much because little is needed of her for her to serve her purpose.

Creative commons photos by: Frances Macdonald, Gabriel Von Max, Benjamin West,Eugène Delacroix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Click photos to be taken to their source.

Theoretical Approaches

Theoretical Approaches to “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed”

For my blog post I thought it would be interesting to analyze “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed” (by Edna St. Vincent Millay in the Seagull Reader) since I have already looked closely at it from my own perspective. I thought that two approaches that might work well with this piece would be new criticism and feminist/gender theory.  

Using the new criticism theory entails looking at a piece without any sort of outside influences that effect the reader’s interpretation of the text. Things like personal experiences of the reader or historical and psychological background of the author are thrown out. The book (An Introduction to Literary Studies by Mario Klarer) describes it as looking at a piece as if it were a “message in a bottle without a sender, date, or address” (Klarer 81).  In this piece the author utilize paradox, metaphor and multiple meanings in order to describe her thoughts. For example, in the lines that read “but the rain is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh upon the glass and listen for reply” she uses the paradox of the rain containing ghost that are tapping to explain that the raindrops are stirring about memories for her (Millay  223). This segment also contains multiple meanings in that the rain is literally making a tapping sound but also that the tapping is like her memories nudging at her thoughts. The sound of the rain running down after its initial hit could be considered the “sigh” she describes, which could also mean that these memories seem to be sighing as if disappointed she is not answering; or in her words “listening for reply.” Next, when she says “in my heart stirs a quiet pain” she uses the term quiet to describe her pain to portray the message that these memories are only making her slightly uneasy (Millay 22). This play on words is interesting because the use of the word “quiet” instead of one like “small” is staying with the trend of sounds around her. She could in fact be saying that the tapping of the rain is a light tapping just as the memories are only slightly pulling at her heart. Next, she uses the metaphor of comparing herself to a lonely tree in winter in which summer once sang but now the “birds have vanished one by one” (Millay 223).  This comparison tells us two things: once she had many people around her like the tree did in the summer, but now she is all alone as a tree is in the winter.  Describing herself as a tree and her men suitors as birds gives would mean she is like the caretaker to these men since trees provide shelter for the birds that live within it. Trees are also rooted and unmoving while birds are almost in constant motion and utilize migration. Therefore, her use of this specific metaphor could be saying that these encounters took place on her terms in her own home and that she remains where she has always been (rooted) while the birds have flown away to where the sun still shines; or in other words where the women are still desirable.

            The second method I chose to look at was the feminist/gender approach. I thought this approach was very significant to this poem since its story is one reminiscent of feminism. The theme of this story is about the author’s view of men a vessel for fun and excitement but nothing more. She describes the feeling she gets while listening to the rain “tap and sigh” and a “quiet pain” because it is subtle. It is not loneliness she is feeling but rather a longing for the days when she was many men were at her disposal. This piece is quite interesting because the author portrays a view of men much like a man’s view of a woman. She could be seen as reluctant to comply with the expectations of women, and therefore chose to live her life much like a man. Not only does this piece emphasize independence from a man but also it reverses the stereotype; as if to say “how do you like it?”

            Looking at this text in these new ways has opened my eyes to many more layers of the poem. For example, the rooted tree and flying bird’s comparison to her stationary position and the men’s coming and going is something I never picked up on before. I also never considered the what now seems obvious undertone of female independence and power against male dominance. Although this exercise was quite difficult   its helped me to gain skills that will be useful in fully understanding different pieces.

The Yellow Wallpaper Argument Essay

The_Yellow_Wallpaper_by_kaitaro04011“The Yellow Wallpaper” is, on its surface, about a woman driven insane by post-partum depression and a dangerous treatment. However, an examination of the protagonist’s characterization reveals that the story is fundamentally about identity. The protagonist’s projection of an imaginary woman — which at first is merely her shadow — against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern fragments her identity, internalizing the conflict she experiences and eventually leading to the complete breakdown of the boundaries of her identity and that of her projected shadow.

Constantly alone and forbidden to leave her bedroom, the lack of something to occupy her time causes the protagonist to become delusional. With “barred windows for little children and rings and things in the walls” the room is much like her prison (Gilman 174). Even the pattern on the wallpaper (which at first was completely random) “at night in any kind of light, twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, becomes bars” as if she is caged (Gilman 182). Both times here she refers to aspects of her room as bars. As she begins to feel imprisoned she projects her feelings onto the wallpaper, but the idea of the room being her prison goes from figurative to more literal as the isolation deepens her need for an escape.

Not just the wallpaper, but everything about her bedroom (including those that occupy it with her) sets the stage for the protagonist’s insanity. When her husband John says: “bless her little heart; she shall be as sick as she pleases” we catch glimpses of his childlike treatment of her (Gilman 181). The use of the word “little” to describe her heart gives the image of a small body to go along with it, like that of an infant. The fact that he says she is “as sick as she pleases” reflects the way a child conjures up illnesses to escape certain chores they do not wish to do. This would make sense because he also diagnosis her with “temporary nervous depression;” which is what was said about women who suspected of trying to escape housework and sexual duties (Gilman 173).  This childlike treatment of her, and his misdiagnosis, is the cause of her segregation; which is the root cause of her eventual insanity.

By the end of the story the woman behind the wallpaper is an elaborate hallucination, but in the beginning she is simply a shadow. At first this woman is simply a “formless figure sulking about behind the silly and conspicuous front design,” much like the blurred shadow that all objects possess (Gilman 178). The fact that the figure is at first “formless” suggests that there is a definite evolution of this being, since eventually she claims to clearly see a woman; describing the wall as “silly and conspicuous” hints to the pattern being something very loud and noticeable… but not threatening. This also changes by the end of the story when the wallpaper seems to plague her. Therefore, her eventual personality transition is something that seems to happen slowly as her isolation in the room takes hold of her mind.

It is only when the mental illness takes a stronger hold on her that the form takes on a distinctive shape. With the constant loneliness causing the protagonist to obsess over her surroundings, the mirage begins to contour. To confirm this she writes in her journal: “I didn’t realize for a long time what the thing was that showed behind, that dim sub-pattern, but now I am quite sure it is a woman” (Gilman 180). She does not seem to waiver at all in thinking that the “thing” behind the wallpaper is specifically a woman. Instead of recognizing just a human form she specifically deems it female. The reasoning for this is that the outline of the form is not only her shadow, but a projected being of what she wishes it to be. Calling this form a woman gives her an avenue of escape now that the two are of the same kind.   The “dim sub pattern” is that of the bars which gives way to the illusion of her shadow, which has now become an actual person to her, being entrapped behind it. This transformation from formless shadow to hidden woman gives way for her transferal of identity.

Initially, the shadows of many things appear to her as the woman behind the paper.  More specifically she claims to see her in the garden “on that long road under the trees, creeping along, and when a carriage comes she hides under the blackberry vines” (Gilman 186). These figures could very well be the shadows of the many things growing in the garden that she has morphed, in her mind, into the shape of the artificial woman. The fact that she imagines the woman being able to escape during the day is most likely a reflection of her own desires, as if she lives vicariously through this fanciful creature. Evidence of her jealousness  is shown in the sections where she begins to mirror the woman’s actions; creeping in her room during the day (Gilman 186). The hallucination becomes a venue for her to be free of the reformatory she has been living in. Although the figure appears to be behind the wallpaper, from the outside looking in the protagonist would be the one behind the bars. The room with the yellow wallpaper is her jail cell, and night after night the woman in the paper taunts her with her freedom until she has ripped away yards and yards of it.

There is a shift, however, when her motives for the woman in the wallpaper seem to change. She writes in her journal that “she has a rope so that if the woman does get out, and tries to get away, she can tie her” (Gilman 187). This moment is when her identity is spliced; the fact that she wishes to tie the woman reveals this. Instead of wishing to free the poor woman, she now plans on capturing her; thereby proving a change is taking place since her motives have suddenly altered. This switch is confirmed when she looks outside and ponders “if they all came out of the wallpaper as she did?” (Gilman 188).  Using the word “they” implies that where there was once one woman, there are now many. It’s as if in this new mind she is able to see the world differently and reveal the others like the woman in the paper. Clearly she is no longer herself. Now, in the mind of her hallucination, she begins to worry if “she shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night,” this ties back to her observation that the woman creeps about during the day but is trapped behind the bars again during the night (Gilman 188). Now that the wallpaper has been removed she has escaped and the narrator is free to retreat into the hallucination’s mind.

There is a single part of the story that reflects the breakdown of her identity all in its own, and that is when she writes: “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Gilman 189). It’s not easy to catch because of her sister-in-law Jennie, perhaps this is on purpose, but we have never heard the name Jane before. In the entire story the narrator is giving her personal account of what’s going on so we never hear her name, until the very end when this excerpt appears. Jane is the narrator, and therefore the only logical explanation would be that the person speaking now is the hallucination; which of course is also Jane. It would seem they have switched places where the woman behind the wallpaper has become Jane’s new frame of mind, and the old imprisoned Jane is now on the outside looking in.

One might assume that “The Yellow Wallpaper” is simply about a woman driven insane by post-partum depression and constant isolation, but it is so much more than that. It is the illusion of the protagonist’s shadow against the bars of the wallpaper’s pattern that drives her to complete insanity; and eventually into believing she and the so called women in the wallpaper have traded places. This story is beautifully disturbing in the sense that the content is revolving around something so sinister, and yet the writing and plot are so intriguing. It has a lot to say about the treatment of women in late 1800’s, and just how far the human mind before it snaps.

Works Cited

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Seagull Reader. 2nd.2. Joseph Kelly. New York : W W Norton & Co Inc, 2008. Print.

Being Earnest

10338_09This week’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” (found in The Seagull Reader) makes a hilarious statement about the ridiculousness of the Victorian upper class. Their ideas about marriage especially are blatantly mocked with their emphasis on social class, and personal conduct. The use of the term Earnest is relevant to the story on several different levels. With Earnestness being a particularly desirable trait in that era, the characters in the play ridicule the idea.

Since earnestness describes someone of serious sincerity, the fact that both men choose to use the name is hypocrisy. Jack and Algernon are both living amongst a society where this trait is greatly valued, and most likely imposing judgment on those who don’t possess it, yet are not actually earnest themselves. Although Jack does actually end up being Earnest, he is not earnest. Oddly enough, both women claim to have dreamed of marrying a man named Earnest and could never marry a man by any other name yet they quickly forgive Jack, and Algernon after discovering that is not their name. To me this was a testimony to the flighty upper-class women of the time. Both Cecily and Gwendolen give the impression of being very much like teenage girls, taking down accounts of their lives in diaries and obsessing over becoming married. Not to mention the fact that both women claim to love someone based solely on their name without knowing their personality or values. This may very well be a nod to the importance put on the social status (which was often reflected in your family name) rather than actually liking each other. Lady Braknell reflects this sentiment when she says: “an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be” (page 269).  The footnote explains that by 1890 marriages were no longer arranged so this idea of our parents choosing your spouse would be one that Wilde no doubt found to be a senseless notion. In fact, the issue of marriage seems to be the main theme of the entire play, and the argument of whether or not it is an enjoyable circumstance to be in.

From the start of the play this idea of marriage is argued between Algernon and Jack when Algernon makes the powerful statement that “it is very romantic to be in love, but there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal” and that “If he ever gets married, he’ll try to forget the fact” (page 259). In this excerpt lays a key proclamation about marriage, that is still relevant today, and also a brutally honest idea about it. In truth there is nothing romantic about being married at all. Being married does not mean you are in love, and it those days love had very little to do with it. Eldonon even says that “divorces are made in Heaven (page 259). Wilde seems to be touching on the issue of marriage being a sort of business arrangement in those days and nothing else; which in turn comes back to the idea of being earnest since it involves being very serious and business like.

Another interesting thing about the use of the term earnest is that when used as a noun it means: “A sign or promise of what is to come” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/earnest). In the story Jack’s use of the name Earnest as his alter ego could be considered a sign of what is to come since he is actually Earnest, and since he has really been telling the truth his whole life he is also earnest. Oscar Wilde seems to create a maze of double meanings, and satire with his writing.

Hamlet

“Nothing but to show you how the King may go a progress through the guts of a beggar”hamlet-Mel_Gibson_1990

This week I fell in love with Hamlet (by William Shakespeare in the Seagull Reader). In fact, I was late getting my blog up because I was unsure what portion I wanted to discuss.  I feel as if a week is only enough to scratch the surface of the play.

Our book’s prequel to Hamlet discusses the debate over whether Hamlet is mad, or if he is truly acting so. He tells Haratio not to think him insane as the others soon will, because he is going to put on an act saying:

Here as before, never, so help you mercy,

How strange or odd some’er I bear myself

(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet

To put an antic disposition on). (page 8)

Though his behavior may seem genuine madness by the end of the play, I still believe it to be an act. The cleverness of Hamlets plans, and his ability to foresee the King’s and divert them accordingly, does not see like the actions of a mad man. The things he says when he is alone, although they seem tormented, are not twisted. I instead think that he finds himself in an obsessive compulsive state over avenging his father’s death. He himself says that:

Yea, from the table of my memory

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

That youth and observation copied there,

And thy commandment all alone shall live

Within the book and volume of my brain. (page 80)

Here he vows that nothing else will occupy his mind but this arduous quest his father’s ghost has sent him on. Calling his memories “trivial fond records” as though compared to this new reality his past worries seem foolish. One of the things about Hamlets personality I admired the most was his obvious intelligence, and his almost psychic like abilities to predict the actions of others. His plan to act crazy in and of itself is brilliant because insanity provides him with a sort of pardon against his offenses. Even when he commits the murder of Polonius he is simply to be sent England (though the King has other plans for him there) where another person would certainly face death for such an offense. He seems to predict he will need such protection in his plans for revenge; not only that, but acting insane helps minimize how much of a threat he looks to his uncle.

What is certain, however, is that Hamlet is a tormented depressed soul. All except for Horatio seem to be against him at times, and the world itself losing its luster. While speaking to Rosencrantz he says that “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” (page 98). This is one of the many times the play portrays Hamlet’s constant pondering over life and death; much like in his famous “to be or not to be” line. There is an underlying theme throughout the story with his apparent frustration over death and the afterlife.  When he speaks about how the fear of what is to happen after life “makes cowards of us all,” I get the feeling like he is frustrated with himself for not killing the King more swiftly.

Our text discusses such a question in the excerpt before the play as to why Hamlet takes so long to avenge his father, and I think such fear is a lot of the reason. He has many things to consider when it comes to assassinating the King, including ensuring his dissention to Hell. If he was to kill him when he first considers it, while the King is repenting then he fears he would be sending “a villain to heaven” (page 129). He must catch him in sin before he kills him in order to ensure he is placed where he belongs. He also wants to be sure that the ghost he has seen is not “a devil which has power to assume a pleasing shape” to damn him (page 107).  It gives me the impression that Hamlet is in fear of murdering him. He is fearful whether he is truly guilty, and what his own consequences may be for the act. In the end it is only the death of his mother that gives him the courage (and most likely blind rage) to complete the quest he has become infatuated with.

The depth of Shakespeare’s characters is truly astonishing and at many points of this play I found myself thinking “how did he come up with this?” What really makes me love Hamlet is that you can never grow tired of it because it is so complex you discover new layers with every read.