Feminist Literary Criticism
~the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other
rights of women equal to those of men.
~an organized movement for the attainment of such
rights for women.
Aristotle: "The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of
St. Thomas Aquinas's belief that woman is an "imperfect man."
History of Feminist Literary Criticism
~Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights
of woman (1792) marks the first modern awareness
of women's struggle for equal rights.
~Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929)
became an important precursor for feminist literary
criticism. Virginia Woolf argues that patriarchal
society prevented women from realizing their
creativity and potential.
~Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1969) contained the
first modern principles of feminist criticism by
criticizing novels that were authored by males for
their assumptions about females. Also introduced
many new terms.
Feminist Literary Criticism
This type of criticism is concerned with the impact
of gender on reading and writing. It usually
includes a critique of patriarchal society. Feminists
often argue that male fears are portrayed through
female characters. This criticism looks at the
female characters and their roles in the text.
Elaine Showalter’s Three stages of development
for Female Characters:
1. Feminine Stage – Involves acceptance and
acquiescence to the role society has assigned.
(2) Feminist Stage – Involves protest and doubts
about society’s patriarchalism.
(3) Female Stage - "phase of self-discovery;‖
freedom from dependency. A search for
Important Terms Defined
Erotomania: Female love-melancholy in Elizabethan time
Phallologocentrism - "language ordered around an
absolute Word (logos) which is ―masculine‖ [phallic],
systematically excludes, disqualifies, denigrates,
diminishes, silences the ―feminine‖
Essentialism - taken from Women Studies page of
Drew University - "The belief in a uniquely feminine
essence, existing above and beyond cultural
Phallocentrism: a doctrine or belief centered on the
phallus, esp. a belief in the superiority of the male sex.
Patriarchy: ~a form of social organization in which the
father is the supreme authority in the family
~a society, community, or country based on this social
• Limited Roles
• Schools reserved for boys
• Could not enter into professions of law,
politics, medicine. Only allowed to work in
• Could not vote
• Childbearing considered a great honor for
• Single women suffered the most- they were
accused of being witches and looked upon with
• Single women could become nuns but after the
Reformation, convents were closed.
• Ophelia’s madness would clinically be
characterized in Elizabethan times as ―female
• Melancholy was fashionable among men at this
time. It was associated with ―intellectual and
• Yet among women, this was seen as an emotional
Ophelia’s Three Stages
1. Feminine Stage – Involves acceptance and
acquiesence to the role society has assigned.
2. Feminist Stage – Involves protest and doubts about
3. Female Stage - "phase of self-discovery;‖ freedom
from dependency. A search for identity.
1. Ophelia accepts Polonius’s advice. She follows and
obeys him and thinks of herself as someone who cannot
make her own decision.
2. After Laertes’ advice to her, Ophelia tells Laertes not
to be a bad priest who cannot practice what he
3. Her craziness gives her ―freedom from dependency.‖
Contrast of Polonius’s Advice Given to Laertes and Ophelia
Advice to Laertes: Advice to Ophelia:
•Don’t be too quick to act •Believe you’re a foolish
on what you think little baby
•Once you’re in a fight, hold •Give yourself more respect
your own or you’ll make me a fool-
either means will give him a
•Clothes make the man so grandchild, or make him a
spend money on clothes laughingstock.
•Once you’ve found •Hamlet’s vows are traps for
trustworthy friends, hold on birds
to them (He’s trusted to
make his own decisions) •Don’t Mistake Hamlet’s
vows as true love
•ABOVE ALL, Be true to
yourself •Don’t waste your time with
ABOVE ALL, listen to
All Practical Advice Polonius
• They are the two authority figures in her life
• Before, saw Hamlet’s love as innocent and holy
• She loves Hamlet
• Polonius and Laertes both warn her about his love. She
begins to see that love may not be so innocent.
• When her own thoughts of Hamlet’s love are replaced
by her father’s beliefs, she does not know what to
believe. ―I do not know, my lord, what I should believe.‖
• When her brother and father present a harsh belief
that Hamlet may not have good intentions, she realizes
it is a frightening world. She seeks refuge in the
domestic role that women have been assigned to for
centuries and becomes passive, only obeying her father
• Act 3, Hamlet says ―get thee to a
• As Ophelia drowns, Gertrude describes
her songs as religious hymns or old lauds.
• Her songs are like chants that are
associated with nunneries.
• While pre-reformation women may have
gone to nunneries to escape, this option
is not available to Ophelia.
Owl was a Baker’s Daughter
• In one of her songs, she sings, ―they say the owl was
a baker’s daughter.‖
• The baker’s daughter was transformed into an owl,
when Christ asked for bread but she only gave a
• The baker’s daughter being transformed into an owl
is like Ophelia being transformed by madness.
• Like how the baker’s daughter made the wrong
decision, Ophelia also made the wrong decision that
led to her madness and death.
• Ophelia’s decision that led to her madness and death
was trying to obey her father and be a good
potential wife to Hamlet.
“Ophelia complex,” the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard
traces the symbolic connections between women, water, and
death. Drowning, he suggests, becomes the truly feminine
death in the dramas of literature and life, one which is a
beautiful immersion and submersion in the female element.
Water is the profound and organic symbol of the liquid woman
whose eyes are so easily drowned in tears, as her body is the I’m
repository of blood, amniotic fluid, and milk. A man g…
contemplating this feminine suicide understand it by reaching
for what is feminine in himself, like Laertes, by a temporary
surrender to his oen fluidity that is, his tears; and he becomes
a man again in becoming once more dry when his years are
Elizabethans would have recognized the flowers she clutched to herself when she
drowned as definite phallic symbols, indicative of her repressed longings
The symbolism in her
Rosemary was often given as a token of remembrance
drowning is itself an
between lovers, not merely in remembrance of the dead;
emblem of the inner
Pansies the popular name for was ~love-in-idleness', so
conflict which drove her to
the ~thoughts' they were used to represent were often
madness. She drowns in
her “fantastic garlands,”
Fennel symbolized not only flattery but also fickleness in
woven of buttercups,
love, and was even associated by Robert Greene (in A
daisies, nettles, and long
Quip for an Upstart Courtier) with women's sexual desire
purples, flowers that
in general. Because of the homed shape of its nectarines,
represent her innocence,
Columbine became a symbol of cuckoldry for either sex;
pain, and sexuality,
rue conventionally stood for sorrow and repentance, but
woven together here in
was also thought to abate carnal lust.
madness as she had been
Daisy, emblem of Alcestis, symbolized self-sacrifice for
unable to do in her life.
love, but also represented dissembling love and the folly
of believing such deceits;
When Ophelia is mad, Gertrude says that “Her speech is
nothing,” mere “unshaped use.” Ophelia's speech thus
Ophelia is Zero represents the horror of having nothing to say in the public
terms defined by the court. Deprived of thought, sexuality,
language, Ophelia's story becomes the Story of O—the zero,
the empty circle or mystery of feminine difference, the cipher
of female sexuality to be deciphered by feminist interpretation.
She thinks “nothing” says
this to both Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness
Ophelia's virginal and vacant white is contrasted with Hamlet's
scholar's garb, his “suits of solemn black.” Her flowers suggest the
discordant double images of female sexuality as both innocent
blossoming and whorish contamination;
In Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the stage direction that a
woman enters with disheveled hair indicates that she might either
be mad or the victim of a rape; the disordered hair, her offense
against decorum, suggests sensuality in each case.
•Hamlet has a misogynistic
Ophelia’s Relationships With Males attitude towards women in
general. He therefore pushes
•She is subservient and obedient
•Act 2- the two authority figures in her life: her father and
her brother “supposedly” give her advice, but really meant to
frighten and insult her love for Hamlet, which led her to
doubt herself, her trust in love, and Hamlet’s intentions
•Trying to submit to her father and to be a good potential
wife for Hamlet has brought her nothing. Or rather, it has
brought her shattering grief and madness. Her father warns
her more abruptly: “You do not understand yourself so
clearly / As it behoves my daughter and your honour”
(I.iii.97-98). She is his child, his property, a vessel of
procreation, no more but so
•Both her brother and her father warn her repeatedly to
defend her honor, her virginity, which is the fragile basis for
woman's respectability and personal value in patriarchal
Ophelia - Dependent on men to
tell her how to behave virgin and
daughter vs lover and
Gertrude and Ophelia’s Relationships whoreophelia is used by the men
with the male characters around her.polonius' daughter
and spylaertes' sister who is
under his control and will do
what he askshamlets' lover: she
will perform her wifely duties
even though she is not
The Gertrude who does emerge clearly the differences: Gertrude is
in Hamlet is a woman defined by her strong enough to manipulate the
desire for station and affection, as well men around her but its the men
as by her tendency to use men to fulfill around her that accidentally lead
her instinct for self-preservation— her to her demise. Ophelia is
which, of course, makes her extremely weak and her innocence and
dependent upon the men in her dependence on men destroy her
life. She is at her best in social also. the difference is the men in
situations when her natural grace and Ophelia's life love her but their
charm seem to indicate a rich, rounded love and repression cause her
personality. At times it seems that her insanity and suicide. but in both
cases these women are
grace and charm are
dependent on the m en in their
her only characteristics, and her
lives who though provide them
reliance on men appears to be her sole meaning in their life, cause their
way of capitalizing on her abilities. deaths as well
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