Laura Sook Duncombe’s previous Literary Ladies Cage Fight columns for The Butter can be found here.
Greetings, mortals. I am Artemis, goddess of the hunt and hostess of the LLCF, along with my sister, Aphrodite. Each match, we bring you two women of literature and make them compete in five categories. The woman with the most points at the end of five rounds wins.
When we celebrate women, everyone’s a winner! Hey gal-pals, it’s your co-hostess Aphrodite. We’ve got an awesome match for you today—our first fight featuring ladies of the stage! We present the not-so-virgin suicides: Juliet from Romeo and Juliet versus Ophelia from Hamlet, both by William Shakespeare!
A note on our title this week: LLCF does not place any value on a woman’s virginity—we see it as a social construct. Our title is simply a play on a movie title. Also, if you or anyone you know is thinking about suicide, please call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE) or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. There is help out there.
Round 1: Harry Potter House
Ophelia is the daughter of a nobleman and the sort-of girlfriend to Hamlet, crown prince of Denmark. We don’t know a lot about her, other than she really likes Hamlet, despite the fact he’s mostly a jerk to her and basically behaves like Edward Cullen—brooding and then belittling her. She shows a bit of backbone in denying her dad’s wishes to stay away from Hamlet—but that turns out to be a terrible mistake. Poor Ophelia, we hardly knew ye. Let’s call her a Hufflepuff.
Juliet is a little spunkier than Ophelia, but just as silly when it comes to boys. She also falls in love with a bad boy and defies her parents’ wishes. Her story is especially juicy because she’s basically engaged to major hottie Paris—who doesn’t want to marry ’90s Paul Rudd? While she does her fair share of weeping and lamenting, she also threatens to stab herself unless the friar helps her escape Paris, and that takes some serious moxie. This makes her a Gryffindor.
Winner: Juliet. Poor Ophelia doesn’t stand a chance…unless it’s a crying contest. She could kick butt in a crying contest.
Round 2: Sidekick
Ophelia suffers mightily from the lack of a girlfriend—someone who would be in her corner and yell at all the men in her life. Her dad and her brother are the closest she has to a sidekick, and they never seem to have her best interests at heart. They’re also not very interested in what she wants or needs. It’s not surprising she throws herself at Hamlet, the first guy to pay attention to her. If only she had been able to go to college, girl would have been a heck of a women’s studies major.
Juliet has a sidekick—the sassy, brassy nurse! She tells a lot of dick jokes and talks way too much, but she loves Juliet and stands up to her master in order to advocate for her. She’s like a mother and a sister to Juliet, helping her get messages to Romeo and arranging their secret wedding. It’s when the nurse goes against her own heart and tells Juliet to pick Paris over Romeo that things start to go from Bad to Worse.
Winner: Juliet again. Perhaps Juliet is stronger than Ophelia due to her strong female role model?
Round 3: Love Interest
Oh boy, Hamlet. The ultimate hipster, who was into existential depression way before it was cool. He does seem to love Ophelia, in his way, but he’s too self-involved in his war games to treat her right. He savages her with the famous “get thee to a nunnery” speech, which speeds her decline into her eventual suicide. Sometimes he makes lewd remarks to her, sometimes he’s mean to her, and sometimes he ignores her. Nothing in his behavior is an acceptable way to treat a loved one. Not cool, Hamlet, not cool.
Romeo looooooves Juliet soooo much! He starts out in love with Rosaline, but as soon as he sees Juliet, he’s over the moon for her. He climbs over her garden walls so he can talk to her, he marries her, and he dies for her. It’s so romantic! It’s the ultimate–
Winner: Sorry, Dita, but dying for your lover is not romantic. It’s stupid. They were teenagers. They needed supervision and possibly some cold showers. It’s really dangerous to set their impulsive behavior up as the paragon of True Love, and I refuse to perpetuate that any further. I know you’re the goddess of love, but it’s MY column and I call B.S. on Romeo. So, Ophelia, this round is for you. At least nobody pretends your death is anything other than a tragedy.
Round 4: Tragic Flaw
Whatever, Artie. You just don’t get it. But fine. So, Juliet’s tragic flaw is that she’s too impatient. She can’t see past what’s right in front of her and get some perspective on the situation. Like yeah, Romeo’s banishment was the worst, but maybe give it some time to see if you can become pen pals or something? There are solutions, girlfriend, but you went straight to Plan Z: Worst Case Scenario. And you paid for it with your life, which sucks.
Ophelia’s biggest flaw is likely her lack of agency—but is that really her fault? Is she, like Jessica Rabbit, not bad but merely drawn that way? A lot of smart people have a lot of great theories on Ophelia, and I don’t want to wade into the deep stuff. I just think it’s sad, ultimately, because she’s little more than a prop in Hamlet’s story when she could have been the star of her own. It’s hard to assign her any characteristics that aren’t in relation to the men of her life. Her whole existence basically fails the Bechdel test. I feel sorry for her. And sorry for women, who’ve been putting up with this shit for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Winner: Ophelia. She doesn’t deserve what she gets.
Round 5: Happy Ending
Look, everyone dies, okay? It’s terrible. Hamlet, Ophelia, Romeo, and Juliet all end up dead. Can we say somebody’s death is better than somebody else’s? They’re all super-duper sad. So I’d call this one a draw.
I hear you, sister, and I agree. But I think that Juliet has a slight edge here over Ophelia, simply because she got to live before she died. Throughout the play, she makes choices and tries to take control of her destiny. She makes some bad choices, but she does make them for herself. She dies onstage in the arms of her lover, while Ophelia dies offstage, unaccompanied and without fanfare.
So after five rounds, Juliet is our winner, barely. Shakespeare, we love ya, but let’s have more Portias and Beatrices and fewer Ophelias, okay?
Maybe that’s the point, though—fully realized women star in comedies, but when women are plot devices or furniture and the plays are ruled by men, it ends up being a tragedy.
There may be some truth in that, sister mine. Well, thanks for joining us, mortals. See you next time for a more uplifting episode of LLCF!
Laura Sook Duncombe lives in Alexandria, Virgina with her husband and a mutt named Indiana Bones, Jr. Musical theater, pirates, and Sherlock Holmes are a few of her favorite things. Her work can be found on the Toast, the Hairpin, Jezebel, and at her blog.