Robert Calhoun

Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Hoyt Bowen, Will Fridy, Robert Ward


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Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


In Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, Shakesreare has created three women who have been widely noted for their purity of soul and beauty of character. The concensus is that Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia are extremely virtuous--motivated by the highest moral principles. As virtuous as these women seem to be, they meet cruel fates; so do Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.

In interpreting the causes and effects of these tragedies, many critics have placed Ophelia, Desdemona, and Cordelia in the conventionally accepted category of the noble-minded, virtuous person who is undone by her own lack of awareness of the workings of evil. However, a number of critics lay a blacker guilt on these women for they see one or all of them as lacking nobility or virtue. The tone and depth of these plays are drastically altered if one rejects the concept of injured innocence and perceives Ophelia's "bawdy songs" as evidence of her licentiousness; Desdemona's marriage to a Negro as perverse, sexual wantonness and self-indulgence; Cordelia's behavior at court as selfish thoughtlessness. These judgments would suggest that these heroines receive their deserved "punishments." This implies that Hamlet, Othello, and Lear are victims of trifling women. There is sufficient ambiguity in the plays for some controversy. The question of the virtue and the unselfish love of these women is important in resolving the part they play in their own destruction and the general outcome of the tragedies.

Integrally related to the question of virtue in the resolutions of the plays is the question of "lying." At a crucial point in each play, each protagonist is confronted by a seemingly virtuous young woman who appears to betray him. Each man asks a lady to reassure him of her love. Although loving the man very much, for whatever reason, she does not affirm the sanctity of her love. In each case the deception involves a lack of understanding and trust, as well as a lie.

In the introduction the scope of the problem and the definitions are discussed. In the first section a separate chapter is devoted to criticism and textual analogies of the "virtue" of the heroines. In the second part the specific nature of the deception is discussed. In the conclusion, the responsibility of the ladies' action in precipitating calamity and general slaughter is examined. References to various theories of tragedy are examined when relevant to these aspects of the plays.


Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America