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Byles, J.M. (1989). The Problem of the Self and the other in the Language of Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia. Am. Imago, 46(1):37-59.

(1989). American Imago, 46(1):37-59

The Problem of the Self and the other in the Language of Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia

Joan Montgomery Byles, Ph.D.

My focus on the difficulty that subjectivity presents in the language of Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia has two related problems: feminine identity and the relatedness of women to the other/others.1 No one knows how subjectivity is generated; it is certainly not easy to control it, hence the difficulty of expressing it verbally. However, language is the system by which we can objectify subjectivity; words give form to our feelings and can reveal our inner sense of self. In applying French structural linguistics to psychoanalysis, Lacan theorizes that the subject itself is determined by the language of the other.2 It seems to me that these three female characters represent the problem of a largely masculine language in forging feminine identity. The function of language is not just to inform, but to evoke; what one seeks in speech is response from the other. The problem of subjectivity in the language of Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia is the result of the male tendency to define the women's subjectivity for them, telling them how to think and feel. This psychological takeover creates problems and restrictions in identity and language for all three young women.

To a degree the masculine perception of the woman becomes the woman's own self image. Ophelia thinks of herself as a potential breeder of sinners. In identifying with Othello's murderous jealousy Desdemona says she has killed herself, “Who hath done this deed?/Nobody—I myself” (V.ii. 124-5). Although it is her father who has cruelly banished her, Cordelia shows no anger or resentment upon their reconciliation; she has “no cause, no cause,” to do him wrong (IV.vii.74).

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