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Past critics have deemed Ophelia an insignificant and marginal character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, functioning only to further define Hamlet. One such critic, Jacques Lacan, interprets Ophelia as a mere object of Hamlet’s sexual desire: she is essential only because she is inextricably linked to Hamlet. Literary criticism denies Ophelia a story and purpose of her own and instead, her character remains entirely dependent on Hamlet. Hamlet’s suffering and madness constantly takes front stage while Ophelia’s madness and death are attributed merely to the weakness and frailty of her sex. Feminist critics since then have responded to Lacan and other male critics and attempted to “tell” Ophelia’s story, independent from Hamlet and the male perspective; but what is Ophelia’s story, and does she even have one? As one feminist critic, Lee Edwards admits, “We can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet” (36). One could argue that Shakespeare’s own masculinity affected his constructions of the feminine and that the presence of female characters in his plays serve solely to reinforce stereotypes and further define the male characters; or, even if Shakespeare was able to transcend the patriarchal ideology of his own time, that male-dominated criticism has imposed these constructions onto Shakespeare’s female characters. Whatever the case may be, I disagree with Edwards’s claim that Ophelia does not have a story independent and distinct from Hamlet. In this paper I aim to dissolve these gender-biased depictions of the feminine so that I may reconstruct Ophelia’s oppressed identity within the patriarchal structure of early modern society and reevaluate the significance of her character within the play.
I am taking a feminist approach to my paper because I am interested in investigating feminist themes such as sexual objectification, gender roles and inequality, and oppression in patriarchal society. This approach allows me to examine woman’s role and experience in society. I am concerned with the representation of the female condition in Hamlet, as well as the evolution of madness as a gendered construct and how this cultural stigma offers yet another means of defining gender roles. Moreover, within this approach I hope to look at how the presence and pervasion of spectacle in royal society pressured, and I would even argue required, the individuals therein to fulfill appropriate gender roles and behave according to social norms, since within the social hierarchy those at the top set the standard for the rest of society and thereby maintained social order and normalcy. A feminist reading of Shakespeare’s text illuminates Ophelia’s character and the distinctly gendered nature of her madness and death. Through this approach I hope to redefine Ophelia’s character and her significance not only in the play, but also as representative of the oppression of aristocratic women in early modern society more generally.
II. The Gender of Madness
In this section I focus particularly on what might be called figurative madness. Contrary to the literal sense of the word, figurative madness has the potential to take on a variety of representational, symbolic, and metaphorical meanings. In the political, patriarchal, and royal society in which Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place, madness serves as a metaphor for sedition and the subversion of authority and dominant ideologies (Salkeld) (Coddon). This plays out as political ambition in men and unruly women who transcended the bounds of their gender role.
When Ophelia is first introduced as mad in act 4 scene 5, she is constantly referred to as distracted or divided. In the very opening of the act, the Gentleman remarks to the Queen in reference to Ophelia that, “She is importunate, indeed distract” (4.5.2). The stage directions then inform the audience, “Enter Ophelia [distracted, with her hair down, playing on a lute]” (4.5). Shortly thereafter, the King remarks upon Ophelia’s departure, “poor Ophelia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment” (4.5.83-4). Distracted is defined as “drawn apart; divided” or “mentally drawn to different objects; perplexed or confused by conflicting interests” (OED). Shakespeare uses this term specifically to define the sort of madness affecting Ophelia. Her madness represents the division and conflict between her internal, private notions and the patriarchal ideology of the external culture being forced upon her.
Within this patriarchal and hierarchical society, the king served as a microcosm for the entire kingdom: this microcosm was represented predominantly through the analogy of the body. Levinus Leminius describes this analogy in his The Touchstone of Complexions: “All the member of the body be so linked and knit together, and such participation and consent is betweene them, that if one of the smallest joyntes, or the little toe bee hurt or pained, the whole body is distempered and out of quiet” (Salkeld 81). All the members of society comprised various parts of the king’s body and contributed to the healthy state of the kingdom. Mad or seditious individuals threatened the health of the kingdom and had to be controlled or expurgated. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz offers another analogy of the king as microcosm:
It is a massy wheel
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose [huge] spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis’d and adjoin’d, which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous [ruin]. Never alone
Did the King sigh, but [with] a general groan (3.3.17-22).
Similar to the idea of the body and its parts, the king here is likened to a wheel and its spokes. Within this passage lies the idea that the interests of the monarch are synonymous with the interests of the entire kingdom, because all of the lesser social beings are completely dependent on him. These analogies, along with the notion of Divine Right, support the idea that the voice of authority naturally assumes the voice of supreme reason and sanity. As Duncan Salkeld states in Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, “the king’s body unified social relations and legitimated the hierarchy of degree that stratified those relations” (57). In other words, the king’s body established specific social relations and prescribed corresponding identities to individuals; since the creator of these social identities was the supreme voice of authority and reason, then any individual attempting to transcend or disrupt this order would be perceived as mad or distracted. Consequently, madness was perceived as a threat to the Crown and signaled the “failures of sovereignty and reason” (Salkeld2).
The representation of Ophelia as distracted or divided in Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates the distinctly gendered nature of madness. Through madness Ophelia confronts her anxieties about identity in a patriarchal world and asserts her difference and opposition to male power. Her perplexity and confusion stem from the conflict emerging from her dual identity: the one forced upon her by society and the other emerging from her own person. Ophelia’s oppressed identity temporarily finds its way to the surface when her lover goes mad and is deported, her brother departs to a different country, and her father is murdered. The men closest to her who have been constantly shaping her identity have abandoned her and for once she is thinking for herself and exploring her own identity.
Carol Neely explores this concept further in Distracted Subjects: Madness and Gender in Shakespeare and Early Modern Culture. She argues that madness was not a static concept but was evolving and undergoing widespread change during the early modern period: the theater served as a catalyst in spurring on this change. The public stage served to teach audiences how to identify madness and distinguish between different types of madness. Madness was being portrayed in new ways, creating new subcategories of distracted conditions such as lovesickness and melancholy, which took on changed gender associations. Neely states, “The gendered boundaries of the secular human subject were being redefined through their dislocations and excesses” (2). Men were believed to be governed by their intellect and rational thought, while women, it was assumed, were led only by their passions. Moreover, the madness of men was associated with intellectual and imaginative genius, while the madness of women was seen as biological and emotional.
These gender constructs are demonstrated in Shakespeare’s Hamlet through the contrasting representations of madness in the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet’s madness is characterized predominantly by his overactive intellect, as demonstrated by his witty puns. Polonius observes through a private conversation with him, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (2.2.203-4), and Guildenstern describes how Hamlet uses “crafty madness” to evade Guildenstern and Rosencrantz’s attempts to identify the cause of his aberrant behavior. Moreover, Hamlet’s madness is not seen as biological and natural, but as something that transcends biology. His madness is more of a strategy, rather than an involuntary disorder. Hamlet warns Horatio and Marcellus at the beginning of the play that he might “put an antic disposition on” (1.5.172). This phrase suggests that Hamlet will act or represent himself as a madman to obtain his revenge. In contrast, Ophelia’s madness is based purely on excess of emotion. Instead of witty puns, Ophelia voices her madness through music (playing on the lute) and song. Furthermore, nothing indicates that Ophelia is “acting” mad, but instead her madness is portrayed as natural, or part of her nature. Ophelia’s constant association with flowers, first as she distributes flowers to the members of the court during her madness, and then as the Queen gives an account of Ophelia’s death, connects Ophelia and her state with femininity and nature. Therefore, the representations of madness in Ophelia and Hamlet are clearly and distinctly gendered.
III. Court Life and the Oppression of Women
The presence and significance of spectacle in royal society pressured individuals therein to fulfill appropriate gender roles and behave according to social norms. I am interested in how spectacle was used by aristocratic society to maintain control over the lower classes and how this might have had further implications affecting the upper-class as well. If the masses were conditioned to learn visually through spectacle, then court society inherits the ponderous responsibility of displaying and embodying correct and traditional social behavior including restraint from premarital sex, murder, and the transcendence of typical gender roles. In Louis Montrose’s book, The Purpose of Playing, he emphasizes the dual nature of subjectivity: “on the one hand, it shapes individuals as loci of consciousness and, on the other hand, it positions, motivates, and constrains them within—it subjects them to—social networks and cultural codes that ultimately exceed their comprehension or control” (16).
Due to the social hierarchical order that was established in early modern society, certain behavior, dress, and other external and visible attributions were expected among the upper classes. External appearances and displays of spectacle were necessary for the aristocracy to maintain their position as a ruling class. Especially during a time when social mobility was becoming more common, the upper classes in particular had to further redefine class boundaries to maintain separation and distinction.
The expectations for behavior and conduct in early modern society were decisively gendered. Conduct literature during the Renaissance established certain rules for the public and private behavior of women and outlined ideal feminine virtues, such as chastity, obedience, humility, and silence. Fathers and husbands were responsible for teaching and enforcing this prescriptive role for women. When we first see Ophelia in the play she is being advised by first her brother, Laertes and then her father, Polonius regarding Hamlet’s affection toward her. This scene illustrates the role of men in teaching young women how to conduct themselves in society, including the importance of preserving their virtue.
Polonius: Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
Ophelia: I do not know, my lord, what I should think.
Polonius: Marry, I will teach you (1.3.103-05)
Ophelia lacks reason and rational facilities that would enable her to think for herself; instead, she is portrayed as a blank slate where the men in her life can write the stipulations of her identity. To all this, of course, Ophelia passively displays her obedience, “I shall obey, my lord” (1.4.136). The social restraints placed on women created a distinction between what women were asked or expected to be, and what women really were. This discrepancy is voiced by Ophelia during her madness when she tells the King, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (4.5.43-4). Although this statement reveals Ophelia as a woman capable of recognizing the gender role thrust upon her, some women internalized the dominant ideology of their culture so that the external identity imposed on them became synonymous with their internal one. Men of this time claimed that they could distinguish good women from bad by outward signs alone. For example, a women who was full of words, loud, bold, impudent, shameless, and wore make-up was considered a harlot, while a woman who maintained her true complexion and was temperate in her mind, silence in her tongue, and bashfulness in her countenance was deemed a good woman (Aughterson 96). The importance of outward show was key to the identity of a woman. In act 3 scene 1 Polonius instructs Ophelia how to act in the presence of Hamlet:
Ophelia, walk you here.—Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves. [To Ophelia.] Read on this book,
That show of such an exercise may color
Your [loneliness]. We are oft to blame in this—
‘Tis too much prov’d—that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself (3.1.43-8).
Religious piety was also a valued quality in a woman; however, as this situation demonstrates, the outward representation of such piety was much more important than genuine, internal devotion. The two most significant things to note about this passage are Polonius’s use of the imperative and the references to affectation. Polonius’s most comfortable way of addressing his daughter is in imperative speech—”walk you here,” “Read on this book”—either commanding or advising his daughter to act a certain way. Polonius’s speech is also permeated by affected diction, such as “show,” “color,” “visage,” and “sugar o’er.” This very clearly suggests that he is not so much concerned with the essential goodness and beauty of his daughter, as the outward representation of herself.
Although the importance of conduct and behavior pervaded society at all levels, it was especially crucial for women of the upper classes. The social structure of “the nation was regulated by obedience to a hierarchy of superiors leading up to the King”: this included an internal hierarchy in the household where the women and children obeyed the man of the house (Stone 21). The distinct stratification of varying estates of men was important in maintaining social order, and external expression and outward spectacle, such as manners, clothing, and extravagant luxuries were important in distinguishing among classes. Aristocratic society was forced to spend heavily to keep up a lifestyle which the world expected of them. Within a society based on spectacle and self-fashioning, an individual’s external appearance and possessions became crucial toward maintaining a higher order in society.
Spectacle pervaded aristocratic early modern culture and was used not only to display and flaunt their wealth, but also to maintain social order and authority over the lower classes. Queen Elizabeth is one of the most well-known implementors of spectacle. She believed in publicizing herself by touring the country to show herself to her loving subjects and to sample their hospitality. Elizabeth would adorn herself in extravagant clothes and rich jewels and go on summer “progresses,” which were ceremonial journeys or pageants through her land. On these parades nobles hosted her at their homes and flattered her with costly pleasures and gifts. These occasional progresses were extremely detrimental to the nobles living in the area, since the cost of entertaining the Queen caused many to go bankrupt. In addition to her spectacular pageants, her court at home took on theatrical elements, where the “court moved in an atmosphere of romance, with music, dancing, plays, and the elaborate, fancy-dress entertainments called masques” (Greenblatt, “General” 20). Elizabeth, who was at first deemed inadequate to rule because of her gender, was able to gain authority over her court and the country through this theatrical construct, which came to be called the “cult of love.” The French ambassador during the time of her reign was said to have remarked about her, “She is a Princess who can act any part she pleases” (Greenblatt, “General” 21). Elizabeth required her subjects to address her with love poetry, and she would likewise respond in such a manner1. Additionally, because of the enormous amount of pressure on her to marry and secure an heir, she feigned interest in a number of domestic and foreign suitors without any genuine desire to marry. In this way, Elizabeth used spectacle to gain authority over her court and country.
While spectacle became a tool for aristocrats to gain authority, it also had rebounding effects. Catherine Bates notes that beginning in the fifteenth century, “the court became a self-conscious model for the exercise—social, bureaucratic, and public—of royal hegemony” and that because it was “Perceived as a centre of political and cultural activity, the court became a focus of scrutiny” (9). Because the upper-class was associated with spectacle and thus always “on stage,” or in the limelight so to speak, for the people to see and observe, it became a necessary responsibility for them to embody correct and appropriate social behavior. Such rigid stipulations would confine sexual relations, violent acts, gender roles, and other such immoral and unconventional behavior that might incite the masses to abandon social order. Stephen Greenblatt in his Renaissance Self-Fashioning: More to Shakespeare, emphasizes the “politically-appointed self-fashioning of elite who dramatize in their infinite variety of public displays those imaginary means by which power seeks to contain and control the always unruly body of the state.” Although this system was for the most part successful, the extreme importance that the culture placed on such self-fashioning specified and limited the models of selfhood available to an individual within it; and for women whose identity at all levels of the social ladder was confined, this effect was particularly stifling.
Throughout the first part of the play, Ophelia’s presence on stage is marginal and passive. Her speaking parts are few and far between, and the only action she partakes in is wholly manipulated and predetermined by the male characters. Only in the second half of the play, through her madness and death, does Ophelia take control of her own “story” and act independently from the men in her life. Ophelia’s presence dominates act 4 scene 5 and offers a striking contrast from her passive and obsequious role in earlier scenes. In this scene, Ophelia barely lets the other characters of the court get a word in, repeatedly cutting them off with, “Nay, pray you mark.” The King attempts to redirect her toward her appropriate gender role with his various addresses and responses: “Pretty Ophelia!” (4.5.56) and “Conceit upon her father” (4.5.45). His reaction to Ophelia’s madness illustrates the forces of patriarchal ideology on women. He emphasizes certain facets of the female identity, such as beauty or a pleasant outward appearance, as well as the tendency of females to be fanciful or moody. However, Ophelia adamantly resists and transcends these boundaries. Ophelia, who has been conditioned to obey and remain silent, now finds a voice through her “madness.” For the first time, Ophelia takes command of the world around her and expresses herself freely and without restraint.
Although the members of the court deem her mad, it is clear through a close reading that underlying the shroud of song, Ophelia’s dialogue contains truths regarding the present situation. In her first burst of lyricism, Ophelia exposes the Queen’s lack of fidelity and her fickleness in love: “How should I your true-love know / From another one?” (4.5.23-4) Although the intended meaning underlying Ophelia’s songs will forever remain obscure and equivocal, the fact that Ophelia formally addresses her song to the Queen suggests that it applies specifically to her person, and in this case a subject of extreme guilt and shame for the Queen. Next, just as the King is entering the scene Ophelia sings, “Larded all with sweet flowers, / Which bewept to the ground did not go / With true-love showers” (4.5.38-40). In this passage, Ophelia could very well be alluding to the dishonorable deaths and burials of both her father and the late King Hamlet. Polonius’s murder was covered up and his death remained publicly obscure while his burial hastily performed. Likewise, King Hamlet was buried without “true-love showers,” indicating the lack of mourning from his wife after his death. In both cases, the men do not receive the formal, honorable burial ceremony that they deserve because of the King and Queen. Lastly, Ophelia’s songs evoke sexual themes. Her last song suggests the nature of her personal relationship with Hamlet. She sings, “Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, / You promis’d me to wed.’ / (He answers.) ‘So would I ‘a‘ done by yonder sun, / And thou hadst not come to my bed’” (4.5.62-6). The sexual innuendoes characterizing Hamlet’s speech toward Ophelia earlier in the play, his abrupt speech advising her to go to a nunnery and claiming that he never loved her, and Ophelia’s obsequious and passive position as a woman of lower quality than Hamlet, all inform the assumption that Ophelia has partaken in premarital sex with Hamlet. Through Ophelia’s seemingly “mad” demonstrations of song, she expresses the many corruptions of the royal court.
Throughout the play the King exhibits anxiety regarding Hamlet’s madness and hires Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to deport him to England stating, “I like him not, nor stands it safe with us / To let his madness range” (3.3.1-2). Ultimately, he plots with Laertes to kill Hamlet with poison. Similarly, the Queen is plagued with guilt regarding her past actions and attempts to silence Ophelia. The Queen’s account of Ophelia’s death at the end of act 5 scene 1 is remarkable for its language as well as its comprehensiveness. The language itself attempts to place Ophelia in the eternal state of the constructed feminine identity. The Queen sets the stage with imagery of nature, describing the willow tree and its “hoary leaves,” “the glassy stream,” and the “fantastic garlands” that Ophelia makes from various kinds of flowers. She then explains how Ophelia “Fell in the weeping brook . . . like a creature native and indued / Unto that element” (5.1.166-182). This brook is an element of nature, but it is also personified as weeping. Laertes, immediately following this description, comments on the femininity of crying: “It is our trick, Nature her custom holds, / Let shame say what it will; when these are gone, / The woman will be out” (5.1.187-9). In this way, the Queen attempts to create a picture that is beautiful and natural: the image of women that was expected by early modern gender stereotypes. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia adequately captures the Queen’s account of Ophelia’s death. He represents her death as beautiful and natural, with her ornamental dress spread out in the water and the natural scenery surrounding her. Millais’s portrait further serves to objectify the female body and eternalize the representation of the female identity, which Ophelia had been trying to escape.
Given the desperate motives behind the King and Queen to silence the madness of Ophelia and Hamlet, it is possible to interpret this off-stage death as a murder, rather than a suicide. The Queen serves as the only witness to Ophelia’s death, and her account of it is so detailed and comprehensive that the reader can only be skeptical about the her claim that Ophelia committed suicide. This possibility also offers a motive as to why the Queen would try to convince her audience that Ophelia’s death was completely natural. In this way, the authoritative, royal figures of Hamlet use the cultural stigma of madness to confine, silence, and dismiss Ophelia and her unruly behavior.
Considering Ophelia’s oppressed state within aristocratic, patriarchal society, it is just as possible that she did drown herself in an act of suicide. In Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in act 3 scene 1, “To be, or not to be,” he claims that his fear of the afterlife and the unknown prevents him from taking his own life. In light of this speech, Ophelia’s act becomes brave and heroic because she is able to do something that Hamlet is too cowardly to do. Ophelia intrepidly confronts the unknown to escape her temporal suffering and oppression. Regardless of whether Ophelia was murdered in an attempt to liberate herself and speak out against the corruption of the court, or courageously confronted death by her own hand to escape her worldly oppression, Ophelia secures a significant and independent role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and assumes a level of heroism in the play.
Although this paper has claimed to tell Ophelia’s story through the contexts of madness and spectacle in early modern culture, this is still only an inchoate portrait. As Elaine Showalter has said in Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism, “There is no ‘true’ Ophelia for whom feminist criticism must unambiguously speak, but perhaps only a Cubist Ophelia of multiple perspectives, more than the sum of all her parts” (238). If this is the case, then various gaps in Ophelia’s story remain to be discovered and told. This paper has taken a general approach toward the oppression of aristocratic women in early modern society, looking at court society as a whole and the gender roles established therein. However, further research investigating specific case studies of aristocratic women, especially women in situations similar to Ophelia who are not necessary aristocratic themselves but who live among court society, would be particularly insightful in understanding Ophelia’s character. Just as Karin Coddon uses the historical figure, Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex to flesh out Hamlet’s character in “Suche Strange Desygns”: Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture, a parallel between Ophelia and a historical woman living in court society who experiences similar oppression and madness would greatly advance scholarship toward a more accurate and well-rounded depiction of Ophelia’s identity. I have only been able to skim the surface of the history of ideas involving madness and the evolution of it as a gendered construct and the effects of spectacle on early modern society. The idea of the aristocratic society of spectacle in particular and its role in the oppression of aristocratic women is a branch of scholarship which could be further expanded. I have attempted to flesh out Ophelia’s character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and to argue that her character is not insignificant and marginal, or completely dependent on Hamlet. Instead, I hope that I have showed, that Ophelia does have a story of her own, and that the implications of her madness are just as significant as Hamlet’s.
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