Ophelia’s character in Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ is the most lovable and amiable. Hamlet himself is responsible for all her sufferings, mental conflicts and various states of mind during the course of play.
This paper would discuss and evaluate the character of Ophelia who is a remarkable character in ‘Hamlet’. An over all analysis would be carried out to highlight the traits and significance of this character for the development of action in the play.
Harold Bloom, in “Hamlet: Poem Unlimited” is not shy while stating who he believes is responsible for Ophelia’s insanity and ensuing death. The blame lies directly on Hamlet as Bloom states, “Yet in effect, he is murdering Ophelia, and starting her on the path to suicide” (Bloom 41). Ophelia loves Hamlet with a passion that can be recognized by the swooning and obsessive talking about the prince. Bloom speaks of Ophelia with the highest praise, describing her as “fragile” and “lovely,” while on the other hand “Hamlet is monstrous to torment her into her true madness (Bloom 42). His blithe concern after slaughtering Polonius would be another candidate”, Bloom states, as regards to the events that sent Ophelia into a mindset of insanity (Bloom 41).
Ophelia’s is set up for death from the first act of the play, in Ophelia’s encounters with Polonius and Laertes. Ophelia speaks about Hamlet’s love towards her as she says, “He hath, my lord, o flate made many tenders of his affection to me. I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (I.iii.112). Ophelia openly expresses her confusion about her love life early on, and Polonius’s hatred of Hamlet only fuels her confusion. “Affection, pooh,” (I.iii.109) Even though Ophelia is not the central character in the play ‘Hamlet’, she is still an important one. Since Shakespeare wrote the play in the early 1600s, depending on the theatrical performances and director’s view, audience’s and critics’ interpretations of Ophelia have changed dramatically throughout the past 400 years.
Shakespeare, in the portrayal of Ophelia shows how men in a strong patriarchal society controlled women in the 1600s. The influence of men in Ophelia’s life is evident throughout by the relationships with the men in her life. It is interesting to note that Ophelia’s first scene is in a very domestic setting. Her brother, Laertes is stressing to Ophelia the fickleness of young love showing men’s attitudes towards women in the period by assuming that Ophelia cannot think for herself. (Ronk, 21-43) Ophelia is obviously uncertain or doubtful about Laertes’ argument but she is still in awe of him so she answers monosyllabically: ‘No more but so?’
She has a small ration of dialogue compared to Laertes’s grand lecture suggesting the overpowering control that he has over his sister. Laertes speaks in a very verbose manner and even begins to sound arrogant and hypocritical. Ophelia’s father, Polonius enters saying:
‘Yet here Laertes? Aboard, aboard for shame!’
Elaine Showalter, a feminist critic suggests that Polonius was willing to let his son leave for France without a farewell or wishes of good luck from his father. Therefore, she says there was little hope for a strong father- daughter relationship between Polonius and Ophelia if he had failed with Laertes. (Showalter, 77-94) Polonius disabuses her of her longing for a relationship with Hamlet and tells here that:
‘You do not understand yourself so clearly/ as behoves my daughter and your honour’
Rather than sympathizing with Ophelia, Polonius almost ridicules her by saying she not only does not understand her duty as a woman but she does not understand herself. Eventually Ophelia agrees and disregards her own thoughts:
Ophelia: ‘I don’t know, my lord, what I should think.’
Polonius: ‘think yourself a baby’.
Public Image and Jacobean Drama
Public image was very important during the Jacobean period as it depicted social status. It is evident when Laertes warns Ophelia not to have sex with Hamlet, that his fear is the family may suffer a financial loss as they would be unable to marry her to a man of high social rank. They talk of Ophelia with reference to commerce and property, almost as though she is merely a possession:
‘That you have these tenders for true pay/ which are not sterling’
As mentioned earlier, Polonius has a rather distant relationship with his children; he even goes to the point of using Ophelia’s loyalty to enhance his own prestige in the eyes of Claudius. Polonius lays out his plan to test his suggestion about Hamlet’s madness: ‘I’ll loose my daughter to him’.
Ophelia: A Caged Beast
Polonius’s choice of words here suggests that Ophelia is a caged beast, again with no real will of her own, which may eventually escape. The word ‘loose’ was also closely related to prostitutes, which could imply the disrespect felt towards women in the period. When Freudian interpretations of ‘Hamlet’ became popular in the 20th century, Ophelia was seen as having an…
‘Unresolved oedipal attachment’…to Polonius.
There are no scenes of Hamlet and Ophelia alone, perhaps to avoid a scene of sexual intimacy because in the Jacobean theatre they would have all been male actors. The audience only hears of the relationship through the conversation of others. We see how Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s re-marriage and possible infidelity with Claudius changes his outlook and opinion of women, including Ophelia. On the order of Polonius, Ophelia presents Hamlet with the tokens of affections he previously gave her. She interrupts his ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy, though it is possible that she hears it and that Hamlet himself is aware of her presence. In this case, she is a victim again, already spied on by her own father and Claudius, but now also by Hamlet playing the role of the ‘melancholic’ man.
Perhaps because the world is too corrupt for Ophelia to remain pure so she must withdraw herself and enter the world of a convent. Yet more likely, it is being critical of her by being aware that she is being used by her father against Hamlet and calling her a whore for allowing someone else to use her. The reference to a ‘nunnery’ then would mean a brothel as it was used in colloquial speech during the period. Once alone, Ophelia is free form male influence. Interestingly, Ophelia becomes her most articulate and describes her ideal Prince and herself as:
‘I of ladies most deject and wretched
That sucked the honey of his music vows’
These two lines are the only allusions to her own feelings, yet she can only think when she is free from male empowerment. Later Hamlet again uses crude and coarse language to ridicule Ophelia.
‘I think nothing my lord’
…Ophelia tells Hamlet in the Mousetrap Scene, and he cruelly twists her words:
Hamlet: ‘That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs
Ophelia: ‘What is, my lord?’
Male’s Dominance Impact on Ophelia’s Character
Ophelia is a woman completely controlled by men; the frailest aspect of her seems to be that whether by nature or nurture she cannot exist without men. Although her feelings are not taken seriously, she needs men to guide her perceptions of the world, as she has been convinced that she is incapable of trusting her own. Once her male support begins to diminish, so does her state of mind. It seems as though her thoughts and emotions that were blocked by sanity and by the repressive society are given free expression in her madness. (MacDonald, 309-17) The restrains that were placed on her through society ‘Are moved, a secret life rises up and overwhelms her.’ Ophelia’s lunatic ravings reveal the nature of her young mind, full with suppressed sexual ideas, her obsession with death, beauty and her own desires and are far more explicit than in any other scene:
‘Then up he rose and donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more’
Modern interpretations have been influenced by growing awareness about social and family pressures and female schizophrenia. (Roberts, 26-36) The different interpretations depend on the changing views of women and Ophelia herself is ‘a character of multiple and changing perspectives. The final farewell to Ophelia is symbolic in many ways, her lover and her brother fighting over her love.
‘I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.
Even in death, Ophelia is seen as an object fought over by men, who in the patriarchal society that she lived in valued possessions and their worth over women themselves.
‘For most critics of Shakespeare, Ophelia has been an insignificant minor character in the play, touching in her weakness and madness but chiefly interesting, of course in what she tells us of Hamlet.’ Unlike Hamlet in the play, Ophelia does not struggle with moral choices.
It has often been reproached to Ophelia that she is a deplorably weak character and many seem unable to forgive her that she doesn’t raise to a heroine. First of all, Shakespeare meant to stress out the character of Hamlet and not the love story of hamlet and Ophelia therefore no other character can be Hamlet’s equal in spirit, power or intelligence. That’s why he’s the only person who rises to the tragic level. Now, Ophelia had to be such so as to be unable to help Hamlet. The character of Ophelia could not have been that of a tragic heroine but it contains a lot of pathetic beauty. Ophelia is plainly quite young and inexperienced. She has lost her mother and has only a father and a brother to take care of her. She loves them deeply, though her love for her father is mingled with fear. (Burnett, 48-56) She has given to Hamlet all the love she is as yet capable, because she could be close to childhood and her first affections could still be too strong for a deep love for a man to be developed.
The two men left, who burdened Ophelia’s life, now admit their true feelings, but this is of little use to her now that she is dead. Even though the affections of the characters seem to be touching, in the quarrel that arises between Laertes and Hamlet, Ophelia, even in death, is seen as an object fought over by men. The two of them claim that each one of them would have done more for Ophelia. Their arguments can neither flatter nor bring honour to Ophelia. The two of them boast about their love, both of which remained unknown to Ophelia when she was still alive.
Ophelia obeys her father, and we must remember before we judge that the standards of obedience to father was much more rigorous in the days of Shakespeare than nowadays. But she does more than obey, she reports his visit, shows the letter, and takes part in a plot against him. But let us look at the fact that she understands and knows little and that the father whom she thinks the absolute authority on life is convinced that Hamlet is mad because of the love she has denied him. She is frightened like a child. She goes to the adults and believes that they want to help Hamlet overcome his madness. When she lies in the Nunnery-scene she does so to protect her father from a love-crazed lunatic who has just harassed her. Finally, one must take into consideration the utter loneliness that must have fallen on her at the end of the play: her father is dead, her brother is away, and the man she loves is away and mad. She goes mad but not in a horrible and horrifying way. In her madness Ophelia continues sweet and loveable.
Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia shapes and brings life to the two characters as well as their downfall. They are given a chance to free themselves from the “chains” of men-control, but their doing so, either purposely or not, brings nothing good, but instead their death. Shakespeare chose the female characters to be punished for their disobedience, so as to emphasize the inferior and discriminating status women occupy in the tragedy of Hamlet. The two women surrounding Hamlet are innocent victims of other people’s wrongdoings.
Burnett, Mark Thornton. “Ophelia’s ‘False Steward’ Contextualized.” The Review of English Studies 46.181 (1995): 48-56.
Harold Bloom Hamlet: Poem Unlimited: Riverhead Trade (2004) 41-42.
MacDonald, Michael. “Ophelia’s Maimed Rites. Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1986): 309-17.
Roberts, Leonard, and Mary Virginia Evans. “‘Sweets to the Sweet’: Arthur Hughes’s Versions of Ophelia.” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 1.2 (1988): 26-36.
Ronk, Martha C. “Representations of Ophelia.” Criticism 36.1 (1994): 21-43.
Showalter, Elaine. “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. New York: Methuen, 1985. 77-94.