Ophelia Character Analysis Essay

Introduction to Ophelia in Hamlet

Of all the pivotal characters in Hamlet, Ophelia is the most static and one-dimensional. She has the potential to become a tragic heroine -- to overcome the adversities inflicted upon her -- but she instead crumbles into insanity, becoming merely tragic. It appears that Ophelia herself is not as important as her representation of the dual nature of women in the play. The extent to which Hamlet feels betrayed by Gertrude is far more apparent because of Ophelia's presence. Hamlet's feelings of rage against his mother can be directed toward Ophelia, who is, in his estimation, hiding her base nature behind a guise of impeccability, just as is Gertrude.

Through Ophelia we witness Hamlet's evolution, or de-evolution into a man convinced that all women are whores; that the women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desire. And if women are harlots, then they must have their procurers. Gertrude has been made a whore by Claudius, and Ophelia has been made a whore by her father. In Act II, Polonius makes arrangements to use the alluring Ophelia to discover why Hamlet is behaving so curiously. Hamlet is not in the room but it seems obvious from the following lines that he has overheard Polonius trying to use his daughter's charms to suit his underhanded purposes. In Hamlet's distraught mind, there is no gray area: Polonius prostitutes his daughter. And Hamlet tells Polonius so to his face, labeling him a "fishmonger" (despite the fact that Polonius cannot decipher the meaning behind Hamlet's words). As Kay Stanton argues in her essay Hamlet's Whores:
Perhaps it may be granted...that what makes a woman a whore in the Hamlets' estimation is her sexual use by not one man but by more than one man.... what seems to enrage [Hamlet] in the 'nunnery' interlude is that Ophelia has put her sense of love and duty for another man above her sense of love and duty for him, just as Gertrude put her sense of love and duty for her new husband above her sense of love and duty for her old. Gertrude chose a brother over a dead Hamlet; Ophelia chooses a father over a living Hamlet: both choices can be read as additionally sexually perverse in being, to Hamlet, 'incestuous' (Stanton, New Essays on Hamlet)


To the rest of us, Ophelia represents something very different. To outside observers, Ophelia is the epitome of goodness. Like Gertrude, young Ophelia is childlike and naive. But unlike Queen Gertrude, Ophelia has good reason to be unaware of the harsh realities of life. She is very young, and has lost her mother, possibly at birth. Her father, Polonius, and brother, Laertes, love Ophelia tremendously, and have taken great pains to shelter her. She is not involved with matters of state; she spends her days engaged in needlepoint and flower gathering. She returns the love shown to her by Polonius and Laertes tenfold, and couples it with complete and unwavering loyalty. "Her whole character is that of simple unselfish affection" (Bradley 130). Even though her love for Hamlet is strong, she obeys her father when he tells her not to see Hamlet again or accept any letters that Hamlet writes. Her heart is pure, and when she does do something dishonest, such as tell Hamlet that her father has gone home when he is really behind the curtain, it is out of genuine fear. Ophelia clings to the memory of Hamlet treating her with respect and tenderness, and she defends him and loves him to the very end despite his brutality. She is incapable of defending herself, but through her timid responses we see clearly her intense suffering:
Hamlet: ...I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my, lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me...I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.
Her frailty and innocence work against her as she cannot cope with the unfolding of one traumatic event after another. Ophelia's darling Hamlet causes all her emotional pain throughout the play, and when his hate is responsible for her father's death, she has endured all that she is capable of enduring and goes insane. But even in her insanity she symbolizes, to everyone but Hamlet, incorruption and virtue. "In her wanderings we hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest sorrow, but never the agonized cry of fear or horror which makes madness dreadful or shocking. And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful". (Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy 132-3). The bawdy songs that she sings in front of Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius are somber reminders that the corrupt world has taken its toll on the pure Ophelia. They show us that only in her insanity does she live up to Hamlet's false perception of her as a lascivious woman.


How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Ophelia. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/opheliacharacter.html >.

References
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966.
Stanton, Kay. Hamlet's Whores. In New Essays on Hamlet. Ed. Mark Burnett. New York: AMS Press, 1994.


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Quote in Context

There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's
for you; and here's some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
a difference. There's a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end, --
                                                           Hamlet (4.5), Ophelia

"In Ophelia 's deranged mind, thoughts of Hamlet and her father incoherently commingle. After singing "For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy," a line from a ballad of Robin Hood, she passes to another in memory of her father, and dwells with satisfaction upon the words, "They say he made a good end." The expression may seem meaningless to the uninitiated; but to the Catholic they are richly significant." Read on...

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On Hamlet's Love for Ophelia... "Hamlet's love, though never lost, was, after Ophelia's apparent rejection of him, mingled with suspicion and resentment, and that his treatment of her was due in part to this cause. And I find it impossible to resist this conclusion. But the question how much of his harshness is meant to be real, and how much assumed, seems to me impossible in some places to answer. For example, his behaviour at the play-scene seems to me to show an intention to hurt and insult; but in the Nunnery-scene (which cannot be discussed briefly) he is evidently acting a part and suffering acutely, while at the same time his invective, however exaggerated, seems to spring from real feelings; and what is pretence, and what sincerity, appears to me an insoluble problem". A. C. Bradley. Read on...

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Ophelia

Character Analysis

Good Girl Gone Bad

Your parents only wish they had a daughter like Ophelia. When her father orders her to quit seeing Hamlet, she agrees —"I shall obey my Lord" (1.3.145). Later, when Polonius uses her as bait to spy on Hamlet for King Claudius, she does exactly what she's told (3.1). As long as she's unmarried, she lives by her father's rules. (Of course, if she were to marry, she'd then have to live by her husband's rules.) Essentially, Ophelia has no control over her body, her relationships, or her choices.

We'd say she could have used the services of ImperialMatch.com, except that her dad is basically president and CEO of a matchmaking service for one: her marriage is totally in his control.

And eventually, Ophelia snaps—just like a lot of people who spend their lives obeying other people without any sense of personal agency.

Abusive Boyfriend

The problem with being completely obedient and passive is that you can't fight back when you really need to. Hamlet seems to know that Ophelia is helping her dad spy on him, and he accuses her (and all women) of being a "breeder of sinners" and orders Ophelia to a "nunnery" (3.1.131; 132), i.e. a brothel. But she can't call him out on his language, because, as a good girl, she can't admit that she knows what it means.

He keeps going, too. He says that if Ophelia were to marry, she'd turn her husband into a "monster," or a cuckold (cuckolds were thought to have horns like monsters) because she would inevitably cheat on him (3.1.151); and then he follows up these sweet nothings with a little "I loved you not" (3.1.129). Ophelia seems pretty crushed by all this:

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, […]
out of time and harsh; 
(3.1.169-171; 172).

But what's her recourse? She can't vent about it on Facebook; she can't even go find herself a nice rebound hookup. In fact, her reputation depends on pretending that she never cared about his at all.

Precious Jewels

Hamlet's not the only one who defines Ophelia by her sexuality. Even her brother has something to say about it. In Act I, Laertes dispenses advice to Ophelia on the pitfalls of pre-marital sex (for women, not men) in a lengthy speech that's geared toward instilling a sense of "fear" into his sister. Just what you want to hear from your brother, right? In fact, he tells Ophelia three times that she should "fear" intimacy with Hamlet.

Is Laertes just looking out for his little sister's best interests? Maybe, but his speech is also full of vivid innuendo, as when he compares intercourse to a "canker" worm invading and injuring a delicate flower before its buds, or "buttons" have had time to open (1.3.43; 44). This graphic allusion to the anatomy of female genitalia turns his sister into an erotic object while still insisting on Ophelia's chastity. Laertes takes a typically Elizabethan stance toward female sexuality —a "deflowered" woman was damaged goods that no man would want to marry.

Which brings us to one important question: did Hamlet and Ophelia actually have sex? We don't know for sure. Shmoop is inclined to think not. What's so tragic about Ophelia (in our humble opinion) is that she hasn't done anything wrong, and she gets destroyed by the patriarchal court culture anyway.

But the possibility's there. Some of the flowers Ophelia gives away during her mad scene (like rue and wormwood) were used for centuries in abortion potions. And there's something pretty suggestive about the fact that she's literally being deflowered—giving flowers away. Would it make a difference if they'd actually had sex?

Ophelia and Madness

Whether they've had sex or not, that's a lot of pressure to put on a young woman. And it's too much for Ophelia. When she goes mad, she sings a bawdy song about a maiden who is tricked into losing her virginity with a false promise of marriage (4.5.63-71)—part of the reason why many literary critics see Ophelia's madness as a result of patriarchal pressure and abuse. 

In the end, it kills her. Gertrude describes it to us (seems right that it's another woman):

When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, 
And, mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, 
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, 
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
(4.7.199-208)

Notice how her death seems to be passive? Rather than straight-up committing suicide, as Gertrude tells us, she accidentally falls in the water and then simply neglects to save herself from sinking. Ophelia's "garments" "pull" her down, as if they had a mind of their own. This seems to be a metaphor for the way Ophelia lives her life: doing what her father and brother—and boyfriend—tell her to do, rather than making decisions for herself.

Gertrude also suggests that Ophelia's drowning was natural when she describes Ophelia as being like a "native" creature in the water. We also notice that Ophelia is described as being "mermaid-like" with her "clothes spread wide." Even in death, Ophelia is sexy. So, women: natural, sexy … and dead. It seems that there isn't much place for women in the royal court. Will Fortinbras' reign change that?

Ophelia's Timeline

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