Hamlet: Model Essays for Students - cover image

The Relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia: Sample Essays

A “purposes mistook” relationship that begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she, to the water, he, to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.

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Introduction

“Still better, and worse”—Ophelia’s words to Hamlet in 3.2 carry a poignant echo of traditional marriage vows. However, the play in which they find themselves is not a romantic comedy but a tragedy in which the two characters are exploited by their manipulative parents.

Hamlet's uncle-father and ghost-father trap the prince in contradictory male roles of compliant subject to a tyrant (“Am I a coward?”, 2.2) and murderous, hell-bound avenger (“Now could I drink hot blood”, 3.2). Ophelia’s only parent successively casts her into the opposing female stereotypes of coy maiden (“Think yourself a baby”, 1.3) and then seductive temptress (“Ophelia, walk you here …”, 3.1).

Neither character is free to follow the advice given to Laertes: “To thine own self be true” (1.3).

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#Hamlet and Ophelia: a relationship of "purposes mistook / Fall'n on th' inventors' heads."

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Both Hamlet and Ophelia are selfishly manipulated by their fathers.
  • Old King Hamlet demands his son risk his life and endanger his soul by seeking revenge.
  • Polonius uses Ophelia to gain favor with Claudius (“I hold my duty … to my gracious king”, 2.2).
  • Although Hamlet complains “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” (1.5) and Ophelia laments that “There’s tricks i’ th’ world”, (4.5), both characters also practice deceit against one another.
  • Both express helplessness about their fate: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (Ophelia, 4.5); “If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all” (Hamlet, 5.2).
  • Their relationship ends with their double surrender to death: she to the water, he to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.

Key Supporting Quotes

18
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Hamlet’s wooing:
“I do not know what to think”

Ophelia reports in 1.3 to her cynical-about-love father (“Affection! Pooh”) that Hamlet “hath importuned me with love / In honorable fashion.” Yet the prince also wanted to return to the life he loved at Wittenberg University, and stays at Elsinore only on the royal command of King Claudius: “remain / Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye” (1.2).

Moreover, how plausible is it that the “inky cloak” (1.2) wearing Hamlet could at the same time be in the grip of a deep depression (“all the uses of this world … weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”, 1.2) and under the spell of romantic love (“almost all the holy vows of heaven”, 1.3)?

We the audience may well wonder with Ophelia: “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1.3).

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Prince #Hamlet professes love for Ophelia, yet also wishes to leave Elsinore.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Ophelia is the daughter of a man the prince openly despises, the king’s chief advisor and spymaster, Polonius.
  • Nowhere in his first two soliloquies and never in his conversations with Horatio does Hamlet make any mention of Ophelia.
  • Hamlet’s uncertainty about the Ghost’s truthfulness mirrors Ophelia’s uncertainty about the sincerity of Hamlet’s “many tenders / Of his affection to me” (1.3).
  • Hamlet’s friend Horatio warns him against following and listening to the Ghost, lest “it tempt you toward the flood, my lord … And draw you into madness” (1.4).
  • Ophelia’s brother Laertes cautions her against accepting Hamlet’s affections: “Fear it … my dear sister … Best safety lies in fear” (1.3).

Key Supporting Quotes

29
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Ophelia’s guilt:
“Mad for thy love?”

After Hamlet’s “doublet all unbraced” (2.1) visit to her closet, Ophelia worries her father’s interpretation of the prince’s behavior (“Mad for thy love?”) may be correct (“My lord, I do not know. / But truly, I do fear it.”) and that her rejection of him has driven insane the prince on whom depends “The safety and health of this whole state” (1.3).

Hamlet intends his closet visit to “let belief take hold” (1.1) that her denial of his love is the cause of “the madness wherein now he raves” (2.2). His other purpose is to ensure her safety; by pushing the “so affrighted” (2.1) Ophelia away from him, he seeks to ensure she is not punished as a co-conspirator in the event of a failed overthrow of the usurping “dread lord” (1.2) King Claudius.

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Prince #Hamlet's attitude towards 'fair Ophelia' is both exploitative and protective.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • With her brother Laertes away in France, Ophelia has only one person with whom she can share her distress at Hamlet’s bizarre, “doublet all unbraced” (2.1) closet visit: her father, Polonius.
  • Ophelia assures her father “that as you did command, I did repel his letters and denied / His access to me” (2.1).
  • Ophelia shares Hamlet’s letters with her father, “in her duty and obedience” (2.2), who in turn reveals one example to the king and queen.
  • “Came this from Hamlet to her?” (2.2). Gertrude responds suspiciously to the letter, for its contents fall far short of her son’s usual sparkling eloquence.
  • Like Hamlet’s later correspondence with the English king, is this letter a forgery? By an ambitious Polonius hoping to marry his daughter off to Denmark’s crown prince?

Key Supporting Quotes

21
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The nunnery scene:
“No more marriages”

Having exposed his two old schoolfriends as spies serving the king and queen (“Were you not sent for? … Come, come, deal justly with me”, 2.2), Hamlet naturally reacts with suspicion on suddenly encountering the woman who for two months has shunned his company.

Is it only obedience to her father that motivates Ophelia to collude in the “’twere by accident” (3.1) scheme to “sift” (2.2) Hamlet? Or, by encouraging the prince to recall his past love for her (“words of so sweet breath composed”, 3.1), does she also hope to rekindle it?

The prince responds with an abusive and self-contradictory rant—against women, men and himself (“I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious”, 3.1). And in his “it hath made me mad” rage he blurts out his murderous intention regarding the eavesdropping king: “Those that are married already, all but one, shall live.”

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Ophelia tries and fails to trap Prince #Hamlet into revealing his past love for her.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • In front of the king and queen, Polonius devalues Ophelia as unworthy of a prince’s love: “Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star. / This must not be” (2.2).
  • Polonius’ instructions to his daughter (“Ophelia, walk you here”, 3.1) foreshadow Hamlet’s stage directions to the Players.
  • Polonius’ cynical misuse of a prayer book as a stage prop (“we do sugar o’er / The devil himself”, 3.1) so shocks the king he confesses his guilt in an aside.
  • Ophelia’s interpretation of Hamlet’s outburst is unsought: “You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said” (3.1).
  • Ophelia is abandoned alone on stage, humiliated and holding the “remembrances” she intended to return to Hamlet: “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched” (3.1).

Key Supporting Quotes

22
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Two truth-tellers: “Dangerous conjectures”

Hamlet, through theater, and Ophelia, through the symbolic language of flowers, each exposes Elsinore’s dark secret: that the king and queen owe their position to a secret murder followed by politically convenient marriage.

“What means this, my lord?” (3.2), Ophelia asks about The Murder of Gonzago. “It means mischief” is the reply of the prince whose play reenacts his father’s murder and mother’s hasty remarriage. Similarly, Ophelia’s later distribution of fennel and columbines to Claudius and Gertrude conveys very specific messages that highlight the guilt of their recipients.

Polonius demands Gertrude discipline her son for his “pranks” (3.4). Horatio cautions Gertrude that Ophelia’s traumatized outbursts “may strew/ Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5).

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#Hamlet through theater and Ophelia through flowers each expose the dark secrets of the Danish court.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Minutes after the Player’s performance and still inflamed by the “knavish piece of work … writ in choice Italian” (3.3), Hamlet rashly stabs a hiding Polonius (“Dead for a ducat”, 3.4).
  • No longer in the shadow of her now-dead controlling father, Ophelia in 4.5 transforms into a dangerous truth-teller: “Pray you, mark me.”
  • In her ‘mad scene’, Ophelia’s first ballad portrays the absent Hamlet as a pilgrim departed on a journey of repentance: “cockle hat and staff / And his sandal shoon” (4.5).
  • Ophelia’s bleak recognition of “I cannot choose but weep” (4.5) anticipates Claudius’ later words about Hamlet before the rigged fencing match: “He cannot choose but fall” (4.7).

Key Supporting Quotes

22
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion:
“All trivial fond records”

Ophelia’s surrender to death in a “weeping brook” (4.7) recalls Hamlet’s earlier despairing wish that his “flesh would … resolve itself into a dew” (1.2). Moreover, her death leads to Hamlet’s, for it is at her grave that the prince challenges Laertes: “I will fight with him upon this theme … I loved Ophelia” (5.1).

Elsinore is a world where the old literally destroy the young. The self-serving motives of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s parents lead inevitably to their children’s deaths. The play cannot end with the marriage of Hamlet and Ophelia because of the “mirth in funeral” (1.2) wedding of the prince's “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2) that is celebrated at its beginning.

In an “unweeded garden” (1.2) poisoned by deceit and betrayal, the story of the unweded couple of Hamlet and Ophelia ends in Elsinore’s graveyard.

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Like Ophelia, did Prince #Hamlet go to his death "se offendendo" - in his own defense?

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • In 4.7, Gertrude uses the same term to describe the drowned Ophelia as she applied earlier in 2.2 to her depressed son: “poor wretch.”
  • Like Ophelia, did Prince Hamlet go to his death “se offendendo” (5.1)—in his own defense?
  • Hamlet’s “set naked on your kingdom” (4.7) return to Elsinore is surely suicidal, for the prince must expect Claudius has some fatal “exploit” (4.7) prepared for him.
  • If only with “maimed rites”, Ophelia is buried in a Christian graveyard on the “great command” of the king and against the wishes of the “churlish priest” (5.1).
  • In contrast, her “bonny sweet Robin” (4.5) is promised a ceremonial burial with full military honors by Fortinbras: “Let four captains / Bear Hamlet like a solider to the stage” (5.2).

Key Supporting Quotes

34
quotations from the play to support your statements.