CHARACTER ANALYSIS OF OPHELIA IN HAMLET: SAMPLE ESSAYS

Ophelia is left with “self-slaughter” (1.2) as her only route of escape when her sanity is overwhelmed by Hamlet the play’s maddening world of deception and betrayal.

In six parts — your free sample essay on the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. From Hamlet: Model Essays for Students by Brendan Munnelly.

Ophelia character analysis: Introduction

“I cannot choose but weep”

Ophelia in Hamlet does not share the leading role occupied by the female title characters in other Shakespearean dramas such as Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra.

But her character illustrates one of the play’s central themes: the collapse of sanity that results from living in a maddening world of deception and betrayal.

Ophelia’s submission to her manipulative father, who in turns serves a corrupt king, in the end crushes her sanity (“a document in madness”, 4.7) and leaves her with only one route of escape: death.

Over time, Ophelia has become an iconic representation of every powerless and voiceless young woman who is divided between her true self and the role she has been forced to play in order to conform to social expectations.

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SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Ophelia is exploited by everyone around her for their own purposes.
  • Her father Polonius uses her to gain favor with King Claudius (“I hold my duty as I hold my soul, / Both to my God and to my gracious king”, 2.2).
  • Claudius uses her to uncover the source of Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ (“If ’t be the affliction of his love or no / That thus he suffers for”, 3.1);.
  • Prince Hamlet uses her to pretend that his feigned madness is caused by unrequited love (“Here's metal more attractive”, 3.2).
  • Her name means ‘helper’, but, in the end, Ophelia could not even save herself.

Key Supporting Quotes

20
quotations from the play to support your statements.

1

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Ophelia: sister and daughter

“A green girl”

The Ophelia we first meet in 1.3 has not yet had her spirit crushed by the world of Elsinore. In her conversation with a Paris-bound Laertes, her responses of “Do you doubt that?” and “No more but so?” suggest agreement with her brother’s warnings about Prince Hamlet.

Yet her words also display a certain amusement at her brother’s sermonizing and a worldly awareness of male hypocrisy. She gently implores him not emulate those “ungracious pastors” who neglect to practice what they preach.

It is with the arrival of Polonius that Ophelia's manner descends into submissiveness. After dismissing Ophelia as “a green girl” and instructing her never again to speak with the prince, she responds with meek compliance: “I shall obey, my lord.”

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Ophelia’s teasing wordplay with Laertes in 1.3 echoes the pun-loving eloquence of Prince #Hamlet.

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SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • The metaphor of flowers which is so associated with Ophelia’s character appears in her very first scene of 1.3 when Laertes warns her that Hamlet⁽s proferred love is but the “perfume … of a minute.”
  • In response, she teasingly extends his floral analogy by comparing her Paris-bound, pleasure-seeking brother with those “ungracious pastors” who pursue “the primrose path of dalliance.”
  • She makes a subtle biblical reference (“Enter through the narrow gate”, Matthew 7:13), and performs a clever play on the words “recks” and “reckless.”
  • Ophelia’s gentle ripostes to her brother mirror the eloquence of the scholarly and pun-loving Prince Hamlet.

Key Supporting Quotes

30
quotations from the play to support your statements.

2

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325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

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Ophelia: seductress and snitch

“Where is thy father?”

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 in the so-called ‘nunnery scene’ of 3.1? Or, by encouraging the prince to recall his past love for her (“words of so sweet breath composed”), does she hope also to rekindle it?

A suspicious (“Where is thy father?”) and then hostile prince responds with an abusive and self-contradictory rant—against women, men and himself.

At the end, Ophelia is abandoned alone on stage, humiliated and holding the “remembrances” she intended to return to Hamlet. Afterward, the “of ladies most deject and wretched” Ophelia will succumb to the madness she mistakenly believed the denial of her love caused in Hamlet.

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SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Polonius offers Ophelia as bait (“I’ll loose my daughter to him”, 2.2) in his scheme to uncover the root of Hamlet’s behavior (“the root of his defect”, 2.2).
  • Polonius’ motives are entirely selfish: he wishes to prove his loyalty to the king and anticipates the prospect of elevating his social status through a royal marriage.
  • When they emerge from their hiding place to debate the meaning of Hamlet’s responses, neither Polonius or Claudius ask for Ophelia’s opinion.
  • Her father and the king claim to “have heard it all” (3.1), but each comes to a different conclusion.
  • Claudius knows what Polonius does not, and must hear Hamlet’s remark about “all but one shall live” (3.1) as a direct threat.

Key Supporting Quotes

29
quotations from the play to support your statements.

3

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Ophelia: trauma and truth-telling

“Pray you, mark”

Through fragments of traditional songs, but more vividly through the symbolic language of flowers, in 4.5 the traumatized Ophelia expresses her clear recognition of the dark truths beneath the surface of the Danish court. Her distribution of flowers conveys very specific accusations voiced in a mood of deep grief that will shortly descend into despair and apparent “self-slaughter” (1.2).

So often dismissed by others, Ophelia now dismisses the king’s suggestion that her grief arises solely from Polonius’ death. Through the ballad of a naive girl who is seduced by the promise of marriage only to be abandoned because she is no longer a virgin, Ophelia conveys the maddening contradictions of her situation and impossibility of anything but failure: “I cannot choose but weep” (4.7).

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SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • To the king, Ophelia presents fennel (representing flattery) and then columbines (adultery). To the queen and herself, she offers rue (sorrow and regret).
  • Ophelia adds that Gertrude must wear her rue differently: as “‘herb of grace’ o’ Sundays”, which carries the extra connotation of repentance-seeking for past sins.
  • Ophelia picks up a daisy, only to put it down again; the innocence and gentleness it represents have no place in what Hamlet called the “unweeded garden” (1.2) at Elsinore.
  • With its recurring motifs of death and burial, Ophelia’s ‘mad scene’ serves as a warning of impending doom: everyone to whom she hands out flowers, including herself, will shortly die.

Key Supporting Quotes

33
quotations from the play to support your statements.

4

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42 sample essays

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Ophelia’s death

“Fell into the weeping brook”

Although her final act takes place offstage, the image of a drowning Ophelia ranks alongside Hamlet’s graveside cherishing of Yorick’s skull as one of the play’s most enduring and iconic images. As poetically recounted to Claudius and Laertes by Queen Gertrude in 4.7, she created a crown of flowers and weeds and climbed a riverside willow, a tree associated with unrequited love.

She then fell into the water when the branch broke, floated for a while as she sung songs, and finally sank under the weight of her clothes (“her garments, heavy with their drink”) to a “muddy death.”

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SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • The brook-side tree Ophelia attempted to climb was a willow, which is associated with sadness and lost love; its downcast, water-overhanging branches suggest tears and depression.
  • In Ophelia’s hand was a coronet of wild flowers: crowflowers, (buttercups, suggesting ingratitude), nettles (sharp and stinging weeds), daisies (representing innocence) and long purples (orchids, representing sexual love).
  • Why did Gertrude not at least try to intervene to prevent Ophelia’s death? Did she view a possibly pregnant Ophelia (“I hope all will be well. We must be patient”, 4.5) a threat to her position as queen?

Key Supporting Quotes

22
quotations from the play to support your statements.

5

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

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90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
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Ophelia character analysis: Conclusion

“A living monument”

Ophelia’s death combines elements of an accident and suicide. Hence her burial in a church graveyard but without the full rites granted to “peace-parted souls” (5.1). Ending her life was only power left to Ophelia, her only escape from the control of others. In a way, her “self-slaughter” and “melt(ing) into a dew” (1.2) is Ophelia’s revenge.

Her death also leads to Hamlet’s, for it is at her grave that the prince challenges Laertes: “I will fight … upon this theme” (5.1). But in so doing, she also helps the prince achieve his goal of removing Claudius without himself becoming tainted by the motive of private vengeance. Horatio’s summary account to Fortinbras makes no mention of Ophelia. But she is present in the story that Shakespeare tells. It is her “living monument” (5.1).

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SOME KEY ESSAY TOPICS

  • Claudius’ comment of “Poor Ophelia, divided from herself and her fair judgement”, 4.5) is echoed by the prince’s later claim to Laertes that “Hamlet from himself be ta’en away” (5.1).
  • 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.”
  • 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

26
quotations from the play to support your statements.

6

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

42 x 1,500-word model essays

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Chapter-by-chapter guide to Hamlet Model Essays

Inside you will find three 1,500-word essays on each of the following 14 characters, relationships and themes.

#1: The Character of Hamlet

Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in.

#2: The Character of Claudius

His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.

#3: The Character of Gertrude

“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.

#4: The Character of Ophelia

As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.

#5: Relationship of Hamlet and the Ghost

By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.

#6: Relationship of Hamlet and Claudius

Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).

#7: Relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude

Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.

#8: Relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia

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.

#9: Relationship of Hamlet and Horatio

“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.

#10: Relationship of Claudius and Gertrude

A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.

#11: Main Themes of Hamlet

A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.

#12: The Theme of Revenge

Two young men journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of old King Fortinbras on old King Hamlet.

#13: Deception and Appearance versus Reality

“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.

#14: The Theme of Madness

“Your noble son is mad”, Polonius tells Denmark’s king and queen. But is Hamlet ever really insane? If not, why is he pretending to be? And is the prince’s behavior the cause of Ophelia’s traumatic breakdown?