Ophelia’s character illustrates the collapse of sanity that is the result of living in a maddening world of deception and betrayal.
Three 1,500-word model essays on the character of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Ophelia’s breakdown results from her exploitation by everyone around her for their own purposes.
Sister and daughter: “A green girl”
Her brother warns her against her relationship with Hamlet; her father ends it.
Seductress and snitch: “Where is thy father?”
At her father’s bidding, she attempts to trap Hamlet into revealing his past love for her.
Trauma and truth-telling: “Pray you, mark”
No longer silenced, she uses the language of flowers to speak the truth about the Danish court.
Death: “Fell into the weeping brook”
The passivity that so characterized her life becomes the cause of her despairing death.
Conclusion: “A living monument”
Her burial is overshadowed by two male characters who fight over who loved her more.
Ophelia in Hamlet does not share the leading role occupied by the female title characters in other Shakespearean dramas such as Romeo and Juliet. But her character illustrates one of the play’s central themes: the collapse of sanity that is the result of living in a maddening world of deception and betrayal.
Moreover, 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.
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.
In #Hamlet, #Ophelia is manipulated by everyone around her for their own selfish purposes.
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 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.”
Ophelia’s teasing wordplay with Laertes in 1.3 echoes the pun-loving eloquence of Prince #Hamlet.
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.
Ophelia tries and fails to trap Prince #Hamlet into revealing his past love for her.
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).
In #Hamlet, everyone to whom Ophelia hands out flowers, including herself, will shortly die.
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.”
The passivity that characterized #Ophelia's life becomes the cause of her despairing death.
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).
In #Hamlet, Ophelia's "self-slaughter" is her revenge against the Elsinore that silenced her.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as both the tragic hero and victim of a story he did not want to be in.
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.
“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.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
The relationship between uncle and nephew begins with mutual suspicion and dislike, escalates into a psychological battle of wits and ends with defeat for both and victory for the rival kingdom of Norway.
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.
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.
A genuine friendship in an Elsinore poisoned by betrayal. But does Hamlet exploit his friend’s loyalty with his improbable tale of divinely-inspired rescue by pirates?
A marriage of practical interest: Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the role of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
Deception, revenge, madness, corruption, decay and death—all shaped by destiny. A prince is left with an impossible choice when his uncle chooses murder and his mother chooses self-delusion.
Two young men journey from revenge, through madness and anger, to forgiveness. An opportunist claims an empty throne. And a restless Ghost is granted atonement for his sins by his kingdom-surrendering son.
‘Seems’ and ‘is’ are as far apart as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are similar in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to play a false role, and to perform in theater.