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Character Analyis 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 Elsinore’s maddening world of deception and betrayal.

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Hamlet: Model Essays for Students

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Introduction

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.

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In #Hamlet, #Ophelia is manipulated by everyone around her for their own selfish purposes.

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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.

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 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.

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

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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.

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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In #Hamlet, everyone to whom Ophelia hands out flowers, including herself, will shortly die.

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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.

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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The passivity that characterized #Ophelia's life becomes the cause of her despairing 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).
  • Ophelia’s accidental fall is followed by a surrender to the water, as “one incapable of her own distress” (4.7).
  • 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.

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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In #Hamlet, Ophelia's "self-slaughter" is her revenge against the Elsinore that silenced her.

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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.