Out of all of the female characters from Shakespeare’s plays, Ophelia from Hamlet is among the most memorable, even though she appears in only a few scenes in it. Maybe this is due to her madness, maybe this is due to her suicide, maybe this is due to her brief relationship with Hamlet. But regardless of the reasons, Ophelia has the power to captivate the audience and to hold their attention. What makes her such a compelling figure?
Ophelia, oil on canvas, size: 49 x 29 in (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ophelia’s Life and Relationships
When we first meet Ophelia, she is innocent, sheltered by her father Polonius and brother Laertes, and trusting; hence she is full of naivete when it comes to life. Therefore, when she meets Hamlet, she is unprepared for the pain he will give her.
This is true even though Laertes warns her not to pursue him: “LAERTES: For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favor, / Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood, / A violet in the youth of primy nature, / Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, / The perfume and suppliance of a minute, / No more.” (1.3.5-10)
Polonius also warns her to avoid Hamlet: “In few, Ophelia, / Do not believe his [Hamlet’s] vows, for they are brokers, / Not of that dye which their investments show, / But mere implorators of unholy suits, / Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds / The better to beguile.” (1.3.125-130)
In both cases, Ophelia is being warned Hamlet might not be trustworthy, and might hurt her. This is later shown in the play when he rejects her: “HAMLET: You should not have believed me, for virtue / cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” (3.1.117-119)
This, along with the death of her father, causes Ophelia to decline into madness in an attempt to escape the pain of both losses. This is portrayed in later scenes by her singing songs alluding to her former relationship with Hamlet, and about death. These scenes show a changed Ophelia; from innocent, naive girl to wounded madwoman.
As madwoman, she is wounded; however, as Martha C. Ronk (1994) states: “her [Ophelia] representation as madwoman does accomplish something other than pathos. For one, at the moment in which she is presented as most divided, she is also most aware of the exploitation of maids, and of the ways in which in which romantic myths of St. Valentine’s day become crude losses.” (para. 3)
Hence, at her most wounded, Ophelia recognizes a profound truth concerning women’s relation to men, in romantic terms, through reflecting on her experience with Hamlet. In the present day or in a less male-dominated culture, this truth might have saved her, and given her another chance at life and happiness. However, given the culture and time, this does not save her, as shown by her drowning later in Hamlet.
Another aspect of Ophelia’s madness is that it is real, whereas Hamlet’s madness is in part pretend madness, done in an attempt to avenge his murdered father upon Claudius, his uncle, and his father’s murderer and usurper. The worst part is that Hamlet’s later rejection of Ophelia, combined with Polonius’ death later in the play, brings such unbearable pain upon her that she flees into madness in an attempt to cope with the grief she experiences from these losses.
In fact, it has been—and is—thought that Ophelia suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Ellen T. Goodson (2010) states: “Ophelia begins the play as a typical adolescent girl growing up in an environment that would predispose her to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” (para. 2), and further states: “Her father’s murder and the events around it do not drive her insane, but shock an easily shaken system.” (Goodson, para. 2)
If Ophelia did suffer from PTSD, this would explain her behavior after she goes mad—her songs, her distracted attitude, and her eventual drowning, usually seen as a suicide. If Ophelia’s death was, as is traditionally seen, a suicide, it would be a marker of how unable she was to cope with Hamlet’s rejection of her and her father’s death. It is as if she saw life as not worth living without these two people, and hence suffered trauma when she lost them.
The drowning of Ophelia is her exit from the play, and as such is not portrayed from her view, but instead from the view of another character—Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, and Hamlet’s mother. Gertrude reports it from the perspective of an eyewitness: “Her clothes spread wide, / And mermaidlike 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 indued / Unto that element. But long it could not be / Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.” (4.7.164-181)
This is the picture of a woman who started as an innocent, sheltered young girl, and who became a brokenhearted, broken madwoman. Now she is in the water, drowned, driven there by her losses and grief.
Nonetheless, Ophelia is still a compelling figure who captivates our imaginations, whether on the page or on the stage. Whether it is her relationship with Hamlet, her madness, or her death, she makes us pay attention to her, and follow her throughout her scenes in Hamlet. Next time you read Hamlet or watch it, pay attention to Ophelia and her role. You will gain a new appreciation of it from doing so.
Goodson, Ellen T. “‘And I of Ladies Most Deject and Wretched’: Diagnosing Shakespeare’s Ophelia with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Student Pulse 2.07 (2010).
Ronk, Martha C. “Representations of “Ophelia”.”Criticism (1994): 21-43.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.