William Shakespeare’s Ophelia is one of the most enigmatic and tragic characters in all of his plays. Though her role is relatively small, Ophelia’s impact on the story is significant. Let’s take a closer look at this complex character.
Ophelia first appears in Act I, scene iii, when she is reading a book with her father, Polonius. We quickly learn that Ophelia is incredibly obedient to her father – she even agrees to stop seeing Hamlet, despite being deeply in love with him. It’s clear that Ophelia relies heavily on Polonius for guidance and approval.
Throughout the play, Ophelia becomes increasingly more distraught and confused. Hamlet starts to act oddly towards her, first reject her advances and then behaving rudely and angrily. Ophelia is caught in the middle of the conflict between Hamlet and her father, and she doesn’t know what to do.
Eventually, Ophelia goes insane and drowns herself. Though it’s not entirely clear why Ophelia kills herself, it’s likely that the stress of the situation – combined with Hamlet’s rejection – was too much for her to handle. Ophelia’s death is a tragedy, and her character will be remembered long after the play is over.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, several characters display characteristics of an “outsider.” Claudius and Hamlet are the most apparent options. Claudius appears to be free of moral constraints, whereas Hamlet is a typical alienated intellect. However, Ophelia, the real outsider in the play, compares unfavorably to both of them.
Ophelia is not only an outsider in relation to her family, but also in relation to the society she lives in. Ophelia’s father, Polonius, is a typical Renaissance man. He is interested in nothing but power and status. Ophelia is his possessions and he tries to control her every move. He blatantly tells her “neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry” (1.3.67-9).
This means that Ophelia should not form any attachments with anyone outside of her immediate family because it will only lead to heartache. In other words, Ophelia should not try to become close with Hamlet. Polonius is worried that Ophelia will give her virginity away to Hamlet and he will lose his usefulness to Claudius.
Ophelia is also an outsider in relation to the society she lives in. The Renaissance was a time when women were starting to become more independent. They were no longer seen as property of their father or husband and they were starting to be viewed as human beings with thoughts and feelings of their own. Ophelia, however, does not seem to fit into this new world view. She is completely submissive to the men in her life and she does not have a voice of her own.
This is best seen in the famous “nunnery scene”. Hamlet comes to Ophelia’s room and starts to question her about her love for him. Ophelia is so confused and scared by Hamlet’s behavior that she can only give single word answers. She does not try to stand up for herself or defend her love for Hamlet. Even when Hamlet starts to verbally abuse her, she does not fight back.
Ophelia goes insane and commits suicide. This is seen as the ultimate act of betrayal by her father and brother. They are so focused on their own lives and their own problems that they do not even bother to try to understand what drove Ophelia to kill herself. Ophelia is ultimately an outsider in her own family and in the society she lives in. She does not fit into the world she is living in and she is not able to find her place in it. Ophelia’s story is a tragedy, but it is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of being an outsider.
Claudius and Hamlet are too well regarded and involved in the lives of others to be viewed as ultimate alienated outsiders. Ophelia, on the other hand, is constantly pushed to the edge, despite her significant ties with many of the primary characters. She is also unable to live up to the stringent and conflicting demands placed on her.
Ophelia’s lack of agency and her need for the approval of others leave her vulnerable to manipulation and she is constantly torn between duty and love. Ophelia’s tragedy is that she cannot live up to the idealized version of womanhood that society expects of her, and as a result, she descends into madness and dies.
Ophelia is first introduced in Act I, Scene III, when Laertes gives her a fatherly warning about Hamlet’s fickle nature: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; / For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry” (1.3.5-7). Ophelia is immediately established as a submissive young woman who relies on the guidance of her father and brother.
Her obedient nature is further emphasized when, in the very next scene, Polonius instructs Ophelia to spurn Hamlet’s advances: “Conceal me what I am, and be my aid / For such disguise as haply shall become / The form of my intent” (1.3.19-21). Ophelia is once again placed in the role of an obedient daughter, this time tasked with deceiving Hamlet at her father’s behest.
While Ophelia initially follows her father’s instructions, she eventually gives into Hamlet’s advances. Ophelia’s love for Hamlet is genuine and she is torn between her duty to her father and her love for Hamlet. This conflict is evident in her soliloquy in Act III, Scene I, where she agonizes over whether or not to return Hamlet’s love letters and gifts: “To take him at his word / Were to belie my faith, betray my troth / And break the bonds of marriage! / Yet she must do’t” (3.1.88-91).
Ophelia ultimately decides to return Hamlet’s gifts, but this act of defiance does not last long. In the very next scene, Polonius instructs Ophelia once again to spurn Hamlet’s advances, this time using more forceful language: “Neither give credence to his words / Nor answer aught to what he says, / But say his vows and messages are madness” (3.2.15-17). Ophelia is caught in a difficult position and her conflicting emotions eventually take a toll on her mental state.
Ophelia descends into madness after her father is killed by Hamlet. Ophelia’s Madness is triggered by the death of her father and her own powerlessness. In her mad state, Ophelia becomes an embodiment of the idealized version of womanhood that society expects.
She is no longer constrained by the expectations placed upon her and she is free to express her emotions. Ophelia’s mad scene in Act IV, Scene V is a tour de force of emotion and Ophelia’s delivery of the lines “They say that I am distracted, / But surely I know what I mean. / I mean my head is full of snakes! / And so it is, they hiss and sting!” (4.5.174-177) is both chilling and heartbreaking.
Although Ophelia’s madness may appear to be a liberating experience, it ultimately leads to her downfall. Ophelia’s reliance on men and her lack of agency lead to her undoing. She is unable to survive without the guidance of her father and brother and she ultimately drowns in a river.
Ophelia’s death is a tragedy, not only because she was young and innocent, but because her death could have been prevented if she had been able to live up to the expectations placed upon her. Ophelia’s story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of placing too much emphasis on appearances and not enough on reality.
The hostile attitude of Polonius and Laertes reduces Ophelia to a thing and keeps her away from the grown-ups’ decision making. Polonius tells her to “consider [herself] a baby” in one instance. Ophelia’s thoughts are not sought for or valued; she is frequently discarded or used as a tool by the men in her life. Ophelia is not an active character, but a vehicle and reflection of the actions of others.
Her relationship to her father and brother is one that expects complete compliance and Ophelia largely toe’s the line. Her obedience stems from a place of love and respect for them but it also speaks to the power dynamics at play. Ophelia is told by her father that he will “not be Hamlet’s friend” if she continues to see him, which further underscores the lack of agency she has in her own life.
The fact that Ophelia is a woman operating in a man’s world further complicates matters. Although she is technically an adult, she is not given the same level of responsibility or authority as her male counterparts. This is evident in the way that she is treated by the other characters in the play. Ophelia is often infantilized or dismissed outright, her feelings and opinions are not considered to be valid. In one instance, Polonius instructs her to “think herself a baby”. This speaks to the overall lack of respect that Ophelia is given by the people around her.