Various characters in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet exhibit aspects of an “outsider”. The obvious choices being Claudius and Hamlet. Claudius appears to be freed from moral restrictions, while Hamlet represents the stereotypical isolated intellectual. However, both of them pale in comparison to the true outsider in the play: Ophelia. Both Claudius and Hamlet are too respected and entangled in the lives of others to be considered the ultimate estranged outsider. Ophelia on the other hand, is constantly pushed to the periphery, despite her significant relationships with many of the main characters.
She is also unable to comply with the restrictive and conflicting expectations placed upon her. While Polonius and Laertes expect her to be a goddess of innocence and purity, Hamlet sees her as a corrupt, sexual object. These unachievable and demeaning roles put pressure on Ophelia. Not given not given any healthy outlet for her emotions, Ophelia eventually regresses into madness, when she is ultimately freed from any external expectations. However, her insanity further isolates her from others.
As she is struggles to meet unrealistic expectations, and is dismissed and isolated throughout the entirety of the play, it is clear that Ophelia is the most qualified “outsider” in Hamlet. While Ophelia is largely dismissed by others, she is also unfairly idolized, which in some ways is just as dehumanizing and damaging. As one of the most symbolic characters in the play, Ophelia represents the virtue and purity that many of the other characters lack. However, preservation of her innocence is used as an excuse to keep her isolated.
Laertes urges Ophelia to reject Hamlet for fear of corruption, as Hamlet is the “canker [that] galls the infants of the spring. ” (Act I, Scene III) Later in the nunnery scene Hamlet warns Ophelia that even if she is “chaste as ice, as pure as snow,[she shall] not escape calumny” (Act III, Scene I). He encourages her to join a convent, ”we are arrant knaves all, get thyself to a nunnery”. From Laertes and Hamlet’s perspectives, the only way for Ophelia to maintain her purity is to completely shut herself from relationships and society.
In this way Ophelia’s virtues inspire a dangerous adoration, where her loved ones drive her away in the name of her own good. While Ophelia’s with her father brother are well intentioned, their relationship with Ophelia is stifling and overprotective. The dismissive behaviour of Polonius and Laertes dehumanizes Ophelia and keeps her separated from the decision making “adults”. In one instance, Polonius instructs her to “think [herself] a baby”. In her interactions with these characters, Ophelia’s opinion is not asked for or valued she is largely cast aside or used as a tool.
In Ophelia’s first appearance she is constantly reminded by Polonius and Laertes of the “danger of desire”, Laertes advises her that he “best safety lies in fear”. (Act I, Scene III). It is made clear early on that Ophelia is being taught to fear relationships, leading to long term isolation. These repressed emotions may relate to her fixation on desire during her madness. Polonius also dismisses Ophelia’s opinions on Hamlet’s behaviour saying, ”Affection? Pooh! you speak like a green girl”. Throughout all of Ophelia’s interactions with her father she maintains formal titles and language, referring to Polonius as “my lord”.
By submitting to the perception of her inferiority Ophelia alienates herself from others. Even before her becoming insane, Ophelia is marginalized and removed from others, a the true outsider within Hamlet. During the nunnery scene, however Ophelia briefly becomes the centre of attention. The emotional trauma of her meeting with Hamlet leads her to deliver her longest speech in the play. She bemoans the changes in Hamlet, and for the first time reveals her own feelings, ”And I, of ladies most deject and wretched… O woe is me”.
Ophelia’s shining moment of independence in the play is short lived, Once the Claudius and Polonius determine Hamlet’s madness was not caused by Ophelia, the focus is once again directed away from whatever suffering Ophelia might be experiencing. Denied the cause of Hamlet’s insanity, Ophelia is pushed back to the periphery. Ophelia’s lack of agency and purpose removes her from a plot that is driven by personal motives and ambition. This type of isolation also contributes to her role as an outsider. Besides Hamlet, Ophelia arguably undergoes the most psychological trauma.
After involuntarily distancing herself from Hamlet, she watches him descend into madness. Furthermore, her father is later killed by Hamlet, spurring Laertes to a plot revenge against him. Throughout all this, she is left alone to shoulder a complicated, heavy burden. Ophelia has no healthy outlet to release this pressure. Restricted by gender and societal expectations, the only way for Ophelia fully expresses her pain is to abandon conformity altogether and spiral into insanity. Her psychosis can be interpreted as a release of built up from an environment of repression and withdraw.
While Ophelia is unbound from societal restrictions in her madness, she is still not truly free. In this state she is pitied but excluded even more from those considered sane. Even Gertrude, the only other female character is unwilling to deal with Ophelia, stating “I will not speak with her”. (Act IV,Scene V) Throughout their interaction Gertrude repeatedly interrupts Ophelia, and largely fails to convey empathy. With her father dead and her brother consumed by revenge, the deranged, alone Ophelia best encompasses the outsider role.
When she is finally able to voice her sorrow and pain she remains restricted by her own mental instability and is only able to do so through song and riddles. Most of Ophelia’s insane speech centers around death and desire. As a woman of purity Ophelia was not expected to discuss or even ponder on these topics. Her fixation on them during madness demonstrates her complete reversal from her former conservative self. While her ranting can be seen as mere random nonsense, a gentleman in the play describes “her speech [as] nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they aim at it, And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts; Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them, Indeed would make one think there might be thought”. (Act IV Scene V) This passage suggests a hidden meaning to her ramblings, but only one as mad as Ophelia might be able to understand it. Unfortunately Ophelia is so far removed from reality that she is considered dangerous and must be watched. While Claudius and Laertes express grief over Ophelia’s lapse in sanity, their sympathy does not extend beyond words.
Even in her pitiful state Ophelia is left alone, solidifying her position as the most excluded outsider in the play. As a result of being left by herself in her vulnerable condition Ophelia dies under ambiguous circumstances. Whether by suicide or accident, the cause of her drowning is unclear. As the only character to not have been murdered by another, Ophelia’s death is simultaneously pure and simple, summarizing her role as a whole. The watery nature of her death also represents a cleansing of sins and impurities.
This final metaphor further detaches her from the corruption and conspiracy surrounding the deaths of everyone else. If one views Ophelia as truly insane, as a “person [who] cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, and cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior” , then her death becomes even more tragic. Her death becomes a reflection of her lack of agency during life. Ophelia’s experiences with stifling societal expectations and repressed emotion are similar to those of Rachel Verinder from Wilkie Collins’s novel, The Moonstone.
Both characters face the death of parent, and confusing inconsistencies in their romantic interests. Left by themselves to solve the unsolvable, it is no surprise that their suppressed pain eventually manifests as mental health issues. During this dark period of their lives both Rachel and Ophelia are separated from their past relationships, and both fail to comply with the expectations they previously upheld. However, while both characters withdraw from society, the degree of their mental instability is profound.
Rachel is eventually able to open up to Franklin Blake, and eventually recovers from her grief and depression. Ophelia on the other hand, as an outsider in the play, keeps everything to herself and regresses into insanity. Another striking difference is the level of independence between Rachel and Ophelia. While Rachel is described as unyielding and self confident, Ophelia is anything but that. The inner strength Rachel possess leads her to eventually speak out about her troubles, something that Ophelia never has the ability to do.
This major ifference in character plays a significant part in each woman’s fate, and role in their respective stories. Despite their differences both characters are forced to overcome similar obstacles, and represent the outsider role of the suppressed female. Throughout Ophelia’s five appearances in Hamlet, she is continuously coddled and rejected by those around her. These controlling relationships shape Ophelia into a dependant and timid outsider, unable to demonstrate any real agency. The contrary and impossible expectations placed upon her add to her internal conflicts.
With no healthy means of expression, Ophelia is driven mad following the death of her overbearing father. However, her freedom from society is superficial and short lived. Instead of being restricted by external factors, Ophelia is instead restricted by her own mental instability. In this she is even further isolated from others. While other characters are included and connected to one another, Ophelia remains on the outside from her first appearance to her death. While her role in the play may be minor, her ultimate fate speaks volumes about the damaging nature of her oppressive environments everywhere.