In William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ the character Ophelia performs a very interesting and important role in the elaboration of the plot. Ophelia is a tragic victim, a common component of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies and something that the audience would have come to expect. It is perhaps surprising that a vulnerable and frail character such as Ophelia could have the great impact on the play that she does. Understanding her reactions to the patriarchal society in which she lives through her relationships with the men in her life adds greater depth to the play.
Her character is revealed through her interactions with Polonius, Laertes and Hamlet, and their characters in turn revealed through their relationships with her. Ophelia allows better understanding of Hamlet’s complex personality. Ophelia also highlights key themes of the play, including corruption, patriarchy and deception. Before her function can be analysed, Ophelia’s character must be understood. Shakespeare presents her as a character of weakness, one to respond to with pity and sympathy. She has been read in very different ways- as shown in the greatly varied portrayals of her in different films.
The conventional view is that she is a pure and innocent victim, but another reading of her is that she is a clever, sexually experienced but somewhat confused and naive girl. I believe that Ophelia is the epitome of goodness, childlike and nai?? ve, and that it was Shakespeare’s intention to evoke sympathy for her. I think that she teeters upon the edge of adult knowledge, with those around her fighting to suppress her sexuality. She is not sexless and does demonstrate understanding of Hamlet’s bawdy language.
Hamlet uses broad sexual innuendo, to which her response of ‘you are naught, you are naught’ (III. ii. 148) reveals that she is offended by it, at once showing that she understands, but certainly disapproves of, his language. Her chaste nature is shown by Hamlet telling her ‘to a nunnery go (III. i. 141)’ – so that it can remain so. Throughout the play Shakespeare’s use of natural and floral imagery communicates her purity. On drowning, she is surrounded by a garland of flowers and at her funeral ‘she is allowed her virgin crants’ (V. i. 233) and ‘maiden strewments.
‘ Ophelia died while collecting flowers which are symbolic of innocence, fragility and purity. The ‘hoar leaves’ which symbolise the silver-grey colour of age put emphasis on Ophelia’s youth and innocence. “Long purples” are given a ‘grosser name’ by ‘liberal shepards’ as the roots are phallic in appearance. ‘Cold maids’, innocent virgins, refer to them as ‘dead man’s fingers’ which has a phallic connection. This implies that Ophelia was a ‘cold maid’ herself. Those who read Ophelia as disreputable point to Polonius’ disdain when she speaks ‘like a green girl’ (I. iii.
101) which suggests that she is not entirely so. She understands the meaning of Hamlet’s lewd remarks regarding “country matters. ‘and a possible reading of Ophelia’s comments that “Young men will do’t / if they come to’t, by Cock / they are to blame” and “before you tumbled me / you promised me to wed” (IV. v. 59-62) is that there existed a sexual relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet. In her sexually explicit songs, the lyrics of which include “let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more” (IV. v. 52) the implication is that the girl in the song has lost her virginity.
I do not think that in singing this Opelia refers to herself, but that her madness grants her freedom to express what she was unable to discuss before, her deep love and desire for Hamlet. I think there is a sexual aspect to the frustration which drives her insane. Hamlet’s harsh verbal abuse is almost entirely sexual, and her mad songs contain blatant sexual references. Ophelia suffers because of the avoidance of her own sexuality. It is suppressed only to emerge later in her mad ramblings. Ophelia is a submissive character whose personality can almost be summed up with her lines “I shall obey, my Lord.
” and “I do not know, my lord, what I should think. ” She is controlled by her father and brother and the audience is supposed to sympathise for her, as Polonius denies her independence of choice or action, telling her “You do not understand yourself so clearly / as it behoves my daughter and your honour. ” Ophelia’s madness and its causes are key parts of the plot of the play. The murder of Polonius by Hamlet leads to Ophelia’s demise- she loses all of the men she loved and obeyed and her identity is dependent upon them to such an extent that in their absence she does not know how to live, and becomes insane.
She has never been responsible for making decisions about how to live because her father and brother have always controlled her conduct. As Claudius acknowledges, her madness is “the poison of deep grief / It springs all from her father’s death. ” (IV. v. 75) Hamlet has been responsible for her feelings- if he loves her, she is happy, and if he does not, she is not. It is through these relationships that she knows how to live, and in the absence of this direction she commits suicide. Shakespeare cleverly uses Ophelia to reveal aspects of other characters’ personalities which the audience may have otherwise not been appreciated.
She affects the audience’s response to the characters through language, interaction, comparison and contrast. One of the vital dramatic functions of Ophelia is to give insight into Hamlet’s character and situation. She gives Hamlet’s actions and thoughts greater significance. His personality is highly complex, but through Ophelia the audience are perhaps better equipped to begin understanding it. It is through her that the audience learn the depth of his sorrow, confusion, the extent of his sense of betrayal by Gertrude and his resulting distrust of women, and can better understand his tragic flaw.
Her weakness and insanity provide contrast which illuminates his strength, nobility and sanity. Hamlet’s harsh treatment of Ophelia shows the extent to which his mother’s betrayal has affected his attitude to women as well as the depth of his grief and confusion. Disgusted by Gertrude marrying Claudius so soon after his father’s death, Hamlet becomes distrustful of women, obsessed with the connection he believes exists between female sexuality and corruption. This is shown through Hamlet’s damaged relationship with Ophelia, whom, as a consequence of his mother’s actions, he is incapable of trusting.
He perceives Gertrude’s sexual misconduct as moral pollution that destroyed his facility to love Ophelia, causing him to question ‘are you honest?… are you fair? ” (III. i. 103) He curses her for committing “such an act / That blurs the grace and blush of modesty / Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love / And sets a blister there” (III iv 42- 45) The juxtaposition of the beautiful fragility of a ‘rose,’ (perhaps symbolic of Ophelia) and the ‘blister’ emphasises the extent of Hamlet’s damage. His mother causes his cursing of all women, “O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! ” and made “marriage vows as false as dicer’s oaths’ causing him to tell Ophelia that they will “have no more marriages. ” Ophelia represents the innocence and virtue of women, so Hamlet’s wrongful distrust of her is tragic and emphasises what Gertrude has inflicted upon him. Polonius’ daughter provides contrast with Hamlet, clarifying that he is sane. He fakes madness in order to achieve revenge and for Shakespeare to maintain the audience’s support of Hamlet, he must have them aware that Hamlet’s madness is not true. An insane hero would not be a hero at all and his fate of little interest.
Shakespeare presents ‘pure’ madness in Ophelia with her behaviour in act four, scene five. In her madness, her language lacks the ‘form’ that Hamlet’s never ceases to exhibit. The Gentleman’s description of Ophelia as ‘indeed distract’ and her speech ‘nothing’ precedes the audience seeing the change in her behaviour for themselves. This intensifies the focus on her when she enters singing incomprehensible songs, and puts emphasis upon her mad state. Laertes mourns that “a young maid’s wits / Should be as mortal as an old man’s life” (IV. v. 157-158) and calls her “A document in madness” (IV. v.
174) She is “divided from herself and her fair judgement” (IV v 83-84) and the dramatic function of this is to give the audience a bearing upon Hamlet’s madness, which is merely an ‘antic disposition’; he is “not in madness, but mad in craft. ” Claudius notes that “what he spake, though it lacked form… was not like madness. ” Ophelia ‘turns to favour and to prettiness’, whilst the opposite is true of Hamlet’s ‘mad’ behaviour. Shakespeare’s creation of Ophelia aids the audience’s understanding of Hamlet because their stories parallel one another. Similar pressures bear down on both characters, but their reactions differ.
Both suffer the murder of their fathers and betrayal by loved ones. Ophelia’s reaction is simple, and highlights the complexity of Hamlet’s reaction to his situation. She falls into madness and (arguably) takes her own life. In contrast miserable Hamlet only contemplates suicide. This shows his strength (meeting audience expectations, for he is the hero of the play) by highlighting the difficulty of rising above insanity and suicidal urges, making his success more impressive. He faces a constant struggle not to lose grip on his “capability and godlike reason” (IV. iv. 38), not to let his heart lose its nature.
As the audience is shown Ophelia’s failure at this task, they appreciate Hamlet’s strength in succeeding. He ponders on “to be or not to be,” but does not take his own life. Hamlet’s story shows the danger of madness and the potentially all-consuming nature of grief. Whether it was intended or not, Ophelia’s story adds power to this message. Ophelia’s character evokes the audience’s sympathy for Hamlet. When Ophelia goes insane, symbolic of the breakdown of innocence, it highlights the corrupt and ‘rotten’ nature of Elsinore which enables the audience to understand Hamlet’s rejection of that world.
He is right to be disgusted as he is; his difficulty in accepting the cruel, false environment is evidence of his noble nature. The audience are then more likely to understand why Hamlet seeks to reimpose moral values on Elsinore, and support him. Furthermore, Ophelia encourages sympathy by giving insight into how different Hamlet’s nature was, prior to his father’s death. In her sad reaction to Hamlet’s madness “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! ” we see Hamlet as observed by her before he changed. She tells that he possessed “noble and most sovereign reason,” emphasising the extent of change he seems to have undergone.
Her saying that he was once an incomparable prince, ‘the glass of fashion and the mould of form,’ (III. i. 156) and an ‘unmatched form and feature of blown youth’ (III. i. 162) but has now been ‘blasted with ecstasy,’ only serves to make Hamlet all the more tragic. Ophelia’s description cannot fail to evoke sympathy for him, be he truly mad or not. In addition, it is Ophelia’s dramatic function to elucidate Hamlet’s tragic flaw- his indecisiveness and inability to act. This leads to his downfall, and it is vital that the audience appreciate this. He speaks of “some vicious mole of nature’…
‘Shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault,” to show that one character flaw can corrupt the entire person. Hamlet’s inconsistent behaviour towards Ophelia demonstrates his inability to make up his mind. This leads to his delay in dealing with Claudius and thus his demise. It is highlighted in conversation with Ophelia, when he states ‘I did love you once’ (III. i. 115) then “I loved you not. ” Only when she is buried can he conclude “I loved Ophelia. ” Unless he has no time to reflect (for instance, when he kills Polonius), he appears incapable of deliberate action.
Ophelia lends insight into Hamlet’s flaw by mirroring it. She is an entirely passive character; any action she takes is merely a response to others’ actions. Rather than actively jumping, she simply did not attempt to rescue herself when the branch holding her broke. This inaction is as characteristic of Ophelia as it is of Hamlet. The exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet increases dramatic tension in the play. The realisation of Ophelia’s deceitfulness causes the terrible outburst of abuse as, adding to pre-existing feelings of betrayal by Gertrude, the other woman he loves has also let him down.
Gertrude chose a brother over Hamlet’s dead father and now Ophelia chooses a father over Hamlet. She also pushes the plot along because his violent rejection of her; “I loved you not” – convinces Claudius that he is not really mad for her love and so immediately he determines to send Hamlet to England. I think that even in his cruel treatment of Ophelia, she makes him a more sympathetic character. He refuses to listen to her and his harsh words “I loved you not. ” (III. i. 119) “Get thee to a nunnery. ” And (III. i. 121) “you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance.
Go to, I’ll no more on’t;” (III. i. 146-48), far from being evidence of a spiteful nature, just confirms the depth of his sorrow and disturbance by recent events. As commented upon by critic A. W. Von Schlegel, Hamlet is ‘too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any compassion to spare for others. ‘ The fact he must forsake his love in order to appear insane and get his revenge is tragic. I think that Hamlet is truthful in later declaring “I loved Ophelia” but advises her to go ‘to a nunnery’ to escape the torturous nature and corruptive power of love.
He is being ‘cruel to be kind,’ and his desire to protect her demonstrates his nobility. A nunnery would be a place where she could remain chaste and not be a ‘breeder of sinners. ‘ Ophelia gives the personalities of other characters greater depth, and consequently improves the play. Her nature contrasts and therefore emphasises that of others. Claudius’ coldness is highlighted when she describes Hamlet’s madness using beautiful imagery, saying that it has “sucked the honey of his music vows” and as “like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh.
” Hers is a pitying speech that contrasts greatly with Claudius’ abrupt and heartless reaction, which is emphasised when so easily compared to Ophelia’s. He simply dismisses the notion of love- ‘his affections do not that way tend. ” (III. i. 165) There is a great contrast, too, between the characters of Polonius’ children. This serves to highlight the qualities of each; while Ophelia is connected to water and submissiveness, and told “too much of water hast thou,” Laertes is the opposite, with a bold nature likened to “fire and blaze.
” Ophelia goes mad as the violence of grief is internalised and destroys her, but in contrast her brother’s violence explodes outward- they enact the alternative responses to the power of grief. Ophelia reveals much about Polonius, whom it is important that the audience have an understanding of. She exposes his inconsiderate nature and disrespect for others, perhaps lessening the audience’s readiness to sympathise with him upon his death. Ophelia is ruthlessly manipulated by her father. He extracts the details of Hamlet’s “solicitings” from her and proudly presents the love letter to Claudius.
Hamlet beautifies Ophelia in it, yet Polonius calls it a “vile phrase. ” He tells her he “would not, in plain terms, from this time forth have you so slander any moment leisure as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look tot’s, I charge you. Come your ways. ” (I. iii. 132-35) this highlights his controlling, egotistic nature. Polonius refers to the relationship as being like one of enemies, Hamlet being someone who Ophelia must protect herself from. Polonius makes decisions for his daughter without consideration of her feelings for Hamlet.
His doubting of Hamlet’s intentions is perhaps more telling of his own disposition than of Hamlet’s; I think he judges Hamlet by his own standards. Polonius’ contempt for Hamlet is shown through Ophelia. The general implication is that romantic love is of no importance to Polonius. He is happy to manipulate Ophelia to his advantage. At the closing of the conversation, he hardly notices her distress and when he asks “how now, Ophelia? / You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said. / We heard it all” (III. i. 178) it is clear that to him her consternation is inconsequential; what matters is the political implication of what he has witnessed.