“I think nothing my lord” How do you respond to the presentation Of Ophelia in Hamlet? Many critics respond to Ophelia, by splitting her into two different characters either, an “innocent pawn” or a “wanton whore. Question! Can you define any of Shakespeare’s character? With Ophelia this becomes more difficult as she is only in 5 scenes throughout the play. This gives her an irrepressible air of mystery, which surrounds her and her actions.
This has led to the contrasting and conflicting views on her character, the why she is to be played and her context due to this. The debate on Ophelia has been wide spread throughout the arts; her name has influenced films, spins off and the world of painting. If you look at any of the great paintings of Ophelia, Waterhouse’s Ophelia or O’Neil’s Ophelia or the ominous work of Hebert, they all show her in her madness, categorizing her as such. The same is found in the Reduced Shakespeare company spoof of Hamlet, they play out a scene where all Ophelia does is scream.
They do however touch on what makes Ophelia so interesting, that is her influence, her mind and personality. They cleverly split the audience into Ophelia’s ego, super ego and other factors influencing her state of mind, the audience is given a line to shout out and a member of the audience that has already been selected to represent Ophelia screams at the end of this sequence. This shows use how much others affect Ophelia and tells us there is a lot behind a scream. I can’t make a clear decision about whether Ophelia is innocent or not.
She appears on the surface to be everything an Elizabethan woman should be, noble, pure virginal, all of the qualities that would have been normal for a Lady of that time to have. She would have to be to inspire Hamlet, a learned man of high class and distinction to write a love poem conveying his deepest emotions to his love Ophelia. ‘Doubt thou the stars are fires, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love. ‘ This emotional and heart felt letter he sends to Ophelia, can be taken two ways.
Firstly the way Polonius see it, he is trying to woo her into bed by flattering her. Or the way I see it he is being honest, he is truly in love with an honest and innocent women (at that time). It is important to note Hamlets state of time at the time of writing this love letter; it was at a time in his life when he was emotionally grounded, compared to the eccentric mind behind his powerful speeches. During his clarity of thought he had a light burden to carry leaving him free to write his ode of ‘love’.
Claudius begins to load Hamlet with increasing pressure in the form of series of life changing events. He kills his father, steals his crown and marries his mother, forcing him to grow up with more weight on his young shoulders than is necessary leaving hamlet with a bitter, lonely and strange mind. Far from the man who wrote the above poem, so was it a device to get Ophelia in bed? A similar transformation happens to Ophelia only we see the whole process whereas with Hamlet we only see the after affects.
One view, which I made of Ophelia, is that she is not sexually experienced but she is certainly sexually repressed. The result of this is that she wants Hamlet as a lover but is rejected by him leaving her innocent in action but guilty in thought. Also a question arises, Do her brother and father try to protect her innocence in Act 1 scene 3? And does She heed her brother’s advice or is she just saying this to reassure her brother? What it shows us for certain is that she knows her brother is sexually aware and she knows about sex. ‘I shall th’effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But good my brother, Do not as some ungracious pastor do, Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, And recks not his own rede. ‘ To a modern audience it would be normal for a woman around 18 to know a lot about sex. The Elizabethan audience would expect Ophelia to be obedient to her father but presumably would understand the attraction between her and Hamlet. They may be shocked at the revelations in the songs in the mad scene.
This marks the fundamental reason splitting the contrasting views of Ophelia, a modern director would perhaps be more open to the idea that Ophelia is a sexually charged women. If Shakespeare played her this way he would get a different reaction, she would be at least disreputable, a modern viewer can see both sides. This leaves me in limbo between the two ideas of Ophelia; the text is open to interpretation so every performance will be different. Lawrence Olivier said he could play Hamlet a thousand times and still find something different to do every night; the same is true of Ophelia.