The Character of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet
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The only character who is presented almost entirely as a victim is Ophelia, a victim of the King’s fear and curiosity, her father’s servility and fundamental indifference to her, Hamlet’s misunderstanding of the situation and brutal treatment of her, and finally his fatal thrust through the arras in the closet scene. Her madness is, as I see it, a purely pathetic element in the play. In the world where Hamlet has been forced to act, there appears to be no room for passive and obedient innocence. It is crushed, and perishes. (123)
It is the intent of this essay to examine the “passive and obedient innocence” of this victimized character, as well as many other facets of the interesting personality of Hamlet’s girlfriend – with input from numerous literary critics.
The protagonist of the tragedy, Prince Hamlet, initially appears in the play dressed in solemn black, mourning the death of his father supposedly by snakebite while he was away at Wittenberg as a student. Hamlet laments the hasty remarriage of his mother to his father’s brother, an incestuous act; thus in his first soliloquy he cries out, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Ophelia enters the play with her brother Laertes, who, in parting for school, bids her farewell and gives her advice regarding her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia agrees to abide by the advice: “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart.” After Laertes’ departure, Polonius inquires of Ophelia concerning the “private time” which Hamlet spends with her. He dismisses Hamlet’s overtures as “Affection, puh!” Polonius considers Ophelia a “green girl,” incapable of recognizing true love: “These blazes . . . you must not take for fire.” He gets her assurance that she will not talk with Hamlet anymore.
When the ghost talks privately to Hamlet, he learns not only about the murder of his father, but also about the unfaithfulness and adultery of his mother. Gertrude was seduced by “that incestuous, that adulterate beast,/With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts” – Claudius himself – prior to his brother’s passing. “So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,/Will sate itself in a celestial bed,/And prey on garbage.” In the mind of Hamlet, this drastically reduces the goodness of womankind generally. Hamlet chooses to use an “antic disposition” to disguise his actions as he maneuvers to kill the one who poisoned his father in the garden.
Wilkie and Hurt say that Shakespeare “is particularly fond of double-plotting.” (2156)
Ophelia is shortly affected by the protagonist’s mad conduct. And immediately she goes to her father, Polonius, to explain how she is “so affrighted” as a result of Hamlet’s visit:
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me. (2.1)
Ophelia explains to her father that she “did repel his letters, and denied/His access to me” as requested by Polonius previously. So the father believes that such cool treatment by his daughter “hath made him mad.” Ward and Trent in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature present the development of Ophelia’s character as rounded and complex, and occurring through dialogue usually:
Of Ophelia, and Polonius, and the queen and all the rest, not to mention Hamlet himself (in whose soul it would be absurd to attempt to discover new points here), after this we need not say anything. But it is observable that they are not, as in the case of Coriolanus, interesting merely or mainly for their connection with the hero, but in themselves. And it must be added that, not merely in the soliloquies and set speeches, but in the dialogue, even in its least important patchwork, Shakespeare’s mastery of blank verse has reached complete perfection. (vol.5, pt.1, ch.8, sec.16, no.55)
Indeed Ophelia is quite interesting as a character in her own right, not just because she is the girlfriend of the protagonist. In other words, she is a complex, fully-rounded character, not a type or flat character. Ophelia, the picture of purity and innocence, has a contrasting character in the person of Gertrude. Ophelia obeys her very morally and socially conservative father, Polonius, in every detail, even to the extent of giving him her love-letters from Hamlet. Gertrude, on the other hand, brazenly violates her marriage vow, then breaks social conventions in marrying within a month of her first husband’s funeral, and in incestuously marrying her husband’s brother. Though Gertrude and Ophelia contrast morally, they are close socially; the queen confides in Ophelia: “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish/That your good beauties be the happy cause/Of Hamlet’s wildness.” Throughout the drama, Ophelia is acquiring a complexity in temperament and motivation which is rounding out a somewhat two-dimensional character (Abrams 33).
When Polonius confides in the king and queen regarding the seeming love-sickness of Hamlet, the queen disagrees: “I doubt it is no other but the main,/His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” Then Polonius presents a very romantic love-letter from Hamlet to Ophelia, which ends with the closing:
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.' (2.2)
The love-letter creates uncertainty in Gertrude’s mind; so Polonius suggests that Ophelia be placed in the presence of Hamlet while her father and the king observe the hero’s conduct:
At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
Be you and I behind an arras then;
Mark the encounter: if he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters. (2.2)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets carefully elaborates on an important part of this contrived encounter between the protagonist and Ophelia:
"Ham. Ha, ha! are you honest?
Oph. My lord?
Ham. Are you fair?"
Here it is evident that the penetrating Hamlet perceives, from the strange and forced manner of Ophelia, that the sweet girl was not acting a part of her own, but was a decoy; and his after speeches are not so much directed to her as to the
listeners and spies. Such a discovery in a mood so anxious and irritable accounts for a certain harshness in him; - and yet a wild up-working of love, sporting with opposites in a wilful self-tormenting strain of irony, is perceptible throughout. (362)
Hamlet’s famous advice to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunn’ry, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” is indicative of the harshness Coleridge refers to. And later, "I say, we will have no more marriages: those that are married already, /all but one, shall live: the rest shall keep as they are." In reply to Hamlet’s harshness is Ophelia’s soliloquy, which Coleridge calls “the perfection of love” and “so exquisitely unselfish” (362).
O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down! (3.1)
Later, as The Mousetrap is about to begin, Hamlet prefers the company of Ophelia to that of his mother, Gertrude. His commentary during the dumbshow, prologue and play cause Ophelia to gratefully acknowledge, “You are as good as a chorus, my lord.” The Mousetrap presents such a close reenactment of Claudius’ murder of the old king that the former stops the show and retires to his quarters “with choler.” Gertrude sends for Hamlet, who hears someone behind the curtain in her closet and runs him through before he realizes it is Polonius and not the king. Hamlet’s emotional state is such that he falsely accuses Gertrude of killing his father: “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,/As kill a king and marry with his brother.” With the help of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius is sending Hamlet to England where he will secretly be put to death.
Meanwhile, Ophelia has been mentally deranged by the killing of her father. Michael Pennington says that she is not so much mad as “unacceptably sane” (75). Angela Pitt states that Ophelia “has insufficient strength to sustain her after Hamlet’s inexplicably harsh treatment and her father’s murder” (45). She is so distracted that a friend appeals to the queen to console and help poor Ophelia: “She is importunate, indeed distract:/Her mood will needs be pitied.” When Gertrude finally agrees to see Ophelia, the latter is so far removed from reality that she sings one song after another, one of which is quite “erotically charged” (Lehmann and Starks 2). and thus directly contrary to her usual self. Michael Pennington in “Ophelia: Madness Her Only Safe Haven,” examines contributing factors in the madness of Ophelia:
This is the woman she might have become – warm, tolerant and imaginative. Instead she becomes jagged, benighted and imaginative. . . .Ophelia is made mad not only by circumstance but by something in herself. A personality forced into such deep hiding that it has seemed almost vacant, has all the time been so painfully open to impressions that they now usurp her reflexes and take possession of her. She has loved, or been prepared to love, the wrong man; her father has brought disaster on himself, and she has no mother: she is terribly lonely. (73-74)
When she leaves the queen’s presence, Claudius gives the order to Horatio: “Follow her close, give her good watch, I pray you.” G. Blakemore Evans presents the aesthetic place of Ophelia’s madness: “We have Ophelia’s madness as a foil to Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition. . . .’” (1137). Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, “in a riotous head,” enters the palace to demand answers regarding the death of Polonius, his father. Shortly thereafter, Ophelia reenters the royal room – singing madly. These songs, not all with ladylike-lyrics, should not be trivialized; M. H. Abrams says that some of the “finest songs ever written are contained in Shakespeare’s plays” (466). Laertes emotionally vows to avenge his sister’s madness:
By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight,
Till our scale turn the beam. O rose of May!
Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!
O heavens! is't possible, a young maid's wits
Should be as moral as an old man's life? (4.7)
Regarding this scene, Coleridge says:
O, note the conjunction here of these two thoughts that had never subsisted in disjunction, the love for Hamlet, and her filial love, with the guileless floating on the surface of her pure imagination of the cautions so lately expressed, and the fears not too delicately avowed, by her father and brother concerning the dangers to which her honour lay exposed. Thought, affliction, passion, murder itself - she turns to favour and prettiness. This play of association is instanced in the close:-
"My brother shall know of it, and I thank you for your good counsel." (353)
Gunnar Boklund interprets that “the only character who is presented almost entirely as a victim is Ophelia. . . .” (123). One of the most obvious observations of the audience regarding Ophelia is that she is victimized. Bryan N. S. Gooch in "Review of The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengeance, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare," presents the point of view of Boklund regarding Ophelia:
Harry Keyishian rightly recognizes that distinction between various manifestations of revenge is crucial in coming to terms not only with many of Shakespeare’s characters -- and some were notable and clearly nasty avengers of perceived yet unsubstantiated wrong -- but also with his social and moral
milieu. . . . Moreover, the author clearly presents in Chapter I, "Victimization
and Revenge: Renaissance Voices," a useful survey of the problem, drawing from books on the passions and moving on to consider not only the power of the revenger but the powerlessness of victims, e.g., the Duchess of Gloucester, Ophelia [. . .]. (1)
Seeing his father dead and his sister gone mad – both because of Hamlet – Laertes gullibly and anxiously commits to the king’s plan of vengeance against Hamlet, who is now returning to Elsinore. The plan involves a poisoned rapier and a poisoned drink. Meanwhile Gertrude sadly explains to Laertes the sudden drowning death of his sister:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
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,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (4.7)
Edward J. Gordon notes regarding her death, “He [Hamlet] says he loves Ophelia, yet is the cause of her madness and death” (127). Hamlet returns during Ophelia’s funeral. He and Laertes, both very emotional over her demise, begin to scuffle. Shortly thereafter, Claudius, with Laertes’ help, implements the plan to kill the protagonist by challenging him to a “foil” or rapier contest in which Laertes has a poison-dipped weapon. Also a poisoned drink awaits Hamlet. During the match both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded with the venomous blade. Gertrude drinks from the poisoned cup. As she dies, she finds the cause: “The drink, the drink! I am poisoned,” which words motivate Laertes to confess that the king is behind the treachery. So Hamlet’s hand promptly dispatches the king. Then Hamlet and Laertes die. Ophelia’s madness and death are avenged, as is the murder of Hamlet’s father.
Helena Faucit (Lady Martin) in On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters comments on the lack of consensus in the interpretation of the character of Ophelia:
My views of Shakespeare's women have been wont to take their shape in the living portraiture of the stage, and not in words. I have, in imagination, lived their lives from the very beginning to the end; and Ophelia, as I have pictured her
to myself, is so unlike what I hear and read about her, and have seen represented on the stage, that I can scarcely hope to make any one think of her as I do. (3-4)
Regardless of how the audience may “picture” Ophelia, Norrie Epstein in “One of Destiny’s Casualties” presents her testimony in favor of Ophelia outranking the protagonist in her ability to draw an empathetic reaction from the audience:
It is Ophelia, not Hamlet, who most commands our sympathy. One of destiny’s casualties, she’s swept along by political events just as she is borne by the river at her death. . . .At her first appearance we see an innocent, trusting, and spirited young girl, but by her last scene she is contaminated, mad, and knowing. Whatever she might have become has been blighted. Insane, Ophelia at last speaks the truth, although no one understands her, and Shakespeare gives her one of the most cryptic lines in the play: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Ophelia goes mad because she discovers what others “may be.” (74)
Thus the endless discussion swirling around Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, continues.
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