Ophelia in William Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hamlet is a very complex play based upon the relationships within the
walls of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Hamlet is the main character and
is the base for all the emotions and feelings in the play. Gertrude
(Hamlets Mother), Claudius (Hamlets Uncle and his Mother's new husband
and the new King) play major roles in the play. Ophelia
is outside the
family connections of these three characters but still has a major
impact on the audience of the play. Many people have become fascinated
by Ophelia. William Hazlitt wrote:
"Ophelia is a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt
upon. Oh rose of May, oh flower too soon faded!"
A Victorian Actress wrote:
"When we see Ophelia first this 'Rose of May' is just budding; and,
indeed, it is as a bud, never as a full flower, that she lived her
Many people over the years have viewed Ophelia as a pure, perfect
young girl, however, through studying the play in depth I have found
out that Shakespeare may not have anticipated her being viewed in this
way. This is because Ophelia has two sides to her character, the
quiet, calm Ophelia and a darker side
, when she becomes mad. Which
view of Ophelia did Shakespeare wish us to focus on? I think that the
dark side of Ophelia shocks us more so therefore this is the image of
Ophelia we remember.
There are two women in the play, Ophelia and Gertrude. Shakespeare has
written Ophelia as the prominent female in the play. Is this because
she has a closer relationship with Hamlet
or because there are two
sides to Ophelia, a happy lively side and a dark sinister point which
becomes more dominant later in the play?
Ophelia is a character who has been viewed differently by audiences
from different ages. A modern audience would view her as weak and
timid in comparison to today's women. She obeys the males and fulfils
what she believes to be her duty. A Victorian audience would view her
as an ideal woman; they would see her as idealistic, beautiful and
would see her as a role model. Ophelia has the 'perfect' life; she has
a safe home in the walls of Elsinore Castle and is cared for greatly
Ophelia adds to our understanding of the play because she opens up the
other characters. Polonious (Ophelia's Father) is shown in the play as
being very authorative towards Ophelia and Laertes (Ophelia's
"Ay, fashion you may call it. Go to, go to."
"The time invites you, Go, Your Servants tend."
We first meet Ophelia in Act One, Scene Three when Laertes is speaking
to Ophelia, advising her on what to do. He tells her in a very direct
"Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain if with too credent ear
you list his songs, or loose your heart, or your chaste treasure open"
Laertes is warning Ophelia that before committing herself to Hamlet
she needs to think about what he can offer her and how safe she would
be with him. Laertes obviously understands that Ophelia and Hamlet
have a very close relationship and that if she looses her virginity to
Hamlet "your chaste treasure open" then her chances of finding a
husband in later life will be lowered.
In this scene we learn a lot about what Laertes thinks about love. He
"Then weigh what lossâ€¦."
This shows us Laertes sees love as something that should be measured.
Laertes thinks that Ophelia needs to think about the consequences of
her actions before becoming too involved with Hamlet. That she needs
to weigh up the pro's and con's of a relationship. Ophelia has widened
our view of Laertes by showing us his feelings and emotions. In the
play we are not told about the life of Ophelia's and Laertes' mother.
This gives the audience the impression that she has died. Could this
be the reason for Laertes' reaction to the situation Ophelia is in? If
he has no experience of love himself does he feel that Ophelia should
also live the way he does?
He speaks in a cold way to Ophelia about this. Laertes obviously cares
a lot for his sister and wants to protect her. He shows this in this
This scene is just one of many in Hamlet where men have more authority
and knowledge than women. Laertes is talking down to Ophelia and
making her feel small. As this is the first scene we meet Ophelia,
Shakespeare has taken great care in making sure he paints the right
picture of her. We see Ophelia as a well behaved, obedient woman who
has always been overruled by men.
Later in this scene Ophelia is talking to Polonious about how Hamlet
has confessed his feelings to her. Polonious tells her not to believe
these confessions as Hamlet is lying and will not keep to the promises
he has made her. Why is Polonious preventing Ophelia from courting
Hamlet? Is it because he knows Hamlet is lying about his love for
Ophelia and will hurt her feelings when she finds out the truth or is
it because he feels Ophelia is too young and not ready for a
relationship? As Hamlet is royalty he is expected to marry Royalty, if
Ophelia and Hamlet were to get married their marriage would not be
accepted by others. Can Polonious see this happening and is he trying
to protect Ophelia?
In act Two, scene One, Ophelia informs Polonious of Hamlets madness.
She tells him that Hamlet came into her room as she was sewing and
that he was acting very strangely. Why has she told her father? Is it
because she feels afraid of what Hamlet might do to her and her family
or is it because she wants to protect Hamlet from coming to any harm
as her duty as his friend? Does Ophelia really care for Hamlet or does
she fear him and want him out if the Castle?
All four options could be true. I think she has told her Father of
Hamlet's madness because she genuinely cares for him and wants to
protect him. Ophelia will make the audience question her feelings for
Hamlet in this Scene. Shakespeare has used this technique to make the
audience feel more involved in the play by getting them to think about
how they would feel if they were Ophelia.
Actresses might play this scene very differently to create a variety
of effects. One actress might play this scene as if Ophelia were
genuinely distressed. Another might play it as if Ophelia was making
part of it up and that she was telling her father to spite Hamlet.
These two methods would create a totally different image of Ophelia.
Act Three, scene One sees Claudius, Gertrude, Polonious and Ophelia
discussing Hamlet's madness. Gertrude says to Ophelia that she wishes
for both Hamlet's and Ophelia's sake that Hamlet may regain his sanity
as soon as possible. This shows the audience that the other characters
in the play view Ophelia and Hamlet as a couple. Although we are never
told that Hamlet and Ophelia are courting we have a deep understanding
of their relationship. The way in which the other characters in the
play talk of Ophelia and Hamlet gives us the impression that as a
woman, she is seen as a way of 'saving' Hamlet.
In this scene we are also told that Ophelia is going to be used as
'bait' to find out the cause of Hamlets madness. This tells us that
Gertrude, Claudius and Polonious know that Hamlet can trust Ophelia
with his secrets and will confide in her. This tells us that Hamlet
and Ophelia have a very close relationship.
Shakespeare has chosen to use Ophelia as the character that Hamlet
confides in because she is innocent and whatever Hamlet tells her she
will believe. Because of the way Ophelia has been brought up she has
learnt not to challenge men whatever the circumstances. If Gertrude
had played this role we might not have found out the whole truth about
Hamlet madness. The fact that Ophelia has been used tells us that
Gertrude questions Hamlets honesty when talking to her. If she felt he
was fully honest with her she would have offered to talk to Hamlet
Later in this scene is a very important dialogue between Hamlet and
Ophelia. Ophelia says to Hamlet that she has some letters that he has
sent her. Hamlet denies sending the letters. He then advises Ophelia
to take herself to a nunnery. Shakespeare has created this scene to
make Ophelia look more innocent.
"Get thee to a nunnery" (Hamlet)
Shakespeare is making Ophelia into a stereotypical, innocent, sweet
lady through Hamlet assuming that she needs protecting. Ophelia has
once again opened up another character so that we can see a different
side to them. Without Ophelia in the play would we see this protective
side of Hamlet? Or does it make us think that Hamlet would like to see
Ophelia hidden away in a Nunnery?
In the midst of the play with all the plotting and scheming going on
Ophelia adds contrast to the play. She creates different views of the
other characters through her own emotions and feelings. This scene is
a good example of both these ideas. Ophelia is portrayed as the most
innocent and honest character in the play, but later in the play we
see a side of Ophelia that is different in a sense which makes the
other characters and the audience question her innocence and naivety.
In Act Three, Scene Two Hamlet has ordered a group of players to stage
a re-construction of the murder of a king. This is to try and make
Claudius confess to the murder of King Hamlet. Hamlet uses this chance
to talk to Ophelia. He asks her some very intimate questions
"Lady, shall I lie in your lap?"
"Do you think I meant country matters?"
In response to these questions Ophelia acts very innocently.
"Ay my Lord"
"I think nothing my lord"
Ophelia is used to being told what to do and think. When she is asked
these questions she looks to Hamlet to tell her what to think.
This would make the audience think that the males in the play have
authority over the females. This idea would have been accepted in the
Shakespearian times but in the modern age this idea would be frowned
upon as men and women have equal rights.
A modern audience may see Hamlets actions as a form of sexual abuse. A
Shakespearian audience may see his actions as a normal relationship
between a man and woman.
In this scene Shakespeare has used language that is very suggestive
but Shakespeare has made it more innocent by making Ophelia question
what Hamlet means.
Once again Ophelia has added a sense of innocence to the play. She is
totally different from the other characters. Hamlet, Gertrude,
Claudius, Polonious and Laertes all seem to know what they want from
life. Ophelia has a 'floating existence' which cuts her off from the
time boundaries of everyday life. This adds to her sense of innocence.
Ophelia seems to have a lack of self respect. She feels that she needs
to be told what to do all the time and that her own opinion is not
valid. In this scene she says that she 'thinks nothing'. She feels
that she needs guidance with her actions so to impress others.
Act Three, Scene Four sees Hamlet attacking his mother in a moment of
anger. Although Ophelia isn't actually part of this scene it is
relevant to her impact on the play because Hamlets feelings for
Ophelia are reflected in how he reacts to women in general. Hamlet may
be acting in the manner that he does because he is upset, angry and
confused. But why does he take it out on his mother? Hamlet may have
taken his anger out on his mother because he doesn't want to hurt
The language used in this scene is violent and disgusting.
"In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed"
"Oh, shame, where is thy blush?"
Hamlet is showing his anger for his Mothers actions. Shakespeare will
have used this language to shock his audience into the horror that
Hamlet is feeling. In his previous scene with Ophelia he was very
loving and caring. He shows a great contrast in these two scenes. This
could be because his feelings have changed towards both Ophelia and
In Act Four, Scene Five we are made aware of Ophelia's madness. When
she enters the scene she is described as being 'distracted'. When
asked how she is she sings a song firstly about the death of her
father, then about loosing her virginity. She sings:
"He is dead and gone lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone."
"Then up he rose and donned his clothes
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid that out a maid never departed more."
Claudius then says "Pretty Ophelia!" This shows he is disgusted by
what Ophelia is singing and that Ophelia is not her usual self.
We do not know why Ophelia has gone 'mad', but it seems from her songs
that it was caused by her Fathers death and her love for Hamlet.
Shakespeare has made Ophelia go 'mad' to show that she also has a dark
side as do the other characters in the play. The effect that
Shakespeare aimed to have on the audience in this scene was to prove
to them that maybe Ophelia wasn't as innocent as she portrayed herself
There is also a moral issue in this scene, Shakespeare has presented
Ophelia in such a way that the audience will be made to think that
however sweet and innocent a person may be, they all have a breaking
point. Hamlet passed his breaking point earlier in the play as he also
In Act Four, Scene Seven Gertrude informs Claudius and Laertes of
Ophelia's death. Gertrude explains Ophelia's death as an accident:
"Clamb'ring to hang on, an envious sliver broke"
Ophelia may have committed suicide as she died very soon after her
father's death and whilst in a state of madness. Ophelia's 'madness'
seems to have started when her father died. Was her father's death the
cause of Ophelia's death?
Shakespeare will have deliberately left Ophelia's death with a
question mark over whether it was an accident or suicide. He has done
this to allow the audience to picture her death as they wanted to.
Ophelia's death is described to Claudius and Laertes as
'mermaid-like'. Shakespeare has used this language to add a sense of
calm and peacefulness to Ophelia's death as a dramatic device.
All the way through the play Ophelia has been a calm, quiet character
who didn't speak up very often. Her death reflects her attitude
towards life; she was very passive and liked to feel she brought a
feeling of peace to Elsinore Castle.
The last scene Ophelia is connected with, is her funeral. Hamlet
arrives back to Elsinore Castle in time for the funeral. He is shocked
by the news of Ophelia's death. Hamlet then expresses his love for
"I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers could not with all their
quantity of love, make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?"
Shakespeare has shown Ophelia's funeral because throughout the play
the audience has become more and more connected to her. It is a way of
making them feel part of the play, and feeling the same emotions as
After reading the play of Hamlet I can see that although Ophelia
doesn't play a major role in the story of the play she adds great
depth to the dramatic effects. Through her love for Hamlet she adds
emotion to the play.
Her contrast of character to the other characters means that the
audience will single her out as being different and feel more involved
in the play through Ophelia.
Because Ophelia is so innocent other characters use her in different
ways. Polonious uses her to display his real character to the
audience. Ophelia helps the audience see that Polonious interferes
with everyone else's business. Through her love she shows a caring and
loving side of Hamlet but also Shows Hamlet as being aggressive and
Ophelia's character helps to make the play of Hamlet realistic,
emotional, dramatic and adds a contrast to the play.