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The Symbolism of Ophelia's Death

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It is widely believed that “Living life without honor is a tragedy bigger than death itself” and this holds true for Hamlet’s Ophelia. Ophelia’s death symbolizes a life spent passively tolerating Hamlet’s manipulations and the restrictions imposed by those around her, while struggling to maintain the last shred of her dignity. Ophelia’s apathetic reaction to her drowning suggests that she never had control of her own life, as she was expected to comply with the expectations of others. Allowing the water to consume her without a fight alludes to Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia as merely a device in his personal agenda. Her apparent suicide denotes a desire to take control of her life for once. Ophelia’s death is, arguably, an honorable one, characterized by her willingness to let go of her submissive, earth-bound self and leave the world no longer a victim.

Ophelia’s accidental drowning shows her as a victim of circumstance among people who seek to assert dominance over her. Mimicking Laertes’ advice to Ophelia, Polonius, in a condescending tone, chastises his daughter and forbids her from associating with Hamlet:

POLONIUS. Think yourself a baby

That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,

Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,

Or—not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,

Running it thus—you’ll tender me a fool (1.3.105-109).

Ophelia is conditioned to obey Polonius and Laertes’ commands, thinly veiled as guidance for her “own good.” She is never trusted to have a mind of her own, often having her intelligence openly insulted, causing her to be dependent on the men in her life. These men exercise authority over her, patronize, and degrade her, lowering her self-esteem to a non-existent level, and leaving her a...

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...nation to her inevitable death corresponds to her limited (vacant) freedom of speech and license to develop her own convictions and individual identity and question authority. Secondly, Ophelia’s surrender to her imminent fate also echoes her unstable, manipulative, and emotional abusive relationship with Hamlet and the hierarchy in her dynamic, as she always obeys without hesitation. Regardless of how Ophelia’s death began, the result was a suicide, as the pure (graceful), serene, and beautiful imagery of her suicide implies that her death was a last effort to recover her dignity, rebel against her oppressors, and exert her free will. For Ophelia, a life of oppression and blind obedience drove her to a frailty of mind, and in her last moments, she chose death over dishonor to defeat the inner demons threatening to condemn her to an otherwise hopeless existence.
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