Hamlet is a play about intrigue, suspicion, treachery, and revenge. Its characters, the vast majority of whom are experienced members of the court, move through this world with varying degrees of ease, but all are accustomed to the forces at work. Hamlet’s reluctance to act out the revenge he knows is his duty does help the modern-day audience relate to him, perhaps, but at the end of the day he is still a part of this foreign culture, driven by customs and expectations very different from those that govern the life of his audience. There is one character in the play, though, who seems just as bewildered by the startling events swirling around her as the audience is. Ophelia’s main importance in the play is to act as a sort of emotional representative for the audience.
We first meet Ophelia in Act I, scene iii, as preparations are being made for her brother’s departure. Laertes brings up Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet and cautions her not to take the prince’s advances at face value. Laertes explains that as Prince of Denmark, Hamlet is not entirely free to declare his love for anyone without considering the potential effect on the country. Their father takes up the lecture later in the scene, citing Hamlet’s youth and gender as reasons why he should not be trusted. Poor Ophelia is rather dismayed at this, and even goes so far as to protest that “He hath importun’d me with love in honorable fashion.” (I.iii.99-100) Both of these warnings come as something
of a surprise to Ophelia and to the audience, and for the first time Ophelia has fulfilled her role as unwitting expositor. Through her own ignorance and naivete, Ophelia has allowed other characters to explain things to the a...
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...derstanding. Ophelia feels her way through the play, and the audience is quite capable of doing the same. This emotion-based view of the action is a deeper connection to the characters than one would obtain by trying to keep track of Hamlet’s brooding and ranting or Claudius and Polonius’s reasoned plans. Ophelia gives the play its emotional payoff, and by the time she exits the play, the audience is already emotionally attached on her behalf. That’s not to say that sympathy for Ophelia makes the audience side with Laertes—after all, Ophelia loved Hamlet, even if he did lead to her insanity. Rather, Ophelia manages to ensure that the audience has connected emotionally to the play in a way that no other character does, so that when we lose Ophelia enough of a relationship to the play has been established that the audience can’t help but care about the outcome.
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