In 1600, William Shakespeare composed what is considered the greatest tragedy of all time, Hamlet, the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark. His masterpiece forever redefined what tragedy should be. Critics have analyzed it word for word for nearly four hundred years, with each generation appreciating Hamlet in its own way. While Hamlet conforms, without a doubt, to Aristotle's definition of a tragedy, one question still lingers. Did Shakespeare intend for the reader or viewer of Hamlet to feel greater sympathy for Hamlet, or for Ophelia, Hamlet's lover? Both characters tug at the heartstrings throughout the play, but it is clear that 'the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark' is a misrepresentation of Shakespeare's true intention.
To capture our sympathy, Ophelia goes through a transformation unlike any other character in Hamlet. She is abandoned by everyone she holds dear; her father Polonius, her brother Laertes, and Hamlet, her lover. And yet Ophelia becomes tangled in a web of madness when her loyalty is torn between Polonius and Hamlet. Most horrible of all is Ophelia's suicide-death. The emotion is evokes, coupled with the above points shows that Shakespeare's intentions was to make Ophelia, a minor character in terms of the number of lines assigned to her, into a memorable character evoking the most sympathy.
To fully see Ophelia's metamorphosis, one must compare her at the beginning and at the conclusion of Hamlet. Appearing first in Act 1, Scene 3, Ophelia seems to be a spirited young girl. She is very trusting and innocent. Most important however, Ophelia is naive to the way things are. Laertes attempts to 'educate' her about love, in lines 10-44, but his advice falls on deaf ears because Opheli...
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...hat Ophelia should be buried on hallowed ground is contested. No other character faces such peril, even after death. Why does Shakespeare do this to a character such as Ophelia?
The answer may be found, or not found, in Saxo Grammaticus' Chronicles of Danish Realm. No mention is made of an Opheliaesque character in the story of Amleth. Then what was Shakespeare's inspiration for Ophelia? Before his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582, an unfortunate event occurred in Shakespeare's life. His girlfriend at the time fell into a river and drowned. Ophelia's character could represent a lost love of Shakespeare's, one for which he intended us to feel great sympathy. Such a connection would explain why Ophelia, although not the central character, is still a figure of great tragedy.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Global Shakespeare Theatre Series. 1996.
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