In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Shakespeare developed the story of prince Hamlet, and the murder of his father by the king's brother, Claudius. Hamlet reacted to this event with an internal battle that harmed everyone around him. Ophelia was the character most greatly impacted by Hamlet's feigned and real madness - she first lost her father, her sanity, and then her life. Ophelia, obedient, weak-willed, and no feminist role model, deserves the most pity of any character in the play.
As the play opened, Hamlet and Ophelia appeared as lovers experiencing a time of turbulence. Hamlet had just returned home from his schooling in Saxony to find that his mother had quickly remarried her dead husband's brother, and this gravely upset him. Hamlet was sincerely devoted to the idea of bloodline loyalty and sought revenge upon learning that Claudius had killed his father. Ophelia, though it seems her relationship with Hamlet is in either the developmental stage or the finalizing stage, became the prime choice as a lure for Hamlet. Laertes inadvertently opened Ophelia up to this role when he spoke with Ophelia about Hamlet before leaving for France. He allowed Polonius to find out about Hamlet's courtship of Ophelia, which led to Polonius' misguided attempts at taking care of Ophelia and obeying the king's command to find the root of Hamlet's problems. Ophelia, placed in the middle against her wishes, obeyed her father and brother's commands with little disagreement. The only time she argued was when Laertes advised her against making decisions incompatible with the expectations of Elizabethan women. Ophelia tells him, in her boldest lines of the play:
"But, my good brother, ...
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...She had lost her father and her lover while her brother was away for school, and she was no longer useful as a puppet in a greater scheme. Ophelia was displaced, an Elizabethan woman without the men on whom she had been taught to depend. Therein lies the problem - she lacked independence so much that she could not continue living without Polonius, Laertes, and Hamlet. Ophelia's aloneness led to her insanity and death. The form of her death was the only fitting end for her - she drowned in a nearby river, falling beneath the gentle waters. She finally found peace in her mad world. That is how Ophelia is so useful as a classic feminist study - she evokes imagery of the fragile beauty women are expected to become, but shows what happens to women when they submit as such.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New York: Longman, 1997.
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