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Ophelia is a beautiful and simple-minded woman, easily molded by the more powerful opinions and desires of others. The thoughts of her father and her brother influenced her the most. The love letters from Hamlet also swayed her opinions and confused her mind. Ophelia wasn't able to realize herself because of all the pressures exerted on her to be something she's not. That weakness of mind and will, which permitted her obedience to her father and thus destroyed her hope for Hamlet's love, finally resulted in her insanity and death.
When her father had challenged the honor of Hamlet's intentions, Ophelia could only reply "I do not know, my lord, what I should think" (III, iii). Used to relying upon her father's direction and brought up to be obedient, she can only accept her father's belief, seconded by that of her brother, that Hamlet's "holy vows" of love were simply designed for her seduction. She was to obey her father's orders not to permit Hamlet to see her again. Her father also wanted to prove Hamlet's madness to the king. He used Ophelia as bait so he and the king could listen to Hamlet's words. Ophelia willingly obliged to her father's desires. By not thinking for herself and only doing as her father wished, she ruined her chances of love with Hamlet.
Hamlet put pressure on Ophelia by expecting her to surpass his mother's shortcomings and be an epitome of womankind. He searched her innocent face for some sign of loving truth that might restore his faith in her. He took her mute terror for a sign of her guilt and found her to be a false person, like his mother. In his letter to her, he addressed the letter to "the most beautified Ophelia" and he terminated the letter with "I love thee best, O most best, believe it" (II, ii). He used the word "beautified" to display a sincere tribute, and it is apparent he still loves her. His attempts to win her affection are not triumphant. Ophelia is still too much under the influence of her father to question his wisdom or authority, and she has no mind of her own to understand how much she has made her lover suffer. No matter how much it pained her to not see Hamlet, all she could see in his present behavior is the madness that terrified her.
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In her insane state she came to believe that the seduction her family tried so hard to protect her from has passed. Her father's admission of error might have embittered a more independent Ophelia. This explains Hamlets rejection of her. Being tormented of scenes of death and the burial, she reaches out to the beauty of hanging flowers in a willow tree and somehow drowns. "Ophelia was never able to understand exactly what Hamlet was suffering from"(Mackenzie 903), and in a way he created a situation for her to relate; death of a father and betrayal by a loved one. Hamlet managed to rise above insanity and feelings of suicide, but her weaker spirit could not hold the burden.
Campbell, Lily. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes, Slaves of Passion. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992.
Lidz, Theodore. Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet. Vision Press, 1995.
MacKenzie, Agnes Mure. The Women in Shakespeare's Plays. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1984.