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The tragedy of Hamlet was a very interesting play with many very interesting characters that did a great many heroic and disappointing things despite the complexity and difficulty to understand the true personality William Shakespeare intended for each. Ophelia, one of the minor characters, represents one of the two women captured between men set out for revenge. Despite the minor role this character played, her impact on the play was quite significant. However, one of the most important questions to analyze, and the question this paper will explore below is why she went mad. This paper will delve into the kind of person Shakespeare portrays her as, why she is so easily affected, the factors causing her madness and the importance each of them play.
One of the factors that may have been the initial cause of the trouble Ophelia found herself in at the end of the play may be her beauty. This is described in III, I, 6-7 when Hamlet says, “/that if you be honest and fair, / should admit no discourse to your beauty.” Her beauty is the reason Hamlet first fell in love with her, the reason her father, Polonius, was able to control her feelings toward Hamlet. Her father wanted this control over her love either for advancement within the court through gaining the favour of the king, or, if one were to think more optimistically, perhaps Polonius’ goal was only to protect her from Hamlet who, he believed, did not truly love Ophelia as she loved him. However, one is given hints as to Hamlet’s true feelings when Polonius reads the love letter from Hamlet to Ophelia. The letter begins with a very romantic, yet overly dramatic salutation reading, “To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the/ most beautified Ophelia…” (II, ii, 117-118) giving proof of Hamlet’s obvious belief of her utmost beauty, continuing to say (II, ii, 124-127)
“Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.”
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This rejection is actually a result of what should be one of Ophelia's positive character traits, her obedience. Her obedience is displayed most obviously when she says, “I think nothing, my lord” (III, ii, 124). This feature is an extremely important and necessary trait in the eyes of the Elizabethans, as well as in the eyes of many parents today. It is usually an honour to have a daughter that is obedient and is not sassy or impertinent; however, when the parent who happens to raise this child does not happen to be the ‘brightest bulb in the box,’ the outcome can be deadly. Regrettably, this is the case in the tragedy of Hamlet, and Ophelia is the unfortunate soul on which all anger and frustration is directed. She, on the other hand, does not have anyone to lay the blame on and is a classic example of why equality is so important. Ophelia is unable to tell Hamlet of her love because of her father’s prohibition seen in I, iii, 126-129 “These blazes, daughter,/Giving more light than heat, extinct in both/Even in their promise, as it is a-making,/You must not take for fire.” She is unable to ease her pain from her father’s death through even revenge, as it is Laertes’ duty, unable to ask her brother not to kill the love of her life, and not to say, “Let come what comes, only I’ll be revenged/Most thoroughly for my father.” (IV, v, 153-154); all this in addition to the loss of any stability in her life the moment her love for Hamlet is acknowledged and banned. If the morals of the society had not forbidden her to retort or at least retaliate against her father’s obvious error in forbidding her to love Hamlet, her emotions and hormones would have been allowed to run their course and most likely, this infatuation would have ceased versus causing an ultimate madness. If she had been allowed to pursue her father’s perpetrator or at least blame it on the man she (at this point, if the above factor had occurred,) used to like, she probably would have been able to transfer her faith to someone else or at least become slightly more independent. If she had been able to talk to her brother about her problems with his planned execution of her (possibly former) lover, he would have been able to share his feelings about Hamlet as well and her world would not have had to come crumbling down around her. Alas, if Ophelia had been allowed to be more independent and self-sufficient, Hamlet may not have loved her because she would not have been as gentle, obedient, or yielding. Ophelia’s weakness of mind and overload of childhood pressures to be the perfect daughter shaped her to be dependant on a man and was the cause of her eventual downfall due to the contradictions between her emotions and her duties.
The pressures exerted upon Ophelia by her father and to a less extreme extent her brother, were horrible enough to destroy any strength of will she may have previously had, however those exerted upon her by Hamlet only contributed to her eventual madness more. Hamlet seemed to expect Ophelia to surpass Gertrude's shortcomings and over come any negative traits attributed to the average woman. Hamlet put much faith in Ophelia in the beginning seeming to trust her to keep their love a secret until after the matter of revenge for old Hamlet had been resolved. Polonius forcing Ophelia to douse the flames of love which Hamlet had sparked, and his refusal to allow Ophelia to tell Hamlet of the reason she had stopped contacting him only caused Hamlet’s belief that women could not be trusted to be confirmed. This is seen in III, ii, 174-175 when Ophelia says, “’Tis brief, my lord…” and Hamlet replies with “As woman’s love.” Eventually, Hamlet grew to believe that Ophelia was a false and fictitious person causing his callousness to erupt. One cannot help but sympathize with Ophelia when she obviously loves Hamlet and willingly submits to his insults and heartlessness and seen when he instructs her to go to a nunnery, again when he asks her, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” (III, ii, 119). Ophelia, being trained to be submissive merely follows along and tries to please Hamlet as she would her father. This seems to be a mistake and if she were to retaliate, I believe Hamlet would have loved her even more. The happiness gained by Katherine and her husband, in Taming of the Shrew, as a result of her displays of wit is the basis of this conclusion.
When Ophelia finally does fall apart and is deemed mad, her hatred for the way her father treated her and the brutality Hamlet used to speak to her exploded. Her madness allowed her peace, as she was finally able to speak her mind and release her bottled up emotions. An example of this hate felt towards her father, yet her fear that if she were to contradict him, karma, or God, or whatever divine power served justice would come back to hurt her, is seen when she says, “They say the owl was a/ baker’s daughter…” (IV, v, 47-48). Her inability to understand Hamlet’s sudden loathing of her is represented in her song of Saint Valentine sung throughout lines 53-60, 63-68, 70-71 in act four scene five.
All in all, it is unfortunate that no one truly took heed of her and what she needed, concentrating on Hamlet’s false madness instead of her authentic madness. Her father causes Ophelia’s madness as does Hamlet’s rejection piled on top of her weakness of character, will and lack of independence. However, Ophelia’s character helps one truly examine the personalities of the other characters as well as the role of women during that particular time in Denmark and most likely during the Elizabethan era. In the tragedy of Hamlet, Ophelia becomes the character everyone else abuses when things go wrong. Everyone tries to mould her into the image they have in mind, resulting in her ending up without her own personality, and this in addition to her unhappiness causes her madness. It is not until she becomes mad that her desolateness and dismal can be released. This release allows her to be happy, and most likely, her fear of returning to this depressing phase of life is the reason for her suicide.