Character of Ophelia in Play "Hamlet"

Categories: William Shakespeare
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In “Hamlet”, a tragedy by William Shakespeare, Gertrude and Ophelia are the two main female protagonists that reflect the status of women in Shakespeare’s time. The male characters in Hamlet had more power due to social and economic rights, and often manipulated women so that they were always inferior. Ophelia had to live the life her father wanted to live and obey all of Hamlet’s judgements and demands “Living life without honor is a tragedy bigger than death itself” and this holds true for Hamlet’s Ophelia.

Ophelia’s death symbolizes a life spent passively tolerating Hamlet’s manipulations and the restrictions imposed by those around her, while struggling to maintain the last shred of her dignity. Ophelia’s apathetic reaction to her drowning suggests that she never had control of her own life, as she was expected to comply with the expectations of others. Allowing the water to consume her without a fight alludes to Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia as merely a device in his personal agenda.

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Her apparent suicide denotes a desire to take control of her life for once. She is essentially a casualty of a society that enforces unreasonable expectations for its women and is never afforded the liberty of thinking for herself and making her own judgments and decisions.

Her passive death represents the lack of control she has over her own person and the dependence she has developed on other people. Ophelia is trained by the men in her life to be compliant with their demands, preventing her from practicing her autonomy and enabling her to be easily manipulated by Hamlet.

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Ophelia is conditioned to obey Polonius and Laertes’ commands, thinly veiled as guidance for her “own good.” She is never trusted to have a mind of her own, often having her intelligence openly insulted, causing her to be dependent on the men in her life. These men exercise authority over her, patronize, and degrade her, lowering her self-esteem to a non-existent levelMaking use of her dutiful and obedient personality, Hamlet victimizes Ophelia and her lack of resistance to his treatment is paralleled in her surrender to the water and subsequent drowning.

Ophelia’s death was triggered by her mental breakdown due to the loss of her father. And her depression worsens as she learns that Hamlet, the man she loves departs to England. Although Ophelia’s death is caused by the patriarchy society, the gendered reactions, especially Gertrude’s show how women act within a patriarchy towards each other and the contrast between male and female responses to this tragic suicide differently. (Her death is caused by the patriarchal society. Gendered reactions in her death. She suffers from a patriarchy, but Gertrude’s reaction to her as like a woman reacting to another woman. How women act within a patriarchy towards each other. How the patriarchy shapes male and female responses to this tragic suicide differently. Say exactly what exactly the difference was.) Gertrude and Ophelia, the only two women in Hamlet, reflect the general status of women in Elizabethan Times. Women were suppressed by the males in their lives (brothers, fathers, and partners) and were always inferior. Ophelia and Gertrude have little or no power due to restricted legal, social and economic rights that were found in Elizabethan society.

The male characters in Hamlet reflect this sexist view point, represented by Hamlet’s judgement that “frailty, thy name is woman”. This view was not uncommon in Shakespeare’s time and heavily influenced Shakespeare to present women the way he does in Hamlet. Gertrude leaves us wondering if the young girl’s death was an accident or an act of suicide. “When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide; And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up: Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes; As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element: but long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death. (4. 7. 166-183)” Gertrude tells of Ophelia being out singing songs around a brook and she slipping into the water. Where she drowns accidentally, although Gertrude hints that people think Ophelia drowned herself in her madness of her mourning her father’s recent death. Gertrude’s scarce description of Ophelia’s death gives the reader a broader option in thinking it was a suicide. Gertrude gives the account of her death to the King, and Laertes.

Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death is extraordinarily thorough; she holds nothing back, giving us a detailed account of everything that happened. Laertes responds to the queen, asking, of her certainty, “Alas, then, she is drown’d? (4.7.84)” The queen responds, “Drown’d, drown’d. (4. 7. 184)”reiterating Ophelia’s death to those around. In the time of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the people were all of the Christian religious beliefs. According to Christianity, suicide as form of death was a grave and serious sin. The Christian argument is that one’s life is owned by God, and by taking your own life, you are dishonoring God. So if a person would take their own life, they would not get the same traditional ceremonies as a person who was murdered, or had just died would be given. (ESSAY) In Act 5, Scene 1, lines 235-242, we see that the priest did not do a full “Christian Burial,” and Laertes visits the priest and asks, “Must there no more be done?” Upset about her ceremony, he angrily responded with the lines, “Lay her i’ the earth: And from her fair and unpolluted flesh, May violets spring! I tell thee churlish priest, A ministering angel shall my sister be, When thou list howling. (5. 1. 2)”

Anguished to have lost his sister so soon after his father’s death, Laertes flees the room. Claudius summons Gertrude to follow. He tells her it was nearly impossible to quiet Laertes’ rage, and worries that the news of Ophelia’s death will reawaken it. At Ophelia’s funeral, Laertes curses Hamlet (although not naming him) for killing his father and thus being the indirect cause of Ophelia’s madness. Although Hamlet wants to take his own life, he does not because it would be disrespectful to his family, and God. Ophelia’s death probably contributed to his madness based on what he says and does in the funeral scene (fights with Laertes and even tries to attack him, claims he would do anything for Ophelia). Hamlet appears to mourn her death which is interesting because he did not seem to really love her earlier in the play (particularly, in the nunnery scene), but his grief seems to drive him mad in the funeral scene which may suggest that he really did love her or that his madness has just gone too far to the point where he doesn’t know what he is thinking/feeling anymore.

It wasn’t certain that Ophelia’s death had much of an impact on Hamlet at all. He has a fit at her funeral, but in the very next scene he is making fun of Oscric in a rather infantile manner that does not fit a man who has just lost a woman he dearly loves. He never even mentions Ophelia after her funeral. Hamlet declares his love for Ophelia as she is lying in her grave and as unexpectedly, he has witnessed the scene of her burial. In fact his declaration of love is a reaction to that of Laertes, the young woman’s brother who has in a very short span of time lost his father and his beloved sister whose death he can also blame on the young prince. “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brother Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” Hamlet” appear to be frail, passive figures used as pawns and dying prematurely after the mistreatment of men. However, there is more to Gertrude and Ophelia than meets the eye. Even though Hamlet is certainly not a play based on women, both female characters are more active than their vices and virtues previously lead us to believe.

A closer inspection reveals that the true roles these female characters took on had purpose; these women were not as passive as they seem at first glance. She is constantly silenced and disregarded by the characters for no reason other than her youth and gender. No matter how she communicates, through words or physical symbols, she is misunderstood, ignored and called “mad,” which ultimately leads to her watery demise. Ophelia is spoken to, not conversed with and not allowed to speak or express herself, for she is the receiver of the words and wisdom of Polonius and Laertes. In turn, her death expresses the danger of reducing an individual to his or her gender and disregarding the voice of the marginalized. Her forced receptiveness in conversations with males represents the patriarchal idea of a woman’s position of receiving male initiative. Her life is not her own; it is owned by every man and powerful figure around her. At this point in the drama, Ophelia has no recourse or protection. Her father is dead, her lover has abandoned her, and her brother is thousands of miles away. Every mode of male guidance and protection for her is gone.

Although it can be seen as a liberating moment to a twenty-first century audience, the circumstances of her freedom are anything but truly freeing, especially given her timidity and innocence in a society that demands male guidance.

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Character of Ophelia in Play "Hamlet". (2021, Mar 18). Retrieved from

Character of Ophelia in Play "Hamlet"

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