I could almost imagine Ophelia as a lump of clay, but its not Shakespeare that models her, he gives us a simple character at the beginning symbolized by few words. She is then molded in our minds by the other characters. The same can be said about the way she is brought up, she has no apparent mother figure. Gertrude is the closest she gets, but is an incestuous women who may or may not have had knowledge of or taken some part in the regicide.
Is she a good example of a mother?
I think not! Yet she is brought up in part by Gertrude and also by a father who is no saint himself. In the Kenneth Brannah film interpretation he is seen during the scene with Reynaldo to be with prostitutes, while telling his companion to spy on his son whom he suspects of doing something similar.
If her father were her role model I think it is not hard to see why Ophelia is not the complete women we would expect her to be.
It was Sigmund Freud that said that we learn certain social, life and relationship skills from our parents especially the parent of apposing sex to the child therefore Ophelia will have become more like her father naturally. Although there is no evidence in the text to support this, it is what you would expect to happen in this relationship.
In contrast to this Hamlet seems to be the only man in the play she can truly look up to or admire.
He is charming and kind, writes her beautiful poetry makes her feel like a woman in many ways. So can we blame her for falling in love with him? As she knows no better, could we blame her for sleeping with Hamlet before marriage? The answer for both may be found in the text, the signals for both are clear in Act4 Scene5.
‘before u tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.’
‘So I would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
` And thou hadst not come to my bed.’
The words ‘tumbled me’ means basically ‘had sex with me’, so we can clearly see that there relationship was sexual, if she is referring to their relationship. If she is speaking the truth but did she make love to him with no feeling just because she could, or, because she was in love with a chance to wed the man she wanted? I strongly believe the later to be true, I don’t believe she would commit to having sex with Hamlet without love.
Therefore I believe she asked for, or, was offered marriage. This is similar to what happens to Romeo and Juliet, but, unlike Juliet, Ophelia has sex on the belief she is to be married, whereas Juliet waits till she is married.
Her innocence is shown in agreeing to this with out realizing first that Hamlet might just be after sex. Did they have sex before old Hamlets death or after? The answer to this question will greatly affect the above point. I think Hamlet told Ophelia he would wed her honestly but this was before his own father died changing him. (How much did the death of Old Hamlet affect Hamlets love for Ophelia?)
But from Ophelia’s point of view the man she loves goes mad and rejects her saying “I never loved you” her father dies and her brother is away in France. She has now no restraints, it almost as if her family and Hamlet were her anchor holding her to the ground, now that the rope as been cut she is drifting of up into a state madness until she reaches heaven. So therefore part of the madness is simple honesty mixed with the tragedies that have been placed before her.
Her death is also interesting; Gertrude is the one who retells Ophelia’s story. To me, it seems her death was not suicide, but the act of a mad women not knowing what she was doing. Gertrude’s description appears almost romantic and mysterious, hence inspiring Millais to paint her floating peacefully in the river. Gertrude’s explanation of events is very much similar, a peaceful almost poetic end. She could be lying covering up the truth putting a gloss on it for Leartes to hear, I think it is the truth but it wasn’t as simple and elegant as she makes it out to be.
“There on the pendant boughs her cronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious silver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping Broke…..
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
It was an accident her falling in, but she was mad, and too unaware of her situation to save her self. She’s not a madwomen who commits suicide but a women driven to madness ending in death. Her madness serves a purpose as well; we can use the different ways Shakespeare shows madness by comparing hers with Hamlets.
When Hamlet is mad, or is faking madness, he is a comic character making sarcastic jokes using his intelligence and wit. Many critics have also defined hamlets behavior as melancholia. But Ophelia is truly mad singing and acting insanely. Shakespeare presents her in this way so that we can see the true Hamlet we can see he is sane and is playing everyone for a fool.
Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ affects Ophelia greatly, whether he does it to protect her, or because he is simply cruel he pushes Ophelia away. Hamlet’s plan is to act mad to hide his knowledge of the regicide, using it as a cover. In doing so, he is partly responsible for Ophelia’s madness, killing Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. If is behavior hadn’t been seen as ‘mad’ R and G would not have been called for, Polonius would not have been hiding where he was and he would not have treated Ophelia in the same cruel way. However more significantly people think less of him and use it against him.
A good example of this is when Claudius sends him to England to be executed as a murderous madman. During his madness he has a very revealing scene (Act 3 Scene 2) with Ophelia where he brings out their secret relationship. He makes very rude jokes, which would only be funny and recognizable to an Elizabethan audience. Only on studying the text closer would a modern audience find the jokes humorous, and even then the most liberal society would still be shocked at what Shakespeare was suggesting.
Imagine being in the Elizabethan period watching Hamlet and two of the lead characters flirting and using obscene jokes. They would find it initially funny in a vulgar sort of way. However their opinion of Ophelia, the daughter of a Lord, would be somewhat less than it should for apparently being able to understand such vulgarity. For them they would respond completely differently to a modern viewer, she would be instantly seen as a ‘wanton whore’ as some critics such as Jeremy Collier suggests. But if we look at the scene does Ophelia understand Hamlet and play along or does she have her words twisted by a perverted young madman.
Hamlet Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia No my lord.
Hamlet I mean, my head upon your lap?
Ophelia Ay my lord.
Hamlet Did you think I meant count matters?
Ophelia I think nothing my lord.
Hamlet That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Ophelia What is, my lord?
Ophelia You are merry my lord.
It is important to note that in the Elizabethan era the word ‘nothing’ meant female genitalia, now is Hamlet meaning ‘nothing’ simply as meaning nothing or is he referring to something much ruder. Does Ophelia understand him? Does she lead him on in this scene and flirt back? I would have to answer no to both questions. However in discussion with fellow students we have seen both sides. It is in some ways possible to see that they are openly flirting with each other, which would make you respond differently to Ophelia. I think what is most likely to be true is that she understands Hamlet, but she is too much of a lady to respond in the same way.
What has become transparently clear from what has been written about Hamlet is that life in Elsinore castle is, to say the very least, strange or ‘rotten’. Ophelia has grown up with less than perfect role models and is in a very poor situation. The politics, which hold her in the castle, are intense. Enemies on all sides surround the country of Denmark. As a result both she and the rest of the residents are effectively, appear to be trapped or held within Elsinore. It comes across as being extremely claustrophobic; everyone knows each other private lives it appears.
The only person that seems to get any space for himself is Hamlet. He has long soliloquies; these become more numerous as he fakes his madness. The point I am coming to is that Ophelia is set free when she dies, she escapes the repression and claustrophobia of Elsinore. Is Shakespeare making a comment about society? This is echoed in the history of Britain, at the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, she was set free and a new King came from the north to take the throne and set England on a whole new course.
In conclusion Ophelia is a very simple character made complicated by others. She was an innocent young woman, to be eventually dragged up into women hood, to be used and eventually to death. This is a result of her environment-no mother’s influence throughout, except for Gertrude’s poor attempt, a father who is indifferent about his children’s welfare and a brother away. She falls in love with the crown prince of Denmark; he to loves her “More than a hundred brothers”.
The madness within the castle reduces her to the same state and like Denmark itself dies. A case of innocence robbed? No a case of innocence mislead, but with out this innocence does she become a “wanton whore”? I’m not sure what to think I’m left wondering what Shakespeare intended. This Shakespeare play presents more questions than it answers and with out the answer I am still unsure on Ophelia’s intended character.
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