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Ophelia's Madness Explained

Categories: Literature

Joan Montgomery Byles’s view of Ophelia’s behavior in “Ophelia’s Desperation” and Sandra K. Fischer’s view of Ophelia’s behavior in “Ophelia’s Mad Speeches” contradict each other and present opposing explanations. Byles’s view is that Ophelia is defined by the male roles in her life (i.e. her father, brother, and lover). Fischer’s view is that Ophelia is simply grieving the loss of her father and fails to break the hold of the men in her life.

These two analyses present opposing explanations because one author is saying that Ophelia simply cracked because she has lost her father and she just could not handle it and the other is stating that Ophelia went mad and committed suicide because she was tired of just sitting around listening to the men in her life tell her what to do and when; with all that built up anger and aggression Ophelia needed an outlet to diffuse the situation and so she took her anger out on herself and drowned.

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Looking closer it is obvious that Byles’s view is the more accurate of the two.

In Fischer’s “Ophelia’s Mad Speeches” Fischer explains more about how Ophelia seems to break down after her father’s death, rather than how she is dependent on the male roles in her life. Fischer does not speak much about the fact that Ophelia could not get a word in edge wise about her own life, that is until she goes mad and decides to drown herself.

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It is almost as if Fischer’s piece is more about how Ophelia’s mad speeches get the attention, “but they seem to point to a loss rather than an assertion of self…” meaning that Ophelia’s madness is more attributed to the fact that she lost her father, rather than her trying to open up and get out all the aggression and anger she feels towards her father, brother and lover. While Byles’s view is based on the fact that Ophelia was entirely dependent on the males in her life.

The play supports Fischer’s view by the first real time you see Ophelia truly in her madness. In Act IV, scene V, lines 29 – 32, “He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone.” This first scene where you truly see Ophelia’s madness it is very clear that she is singing in reference to her dead father. It could be perceived that since she is singing about her father in her current mental state it could point to the root of her madness being her father’s death. The rest we hear from Ophelia in the play is her singing about her dead father and how she hopes that is soul is at rest and talking to her brother about how their father is dead.

Fischer’s view is not incorrect, though it contradicts Byles’s view. Byles’s view is that Ophelia’s madness is derived from the fact that throughout her life she has depended on the men in her life and is really very angry at all of them for one reason or another. Ophelia is never allowed to speak for herself, her opinion is never heard; generally she just sits tight and let’s the men do the talking. Ophelia just goes with whatever she is told and does not argue about it. There is a ton of evidence from the play that clearly sheds some light on her dependence and obedience to the men in her life.

Byles’s states that, “Ophelia is frightened of her father, she is not allowed to declare an emotional world of her own.” This comment is one hundred percent true. When Ophelia first appears in the play she is speaking to Laertes and later Polonius about Hamlet. Her brother and father are basically warning her about Hamlet and that she should stay away from him. Clearly Ophelia has feelings for Hamlet.

In Act I, scene IV, lines 109 – 110 & 112 – 113, Ophelia protests her father by stating, “My lord, he hath importun’d me with love, In honourable fashion. And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, With almost all the holy vows of heaven.” Ophelia is trying desperately to make a case that Hamlet is not as bad as he seems and Polonius then has this long speech about how Hamlet’s advances are not true and that he is too young to clearly know what he wants.

“Ophelia, Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers; Not of that dye which their investments show, But mere implorators of unholy suits…” Polonius is basically saying that Ophelia should not believe Hamlet because his words are unholy and should not be taken seriously. Ophelia’s response to her father telling her to stay away from the man she loves is, “I shall obey, my lord.” (Act I, scene IV, line 135). This is the point where it is very clearthat even though Ophelia loves Hamlet and in her head wishes that he would propose and marry her and she wants to see the good in him, she is not going to disobey her father’s orders.

Another example of Ophelia’s fear of the men around her is when Hamlet corners her in her closet. “O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!” (Act II, scene I, line 74) Ophelia then explains what happened to her father and Polonius’s reaction is “Mad for they love?” (Act II, scene I, line 83) Ophelia knows exactly why Hamlet has gone off the deep end about wanting her to be with him. Polonius asks her if she has done anything to set him off and she tells him that she had only done what he had told her to do, she refused his letters and denied him access to her.

Byles’s brings up that Ophelia has been unable to establish a real conversation with anyone in the play other than herself. It is no wonder that she has built up so much aggression and anger towards the people around her. She is desperate to be an individual with a voice of her own, and is constantly denied just that. A good example of this is when Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and Polonius are spying on Hamlet and Ophelia and Hamlet is going off on Ophelia about how she has disgraced him and he no longer wants anything to do with her. He is basically calling her a good for nothing whore and keeps screaming at her to get thyself to a nunnery.

Only after Hamlet has blown up on her and has left the scene can she try to gather her thoughts about what has just happened and has a small soliloquy of her own to try to put the pieces of what Hamlet just spout of together. This is the part of the play where Ophelia is finally letting her guard down and starting to feel bad about herself; she feels as though something is clearly wrong with what has happened and if it was not for her father it could have been prevented.

Byles’s sees Ophelia’s death as the “ultimate expression” of all of her repressed anger and aggression that has built up throughout her life. Ophelia’s death is her way of having her voice be heard. To show all of the people around her that she was clearly not okay and that she needed to be heard. Before her death no one saw all of this anger and aggression and just pure unhappiness that she felt. In the end she decided that she was going to take all of this anger out not on the people that deserved it, not the people that were the cause of all her unhappiness, but herself; the thought is that she took it out on herself because she had been the only person that ever listened to anything that she had to say for herself.

All in all these two analyses of Hamlet’s Ophelia do in fact contradict one another and present opposing explanations of why Ophelia came to be what she did. These analyses both speak on Ophelia’s madness and what may have caused it, but they do it in different ways with different sides of the play. Each analysis is true in it’s own way, but they do not compliment each other, nor do they have the same side of information. They both have their own way of why the think it happened.

However, Byles’s was the more intriguing and had more of a voice of her own. There were fewer comments from other articles and more pure thought of why Ophelia was the way she was. The theory that Ophelia was dependent on the men in her life and in the end could not handle the pressure of doing everything she was told is much more plausible than simply her father’s death causing her to decide to end her life and drown herself.

Cite this page

Ophelia's Madness Explained. (2016, May 22). Retrieved from

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