William Shakespeare, although dying over 400 years ago, has enjoyed immortality in the literary realm due to his timeless works read ubiquitously. His works are so encapsulating due to the depth and breadth of his characters, able to encapsulate each figure’s motives, relatability, and tragedy through brilliant usage of language in description and dialogue. Nowhere else is this example greater seen through the character of Ophelia in his most critically acclaimed play, Hamlet.
Ophelia, a minor character only appearing in five of twenty scenes, almost springs up randomly and leaves forgetfully during the plot. However, her role is the epitome of the Renaissance female gender role, filled with conflict she can’t overcome leading to her demise. Laertes and Polonius, brother and father of Ophelia, respectively, believe that Hamlet’s display of affection towards her are temporary and rather lustful rather than true love. In their eyes, losing her virginity to him would be tragic because simply, Hamlet belongs to the royal family and will only marry someone of his class, stripping Ophelia of her “treasure chest” with nothing in return. Her romantic involvement with Hamlet ceases, and Hamlet later claims he never loved her with a misogynistic rant of the corrupt and deceitful nature of women. Shortly following, Hamlet mistakenly but guiltlessly kills Polonius hiding behind tapestries eavesdropping on Hamlet’s conversation with the Queen. Hamlet’s noble mind seemingly deconstructing into madness combined with her father’s death leaves her in an inescapable situation. Losing her paternal figure that she greatly respected as well as witnessing the emotions of her once-lover fall apart sends Ophelia into an irreparable grief, eventually leading her to commit suicide. Her inability to overcome the repression she faces and contradictory expectations act as a foil to Hamlet in many ways, as rather than possessing a dire internal state, external forces push her into her own tragedy. In this exploration, I will attempt to address the contribution to the play and reasoning of her character by answering the question: what dramatic function does Ophelia serve in the play Hamlet and Ophelia character analysis.
Ophelia acted as a feminine stereotype during the setting Hamlet took place. One of the most striking features of the women gender role was their unquestioned obedience to men and people of higher class. Her introduction in Act I, Scene III immediately presented this personality trait to readers. Laertes advises her to take Hamlet’s affection aimed at her with a grain of salt. Laertes believes that as a youth, Hamlet’s love isn’t serious but rather flirtatious: “A violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting, the perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more. Laertes continues, “If with too credent ear you list his songs, or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open to his unmastered importunity,” warning her of the shame of losing her virginity to Hamlet. Ophelia promises to remember what Laertes tells her. Polonius enters the stage and echoes what Laertes tells Ophelia, as well as “be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence. Set your entreatments at a higher rate,”which she also agrees to. From her opening appearance, Ophelia’s obedience is unquestioned, following the Renaissance precept of abiding by father’s word. Her second appearance doesn’t come until Act III, where King Claudius and Polonius intend to use Ophelia as bait for Hamlet to figure out the reason behind his perceived madness, Polonius hoping to prove to King Claudius that the reason behind Hamlet’s behavior is his unrequited love for Ophelia. Although she finds herself with feelings for Hamlet, she isn’t able to tell her father away, as he’s the overarching figure in her life. Hence, without hesitation, hands back to Hamlet the gifts she’s received from him.
After Hamlet’s unfiltered rant aimed at Ophelia and women in general, commenting on their corruption and deceit nature, Ophelia finds herself in a conflicted situation. She obeyed her father’s wishes, even if it was against her own will, but it brought the man she loved into madness that she feels may be irreparable. Not only has she lost the man she loved, in Hamlet, she eventually loses her father as well, as Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius, believing it was Claudius, while he was eavesdropping on Hamlet. However this event impacts Ophelia more than just her father’s death. Ophelia had lied to Hamlet, telling him that Polonius is at home and not nearby. Ophelia was forced to lie and with Hamlet figuring out she lied, she automatically incurs Hamlet’s disapproval. The situation drives her into madness. She has no way to reconcile the contradictory selves that Hamlet and Polonius expected her to be. She reaches a point of no return.
During Act IV, Scene V, Ophelia enters, blabbering songs about the themes of death and unrequited love, easily traceable to Polonius and Hamlet. However, in the midst of her song, she sings, “Young men will do’t, if they come to’t, by Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she ‘before you tumbled me, you promised me to wed.” As she is slipping into insanity, I take this to mean that the repression of her sexual desires with Hamlet, along with her father’s death, are at the forefront of her mind. Readers can conclude that Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s relationship may have been purely sexual and intimate but not much more. In Hamlet’s outrage in Act III, Scene I, “You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance” and in the next scene, while sitting next to Ophelia, he sputters out phrases lined with sexual innuendo: “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids' legs,” “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.” From these encounters with Ophelia, it doesn’t seem like they had anything more to their relationship than sexual wants. But that wasn’t able to take place, as Laertes and Polonius expected Ophelia to remain chaste, that she has no worth of her own except in her sex. Unable to meet both of the expectations, she finds herself lost of which men to depend on.
When she makes the decision to obey her father and brother, it seals herself from Hamlet altogether. Ophelia’s tragedy begins from the start of the play. Trapped between filial expectations, miscalculated judgments, and Hamlet’s demands, and a subtle detail that can’t go unnoticed: no mother, she has no female alliances to rely upon; she only has the men. Ophelia has no alternative but to commit suicide in the river. Our only description of her death comes from Queen Gertrude, who in a long soliloquy, states how she drowned among the flowers. But in her speech she includes, “Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call them.” As Ophelia drowned herself in the river, Gertrude lists the flowers around her, including the long purples, which are a type of Orchid flower. Orchids in literature, with their vivid color and elegance, represent beauty and love. However, to juxtapose that definition with the tragedic way Ophelia ended her life, Gertrude also mentions them as dead men’s fingers, which of course signifies a gruesome death. Later in her description, she states, “Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke, when down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook.' Again, Shakespeare uses wordplay to describe her falling, claiming she fell in a ‘weeping’ brook. Weeping, in botany, signifies trees and shrubs with low hanging branches, however weeping can also mean to shed tears, which describes Ophelia’s state at the time.
Further in the monologue, Getrude claims that “Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like a while they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued unto that element.” Ophelia being described as mermaid-like adds to her gracefulness and beauty, but also provides a connotation of no struggles. This state of being is what Ophelia strived for, contrary to her life and the rotten state of Denmark, which led her to commit this act. Being “incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued unto that element” shows that during her dangerous suicidal act, she had no feeling of distress or tension because she’s been used to it during her life. Although Gertrude means this in a way to say that Ophelia was not aware of the danger she found herself in and that the death was accidental, readers have no reason to doubt that her death was indeed a suicide, as given her current life state and the priest’s admonition denying her a proper Christian burial. Now understanding her role in the plot, one can argue that besides being Hamlet’s “lover”, per se, it was quite a minor role and she wasn’t really necessary in the plot. But Shakespeare used all of his characters for a reason and each played a specific role to help the play function, even down to the smallest of ‘bit’ characters, like the ‘Gentleman’ . The next subtopic will analyze Ophelia’s importance to the play; specifically, how her character was necessary in comparison to other characters to get a better insight among the behaviors of all, and how she was needed in advancing the plot.
According to Professor Linda Welshimer Wagner, Shakespeare intended to use Ophelia as a minor character used sparingly and forgetfully throughout the plot- appearing in only 5 of 20 scenes. Shakespeare permits us to forget her in the midst of other absorbing problems.
One of the advantages of including her is that we are able to find more about the characters on a deeper level. Not only can we find out how Shakespeare used Ophelia in the play, but how the characters themselves used her. None is more obvious than Hamlet, the main character of the play. It is evident in the beginning of the text that Hamlet loved Ophelia, as A.C. Bradley pointed out in his text, Shakespearean Tragedy, Ophelia had sweetness, innocence, and simplicity, and “Hamlet asked no more.” However, during Hamlet’s so called “frailty” speech in Act I, Scene II, he groups all women together, commenting on their lack of honor and is dispelled by their sex altogether. With this moment and the following, his relationship with Ophelia becomes ambiguous. When Ophelia returns the gifts Hamlet has given her, suspecting that all of this is a plan put forward by Polonius (which was true), his opinion on her changes and she becomes grouped with the rest of the women he was talking about. His comments on Ophelia’s “painted face” shows this bitterness. Another question this brings up is the idea of whether these statements come from the bottom of his heart or if he’s just feigning madness, as in Act I, Scene V, he states “As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” regarding the death of his father and using it as a mask to hide his revenge plot underneath. In his encounter with Ophelia, Hamlet knows from his gut that someone is eavesdropping and Ophelia didn’t stumble across him randomly as she says. Given that knowledge and Hamlet’s wit, realizing that he has an audience, he lashes out at Ophelia as an effort to portray to his audience his madness, leading readers to believe that it was most likely staged.
To further strengthen this hypothesis, in the following scene when Hamlet is with Ophelia during the players’ performance, his attitude changes significantly. Although his attention is on Claudius’s reaction to the performance, his conversation with Ophelia is less insulting and more suggestive, revealing that his misogynistic and hateful remarks in the previous scene were just for show. This scene is the last of Hamlet and Ophelia sharing the stage together. Save for the end, where Hamlet professes his love for her at the funeral, stating that he loves her more than forty thousand brothers could- a shot at Laertes. But this is either a profession of love he felt for her at first or his passions in general, but not an accurate viewpoint of their relationship throughout the play. So, Shakespeare didn’t use Ophelia as the so-called true love of the protagonist of the play, as Juliet was to Romeo.
Instead, in relation to Hamlet, her use in the play was for Hamlet to use her, as an excuse to his madness. In a similar way, Polonius also uses her. When Polonius believed that Hamlet’s madness could stem from the loss of Ophelia, he rushes to the court immediately to tell Claudius about his discovery and hope to gain himself a higher standing with the current king if his prophecy came true. So, he uses Ophelia as a prop to prove to Claudius his point, and benefit himself. Even as Claudius seems to deny Polonius’s claim following the confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia, he maintains persistence. Going further than examining the interactions between Ophelia and other characters, it is worth analyzing how Ophelia as her own character differed or compared to other characters in the play. This would be important to Shakespeare to develop his characters in subtler ways and would expound on the aforementioned fact of his ability to make his characters so lifelike. Ophelia deals with a very similar tragedy as Hamlet, but the way their tragedy was brought about and affected them differs starkly. Rather than an internal pressure to avenge his father’s death, Ophelia’s expectations come from external sources, being Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet. Both were driven to madness, or were they? Ophelia definitely wasn’t able to rebound from the loss of her father and the shunning from Hamlet and her grief was easily identifiable in Act IV, Scene V. However, Hamlet’s madness was fabricated and played off to not reveal his true, well thought out intentions of retribution.
Ophelia’s death was by suicide, and conveyed through Gertrude with calming nature imagery, suggesting she died in a peaceful way. This is a stark contrast to Hamlet’s gruesome death during a sword duel with Laertes, being cut with a poisoned sword. These deaths signify more than the differing external views of the death, but also show more about the personality of the characters. Ophelia decides death by her own hand, while Hamlet, who contemplates pulling the trigger on himself countless times, never actually does, but rather hopes “that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter!”Although Ophelia is portrayed as weak and reliant on the men in her life, in this sense she is of a stronger will than Hamlet. Ophelia differs from her brother as well. While Laertes is characterized by livid anger and immediate action, Ophelia is more thoughtful and deliberate. To avenge Polonius’s death, Laertes immediately wants justice served to the killer, setting up a sword duel with Hamlet, but also poisoning the tip of his sword to ensure his death. Meanwhile, Ophelia, while also very stirred by his death, doesn’t blame a single person (Hamlet) but rather passes judgment to a variety of characters in a more calm, peaceful, and a more “feminine” way by handing out flowers to everyone: fennels, columbines, daisies, rosemaries, pansies, with each flower signifying something, as rosemaries were for remembrance and pansies for thought. Interestingly, she wasn’t able to hand out violets as they all wilted when Polonius died. Violets were seen as a mourning symbol for ancient Romans and in Christianity, so there’s a tie there. This was deliberately thought out, opposed to Laertes’ rash and immediate and unthoughtful decision making. Furthermore, lines 166-183 in Act IV, Scene VII show Ophelia’s innocence and chanting of “old lauds” contrasted to Laertes’ fall from grace. However, Laertes, who found himself in a wrath earlier, was found brought into tears with news of Ophelia, showing how her opposite personality spilled into Laertes. In relation to Gertrude, the only other female in the play, Ophelia maintains similarities. This could be attributed to the time period, where women were thought of having a well defined role that they couldn’t stray away from, leaving them in similar positions.
The major problem for the two women is that they are trying to protect their familial ties. For Gertrude, the man she finds herself with currently is Claudius, and she stands by his side throughout all of Hamlet’s rants. She attempts to protect the peace within the marriage and in a larger scope is trying to protect Denmark from devolving into pure chaos with the crumbling situation in the royal family. Ophelia meanwhile is trying to maintain the vows she kept to her family and not let Hamlet manipulate her feelings. Although it wasn’t in her interests, it was societal factors that led her to whatever she did. A contrast between them doesn’t come by the lives they lived, but rather the ways they died. While Ophelia’s grief was long-lasting and her suicide almost expected through foreshadowing and horrible mental state, Gertrude’s death was very unexpected and she had no motive to die from the poinsonous drink. No one in the room, besides Claudius who poisoned the drink himself, meant for Hamlet, was the only person who knew that Gertrude would die from taking it in. Instead of looking at her in relation to other characters as I have throughout her whole character analysis, I’ll focus on Ophelia herself. Did she change as a character, showing dynamic traits more common with the significant characters in most stories/novels/plays? Ophelia essentially was pure and virtuous but by the end of the play was driven insane by the conflicting demands of her family and Hamlet, changing from a state of innocence to despair and frustration. Act IV is the real indication of her change, when she becomes mad, realizing that her life has been taken over by unfulfillable expectations.
Taking all of this character analysis in, Ophelia did play an important role as a device to reveal more about other characters. Serving as a foil to Hamlet and Laertes, two of the most polarizing figures in the play allowed us to understand more about Hamlet’s circumstances and the actions he took in comparison to Ophelia character analysis, while she makes Laertes’ behavior and mind seem unwise and rash compared to Ophelia’s more calm and thoughtful nature. The most significant part she played in the plot was for Polonius to use her to try and extract the reason for Hamlet’s madness, which played into Hamlet’s favor by being able to fake his madness to perfection and hide his true intentions of killing Claudius.