Hamlet is a play that is filled with male characters who express their conflicts to the audience in conversation with their male friends, family, and sometimes in monologue. No female characters exist in the play besides the Queen and Ophelia. The three men that Ophelia is close with are all important to the plot in their individual ways, but Shakespeare seemed to only use Ophelia’s character to build on the plot of the male characters.
Throughout the play, the men which Ophelia are close to are constantly belittling her, which begs the question; was Ophelia’s death an accident, or did her treatment by the three men in her life contribute to a mental-lunacy-caused death? There is a possibility of both, but did Shakespeare create Ophelia’s character solely with the purpose of delivering messages and creating conflict between the men? Or does she serve a more individualized purpose, more important to her own character?
To begin our introduction to Ophelia, she is a young woman who thrives off of the validation of her male counterparts. We see this in her responses to her father and brothers requests, such as when her father asked her to hold back on Hamlet’s request for her, “No, my good lord, but, as you did command, I did repel his letters, and denied access to me” (II.2.107-109) This is a prime example of Ophelia’s instinctive patterns to accept every command of the men in her life, especially her father. As Shakespeare develops her character, we see her become more and more subject to the manipulation and command of the males in her life. It is evident as she becomes insane right before her drowning.
Our first introduction to Laertes and Ophelia is in the instance of Laertes giving commands to his sister around her relations with Hamlet and assuming that he knows better of her own life than she does. “The inward service of the mind and soul grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now, And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch The virtue of his will, but you must fear. His greatness weighed, his will is not his own.” She counteracts his long plea by calling him out for falling subject to this himself and asks him not to be like a priest who is subject to sin just as he preaches against.
But, as we will see later, men like her father have more control over her. As Shakespeare gives Laertes this initiative to order around his sister, he characterizes him as a controlling brother, which is a contributing factor to Ophelia’s slow spiral downhill. Yet with Laertes, Ophelia has a small ounce of nerve and threatens him on his own wrongdoings. “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads and recks not his own rede.” (1.3.51-55) This expresses her increasing respect for the men in her life as they hold more power. She does not hold them all to the same level in her head.
Polonius is represented by Shakespeare as a more intense version of his son, Laertes. Our first introduction to him is shortly after our first interaction with both Laertes and Ophelia. The scene in which Laertes is holding control over Ophelia as he departs for college. Polonius as Ophelia’s father is reinforcing what Laertes has told her, but he doesn’t hold back. Calling her a “foolish baby,” Polonius’ character proves to feel so superior to his daughter that he says he will become a fool if she doesn’t obey his and Laertes’ commands. The manipulative nature of Polonius’ character is crystal clear in act 1, scene 3, as Polonius makes Ophelia think that she doesn’t even know herself simply because of her interactions with Hamlet.
If it be so as so ’tis put on me—
And that in way of caution—I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behooves my daughter and your honor.
What is between you? Give me up the truth. (1.3)
The fact that Shakespeare created Polonius to hold feelings like this about his own daughter goes to show how little that men like him cared about the feelings of the people they loved, and more about developing them into a good name for the family.
Polonius also has some very strong opinions about Hamlet, most being downright awful and generally incorrect. One reoccurring theme in Hamlet is the avoidance of confrontation by two characters who have something against each other, or have something important to share. Polonius shows us a great example of this; He tries to use Ophelia to get to the bottom of Hamlet’s madness; “Ophelia, walk you here. Gracious, so please you, we will bestow ourselves. Read on this book, that show of such an exercise may colour your loneliness” (3.1.43-46).
As Polonius sets up Ophelia to spy on her and Hamlet’s interaction, it shows the true intentions of her father and what he would be willing to do to avoid confrontation with Hamlet. The fact that Ophelia went along with it shows that she still obeys her father. Terry Eagleton has observed this as he says that Ophelia “lives at the point of tension between seeing herself as the obedient daughter of Polonius, subject to his will, and asserting her authentic self in her love for Hamlet” (Eagleton). She also admits to herself how much she relies on her father’s decisions in the line “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (I.3. 104).
Through the interactions between Hamlet and Ophelia, we are first aware of the side of him that loves her very much, yet as we read on, we see him slowly unfold (possibly a part of his crazy act) an attitude that shows the side of him that degrades women and believes that they are deceitful beings. Hamlet treats Ophelia in a cruel way, considering that he loves her so much. He projects his feelings towards Gertrude onto Ophelia often, especially in the nunnery scene.
“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on ’t. It hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.”(3.1.154-162)
This scene was a turning point in the relationship between the two where we first had the idea that Hamlet may be Shakespeare characterizes Hamlet as a man who treats his lover so awfully because it portrays the way that he feels about women in general, and just because he loves Ophelia doesn’t mean he treats her in a different way.
Although Hamlet loves Ophelia, his crude sexual jokes about her don’t bode well for his case either. Hamlet makes the claim that he truly loved Ophelia, but only after she died: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” (5.1.247–249). But, if he actually loved her, he would’ve noticed something was going on with her before she had the chance to contemplate suicide.
Although it is never truly confirmed whether or not Ophelia willingly fell out of the tree into the water, we can assume based on almost every prior experience that she has in the play that she was struggling, along with the funeral being reminiscent of one of a suicide victim. Shakespeare’s characterization of Ophelia was meant for her to be weak; a woman only there for the sake of the men surrounding her.
This is apparent in the scenes of psychosis put on by both Hamlet and Ophelia, where only one of them gained much attention from the others, that being Hamlet. This was not an uncommon mindset at the time though, as women in the 17th and 18th centuries were treated like objects, plain and simple, only there to provide for the men around them. They were often instructed and told what to do, which is seen throughout Hamlet, as one of the defining traits of Ophelia.
The theme of revenge is seen in almost every character’s write-up, and Ophelia is no different. The only difference is that she is the only one who seeks revenge on herself. And as Sarah Gates suggests in her piece, Assembling the Ophelia fragments: gender, genre, and revenge in Hamlet, “Ophelia, too, finds a middle way between guilt and innocence or acting and suffering, and her feminine “quietus” blurs “conscience” and “resolution” as effectively as does Hamlet’s masculine vengeance.”(Gates)
Sarah suggests that Ophelia has a split way of being viewed, either characterized as innocent or as guilty in part for her father’s death and all other aspects of her life. On that same point, the cause of Ophelia’s death is split in a similar way. She had no control over the way that Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet treated her, and they did not treat her well. For reasons that were out of her control, her mental wellness spiraled out of control, especially after Polonius’ death.
The reason that the cause is split though, is because as Ophelia fell from the tree, it was believed that she just refused to try and get out of the water, and didn’t feel a will to live anymore. We as an audience can understand this feeling of hopelessness, and Shakespeare used that to the advantage of Ophelia, to make her the true victim of Hamlet.
Eagleton, Terry. Shakespeare and Society. New York: Schocken Books, 1967.
Gates, Sarah. “Assembling the Ophelia Fragments: Gender, Genre, and Revenge in Hamlet.” Explorations in Renaissance Culture, vol. 34, no. 2, 2008, pp. 229–247., https://doi.org/10.1163/23526963-90000358 Shakespeare, William, et al. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster, 2003