Although Ophelia (in Hamlet) is one of the least fully-realised female characters in Shakespeare she is probably the most interesting and relevant regarding current gender relations. At a time when Western women struggle to establish their position in this part of the 21st century, Ophelia speaks quite directly to our generation of their plight, which still has not been resolved. The Ophelia story is a strong thread in the complex tapestry of this play. A young woman, surrounded by powerful men, she would, in any case, find it difficult, even if they had ignored her. But they do not ignore her. She is a daughter, sister, lover and a member of the royal court’s entourage. In each of those roles she is either exploited or abused or both, and under that irresistible pressure, she descends into mental illness. She loses her reason and appears at court babbling and behaving incoherently. The next thing the audience hears anything about her is that she has drowned herself.
Ophelia’s father, Polonius, constantly instructs her on how a woman should conduct herself, based on his own view of what that may be, and demands her obedience in that. His very language is abusive when he talks to her. Asking her about her relationship with Hamlet he says: “What is between you?” adding, “Give up the truth.” When she tells him that he has “of late made many tenders of affection towards me,” he scoffs: “Pooh! You speak like a green girl/ Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.” She is constantly bombarded with commands in similar language.
He thinks nothing of using her as bait to demonstrate his theories about Hamlet’s behaviour to the king. To him, the fact of her being a woman places her beneath proper consideration as a human being. Even now, in the 21st century that is the constant, and justified, cry of women in their assessment of powerful men – that being a woman renders one less worthy of serious consideration.
The character ‘Hamlet’ is many things in this play. It would be impossible to judge him as a person as he is placed in a more difficult position than is any other Shakespearean character and he goes through a most complex process in his dealing with his situation. In the past four hundred years, he has been analysed more than any other character. He struggles with his dilemma but at the end he is almost Christ-like in the way, instead of taking action, he allows all the evil and corruption around him to collapse in on itself. We follow his inner thoughts and his actions; we enjoy his sense of humour and we sympathise with his pain. But we are also shocked by his behaviour towards Ophelia. It seems clear that he and Ophelia have, sometime during their growing up together in the castle at Elsinore, been in some kind of relationship. She reminds him of that and receives a savage response.
On his return to Elsinore after his father’s death Hamlet finds that his mother has married his father’s brother. Not only that but he discovers that his uncle has murdered his father. He is angry about that but even more enraged about his mother’s marriage to his uncle. Ophelia, already thoroughly oppressed by her father, becomes the target of his rage. It isn’t personal, as Hamlet now regards what he sees as his mother’s failings as the inherent qualities of all women – emotionally frail, unfaithful, whores, inconsistent, worthless – and his despair leads him to a cry of despair: “Frailty, thy name is woman!”. and he takes it out on Ophelia, abusing her, calling her all those things. “I’ll no more on’t,” he declares. Women, he tells her, are not fit to be part of society and should be locked away. “Get thee to a nunnery,” he yells, and he actually strikes her. Her father and the king, watching that encounter, are more concerned with what they have discovered about Hamlet than about how she has been abused.
As for a conventional character analysis, that doesn’t really offer anything in the case of Ophelia as we don’t see her in any context other than her role as victim. Other female characters in Shakespeare, like Viola, Portia, Rosalind are fully rounded characters but Ophelia is one dimensional. In order for a female character to be fully developed, she would normally spend almost the entire length of the play disguised as a man, which demonstrates that in Shakespeare’s time she would have had to do that to be taken seriously.
However, we can say that Ophelia is unequivocally good. She is naive and childlike, unaware of the harsh realities of adult life. She does not involve herself in the political life of the court, which is red hot in this court. Because of those things she is unable to defend herself against the treatment she is subjected to. She is intensely loyal, even to an abusive father and a young man she loves, even after very bad treatment by him. Shakespeare has purposely made her a character without edges and levels. She is not the main point of the drama and needs to be a blank page on which the male characters can write to leave a record of the behaviour they are capable of.
Common questions about Ophelia
Why does Ophelia go mad?
Pressure from the men around her drive her mad.
How does Ophelia die?
Ophelia descends into mental illness and commits suicide by drowning herself.
Top Ophelia Quotes
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. (act 1 scene 3)
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack and fie for shame,
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.’
So would I ‘a done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed. (act 4 scene 5)
Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown (act 3 scene 1)
Good night, sweet ladies. Good night, good night. (act 4 scene 5)