As with the other posts on Claudius and Gertrude, this is a summary of Ophelia’s main appearances in the play. It is not an interpretation of her character – you have to make up your own mind. Is she a person we admire or pity? Why? Is she limited in what she can say and do because she is a woman living in Shakespearean times and thus must obey the men in her life? (If we judge her for being weak we are assuming she is free to act differently) Is she a good daughter? A good girlfriend to Hamlet? Does she deliberately hurt those around her? Do they hurt her? How does she respond? Does she deserve the suffering she goes through in the play? Does she deserve the way she dies?

Act 1, scene 3 Laertes & Polonius warn her off Hamlet.

  •  When Laertes warns her to guard her virtue and protect her reputation and virginity “Be wary then best safety lies in fear” Ophelia shows a lively spirit and a quick mind in her response “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven whiles…himself the primrose path of dalliance treads“. )Here she teases her brother for being a hypocrite).
  • Ophelia attempts to defend Hamlet “My lord he hath importuned me with love in honourable fashion” even though her father suggests that Hamlet’s love for her isn’t genuine and ridicules her naiveity “Affection, pooh! You speak like a green girl“.
  • She gives in quite easily when Polonius forbids her from seeing Hamlet again “I shall obey my lord“. A modern audience may expect her to (in the words of Cheryl Cole) fight fight fight fight fight for this love but this was unheard of in Shakepearean times when women were completely dependent on first their fathers and later their husbands for literally everything – food, clothes, shelter, security. They didn’t dare disobey. Even expressing an opinion here was brave on Ophelia’s part.
  • The dramatic function of this scene is to emphasise that yet another person is betraying Hamlet and at the moment when he needs her the most – he cannot turn to his mother, his father is dead and now the last person he is close to (his girlfriend) is about to turn her back on him too. We don’t necessarily blame her; nonetheless Hamlet has our sympathy as a result of her poorly timed rejection of him.

Act 2. scene 1  Ophelia describes Hamlet’s bizarre behaviour when he visited her in her chambers.

  • Ophelia describes Hamlet’s visit – his clothes were untidy “his doublet all unbraced“, he appeared deeply sad and distressed “with a look so piteous in purport as if he had been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors” and seemed unsure of Ophelia “he took me by the wrist and held me hard…he falls to such persual of my face as he would draw it” and then turned away but did not confide in her “he raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being“. We wonder why she didn’t follow him as he left, or make a greater effort to discover the cause if his misery – if someone you loved behaved like this would you not do everything you could to find out what was troubling them, so that you could help end their misery and distress?
  • Ophelia reveals that she has broken off their relationship “as you did command I did repel his letters and denied his access to me“. Her use of the word command implies that she didn’t feel she had a choice. Her concern following his visit shows that she cares for him and did not intentionally add to his suffering. This scene also convinces us that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is genuine but he is no longer sure that he can trust her – or any woman – because of his mother’s actions and because of Ophelia’s rejection of him.

Act 3, scene 1 The Nunnery Scene

  • Ophelia is told how to behave when Hamlet appears “Walk you here…Read on this book” . Iit is probably unfair to judge her for ‘going along’ with this plan to use her as bait because she was mosly likely never consulted – she is but a pawn in a game of chess being played by her father & Claudius (as a woman & the King’s subject she must obey).
  • Any hesitations she has are probably balanced out by her desire to see Hamlet again and her hope that her father is right – that Hamlet is lovesick – because if this is true, then there is a possibility that they can be reunited, if only to cure Hamlet of his melancholy and madness. (In her mind this is probably her best chance of getting her father to approve of them as a couple).
  • Ophelia rejects Hamlet a second time by trying to return the gifts he gave her when they were together (imagine how hurt you’d be if your ex did this, as though your entire relationship meant nothing). She defends this saying “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind” implying that she once treasured these love tokens but now – because of Hamlet’s ‘unkindness’ – no longer sees them in the same light. This seems highly unfair to Hamlet. After all, she broke up with him and his unkindness towards her now (“Get thee to a nunnery“) springs from the pain of her rejection. He is deeply insulted that she thought so little of him (that he was only after her virginity) so easily (just because her father and brother said so) and this is why he makes jokes about her chastity (“I’ll give thee this plague for a dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow“). He also starts to believe that all women are this fickle and untrustworthy “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them”God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another“. He also seems to know that Polonius is spying on them – in his mind further proof that women cannot be trusted, as she seems to be helping the ‘enemy’!
  • Despite his cruel words and erratic behaviour, Ophelia refuses to think badly of Hamlet – the Hamlet she knows would never treat her like this. Again we sense that these are two star-crossed lovers torn apart by circumstances and misunderstandings yet truly in love and meant to be together.  Ophelia opts instead to believe that he is mad “O what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” “O woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, to see what I see”.

Act 3, scene 2 The Player’s Play

  • Ophelia remains calm despite Hamlet’s lewd sexual innuendos “Lady shall I lie in your lap?” “Did you think I meant country matters“. It is almost as if he is deliberately acting like a Lothario (a man who seduces women) to make fun of her belief that that’s the kind of man he is. Remember though, she only began to think this because her father put this thought in her head and now it’s possible that his behaviour is confirming for Ophelia that he really is like this!

Act 4, scene 5 Ophelia’s madness

  • Gertrude reluctantly agrees to speak to Ophelia, who enters, obviously mad, singing love songs. Her father has been murdered by the man she loves and her mind cannot cope with the horror of what has happened “I would give you some violets but they withered all when my father died“. She has moments of sanity where she contemplates the heartbreaking reality of burying her father “I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him ‘i the cold ground“.

Act 4, scene 7 & Act 5, scene 1 Ophelia’s death and funeral

  • The description of her death is one of the most haunting & poignant in all of literature and has inspired many famous paintings. Even the hardest of hearts melts with pity to hear how this beautiful innocent creature met her end “Her clothes spread wide and mermaid like awhile they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds as one incapable of her own distress“. The dramatic function of this description is to emphasise how damaging Hamlet’s delay has been for all concerned.
  • The tributes paid to Ophelia at her graveside remind the audience that she was essentially a pawn in a game she neither asked to play nor understood. Gertrude laments what could have been “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” , Laertes emphasises her innocence “Lay her ‘i th’ earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh let violets spring” (He blames Hamlet for her death because his murder of Polonius is what drove her mad) and Hamlet, blinded by grief and rage that he might be held responsible proclaims “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum“.

Ophelia’s dramatic function in the play is to do the following:

  1. Illustrate how powerless women were in Elizabethan times, living in a male-dominated society where men had absolute control over their wives and daughters.
  2. Emphasise Hamlet’s absolute isolation – if he cannot trust her, can he trust anyone?
  3. Remind us how easily true love can be destroyed, through circumstances and misunderstandings.
  4. Show how easily innocent people can get caught up in external political events and end up dead, particularly if those in power are corrupt.
  5. Highlight the tragic consequences of Hamlet’s inaction.

Now you need to organise this information into 6 coherent paragraphs

  • First look at Ophelia’s manipulation by her father and brother and how this relates to her position as a woman in this era.
  •  Examine her rejection of Hamlet & reaction when he visits her.
  • Next analyse her interaction with Hamlet in the nunnery scene and before the play.
  • Fourthly look at her madness.
  • Fifthly look at the impact of her death on the audience – the imagery used is designed to arouse our sympathy.
  • Finally discuss the tributes paid to her by other characters.

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