Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramaturgy was an integral and perhaps the essential part of the literature of the time. One of the most prominent dramatists of the period is William Shakespeare, whose character analysis of Hamlet will be presented in this paper. According to the plot, Hamlet sees his father’s spirit; he tells him that Claudius killed him to gain the throne and the queen and demands revenge. Hamlet decides to do his father’s will and accidentally kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius. Hamlet’s beloved, not having survived the news of his father’s death, becomes insane and drowns in the river. Claudius confronts Hamlet and Laertes; before he dies, the prince kills Claudius, and the Norwegian ruler takes the throne. Many admire and sympathize with a particular image in this Shakespearean tragedy. It is Ophelia, the daughter of the royal advisor Polonius. She can be called the embodiment of femininity in the traditional sense – she is beautiful, sweet, and uncomplaining. Ophelia goes mad at the end of the play because of her tragic fate, appearing to be the exact opposite of Hamlet’s condition.
Ophelia, being a positive and sensible character at the beginning of the play, loses her mind at the end of the play. The heroine’s first signs of insanity appear after she sees Hamlet kill her father. The girl could not cope with the grief of realizing that the man she loved and continues to love had robbed her of her only support in this world (Bayley 56). Shakespeare describes Ophelia’s madness in the scene where she weaves wreaths by the river and hums sad melodies. The main argument favoring Ophelia’s madness is her death by suicide. During Ophelia’s funeral, without assuming who is being buried, Hamlet guesses from the ceremony that they are burying someone who has committed suicide.
” Who is that they follow,
And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken,
The corpse they follow did with desperate hand
Fordo it own life.” (5.1.200-203)
As one can see, the girl is buried as a suicide, which is an indication that she departed from life of her own volition. It was only thanks to the king and queen that the statute was relaxed, for suicide is a grave sin condemned by the church. It is also important to note that even before Ophelia’s death, her father speaks of her being separated from herself and from the thought of light, without which we are only beasts or pictures. These words are because the insane person has no control over himself and is unaware of his actions. This once again confirms Ophelia’s insanity, for a man of sound mind cannot kill himself at will.
The cause of Ophelia’s deprivation of sanity is her tragic fate shown in the play. Ophelia appears to the audience in her relationship with her brother, her father, and Prince Hamlet, with whom she is in love. Raised at court, the heroine is very lonely. She is surrounded by people who do not care about her. Her father, Polonius, spies on her, and on learning that she is dating the prince, he tries to prevent this love. This is because his daughter is beneath Hamlet in rank and because Hamlet is from a different side; he is a rival of Claudius, on whom Polonius is betting. Both their father and brother demand that she renounces her love for the prince. Ophelia herself does not fully believe that Hamlet’s intentions are serious. She speaks more freely to Laertes and responds half-jokingly to his warnings:
“But, good my brother,
Do not – as some ungracious pastors do –
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.” (1.3.48-52)
Ophelia stops seeing Hamlet and accepts letters from him. The last meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia takes place the evening before the play The Murder of Gonzaga. Hamlet sits down at the girl’s feet, deliberately speaking harshly and vulgarly. Ophelia patiently endures everything, secretly confident of some fault of her own and the prince’s madness. And then, Hamlet kills Polonius, and the girl is deprived of her only foothold in life (Boorman 33). The man she continues to love turns out to be her father’s murderer. This is a shock that the poor mind cannot bear. Ophelia’s logic of madness accommodates several obsessions: her father’s death, the trampled love, and the world’s cruelty. Her death is a sad pattern: such a pure, trusting creature has no place in a court where evil and treachery reign. She was used and thrown out of the world. And Hamlet’s lively contrition over her grave cannot undo anything. Ophelia has been loved too little, and no one has been able to keep her safe – that is her tragedy.
Ophelia’s sincere madness is entirely different from Hamlet’s feigned and calculated madness. The prince says he is mad, but most of his actions are carefully considered. He uses madness as a screen to mislead his opponent.
“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is
southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” (2.2.312–313)
These words of Hamlet imply that just as the wind blows only occasionally from north-north-west, so he is only sometimes struck by madness. Ophelia’s madness, however, is absolute, as evidenced by her lack of rationality in her behavior. In her case, the main irrational act is a suicide, which a person cannot decide to do in his right mind. In addition to that, Ophelia committed suicide deliberately; another circumstance also indicates that her recklessness is natural. The death of her father, combined with the fact that the murderer is the man she loves, may be reason enough for her to go mad. Every man has his strength of mind, and Ophelia, bred at court, was not noted for her mental stamina (Trillini 45). That is why the events that happened to her were enough to drive her mad.
To summarize, Ophelia’s madness was caused by her hard fate. At the same time, her real tragedy is radically opposite to Hamlet’s feigned and calculating behavior. The girl is the embodiment of purity and, in a way, naivety. At the same time, the neglectful behavior and those around her, and finally, the betrayal by the man she loves, drive her mad. Ophelia’s suicide was a tragic but expected outcome, for she was too pure and innocent for all the turmoil at court. Ophelia became a bargaining chip in the struggle for men for the throne and eventually died because of one of them. Hamlet is indirectly responsible for her death, for it was he who killed her father, the only support and pillar in the girl’s life. Thus, Ophelia, as a character, demonstrates the plight of a girl at court who wants to love and be loved but instead is drawn into the men’s struggle for power.
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy. Routledge, 2021.
Boorman, Stanley. Human Conflict in Shakespeare. Routledge, 2018.
Trillini, Regula Hohl. Casual Shakespeare: Three Centuries of Verbal Echoes. Routledge, 2018.
William Shakespeare. Hamlet. Simon & Schuster, 2015.