In Hamlet, does Ophelia actually drown herself by accident?
The answer to this question depends a great deal on whether you believe Ophelia to be truly mad by the time that she kills herself. It is certain to my mind that the Ophelia the audience is presented with in Act IV is very different from the Ophelia who the audience meets at the beginning of the play. The double loss of both her lover, Hamlet, and the death of her father, Polonius, and the fact that Polonius was killed by Hamlet, has clearly unhinged her mind. Therefore, as a result, she cannot be considered responsible for her actions. Even when this is taken into consideration, looking at Gertrude's report of Ophelia's death in Act IV scene 7, it seems apparent that chance played a great part in Ophelia's death, as well as her own madness and inability to act:
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weedsClambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,When down her weedy trophies and herselfFell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,Which time she chanted snatches of old laudsAs one incapable of her own distress,Or like a creature native and induedUnto that element.
Gertrude states that Ophelia fell into the water when she was trying to hang her "fantastic garlands" on a tree and one of the branches broke. However, what is curious is that even when she was in the water she was "one incapable of her own distress," not aware of the danger she was in. Even though she was in the water, she did not struggle to escape the river, but instead sung "snatches of old lauds," until finally the weight of the water seeping into her thick and heavy clothes pulled her under the water and she drowned. Ophelia's death therefore was an accident to the extent that her madness made her blind to the danger that she was in. The way in which Gertrude described her as being like a "creature native and indued" to the element of water almost suggests that her madness rendered her more fit for a different world than the world of humans that the rest of the characters live in.
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