When Ophelia first appears in act 1, scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she enters with her father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, as part of the entourage of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s uncle and mother. Ophelia is neither acknowledged or addressed in this scene, and she has no lines.
King Claudius has a short conversation with Laertes, in which Laertes asks Claudius for permission to return to France. Claudius grants Laertes request, and in most productions of Hamlet, Laertes leaves the stage in the company of Ophelia, who perhaps steals a glance towards Hamlet as she exits the stage with Laertes.
Act 1, scene 3 begins with Laertes and Ophelia in conversation in Polonius’s home, where they both live. The topic of conversation quickly turns to Hamlet, and Laertes warns Ophelia about getting too close to Hamlet or believing what he says, particularly in matters of the heart, and he tells her to remain chaste and aloof from him.
Ophelia listens patiently to her brother, mindful of his love and concern for her, but she is also mindful of Laertes’s own indiscretions, which are spoken about between Polonius and Reynaldo in act 2, scene 1, when Polonius says to Reynaldo, “You must not put another scandal on him” (2.1.31):
OPHELIA. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede. (1.3.49–54)
Ophelia shows a sense of awareness of the world around her, outside the confines of the court, and shows a playful nature, at least with her brother, that is shown only one other time in the play, in the “play-within-a-play” scene, act 3, scene 2. She also shows herself as a little bit feisty in confronting her brother, a characteristic which isn’t shown again until she confronts Claudius and Gertrude about the death of her father in her “mad scene,” in act 4, scene 5. Claudius is concerned enough about Ophelia’s directness with him that he orders Horatio to “follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you” (4.5.77).
Polonius enters act 1, scene 3, interrupting Laertes and Ophelia’s conversation, and he urges Laertes to hurry aboard his ship to France. Throughout the rest of the scene, Ophelia is deferential and obedient to Polonius, if somewhat secretive about her relationship with Hamlet, even though Polonius denigrates what appears to be Hamlet’s love for her, and speaks to her like he's a man of the world and she’s just a child.
In act 3, scene 1, Ophelia is used as a pawn by Claudius and Polonius to draw Hamlet into revealing the reason for what Claudius and Polonius believe is his “madness” while they eavesdrop on Ophelia and Hamlet’s conversation. Rather than reveal the source of his “madness,” however, Hamlet angrily lashes out at Ophelia for being part of Claudius and Polonius’s all-too-obvious eavesdropping plot, and he further castigates Ophelia as a representative of women in general, and of his own mother in particular.
Ophelia is frightened and dismayed by Hamlet’s behavior:
OPHELIA. O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown! …
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see! (3.1.159, 164–170)
Nevertheless, in the very next scene, act 3, scene 2—the “play-within-a-play” scene— Ophelia seems to have recovered from her “get thee to a nunnery!” ordeal with Hamlet. She banters with him in a somewhat sexually suggestive manner before the play begins, and generally comports herself as if nothing has happened between them, even when Hamlet makes a pointed remark about their relationship:
HAMLET. Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?
OPHELIA. 'Tis brief, my lord.
HAMLET. As woman's love. (3.2.141–143)
Ophelia doesn’t appear in the play again until her “mad scene,” act 4, scene 5, by which time it’s apparent to everyone that Ophelia’s emotional state has deteriorated significantly:
GENTLEMAN. She speaks much of her father; says she hears
There's tricks i' the world; and hems, and beats her heart;
Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,
That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily. (4.5.5–15)
At first, Gertrude doesn’t want to speak with Ophelia. Horatio senses Gertrude’s indecision, and suggests that it would be better for Gertrude to see Ophelia than risk what she might say to Laertes and others about her father’s death.
Ophelia enters the scene and sings heartfelt songs about her father and bawdy songs which seem to make reference to Hamlet. Ophelia exits the scene, but returns after Laertes breaks into the room to confront Claudius about Polonius’s death. Ophelia strews flowers around the room and gives flowers to Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and herself, making symbolic references to each of them by the flower she gives them and the comments she makes as she does so.
Ophelia’s transformation causes Claudius to have concerns for his own safety, which is why he tells Horatio to follow her when she exits the scene. Gertrude tries to talk with Ophelia, but doesn’t understand what’s happened to her, and Gertrude says absolutely nothing about Ophelia after her attempt at conversation with her. Laertes is shocked and grieved by Ophelia’s appearance and behavior, which further inflames his desire to revenge his father’s death against Hamlet:
LAERTES. Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!
O heavens! is't possible a young maid's wits
Should be as mortal as an old man's life? (4.5.173–175)
Ophelia exits the scene after she sings a song to her father, and remarks to all, “And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi' you” (4.5.215).
Ophelia doesn’t again appear in the play, but Gertrude interrupts Claudius and Laertes plotting Hamlet’s death to them that Ophelia is dead:
GERTRUDE. One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes. (4.7.178–179)
Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes conclude that Ophelia committed suicide, but that conclusion is open to question, as are Ophelia's reasons for doing so. It appears from Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death that Ophelia accidentally fell into the brook, and “As one incapable of her own distress” (5.7.193), she was pulled down into the water by “her garments, heavy with their drink” (4.7.196).
No mention is made in the play as to whether Gertrude observed Ophelia’s death herself, or if the events of Ophelia’s death were told to Gertrude by someone else very near enough to the scene to see exactly what happened. The question arises, though, as to why Gertrude or whoever else might have observed Ophelia’s drowning made no effort to help her, but simply let her be pulled down to her “muddy death” (4.7.198).