How would one describe Ophelia?

How would one describe Ophelia? 

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ophelia is a young female character in Hamlet. She is the daughter of Polonius, who is an adviser to King Claudius. She is also the sister of Laertes. Prince Hamlet has told Ophelia that he loves her, but both her father and brother, when she confides in them, warn her that princes are obliged to make marriages of state and thus are not free to follow their romantic inclinations. Ophelia promises to follow their advice and avoid Hamlet's company. Hamlet, in an effort to make his madness convincing, talks in a bizarre way to Ophelia, eventually rejecting her completely.

Ophelia is a somewhat naive, innocent, and sentimental young woman, who genuinely loves Hamlet but also wants to please her family. Caught between the machinations of Hamlet and her family, she eventually descends into madness and commits suicide. 

ctells44 | Student

Ophelia is one of two principal female characters in Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Her father is the busy-body Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, ultimately kills Hamlet. There is no mention of her mother. Ophelia is also the would-be wife of Hamlet, and some scholars have pointed to literary evidence that Ophelia is pregnant with Hamlet's child.

At the beginning of the play, Polonius and Laertes forbid Ophelia from acknowledging Hamlet anymore, convincing her to ghost out on him, saying that it's dangerous to fall in love with a prince because he is out of her reach. They speak in patronizing language. For example, Polonius says, "I'll teach you: think yourself a baby; / That you have taken these tenders for true pay, / Which are not sterling" (I.iii.). In other words, they do not trust her to think for herself, they consider her a baby, and make decisions for her.

This causes interactions between Ophelia and Hamlet to be wrought with tension because Ophelia, without explanation, is suddenly ignoring Hamlet. First, Ophelia describes to her father that Hamlet has confronted her when she was alone, using physical force (ex. "He took me by the wrist and held me hard" II.i.) and staring at her for a long time without saying anything. Then, there is the famous "nunnery" scene where Hamlet demands Ophelia go to a nunnery. The context of this scene is that Polonius has arranged a sting operation and planted Ophelia to catch Hamlet in the act of being crazy. In both examples we see Ophelia reeling with confusion and pain at Hamlet's unhinged behavior, despite Ophelia's complicity in her father's agenda.

After Hamlet inadvertently kills Polonius, Ophelia begins to spiral into a laconic state, singing riddles and folk songs on the topics of sex, death, and virginity, rather than communicating directly with others. When Laertes, her brother, returns from university and sees his sister in this state he is horrified and vengeful.

Queen Gertrude witnesses and describes Ophelia's death. Ophelia was climbing a tree near a brooke to hang her flowers. When a branch broke she fell into the stream. She sang songs, floating in the stream, but her heavy clothes eventually pulled her under to her death. 

Photo: Ophelia, Painting by John Everett Millais, 1852

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