In Hamlet, does Ophelia actually drown herself by accident?

While it is not clear whether Ophelia drowns herself by accident, Gertrude says that Ophelia drowned herself when the "sliver" she was climbing broke and she fell into the water. However, her altered state of mind meant that she made little attempt to climb out again.

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It is important to first consider the societal context of Elizabethan England to appreciate how Shakespeare's audiences would have reacted to suicide. In this era, suicide was seen vile; those who took their own lives were often put on trial even after death, and if found guilty, their heirs were sometimes punished. Their wealth was transferred to the crown, and they were denied Christian burials. Families could often petition for a legal judgement declaring that their loved one be found non compos mentis (not in her right mind), but this was exceedingly rare.

Ophelia's death is community gossip, as evidenced by the conversation between the gravediggers who open act 5:


Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation?


I tell thee she is. Therefore make her grave straight. The crowner hath sat on her and finds it Christian burial. (v.i.1–5)

The gravediggers don't seem to buy the story that Ophelia "drowned herself in / her own defense" but is instead being given special treatment because of her position at court. Because she is a "gentlewoman," she is receiving a Christian burial that others would not have been given in the same circumstance.

It's also worth noting that Ophelia's death occurs offstage. In many ways, this represents the passive role that has been expected of Ophelia for the duration of the play. She is the pawn of various men in her life: her father, her brother, and Hamlet. Expected to perform to their wishes, Ophelia lacks a voice of her own and has no real source of support for the emotional distress that these expectations demand of her.

While it is unclear whether Ophelia climbed the "willow [which] grows aslant a brook" with the intention of killing herself, she did end up in the water as a result. At this point, Ophelia made no effort to save herself and simply allowed the water to soak her clothing and drag her to the bottom of the brook. Brooks are typically small and shallow, which means that Ophelia should have been easily able to save herself. Her death therefore seems to be no accident, but an intentional effort to take control of her life in this one final gesture, shaping her own destiny in a way that defies society's expectations of her.

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It is fairly explicit in Gertrude's commentary in act 4, scene 7 that Ophelia did not go down to the river with the express purpose of drowning herself. On the contrary, according to Gertrude, Ophelia was attempting to hang her "coronet weeds" on a bough when a "sliver" broke underneath her, with the result that she tumbled into the brook beneath. She thus entered the water accidentally. Once she was there, however, she seems to have made no attempt to free herself. Instead, she simply sings bits and pieces of "old lauds" or songs, and seems to be "incapable" of recognizing the dangerous situation in which she finds herself.

Ophelia, then, drowns herself by accident, but we can also argue that her mental state contributes significantly to her disinterest in saving herself. A person in her right mind, having fallen into a stream, would have made some attempt to save herself and may have succeeded. Ophelia has been so affected by everything that has happened to her that she proves unable even to recognize that she is in distress. It is also possible that she knows she is in distress but that some part of her mind wants to die. The point of contention here is how far Ophelia was aware that she was on the point of drowning and blocked it out and if she was too mad at this point to realize what was happening.

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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 weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto 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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