What are the different viewpoints about Ophelia's death? Is her death about revenge? What are the arguments and counterarguments?

Expert Answers
boatagainstcurrent eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ophelia's death is not an issue of revenge. What is most debated about Ophelia's death is whether it resulted from an accident or was a suicide.

Queen Gertrude is the one who breaks the news of Ophelia's death to the Kingdom, and some interpret her report as the tale of an accidental drowning. Gertrude recounts that Ophelia had been fashioning garlands with leaves of a willow tree and other flowers while sitting on a branch of the willow. "An envious sliver broke," (4.7.173), plummeting Ophelia into the water, where her heavy garments absorbed water, and she was pulled underwater to her death. Gertrude was not present at the time of Ophelia's drowning, however.

A more plausible interpretation is that Ophelia has committed suicide. Earlier in Act 4, Ophelia exhibits symptoms of madness as she wanders aimlessly around Elsinore, singing songs riddled with laments and dark metaphors. She even offers fictitious flowers to Laertes that represent, among other things, loss, duplicity, remembrance, and melancholy. Indeed, the murder of her father, Polonious, at the hands of her lover, Hamlet, has a tremendous impact on Ophelia, and her psyche seems to devolve to the point that she can see no other way out BUT suicide. Her father is dead, her lover now faces almost-certain death, and she faces the loss of her honor. 

rienzi | Student

Her death is not about revenge. There two viewpoints concerning Ophelia’s death. Was it suicide or was it an accident? Within the context of the play it is an issue for the Church. More particularly it is an issue for the Catholic Church and the “churlish priest.” The priest indicates that the Church determined that her death was a suicide  and therefore she could not be buried in sanctified ground. However the coroner acting upon the authority of the King has overruled the Church and determined that she should be properly buried. The priest though makes clear to Laertes that there will be no more than the bare minimum. 

One can argue either way. The church's position is that since the circumstances surrounding her death cannot establish the right to be buried in sanctified ground then Ophelia must be treated as a suicide. Suicide though is a deliberate and knowing act. Gertrude's account of her death is that she was incapable of her own distress, i.e., she did not appreciate the consequences of her actions. Combined with the fact that she had completely lost her mind as a result of the men in her life failing her argues that her death is accidental.