Ophelia

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Last Updated on September 11, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660

Extended Character Analysis

Ophelia is Polonius’s daughter, Laertes’s sister, and Hamlet’s former love-interest. Throughout the play, Ophelia is described as sweet and chaste, the ideal daughter who obeys her father’s wishes and follows orders. However, after her rejection by Hamlet and the death of her father, Ophelia goes mad, ultimately drowning in what many suspect to be a suicide.  

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As Laertes departs for France, he warns Ophelia that Hamlet’s attentions may be fleeting—an intuition echoed by her father. They demand that Ophelia stop seeing Hamlet, reminding her that as a prince, Hamlet will not be able to marry her since she is below his station. Ophelia protests weakly, but ultimately bows to the wishes of her family and begins avoiding Hamlet. Ophelia’s obedience is often remarked upon as a positive character trait. However, it is her blind obedience to her father’s will that ultimately destroys her life. Rather than trusting her own instincts and continuing her courtship with Hamlet, she cuts him off, ultimately leading him to deny any former love he had for her. 

As opposed to Laertes and Hamlet, who possess ample freedom, Ophelia’s life is dominated by the need to maintain the appearance of virtue and chastity. The male figures in her life police her sexuality and relationships, forcing her to live a life of isolation and self-denial. Much like Gertrude, Ophelia lacks true agency, instead being defined and confined by men. In Polonius’s eyes, Ophelia must be protected and preserved so that she can make an advantageous marriage. In Hamlet’s eyes, Ophelia is full of the same “frailty” that he charges all women with, a corrupting force that will betray him just as he believes his mother has betrayed him and his father. The only real choice Ophelia makes is to take her own life—and even the reality of that outcome is up for debate. 

Ophelia’s character arc can be read in several different ways. By one reading, she is the ultimate victim, a chaste and innocent girl swept into madness by patriarchal abuse and self-denial. By this interpretation, the true tragedy of Ophelia is that she does nothing wrong. She does exactly what a woman was expected to do by listening to her father and preserving her virtue, only to end up mad once the structures of her life crumble. Ophelia’s apparent suicide is described as a passive affair, reminiscent of her docile obedience in life: she simply lets herself drown because she cannot function independently.

Ophelia’s character can also be viewed from a different angle. The songs Ophelia sings after going mad are full of innuendo and references to lost virtue. These songs open up the reading that Laertes and Polonius’s warnings about Hamlet came too late and that Ophelia is no longer as chaste as others claim. As she sings, Ophelia also passes out flowers, symbolically allowing herself to be “deflowered.” The interpretation that Ophelia is not as chaste as others think alters the meaning of her death. Rather than being the virtuous and passive sacrifice to a world that never taught her how to function independently, Ophelia’s tragedy becomes more personal. Ophelia is spurned by her lover and left without the protection of her father, her madness stemming from a combination of guilt, fear, and the knowledge that her act of agency and willfulness has ruined her in society's eyes.

Regardless of how one reads Ophelia, her death stands as a testament to the double-standard present between men and women in her society. While Laertes is told “to thine own self be true,” Ophelia is treated as an object whose worth depends on her denying her own needs and desires. Even in death, Ophelia is treated as an object; Laertes and Hamlet compete over who loved her more, with neither man able to recognize the role he played in her tragedy. 

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