Is Ophelia the ultimate loser of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Not only does she die before everyone else, but it is by apparent suicide. She follows the usual directives of her time, taking and heeding the advice of her father; however, her father, Polonius, is the fool of the play, and he leads her astray. Having no mind of her own, Ophelia is forced to follow the advice of the time period and loses her mind in the process. Let’s follow the course of Ophelia’s naivety to her insanity.
Polonius is an addled old man and Ophelia listens to him, doing just what he says. Not only is she obedient to her father, but she proclaims her obedience in Act II when she says, "I did repel his letters and denied / His access to me." Ophelia then goes further in reporting Hamlet's actions towards her and, therefore, is spying on her boyfriend. Ophelia is confused when confronted by Hamlet, who is either sporting his “antic disposition” or has truly gone crazy. Ophelia tells her father what happens when she is sewing. Hamlet appears with “his doublet all unbraced; / No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle / ... his knees knocking each other" and with a "piteous look" as if he had just come "from hell." It is then that Ophelia naively reports to her dad that Hamlet "took me by the wrist and held me hard," he shakes her arm, he "raised a sign so piteous and profound" and then let her off on her own. Therefore, considering her unbridled obedience to her addled dad, Ophelia must believe Polonius about Hamlet’s love, actions, and behavior. In this way, Ophelia can (sort of unjustly) be blamed (albeit indirectly) for a betrayal of Hamlet’s affections.
Ophelia is also naïve in regards to Hamlet’s insults and admits such. Hamlet spends the latter half of Act III yelling at Ophelia, who remains completely confused. Let’s look at the lines that confuse poor Ophelia:
Hamlet. Ha, ha! Are you honest?
Ophelia. My lord?
Hamlet. Are you fair?
Ophelia. What means your lordship?
Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
Here, Hamlet uses the words “honest” and “fair” with double meaning. First, these words literally ask if Ophelia has been truthful and regarding honor. Additionally, there is a more vulgar meaning of both words that puts Hamlet into the realm of innuendo. Ophelia doesn’t understand that by asking her if she is “honest” and “fair,” Hamlet can also be asking her if she is a virgin and chaste, or if she, in fact, has sex with many men. Due to Hamlet’s insinuations, he relieves himself of his promises to her as a “girlfriend.”
Next, one must consider the use of the word "nunnery" in this scene. The word nunnery does have an obvious meaning: a convent (a place where Roman Catholic Sisters spend their lives going to Mass, praying, and living in Christ’s service). Ophelia most likely thinks Hamlet is telling her to go ahead and become a nun because he is not going to marry her and neither will anyone else. The base meaning that Ophelia probably doesn’t understand is that yelling, "Get the to a nunnery!" is a reference to Ophelia’s offenses against chastity. In Shakespeare's time, it was not always the most virtuous of girls. Because of the latter insinuation, a “nunnery” is also a reference to a whorehouse.
Finally, let’s look at how naïve Ophelia is in reference to the concept of “love.” Does Ophelia realize that Hamlet uses love as a weapon against her? Probably not. She is so confused in this scene, but she does admit that Hamlet gave her "many tenders of affection" and now admits that she thought Hamlet was in love with her because she says, "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so." Further, the naïve Ophelia can be seen as driven to madness when, in her efforts to understand, Hamlet yells the opposite to her: "I did love you once," yet only a few lines later, Hamlet proclaims, "I loved you not."
Unable to come to grips with what is really going on here, Ophelia ends up forfeiting her own sanity.