An Analysis Of Ophelia’s Madness In Hamlet

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a political play about the struggle of a young Danish prince, Hamlet, to avenge the murder of his father. In his distress, he casts aside his lover, Ophelia, who spends the majority of the play confused and bewildered by the prince’s actions. At the same time, she is pressured by her brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius, to stay away from Hamlet. After her father has been stabbed by Hamlet, Ophelia subsequently goes mad and drowns in a brook, though it is unclear whether or not she committed suicide. Ophelia’s madness is a result of her inability to cope with the manipulation of the male figures in her life, ultimately making her a symbol of ruined purity.

The patriarchal society of Denmark’s nobility has already oppressed Ophelia, forcing her to be subservient to others, despite her own wishes. Her subordination is evident from the very beginning of the play, in which she follows the demands of her brother and father to reject Hamlet’s love. She attempts to argue her brother’s orders, “But, good my brother, / Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads / And recks not his own rede” (1.3.50-55), indicating that she truly does believe Hamlet’s words of affection and has an opinion in the matter. However, when her father says “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth / Have you so slander any moment leisure / As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. / Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways,” she replies with only “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.141-145). Ophelia is expected to act passively, giving in to her father’s will, despite the protestations she gave to her brother. In Denmark’s society, there is no way for Ophelia to express her own opinion, especially since young women like her are often expected to act demure and ladylike to become good marriage candidates. In the end, she is forced to avoid Hamlet, thereby closing her heart to him and setting herself on the path to self-destruction.

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Ophelia becomes the victim of manipulation when she is used by her father and King Claudius to spy on Hamlet, thus rendering her as impure in the eyes of the prince. Claudius and Polonius have Ophelia interact with Hamlet while they watch from a distance, intent on finding a reason for Hamlet’s feigned madness. When Hamlet asks, “Where’s your father?” Ophelia replies, “At home, my lord,” to which Hamlet remarks, “Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in his own house. Farewell” (3.1.141-144). Perhaps Hamlet has realized that Ophelia is lying, as Polonius is actually spying on him, or he has caught on that Ophelia is being used in a ruse, and her concern for him may not be genuine. Hamlet, in his madness, berates Ophelia, saying “You jig and amble, and you ; you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness ignorance” (3.1.156-158). He accuses Ophelia of being deceiving and a temptress, using his madness as a way of blaming her for allowing others to take advantage of her and her passiveness. When he leaves, Ophelia laments, “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, / That sucked the honey of his musicked vows, / Now see noble and most sovereign reason… Blasted with ecstasy” (3.1.169-174). After believing that Hamlet truly loved her, her emotions are wrecked as he tells her he no longer loves her and instead, berates her. She is not only used by her father as an object of persuasion and entrapment in hopes of catching Hamlet acting strangely, but she is also tossed aside as a sinful object of desire in Hamlet’s eyes. Because of this deception that she unwillingly gets wrapped up in, Ophelia becomes impure, no longer completely innocent.

Ophelia’s madness is her final vent of frustration. Her lamentations about lost maidenhood and innocence are likely a mourning for her sanity cracking under pressures from male figures. As she sings songs of death and betrayal, Claudius remarks: “O, this is the poison of deep grief. It springs / All from her father’s death, and now behold!…poor Ophelia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment,/ Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts” (4.5.80- 93). Instead of questioning what Ophelia’s madness is truly caused by, the people around her attribute it to the loss of her father. The fact that they believe her life revolves around her father shows that in noble society, women are expected to be subordinate to their fathers and husbands. To the characters, Ophelia’s madness is assumed to be caused by the fact she now has neither a husband nor a father. However, she sings, “How should I your true love know / From another one?…He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone” (4.5.28-35). This shows that Ophelia’s madness is partially caused by Hamlet – he has left her heartbroken and betrayed. It is the contradiction between what Polonius says to her – which is to stay away from Hamlet – and Hamlet’s rejection of her despite her love for him, which causes Ophelia to feel trapped and distraught. There is no other way for her to escape besides madness because it’s the only way where she will no longer have to act in the proper way she was taught to without losing her honor. However, she already has lost her purity, as her insanity has muddied her innocence to the point of no return.

Even Ophelia’s death is passive, as described by Gertrude: “When down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook…But long it could not be / Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death” (4.7.197-208). She is weighed down by her clothing and pulled down by the water, making no visible effort to fight death – it is a parallel to how she is pulled down by the constraints of her society, yet unable to find an escape. The muddying of Ophelia’s innocence under the suppression of Danish court society and her eventual descent into madness is what marks her as a tragic yet memorable heroine in literature.

Character Analysis Of Ophelia In Hamlet

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there’s pansies. That’s for thoughts.” Ophelia is an interesting character. In modern times, she’d be the girl everyone secretly despised — the teacher’s pet who always followed the rules and never even tiptoed the line.

But Ophelia is also so very complex. When I think of her, I imagine abuse. It isn’t physical; she has been described as a beauty to behold or something of that sort. It isn’t emotional either. Her parents didn’t degrade her or neglect her. And the type of abuse I perceive most likely wasn’t considered abuse back then and arguably wouldn’t be considered abuse now.

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Ophelia was raised in a wealthy family with everything she could ever dream of. But as the trade-off, she was also raised to be completely obedient to her male relatives — her father and brother. Back then, of course, it was normal for women to be raised to be subservient to men, but most of them were able to retain some of their own true personality, like Gertrude. Ophelia, however, had lost her mother, who most likely would have helped raise her a bit differently. With only her father and brother around, Ophelia was molded into the epitome of a subservient woman, with no true personality.

Shakespeare used Ophelia as a background character. As Hamlet’s ‘love interest’, she was supposedly the love of his life. Then, amidst all of Hamlet’s eccentric stunts, he forgets her, and when he does remember her, she simply reminds him of why he hates women. Despite his own mother, Gertrude, being the primary cause, Ophelia becomes his scapegoat. Shakespeare also used her to foreshadow certain events, such as her own insanity and Hamlet’s demise. He wrote her as the link between Hamlet and Laertes. She was their weakness, their headache, and their reason to keep on getting up in the morning. Nevertheless, she doesn’t change — she remains the quiet, subservient young woman she was raised to be.

Ophelia is torn between two masters, although she is no servant. Her masters being Hamlet, the master of her heart, and Polonius, the master of her family. Of course, no one wants to have to choose between love and family. When Ophelia is forced to choose and sides with her family, she descends into madness. Her psyche is compelled into seeking equilibrium. As part of this process, she also reverts to the values she was taught. That would be nearly impossible for a typical person with a regular psyche. However, because the choice Ophelia made fractured her psyche, this search consumed her sanity and shattered it.

She began singing nonsensical songs and incessantly picking flowers. Here is an example of one of her songs:

They bore him barefaced on the bier;

Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny;

“And on his grave rains many a tear”-

“Fare you well, my dove!”

In the only way she knew how, she was expressing her sadness at her father’s death. The flowers she picked also symbolized remembrance and regret. However, her madness, and consequently her death, did have its pluses, although not for her. Ophelia’s death was what led Hamlet to realize he did love her, albeit a bit late, yet he still realized it. Her death was also the breaking point for Laertes; it was what gave him the drive to kill Hamlet.

Although Ophelia was a side character and could almost be considered flat if not for the unique brand of insanity Shakespeare chose to write for her, without Ophelia many things would not have happened. Ophelia symbolizes the beauty of death and the ugliness of life. For in death, she looked like a mermaid, and in life, she was but a slave to her father. Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny.

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