By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Although it isn’t openly stated, it is implied that Ophelia is Hamlet’s ‘girlfriend’: his betrothed, the woman he will marry. Like Hamlet, she is part of the royal court, and her father, Polonius, is a lord – so although she isn’t royalty like Hamlet, she would be a suitable match for him in Danish society.
Ophelia is used by two men in the play – her father and Hamlet – as a pawn for them to enact their deceptions. Polonius uses Ophelia to try to determine what the cause of Hamlet’s madness is (although Polonius, arrogantly, already assumes he knows that Hamlet is ‘mad for [her] love’).
Similarly, Hamlet, determined to convince Polonius and Claudius that he is mad, speaks in riddles to Ophelia and verbally attacks her. When Hamlet kills Polonius,stabbing him when Polonius is hiding behind the arras in Gertrude’s chamber, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself.
Ophelia thus became one of Shakespeare’s most famous female tragic figures, along with Cleopatra, Cordelia, Desdemona, and, of course, Juliet. But unlike Cleopatra or Juliet, we cannot exactly call her a tragic heroine, for her rapid mental decline and suicide aren’t placed centre-stage for long.
The flower-strewing scene (IV.5) is her most famous scene, and it obviously echoes Hamlet’s own ‘madness’ in one sense (it confuses Gertrude and the rest of the court) but unlike Hamlet’s, is (we assume) entirely genuine.
Whereas Hamlet is ‘but mad north-north-west’, Ophelia is truly insane by this point. However, like Hamlet she has been severely affected by the murder of her father. Whereas Hamlet only ponders suicide (the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy), Ophelia does actually take her own life, although this occurs off-stage.
The other most famous scene involving Ophelia is III.1, when Hamlet tells Ophelia to ‘get thee to a nunnery’ (where ‘nunnery’ can either be taken literally or be interpreted as a euphemism for ‘brothel’). As the ensuing speech makes clear, this appears to be less an attack on Ophelia herself and, in fact, not even an attack on women as such, but a tirade against all of humanity.
For Hamlet, the problem with women is not that they themselves are flawed (although we should remember Hamlet’s disgust at his own mother here, which is laced with misogyny) but that they give birth to such useless, worthless men:
Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.
Ophelia’s problem, for Hamlet, lies not in herself but in what Danish society will encourage her to do: marry and give birth to ‘sinners’. And marry him, specifically. All men, even Hamlet himself, are ‘arrant knaves’.
The real tragedy of the character of Ophelia, then, is that she is not a tragic heroine as much as she is collateral damage in Hamlet’s mission to seek revenge for his father’s murder.
The things which destroy Ophelia – his feigned madness and verbal abuse towards her, and his inadvertent killing of her father, believing Polonius to be Claudius – are part of Hamlet’s headlong campaign to get to the truth. Poor Ophelia gets caught up in all this, and it destroys her.