The Tragedy of Ophelia

constantin emile-ophelie

Constantin Meunier, Ophélie.

Speaking of defenses of too-oft ignored female characters. . . have an essay I thought I’d posted before on Ophelia.

Ophelia is the emotional center of Hamlet. While Hamlet entertains himself muddling over intellectual quandaries, Ophelia is where the real emotion lies, where the pathos is evoked. Indeed, she acts much like a sponge, soaking up emotion and thought from those around her, though producing nothing herself. However, the fact that she produces nothing, shows nothing is not evidence of the fact that she is nothing, as many have interpreted her to be. In fact quite the opposite.

When we first meet Ophelia, her speech is purely reactive—she answers questions and soaks up advice; she does nothing without having been prompted, she speaks only when spoken to. She is the image of discretion and politeness. This initial state is summed up nicely when she says, in response to a question from her father about whether she believes Hamlet to be sincere in his affection, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think,” (I.3.113). Ophelia’s saying this is not in the slightest evidence for an argument that Ophelia does not think or is empty of opinion or feeling. Really, it is the opposite: she does not know what she should think, what she is supposed to think, but she does, in fact, think. Here we have evidence of an intelligent person perfect in her discretion. Her saying this, though, comes off as something of an appeal to be told what to think and Polonius (and everyone else in the court) only obliges all too eagerly, offering her advice, telling her what to do and what not to do. Polonius is guilty of the same crime against his daughter that a casual reader is: he takes her for empty, a shallow vessel for him to fill up with his thoughts and opinions as she is incapable of filling herself up on her own.  And because Ophelia is well bred and ladylike she allows for this to happen, protesting not one bit against the repression that is a fact of her life, perpetrated by her father, her brother, her potential lover against her simply because they do not see her as a person capable of depth. As a result, it is hard  for the reader to distinguish who exactly Ophelia is. Her exterior is almost entirely defined by others—her father and brother particularly—that it is near impossible to uncover what constitutes Ophelia herself. We see her only through other characters, hear her only filtered through them. Because of this, it may appear that Ophelia is a one-dimensional character, invented by Shakespeare simply to play the innocent victim of circumstance—a gimmick to evoke emotion from his audience. However, this is not the case. Ophelia is a complex character in her own right, whose tragedy is, if not greater than Hamlet’s, at least equal, and certainly is the greater emotional tragedy of the two.


Theodor von der Beek

Because Ophelia has never had an opportunity to define herself by her own means, express herself without first being filtered through another person, she has never gained any ability to express her self. This is not to say that she then does not have a self. Indeed, she very clearly does. When Laertes, in her first scene on stage, begins to give her advice and warns her to be wary of Hamlet’s affections, Ophelia does not meekly agree and submit to him. Instead she is almost rebellious, flippantly responding “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” (I.3.48-50), calling Laertes out on his hypocrisy in telling her not to do just what he himself does: tread the primrose path of dalliance. Here we see a glimmer of the real Ophelia. An independent, astute, clever Ophelia. Perhaps this spark shows itself because she is more comfortable with her brother than with the rest of the world and see him as closer to her equal than others (after all, we do not know how close in age they are or, indeed, which is older, though it is generally assumed that Laertes is), or perhaps Ophelia merely forgets herself for a moment. However, this glimmer of independence is soon snuffed out when Polonius enters and repeats the same advice Laertes has already given her, only he phrases it rather more like a command. And Ophelia, good daughter that she is, is cowed, and replies only “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.145). She has no choice other than to listen to her father’s wishes and, as such, he extinguishes any spark of her independence.

Examining Polonius’ language in this scene, it becomes clear exactly how he views his only daughter: as a commodity, rather than a person. Polonius’ warnings to Ophelia are full of economic metaphors; he even counsels Ophelia to “tender [herself] more dearly, / Or … /… [she]’’ tender [him] a fool,” (1.3.116-118). Polonius makes no attempt to hide how he views his daughter. She is a good to him, a good for which he must fetch a high price or look the fool. This is far more about him than it is about her. Ophelia is not a real, full person, not only to casual readers of the play, but to her own father. Indeed Polonius uses Ophelia throughout the play as a pawn for his own political and material advancement. When he realizes that Hamlet’s affection for Ophelia is real, he immediately abandons his initial advice to his daughter, changing his mind not for her benefit, but for his. Ophelia is nothing more than a tool to Polonius and because she is not treated like a person, she cannot express herself as one. She is instead repressed, driven into herself, and doomed to a fate of forever being thought simple and thoughtless.


Odilon Redon (one of my favorite painters—!)

So when her father is murdered while her brother is away, Ophelia is suddenly at a loss. She is suddenly free of the repression she has felt all her life and has no idea what to do with this new freedom. Since she has been defined by others all her life, always said and thought and done what others wanted her to, she has no idea how to express herself now that she has the opportunity to do so. She is free and she is alone. She must think for herself, make her own choices. And to do that, she needs a way to express herself, a voice. But she has no idea how to create one, save through what seems madness. Whether or not Ophelia really is driven mad is immaterial.A madness, stemming from her loss of Hamlet (for which she blames herself) and exacerbated by her father’s murder (for which she blames herself by extension) is completely understandable. And whether or not it is a real madness or simply an outpouring of emotion, it is important as her first real self expression. Her language in her madness, broken up as it is by fragments of love songs and metaphors of flowers, grows chaotic, leaving her earlier tightly worded replies in the dust. This is an unfettered Ophelia. An Ophelia who does not worry about what she should say or think, but an Ophelia bursting with feeling. Because she is mad, Ophelia is able to express herself and break the strict social conventions that she is bound by as a young woman. When she speaks with Gertrude in scene 5 of Act IV, there is a fire in her, a little bit of which we saw earlier when she joked with Laertes. Through the language of Ophelia’s madness, we learn more about her than we ever have before. “Lord, we know what we are but know not what we may be,” (IV.5.48-49) she says in one of her spouts of fancy. Ophelia is now aware of her situation and station in the world. Freed of the repression of her father, she sees the world for what it is and understands her place in it: “we know what we are.” However, with this freedom and understanding comes an incomprehension of the future. Ophelia has no idea where to go from here. Everything she has known all her life has just been turned upside down and discarded. She is suddenly allowed to be her own person and she has no idea how to cope with it. She has no idea, too, more materially, what is to become of her. Her situation with Hamlet is uncertain at best. Her father is dead, her brother is like to try and murder the prince. And yet, in the midst of all this, no one is thinking of her, save herself. And she has no idea what to do with these thoughts. Hence: “we know not what we may be.” This is a certain kind of wisdom flowing from the lips of the supposedly silly, empty-headed Ophelia. It is certainly evidence of a complexity well-hidden in the earlier part of the play. Freed of her restraints, Ophelia begins to crack open and everything she has kept inside all these years begins to pour out of her—unorganized, unchecked, because she has no experience with expression. This might very well seem like madness on its own, particularly as it flouts the expectations of a young girl at court so violently, were it not then combined with the grief and guilt and confusion that came with her father’s death.

Then, scarcely two scenes following her “mad ramblings,” her laments for Hamlet and mournings for her father, she is dead. Dead, without ever having been able to forge her own true identity. Dead, blaming herself for Hamlet’s madness and by extension for her father’s death. Dead because she lacked any other option but to die. And all this tragedy of her death is compounded by the fact that not even her death escapes reinterpretation and appropriation by other people. It is filtered first through whatever eyewitness who was at hand and reported to Gertrude and then through Gertrude to Laertes and the reader. Even her death is not a statement of her own to make, but instead still a thing moulded and interpreted by other characters—like everything else about her—before it is handed down to the audience.

This idea is confirmed by the discrepancies in the accounts of her death: Gertrude very clearly describes Ophelia as having fallen into the river accidentally whereas the priest and the gravedigger believe with certainty that Ophelia killed herself, an idea for which they must have some evidence, though from where we know not. These two interpretations of Ophelia’s death are appropriations of it. They wrest the significance of her death away from Ophelia and turn her passing into a philosophical debate. The reality of the young dead girl is forgotten by those who remain alive, left behind in the wake of abstract concepts which have no baring on reality.

ophelia theodor von der beekPaul Delaroche, La Jeune Martyre. (Trust me, you can never have too many paintings of Ophelia.)

Taking first Gertrude’s reporting of Ophelia’s death, we see that it mirrors the poetry of Ophelia’s speeches of madness. Gertrude, apart from every other character in the play, appears to  feel something for Ophelia and is the only one to truly mourn her death. Laertes himself, upon hearing the news, simply says “Drowned? O, where?” (IV.7.189), in a callous display of indifference towards his dead sister. Gertrude’s connection to Ophelia may be an extension of the connection Hamlet feels between the two of them. However, whatever Gertrude feels for Ophelia, her description of her death is still an appropriation. That we do not get to see Ophelia’s death with our own eyes on stage is key. Because of this, we cannot possibly know exactly what Ophelia felt about it, what she meant, if anything, by it. It is ambiguous and so we do not know which of the accounts we receive to believe, which draws our attention to the fact of their appropriation. Ophelia has once again been silenced. Following the brief, loud freedom of her madness, she has once again been shut up and put in her place, prevented even from expressing herself in her own death. What we hear from Gertrude is a beautiful, lyrical account, composed in high language, which is harshly juxtaposed with the low, comedic arguing of the gravediggers, which follows immediately after. From the gravediggers, we hear the other version of Ophelia’s death, one in which she killed herself, either from madness or lost love (there seems to be little doubt in the gravediggers minds as to whether she slipped). We can never know which of these pictures is closer the truth because we can only know the truth from the dead girl herself. The girl who lacked the ability to express herself in life and was denied the ability to express herself through death.

In this way, each of these characters has helped to dig Ophelia’s grave. She is a victim of society, of Hamlet, of Polonius, Laertes, of Gertrude even of the priest and the gravediggers. And in the appropriation of her death, she is denied its full tragedy. Even her own brother, Laertes, whom she had joked so well with in the beginning, is not fully aware of his sister’s tragedy and hardly mourns her at her own funeral. Instead, his thoughts are bent on revenge, on Hamlet. In expressing his grief for Ophelia, he begins by cursing Hamlet: “O, treble woe / Fall ten times on that cursèd head / Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense / Deprived thee of!” (V.1.258-261). He then, loudly and dramatically, orders that the gravediggers “hold off the earth awhile … till [he has] caught [Ophelia] once more in [his arms]” (V.1.261-262), whereupon he leaps into her grave. The drama of this speech and grand gesture negates any real emotion Laertes might have felt, leaving his words feeling strangely empty and grandiose. There is nothing personal in his actions; nothing he does is in remembrance of the sister he has lost—everything he says and does is generic, lifted from a script, cut from a Hallmark card. Laertes is so concerned with making a show of his grief for his sister that he goes far beyond her, all the way to Mount Olympus (“Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead, / Till of this flat a mountain you have made / T’ oertop old Pelion or the skyish head / Of Blue Olympus” (V.1.263-266)). Laertes, in making such a scene of his grief, has forgotten his real grief for his dead sister, abandoning it in favor of a show of extreme grief with which he will compete with Hamlet for the title of The One Most Sad About Ophelia’s Death.


Arthur Rackham (probably my all-time favorite illustrator. My tributes to him from 7 years ago can be found here and here (1, 2, 3). They’re embarrassing and that’s okay).

Hamlet, watching this scene from his hiding place with Horatio, is less affected by the death of Ophelia, than by the idea that Laertes may be one-upping him in demonstrations of love for her. Unable to stand for this, Hamlet reveals himself and Laertes, upon seeing him, forgets Ophelia once and for all and fixes himself upon revenge. Hamlet, however, is saved from having to fight Laertes by the appearance of Claudius and Gertrude, and contents himself with merely spouting platitudes about his love for Ophelia by which to outdo Laertes. “I loved Ophelia,” says he, “Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (V.1.285-287). Had Hamlet left it simply at “I loved Ophelia,” we might be able to believe him. But instead, he immediately leaves her and attacks Laertes, making it clear that Ophelia is far from the first thing on his mind, despite the fact that he has just learned of her death and is at her funeral! He, just like Laertes and the rest of them, has contributed to the tragedy of Ophelia’s death by refusing to acknowledge it. Part of the tragedy of Ophelia’s death is in the fact that it is ignored by those who matter—her brother, her supposed lover—and appropriated by those who don’t—the gravediggers, the priests. Even in death, Ophelia is misunderstood, misrepresented, and denied the power of her self expression. All the more tragic as she had, for a moment, glimpsed the freedom of expression in her madness.

Ophelia does not own her death, just as she owned nothing of herself in life. Hamlet, on the other hand, controls his. He brings his death about through his own actions. Hamlet’s tragedy is of a thoroughly different nature than Ophelia’s. His is intellectual, hers emotional. We do not sympathize with Hamlet—by this point in the play we have seen him order the execution of two of his childhood friends and take pride and even pleasure in it; we have seen him torture Ophelia for no other reason than that he sees in her the potential for the same weakness he sees in Gertrude; we have seen him abuse his mother and kill a loyal adviser for no reason and with no remorse. We may understand Hamlet, but we do not sympathize with him. And this lessens the tragedy of his death. We see that he has brought his death about by himself; his tragedy stems from the choices he makes, not from his lack of freedom of choice, as Ophelia’s does. That we see Hamlet’s death happen on stage underlines this. He brings it about himself, he is the author of his own demise. As I proved above, Ophelia is anything but the author of her own death. A large part of her tragedy comes from the fact that she is ignored, misunderstood, and appropriated in death just as she was in life. However, perhaps the even greater tragedy is that, despite all this, she still is seen as an innocent, empty, one-dimensional bystander, struck down simply to stir emotions in the audience and to give an emotional center to an otherwise cold play, when in reality she is a complex, repressed, and deep character whose death is important not only because it pulls at our heartstrings, but because it is a tragedy in and of itself in the arc and repression of her character.


Konstantin Makovsky

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