To be, or not to be

In Hamlet, Ophelia is presented as an important contributory character to the overall theme of tragedy in the play, in which juxtaposing interpretations can be drawn from her character. She could be viewed as immensely passive, therefore a victim and simply collateral damage, caught up in the corruption of everyone around her. On the other hand, she could be seen as a tragic victim, due to the sense of loss that becomes apparent after her death: the future that she and Hamlet could have shared, and her natural progression of innocence and fertility, destroyed by Hamlet’s dilemma and the corruption of the world of Denmark, in which her tragedy takes place.

Throughout the play, Ophelia is continually seen to be controlled by men, primarily Laertes and Polonius, who highlight the passivity of her character. The introduction of Ophelia, in Act 1 Scene 3, is the first demonstration of this. Her brother Laertes, wanting her to may remain pure, instructs her not to trust any men, including Hamlet: ‘If with too credent ear you list his songs, or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open to his unmastered importunity’. Her father, Polonius then emphasises this to her in a cruel and harsh manner, from which, her responses then stress to the audience that Ophelia does little to assert herself against them, thus showing her lack of independence. The idea that she is ‘caged’ by men is also presented to the audience, as she is made to sound like an animal on a lead: ‘I’ll loose her to him,’ and is unleashed only via their advantage. From this, men are seen to be very possessive of Ophelia and this intensifies the character’s struggling ability to act for herself, also adding to her passivity. From living in a patriarchal society, with a brother and father who see the world in the most corrupt and political way, she is used by them as tools for their own plans of corruption. She is constantly seen to be very obedient towards men: ‘I shall obey, my lord,’ and has had the ability to think for herself removed. It is noticeable that she often only speaks in reaction to other characters, and does not know what to think until told: ‘I do not know, my lord, what I should think,’ showing how highly passive she is. Furthermore, the dramatic form of her frequent silences whilst onstage, seen particularly in Act 3 Scene 1, is significant as it helps the audience, particularly whilst watching a production of the play, to see her passivity and for them to consider her as a passive victim. Her silences also present her as separate to the other characters, setting her apart from Hamlet for instance, who cannot stop reflecting and contemplating life. It is noticeable however, that Ophelia is most verbal during her madness, an indication that her words have been repressed by the men around her.

Ophelia’s ‘infuriating passivity’ is explored further as she becomes tangled up in Hamlet’s increased loathing of the world. He is seen to reject her most cruelly in Act 3 Scene 1, where the audience learns of Hamlet’s recent altered view of himself as corrupt. Stimulated by the sudden mistrust of himself: ‘you should not have believed me,’ his incapability to see how anyone can escape the corrupt world is illustrated through Ophelia, who becomes Hamlet’s overall disgust in humanity. Due to this, he regards her as the last pure thing in the world: ‘be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery,’ fuelling his great desire to protect her. The audience has already seen, prior to Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia, how she is directed and ordered about by Polonius, resulting afterwards in her powerfully constrained answers to Hamlet. Dramatic irony is created by Shakespeare, when it is clear that the audience knows Ophelia is being spied on during her conversation with Hamlet, although he does not know her part in the plans to discover his secret. In her response to his accusations: ‘At home, my lord,’ she lies concerning the whereabouts of her father. This follows on from her rejection by Hamlet, therefore perhaps it is inevitable that she become a weak accomplice in the corrupt world of Polonius, as now this is all she has left. The social and historical context of the play can also be considered, as during the period of Shakespeare, women were not as powerful and had little options, which eases the acceptance of Ophelia as a passive victim. There have been different dramatic productions of this, which on the one hand show Hamlet discovering Ophelia wired up to Polonius, whilst on the other, the audience sees Hamlet address the Cctv cameras showing his awareness of the spying taking place. Her passivity is presented yet again, particularly in her replies to Hamlet: ‘Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so,’ an answer very typical of her, where she is given no independent action. This stresses how she has no sense of being able to control her world, and that her passivity has made her a part of how Claudius and Polonius behave. This crucial scene largely presents Ophelia as a victim, but perhaps suggests in her final thoughts: ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ a more positive aspect of her passivity, as she starts to sense the loss of Hamlet. Additionally, the audience could also construe here a tragic feature of Ophelia: ‘O woe is me. T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!’ as she is pure and loving in a corrupt world, and has understood what she has lost.

Ophelia’s tragic stature is also presented to the audience, as the devastating impact and understanding of her rejection from Hamlet leads to her madness and death. Upon her entrance in Act 4 Scene 5, she immediately bursts into a continuous flow of traditional folk songs: ‘He is dead and gone; at his head a grass-green turf, at his heels a stone,’ concerning betrayal and the death of her father. These songs also relate to the loss that Ophelia has endured, noticeably their sexual content that can be seen as a way of lamenting her virginity: ‘And I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine.’ illustrating how she has been denied the natural progression of love. Her madness seems to show that she recognises it is due to the corrupt world, which portrays her as a victim in the corruption of Denmark. Hamlet’s inability to reach an understanding of his human nature is also connected to how Ophelia is a victim of the evil around her as this ultimate understanding was left too late to save her. Her death is presented as very curious, and the term ‘suicide’ can be contemplated as the audience learns that she had time to save herself. Gertrude recounts her death in Act 4 Scene 7: ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook,’ in which the beauty of the description makes the audience feel sorry for her. The imagery of flowers is also presented here, which kindles the sense that she has been reunited with nature and has gone back to the element of fertility to which she belongs. Ophelia is left with no options and from understanding this herself, she takes control of her life for the first time and makes an active decision. By choosing to end her own life: ‘her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,’ she could be seen as having tragic nobility, as a result of the tragic loss felt by the audience.

It could be said that the view of tragic nobility within Ophelia becomes most prominent to the audience at her funeral. Her death triggers the return of Hamlet, who declares at last that he is ready to take his place in the world: ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane.’ Ophelia therefore, becomes part of Hamlet’s tragic recognition, as he recognises what he has lost, lending her tragic nobility. Her funeral in Act 5 Scene 1, shows Hamlet announcing publicly over her grave his love for Ophelia: ‘I loved Ophelia.’ This statement affects the audience, highlighting to them the sense of loss, as she is the future Hamlet should have had, had they not have been in a corrupt world. It also emphasises their relationship; the romance in their letters, and what Ophelia had to offer to Hamlet: a wife. Laertes‘ final statement: ‘Lay her i’th’earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!’ illustrates to the audience that from her death, there is a sense that order may come out of disorder. She is left a virgin, as she was never able to take her part in natural progression, which is ironically the reverse of what Hamlet stated: that she would not remain pure. The imagery of the violets is used to represent the cycle of growth and what should have happened to Ophelia, which can now take place, signalling a new start. The flowers also imply that they will be the only natural thing that she creates. The feeling from the audience that something valuable has been lost in relation to the character of Ophelia is highly visible here consequently enriching her with tragic stature.

In conclusion, these two different interpretations of the character of Ophelia in Hamlet, can be extracted from the play. She can appear to the audience as infuriatingly passive – a sign of her powerlessness of innocence and the role of a minor victim in the corrupt world. But perhaps the view of her as having gained tragic nobility and stature by the time of her death is presented by Shakespeare to a greater extent fundamentally due to the large effect upon the audience as they feel the loss of something worthy which she had to offer has occurred.








February 6, 2018


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