By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University
Ophelia, Hamlet’s beloved wife-to-be, is the symbol of femininity in the lengthy play. Her lines and the lines addressed to her show a lot about both her character and Shakespeare’s views of femininity. What is hidden in the words of the beautiful young woman who turned mad in the end, because of how she was treated?
Hamlet is a long play full of essential characters and important lines. Two of the main characters are Ophelia and Gertrude, Hamlet’s beloved, and his mother. Gertrude has only 70 lines in the play, but her interactions with Ophelia reveal a lot about her character. Forty-five of Gertrude’s lines are either addressed to Ophelia or concerned with Ophelia. A woman’s character can be revealed in interactions with another woman or what she says about them.
Gertrude and Ophelia
When Hamlet accidentally kills Ophelia’s father, and she becomes mad, Gertrude tries to calm her. Also, Gertrude reports Ophelia’s death in one of the most lovely, poignant, poetic speeches in all of Shakespeare. She uses nature, water, and flower imagery to show how she is now free of the cruel human world.
Her death reasserts her bond with another woman and confirms her alienation from all the men in her life, who failed her. That is why it is reported by Gertrude and in such a strikingly beautiful way. Both these heroines face death as a result of the power play of men around them.
Ophelia is a passive character, mainly silent, that wants to be active. She breaks her silence when madness strikes her, and her words reveal a lot about the play.
This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Ophelia’s Lines in Hamlet
Act 1, scene 3, is Ophelia’s first scene. She asks two short questions in the middle of her brother’s lines, trying to convince her not to believe Hamlet’s love, and her father’s, trying to tell her what to think. The conversation goes on until she says, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” Polonius replies to her, “Marry, I will teach you,” after telling her that she should not believe Hamlet’s love like a “green girl.”
This scene sums up how Ophelia is always treated by men of her life and how she obeys as a daughter. Like Juliet, Ophelia cannot find a way out of the prison her world has become.
When she agrees to help Claudius and Polonius find out why Hamlet pretends to be mad, she chooses the side of her father against her beloved. When Hamlet asks her where her father is, and she answers “at home,” he finds out that Ophelia is betraying him. They both know that her father is hiding behind the curtain.
Learn more about staging Hamlet.
Hamlet is disappointed by the women around him: his mother has married the murderer of his father, and his beloved is conspiring against him. He says to Ophelia, “get thee to a nunnery” to escape her slanderous reputation and live a chaste life. He spews all his aggression, from his mother, uncle, his father’s death, and the newly-discovered scheme, on Ophelia.
He accuses her of changing the face that God has given her, like other women, and treats her brutally. Shakespeare always has the appearance versus reality theme in his plays, and this is another realization of it.
Hamlet’s brutal behavior with Ophelia borders him on some sort of madness. He is in the same mood when he confronts his mother and gets so angry about her sexual life that the ghost appears again to stop him from harming his mother. All of these show how obsessed Hamlet is with female betrayal and his inability to control female sexuality.
Learn more about the religious drama of Hamlet.
When Hamlet leaves Ophelia alone after the nunnery suggestion, she laments the decline of Hamlet and ends her lines with “O woe is me / T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see.” In act four, her lines are in her state of madness, yet have enough sense to them.
She addresses Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes with her words about death, burial, and mourning, and also of young girls betrayed by unfaithful lovers. She refers to her father’s death and Hamlet’s behavior, and finally, her sad fate with, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
Ophelia’s final words are addressed to either Hamlet, or her father, or even herself and her lost innocence:
“And will a not come again? / No, no, he is dead, / Go to thy death-bed, / He never will come again. / … / God a mercy on his soul. And of all Christian souls. God buy you.” Next, she drowns herself.
Regardless of how Shakespeare was inspired to create these strong and complex female characters, women have always played crucial roles in this great playwright’s works.
Common Questions about Ophelia
Ophelia represents femininity in Hamlet. Hamlet acts out his aggression toward his mother on her, which finally leads to her madness.
Ophelia is the princess that Hamlet is in love with and supposed to marry. However, Hamlet’s behavior turns her mad, and she finally drowns because of that.
After a short while, Hamlet begins to mistreat Ophelia to the extent that she loses her senses. His behavior is, in fact, a reflection of the aggression he feels toward his mother.