Ophelia In Shakespeares Hamlet Essay

Essay on The Character of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Character of Ophelia in Hamlet

In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet, the character Ophelia plays an important role in the elaboration of the plot. In the beginning, she is in a healthy state of mind, in love with Hamlet, yet controlled by her father. During the play she has several troubling experiences involving Hamlet - causing her to become distressed. The death of Ophelia's father leaves her mentally unstable and in a state of madness that eventually leads to her own death.

Ophelia and Hamlet's love for each other begins as a very real experience. Hamlet is quite attracted by Ophelia's beauty and falls in love with her. However, Ophelia is very much controlled by her father, Polonius, a highly respected…show more content…

Laertes knows that Hamlet may not be able to choose his own marriage partner in the future because he will have to act in a manner that is best for the country. He does not want Hamlet to treat his sister as a plaything only to end up leaving her. So he warns Ophelia to be careful. Ophelia is incapable of ignoring her father's and her brother's opinions. So, feeling as though she has no control over her life, she writes Hamlet a letter informing him that she can no longer see him. This sets in motion a chain of events that eventually leads to her destruction.

When Hamlet receives the letter from Ophelia he is terribly hurt and angered by her words. The next time he sees her, she is surprised, and even a bit frightened, by his behavior. Hamlet does not look like himself, and he acts very strangely towards her.

He took me by the wrist and held me hard;

Then goes he to the length of all his arm,

And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow

He falls to such perusal of my face

As he would draw it. Long stayed he so (II.i.98-102).

As Hamlet exits, he leaves behind an intensely troubled, saddened, and guilt-ridden Ophelia who immediately tells her father about her unsettling experience. Polonius believes that Ophelia's love has made Hamlet crazy. "That hath made him mad" (II. i.122). Polonius then goes to tell the King and Queen of Hamlet's strange behavior and makes plans to spy on Hamlet to prove he has

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For other uses, see Ophelia (disambiguation).

Ophelia is a character in William Shakespeare's drama Hamlet. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and potential wife of Prince Hamlet. She is one of only two female characters in the play.


In Ophelia's first speaking appearance in the play,[1] she is seen with her brother, Laertes, who is leaving for France. Laertes warns her that Hamlet, the heir to the throne of Denmark, does not have the freedom to marry whomever he wants. Ophelia's father, Polonius, who enters while Laertes is leaving, also forbids Ophelia from pursuing Hamlet, as Polonius fears that Hamlet is not earnest about her.

In Ophelia's next appearance,[2] she tells Polonius that Hamlet rushed into her room with his clothing askew and a "hellish" expression on his face; he only stared at her, nodding three times without speaking to her. Based on what Ophelia told him, Polonius concludes that he was wrong to forbid Ophelia from seeing Hamlet, and that Hamlet must be mad with love for her. Polonius immediately decides to go to Claudius, the new King of Denmark and also Hamlet's uncle and stepfather, about the situation. Polonius later suggests[3] to Claudius that they hide behind an arras to overhear Hamlet speaking to Ophelia, when Hamlet thinks the conversation is private. Since Polonius is now sure that Hamlet is lovesick for Ophelia, he thinks Hamlet will express his love for her. Claudius agrees to try the eavesdropping plan later.

The plan leads to what is commonly called the "Nunnery Scene",[4] from its use of the term nunnery which would generally refer to a convent, but at the time was also popular slang for a brothel.[5] Polonius instructs Ophelia to stand in the lobby of the castle while he and Claudius hide. Hamlet enters the room in a different world from the others, and recites his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. Hamlet approaches Ophelia and talks to her, saying "Get thee to a nunnery." Hamlet asks Ophelia where her father is and she lies to him, saying her father must be at home. Hamlet realises he is being spied upon. He exits after declaring, "I say we will have no more marriages." Ophelia is left bewildered and heartbroken, sure that Hamlet is insane. She knows that ultimately it is she that broke him because she lied. She was the woman he had loved and a friend whom he trusted and she lied to him. After Hamlet storms out, Ophelia makes her "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" soliloquy.

The next time Ophelia appears is at the "Mousetrap Play",[6] which Hamlet has arranged to try to prove that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Hamlet sits with Ophelia and makes sexually suggestive remarks; he also says that woman's love is brief.

Later that night, after the play, Hamlet kills Polonius[7] during a private meeting between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. At Ophelia's next appearance,[8] after her father's death, she has gone mad, due to what the other characters interpret as grief for her father. She talks in riddles and rhymes, and sings some "mad" and bawdy songs about death and a maiden losing her virginity. She exits after bidding everyone a "good night".

The last time Ophelia appears in the play is after Laertes comes to the castle to challenge Claudius over the death of his father, Polonius. Ophelia sings more songs and hands out flowers, citing their symbolic meanings, although interpretations of the meanings differ. The only herb that Shakespeare gives Ophelia herself is rue; "...there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference". Rue is well known for its symbolic meaning of regret, but the herb is also used to treat pain, bruises and has abortive qualities.[9]

In Act 4 Scene 7, Queen Gertrude reports that Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree (There is a willow grows aslant the brook), and the branch had broken and dropped Ophelia into the brook, where she drowned. Gertrude says that Ophelia appeared "incapable of her own distress". Gertrude's announcement of Ophelia's death has been praised as one of the most poetic death announcements in literature.[10]

Later, a sexton at the graveyard insists Ophelia must have killed herself.[11] Laertes is outraged by what the cleric says, and replies that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven when the cleric "lie[s] howling" in hell.

At Ophelia's funeral, Queen Gertrude sprinkles flowers on Ophelia's grave ("Sweets to the sweet"), and says she wished Ophelia could have been Hamlet's wife (contradicting Laertes' warnings to Ophelia in the first act). Laertes then jumps into Ophelia's grave excavation, asking for the burial to wait until he has held her in his arms one last time and proclaims how much he loved her. Hamlet, nearby, then challenges Laertes and claims that he loved Ophelia more than "forty thousand" brothers could. After her funeral scene, Ophelia is no longer mentioned.


In productions of Hamlet[edit]

While it is known that Richard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare's time, there is no evidence of who played Ophelia; since there were no professional actresses on the public stage in Elizabethan England, we may assume that she was played by a boy.[12] The actor appears to have had some musical ability, as Ophelia is given lines from ballads such as Walsingham to sing, and, according to the first quarto edition, enters with a lute.[13]

The early modern stage in England had an established set of emblematicconventions for the representation of female madness: dishevelled hair worn down, dressed in white, bedecked with wild flowers, Ophelia's state of mind would have been immediately 'readable' to her first audiences.[14] "Colour was a major source of stage symbolism", Andrew Gurr explains, so the contrast between Hamlet's "nighted colour" (1.2.68) and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78) and Ophelia's "virginal and vacant white" would have conveyed specific and gendered associations.[15] Her action of offering wild flowers to the court suggests, Showalter argues, a symbolic deflowering, while even the manner of her 'doubtful death', by drowning, carries associations with the feminine (Laertes refers to his tears on hearing the news as "the woman").

Gender structured, too, the early modern understanding of the distinction between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's: melancholy was understood as a male disease of the intellect, while Ophelia would have been understood as suffering from erotomania, a malady conceived in biological and emotional terms.[16] This discourse of female madness influenced Ophelia's representation on stage from the 1660s, when the appearance of actresses in the English theatres first began to introduce "new meanings and subversive tensions" into the role: "the most celebrated of the actresses who played Ophelia were those whom rumor credited with disappointments in love".[17] Showalter relates a theatrical anecdote that vividly captures this sense of overlap between a performer's identity and the role she plays:

"The greatest triumph was reserved for Susan Mountfort, a former actress at Lincoln's Inn Fields who had gone mad after her lover's betrayal. One night in 1720 she escaped from her keeper, rushed to the theater, and just as the Ophelia of the evening was to enter for her mad scene, "sprang forward in her place ... with wild eyes and wavering motion." As a contemporary reported, "she was in truth Ophelia herself, to the amazement of the performers as well as of the audience—nature having made this last effort, her vital powers failed her and she died soon after."[18]

During the 18th century, the conventions of Augustan drama encouraged far less intense, more sentimentalised and decorous depictions of Ophelia's madness and sexuality. From Mrs Lessingham in 1772 to Mary Catherine Bolton, playing opposite John Kemble in 1813, the familiar iconography of the role replaced its passionate embodiment. Sarah Siddons played Ophelia's madness with "stately and classical dignity" in 1785.[19]

Many great actresses have played Ophelia on stage over the years. In the 19th century, she was portrayed by Helen Faucit, Dora Jordan, Frances Abington, and Peg Woffington, who won her first real fame by playing the role.[20] Theatre manager Tate Wilkinson declared that next to Susannah Maria Cibber, Elizabeth Satchell (of the famous Kemble family) was the best Ophelia he ever saw.[21] The American scholar Tina Packer argued that Ophelia is trapped within the imprisoning world of the Danish court, and only by losing her mind can she escape.[22] Packer argued that Ophelia's problems stem from being too dutiful a daughter as she obeys her father in rejecting Hamlet and returning his gifts to him, as she is untrue to herself, thus settling herself up for her downfall.[23]

In film[edit]

Ophelia has been portrayed on screen since the days of early silent films. Dorothy Foster played Ophelia opposite Charles Raymond's Hamlet in the 1912 film Hamlet. Jean Simmons played Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning Hamlet performance in 1948; Simmons was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. More recently, Ophelia has been portrayed by Anastasiya Vertinskaya (1964), Marianne Faithfull (1969), Helena Bonham Carter (1990), Kate Winslet (1996), Julia Stiles (2000), and Daisy Ridley (2018). Themes associated with Ophelia have led to movies such as Ophelia Learns to Swim (2000), and Dying Like Ophelia (2002).

In many modern theatre and film adaptations she is portrayed barefoot in the mad scenes, including Kozintsev's 1964 film, Zeffirelli's 1990 film, Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film, and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet 2000 (2000) versions.

In the Vishal Bharadwaj's adaptation, Haider (2014), the character was portrayed by actress Shraddha Kapoor.

In art[edit]

Ophelia has been a frequent subject in artwork, often in a Romantic or Classical style, as the images on this page show.[citation needed]

Fictional characters inspired by Ophelia[edit]

  • Tara Knowles in the FX cable TV drama Sons of Anarchy is an Ophelia allegory.[24]
  • Ophelia in Giannina Braschi's postcolonial novel, United States of Banana (2011), is a 21st century passive-aggressive, who threatens to slash her wrists when arguing with her ex-lover Hamlet; the staged adaption by Juan Pablo Felix was produced by Columbia Stages in New York City in 2015.[25]
  • Ophelia, in Paul Griffiths' novel let me tell you (2008), is a derivative of Shakespeare's character who tells her story in her own words, in the literal sense that she can use only the words she is given in the play. She speaks of her childhood, of her parents and brother, of Hamlet, and of events leading up to the point at which the play begins.[26]

In non-fiction[edit]

  • Psychologist Mary Pipher named her non-fiction book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), after Shakespeare's Ophelia.

See also[edit]



  • Banham, Martin, ed. 1998. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43437-8.
  • Charney, Maurice. 2000. Shakespeare on Love & Lust. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10429-4.
  • Gurr, Andrew. 1992. The Shakespearean Stage 1574–1642. Third ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42240-X.
  • Hattaway, Michael. 1982. Elizabethan Popular Theatre: Plays in Performance. Theatre Production ser. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7100-9052-8.
  • Thomson, Peter. 1983. Shakespeare's Theatre. Theatre Production ser. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul. ISBN 0-7100-9480-9.
  • Wells, Stanley, and Sarah Stanton, eds. 2002. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Stage. Cambridge Companions to Literature ser. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-79711-X.

External links[edit]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ophelia.
Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V (Ophelia Before the King and Queen), Benjamin West, 1792
Soprano Mignon Nevada as Ophelia in the opera Hamlet, circa 1910. The operatic version simplifies the plot to focus the drama on Hamlet's predicament and its effects on Ophelia
  1. ^Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3
  2. ^Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 1
  3. ^Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2
  4. ^Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1
  5. ^see Hamlet#Language
  6. ^Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
  7. ^Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4
  8. ^Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5
  9. ^"Rue". Drugs.com. Retrieved 11 September 2016. 
  10. ^For one example of praise, see "The Works of Shakespeare", in 11 volumes (Hamlet in volume 10), edited by Henry N. Hudson, published by James Munroe and Company, 1856: "This exquisite passage is deservedly celebrated. Nothing could better illustrate the Poet's power to make the description of a thing better than the thing itself, by giving us his eyes to see it with."
  11. ^Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1
  12. ^Taylor (2002, 4); Banham (1998, 141); Hattaway asserts that "Richard Burbage [...] played Hieronimo and also Richard III but then was the first Hamlet, Lear, and Othello" (1982, 91); Peter Thomson argues that the identity of Hamlet as Burbage is built into the dramaturgy of several moments of the play: "we will profoundly misjudge the position if we do not recognize that, whilst this is Weiner Hamlet talking about the groundlings, it is also Burbage talking to the groundlings" (1983, 24); see also Thomson (1983, 110) on the first player's beard. A researcher at the British Library feels able to assert only that Burbage "probably" played Hamlet; see its page on Hamlet.
  13. ^Q1 has the direction, "Enter Ofelia playing on a Lute..."
  14. ^Showalter (1985, 80–81). In Shakespeare's King John (1595/6), the action of act three, scene four turns on the semiotic values of hair worn up or down and disheveled: Constance enters "distracted, with her hair about her ears" (17); "Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow", Pandolf rebukes her (43), yet she insists that "I am not mad; this hair I tear is mine" (45); she is repeatedly bid to "bind up your hairs"; she obeys, then subsequently unbinds it again, insisting "I will not keep this form upon my head / When there is such disorder in my wit" (101–102).
  15. ^Gurr (1992, 193) and Showalter (1985, 80–81).
  16. ^Showalter (1985, 80–81).
  17. ^Showalter (1985, 80, 81).
  18. ^Showalter (1985, 81–82).
  19. ^Showalter (1985, 82).
  20. ^William Cullen Bryant & Evert A. Duyckinck (eds.), The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1888
  21. ^Some aspects of provincial drama in the eighteenth centuryFrederick T. Wood English Studies, Volume 14, Issue 1 – 6 1932 (p. 73)
  22. ^Packer, Tina Women of Will, New York: Alfred Knopf, 2015 page 190.
  23. ^Packer, Tina Women of Will, New York: Alfred Knopf, 2015 page 190.
  24. ^Adair, Jaime (15 September 2015). "Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy". Sons of Anarchy, The Bastard Executioner, Honor-based Culture. History Behind Game of Thrones. Retrieved 17 May 2016. [permanent dead link]
  25. ^Giannina, Braschi (2011). United States of Banana. AmazonCrossing. ISBN 9781611090673. OCLC 760912360. 
  26. ^*Tonkin, Boyd, "Singing in the chains: a tongue-tied heroine", The Independent, 16 January 2009. Retrieved 29 April 2014.


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