Despite the fact that few women of Shakespeare’s age had rights or social power, Shakespeare gravitated towards writing strong, developed, and empowered women, the writer seemingly having a modern opinion of the female sex. However, Ophelia from Hamlet, is often criticized for not being able to think for herself and her eventual decline into madness. Critics generally perceive her as weak and baseless. The criticism of Ophelia is so strong that there’s even a condition named after her called the Ophelia Syndrome, where a person relies upon another’s thoughts and opinions to form their own action.
Based strictly on the script, her role in the story and relationship with other characters, particularly Hamlet, come off as ambiguous. Her obedience to her father makes her seem passive, and whether or not Hamlet truly cares for her is unclear. Truly, the text is open for interpretation on Ophelia’s function and character.
What do you think Ophelia’s role in the story of Hamlet is? Do you think she is a strong, independent character or a weak one who solely does what she is told? Did Hamlet just string her along or did he truly care for her?
Personally, I favor the idea that Ophelia actually has quite a lot of depth and that the romance between her and Hamlet was real. Given Shakespeare’s habit of creating strong females, it seems unlikely that Hamlet, often considered his greatest work, is without any particularly robust and capable women. It could also be argued that Ophelia actively decides to obey her father given her position at the court and the expectations for a lady of the court. Furthermore, just as the script is sometimes interpreted as Hamlet not caring for Ophelia, the text can be interpreted just as strongly that Hamlet and Ophelia do have a romantic relationship.
As I said, critics often argue that Ophelia displays lack of thinking for herself. Twice in the text, she says that she does not know what to think. The first occurs when Polonius speaks to Ophelia about Hamlet’s affections for Ophelia. Ophelia says, “I know not, my lord, what I should think” to which Polonius responds, “Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby . . .” (1.3.113-14). Polonius then continues to lecture Ophelia and tell her what to do, and by the end of the conversation, Ophelia assents: “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.145).
While many take Ophelia’s lines as a display of her ignorance, the rest of the conversation display Ophelia’s intelligence and cleverness. Ophelia’s intellect is first displayed when she thanks Laertes for his warning her about Hamlet but essentially tells him to worry about himself, clearly showing her ability to think for herself. She further displays her discretion when Polonius asks what she was talking about with Laertes, and Ophelia answers, “Something touching the Lord Hamlet” (1.3.96). Despite the length and detail of the conversation Ophelia just had with Laertes, Ophelia decides not to give any details to her father and when she does, she is extremely vague. While Polonius’s lines are long, Ophelia’s are only a line or two showing her ability to keep her thoughts to herself. Furthermore, she tells her father that she “knows not what to think” (1.3.113), after he clearly degrades her. In his previous lines to her, Polonius calls her a “green girl unsifted” and asks, “Do you believe his ‘tenders,’ as you call them?” (1.3.110-12). Her response avoids his question, which is wrought with self-righteousness and sarcasm, as shown by the quotation marks. Since her father obviously disapproves of her behavior, she stays quiet and withholds her thoughts and information from him. I think this is rather smart on her part since Polonius seems like a self-righteous prick.
This scene, in addition to others, in the script is also often used to show the ambiguity of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship. Some critics point out that Ophelia the romantic nature of the relationship is mostly narrated by Ophelia, thus it may have been constructed by herself or Hamlet could not be actually in love with her, like Laertes and Polonius suggest. This claim is further supported in the conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet when she returns his love letters to her, and he screams for her to go to a nunnery. Hamlet also tells her that he never loved her (3.1.120). Later, Hamlet also humiliates Ophelia in front of the court at the play by making sexual references to her. The behavior and words of Hamlet towards Ophelia do not align with typical actions one would perform towards someone they are in love with. His contradicting behavior, claiming he loved her one minute and denying he ever did the next, also makes it unclear as to the nature of his feelings for Ophelia. When the text is interpreted as Hamlet being disinterested in Ophelia, the relationship weakens Ophelia as it makes her discreditable and gives her little motivation for going mad at the end.
However, the text also can be interpreted in favor of Ophelia and Hamlet’s romantic relationship. Physical proof is in the love letter Hamlet sends to Ophelia, which reads, “I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, Hamlet” (2.2.121-24). Hamlet has little to no motivation to send a romantic letter to Ophelia unless he wishes to court her. That such a letter exists makes it impossible for Ophelia to have self-constructed the romantic aspect of their relationship. Furthermore, Hamlet does at least admit to having loved Ophelia at one point in the nunnery scene (3.1.116). One motive from him taking it back and later claiming he never loved her at all is that she has only moments before rejected him, thus he speaks out of hurt and anger. A second motive is that at some point in the scene Hamlet may have perceived that he is being spied upon; feeling betrayed by the woman he loves, he lashes out against her. He restates his love for Ophelia later at her funeral: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum” (5.1.272-74). Again, Hamlet has little reason to make such a statement unless it held some truth.
I feel that the fact that Ophelia goes mad further acknowledges her depth and sensitivity. She’s obviously a person that feels quite deeply. I think at that point she’s been used and degraded so badly by the men who are supposed to love and protect her that she simply can’t handle it anymore. The fact that she even knows she’s been manipulated displays that she isn’t a fool and perceives what has happened.
I enjoy the Kenneth Branagh film adaptation between Hamlet as he also takes this stance on Ophelia. I would consider Kenneth Branagh a credible interpreter of Shakespeare’s works, and he definitely has more knowledge on Shakespeare than I do. In his film, the portrayal of Ophelia by Kate Winslet and Kenneth’s Branagh’s creativity definitely weed out the ambiguity of the original text. Both the script and the film show Ophelia capable of making decisions for herself, in spite of her brother and father. Both also support a romantic relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet, though the film more explicitly, which only further empowers her character. Thus, Ophelia can be added to the plethora of strong female characters created by Shakespeare.
Comment or blog your thoughts about Ophelia! I love Hamlet and would also love to hear other thoughts on the subject!
In the mean time, tootle loo, darlings, and I’ll see you on Monday. Enjoy your weekend!