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Ophelia's Contribution In Hamlet

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Ophelia's Contribution in Hamlet

One thing critics of Hamlet can agree on is that Ophelia, though brief in appearance, enamored readers and audiences because of her cryptic death and her symbol of innocence in the play. Linda Wagner claims she "is pictured as the epitome of unsophistication and of purity" (Wagner 94). While the play mostly focuses on Hamlet and forces the reader to sympathize and view him as a misunderstood character, it practically brushes over Ophelia's struggle as unimportant. That is unfortunate since there are many aspects to Ophelia's characters that are worth being examined.

In her five scenes of the play, Ophelia proves to be obedient and respectful to the men in her life, Hamlet, her brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius. When Laertes gives her advice on her love life, she responds, "I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchmen to my heart", and then tells him to follow his own advice as well (Shakespeare 21). When Polonius forbids her from seeing Hamlet ever again, she does not rebel but obeys him. Critic Michael Shelden believes that the way she is treated by her father shows that "Ophelia is no more than a caged or leashed pet for Polonius to release at his discretion" (Shelden 357). She willfully accepts being used as the middleman to spy on Hamlet for Claudius and the Queen. She turns the other cheek when her father uses Hamlet's supposed love for her as an excuse to create importance for himself. Linda Wagner theorized that "to tie Hamlet to Ophelia was to tie the royal family to Polonius'" (Wagner 96).

There is the question of whether Ophelia's death was a suicide or accidental. She was denied a proper funeral because "her death was doubtful" and the Clowns say "she drown'd her selfe wittingly" in the beginning of Act V. While J. M. Nosworthy notes that "she fell into the brook, was incapable of saving herself, and was consequently drowned" (Nosworthy 1), in Carroll Camden's essay, "On Ophelia's Madness", she states the belief that "It is possible that the drowning may not have been deliberate, but at least Ophelia made no attempt to save herself" (Camden 254). In fact the Queen at the end of Act IV tells Laertes that "Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid like awhile they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds" (Shakespeare 118). From that passage alone, it can be assumed that Ophelia did not struggle in her death but actually welcomed it. She sang songs to herself while she drowned.

So if it is true that Ophelia's death was not accidental, one wonders what would be her reasoning behind this tragic act. In Act IV she tells the King that she "cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him I' th' cold ground" (Shakespeare 105) obviously mourning over her father's death. It is Camden's opinion, though, that "the death of Polonius, then may well have been only the last in a series of shocks to her basically weak personality" (Camden 253). After her father's death and Hamlet's rejection, the audience sees the first glimpses of Ophelia's madness. When she asks, "Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?" she cannot be referring to her father or the Queen (Shakespeare 103). She could only be speaking affectionately of Hamlet. Later she sings a song to the Queen:

"How should I your truelove know

From another one?

By his cockle hat and staff

And his sandal shoon.

...He is dead and gone lady,

He is dead and gone" (Shakespeare 103-104)

It is questionable whether she is speaking of Polonius or of Hamlet. When she speaks of truelove, it must be about Hamlet. When she says "he is dead and gone" she could be talking about her father's death or the end of her relationship with Hamlet. While her father's death was traumatic, the series of horrible things Hamlet says to Ophelia throughout the play clearly leads up to Ophelia's madness. She could not take her heart being toyed with. Another contributing factor to Ophelia's questionable behavior is the fact that she had to endure her suffering alone and in silence. When she leaves Hamlet after he has angrily cursed her, her father says to her "You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said,/ We heard it all" (Shakespeare 72). When she wants to speak to Gertrude after her father's death, Gertrude responds, "I will not speak with her" (Shakespeare 54). Ophelia is virtually ignored and her problems viewed as unimportant. Bennet Simon believes that "the impossibility of any kind of open grieving or raging- let alone discussion- contribute to her breakdown" (Simon 716). This inability to express herself, explains why she was drawn to sing her "mad ditties" about the loss of her father and Hamlet (Simon 717).

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