The Role of Ophelia's Character in Hamlet

Ophelia’s character in Hamlet has been talked about by many critics, with some questioning the requirement of her role. While she is undoubtedly the lesser character in comparison to Gertrude, Claudius, or even Hamlet, her ultimate insanity and death offers an intrigue to some critics. Although most believe her role in this play is small, she is nonetheless the most transparent and open character. Ophelia serves as the foil to Gertrude, adds another female view, furthers the idea of insanity and establishes the foundation to the last bloodbath with her untimely death.

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In the first instance of the play, Ophelia is seen discussing whether she is allowed to pursue her relationship with Hamlet or not, as both her brother and father to not trust Hamlet’s intentions. They both prohibit Ophelia from marrying Hamlet, and the scene ends. Later that evening, Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet appeared on her doorstep, stating his love for her. This then changes Polonius’ mind, and lets Ophelia marry his daughter. He reports his findings to Claudius, and they both agree to spy on Ophelia and Hamlet in order to see if he truly loves her. They then hide behind an arras to hear the sweet nothings Hamlet has to say to his love Ophelia, which leads to the famous “Nunnery Scene”.

Hamlet finds out that Polonius and Claudius were spying on them and tells Ophelia that he refuses to marry her. Later on, her father is accidentally killed by Hamlet, and she then spirals into insanity from heartbreak, and is later found dead in a ravine of a suspected suicide. Despite not having many lines, she is a catalyst into propelling Hamlet into murdering his father’s killer, Claudius.

As the play progresses, Ophelia seems to spiral into this madness not many can explain. First, her heart becomes broken by her one true love, Hamlet. After this, her father is murdered by her former lover, rendering her alone in this cruel world. Once her father dies, the people of Denmark find her crazy and mad from grief of her father. She sings inappropriate songs about maiden losing their virginity or about death, and speaks in riddles instead of clearly like usual. The final time she was seen in the play was at her father, Polonius’s funeral. She sings more bawdry songs, and hands out flowers, which symbolize regret. Her mad tendencies continue up until her death. She had climbed a tree and fallen into a river, overall passing away due to drowning. It is not officially determined whether her death was accidental or suicidal, but it effected Hamlet greatly, nonetheless. As shown in this timeline, Ophelia gradually gets more and more mad, then causing her to die.

Back in Shakspearian time, suicide was considered a great sin. People whom committed suicide were known for ended up in hell rather than heaven, according to the Catholic church. When it is stated that Ophelia may have killed herself by a sexton, her brother, Laertes is fumed. He does not believe the sexton and states to everyone that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven, and that the cleric will “lie howling” in hell. With Laertes jumping to Ophelia’s defense, it shows that he does not want any shame brought upon the family name. Although Laertes declares her death nonsuicidal, Hamlet does not act as if he believes that, and becomes sad. He stated that he no longer wanted to marry Ophelia, but that does not mean he lost all love for her. Her death hurt many, but this made Hamlet hurt on another level. He was to be blamed for her death, as he was one of the factors that drover her insane. By killing Polonius, and breaking her heart, Hamlet was one of the few reasons she did this to herself. Hamlet tore himself apart for this and realized he must follow his original plan of killing Claudius to avenge his father’s death, without hurting anyone else.

Up until this point, Hamlet does not seem to care about the deaths caused by his mistakes and actions. This may be because all the deaths leading up to hers have been by his hand, but Ophelia’s was her decision. The thought of her deciding to choose death over a lifetime of heartache launched Hamlet into his final attempt of killing his new stepfather, Claudius. Some may believe Ophelia’s death has no impact on Hamlet, and that he merely decided to kill Claudius due to the accidental death of Polonius, but why would his death differ than others? He has killed many others the same way he did Polonius, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but this is different; he in in love with Ophelia. Ophelia was taken by her own hand, and Hamlet believed that she will remain in hell for her actions. He would not get to be with his love in Heaven, which drove him to stop procrastinating, and complete the mission he had started.

By the evidential proof described, it can be determined that Ophelia’s role in the play had great significance. Without her character, there would not be a catalyzing factor driving Hamlet to kill the new king, Claudius, whom murdered his father King Hamlet. He would just continue to keep making the same mistakes, instead of realizing that he needs to complete what he started. Ophelia also provides another female perspective, as there are very few women in this novel due to the era it was written in. Her character is emotionally transparent female, that alters the story greatly.

07 April 2022

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