Hamlet and Ophelia


Melancholy, grief, and madness have pervaded the works of a great many
playwrights, and Shakespeare is not an exception. The mechanical
regularities of such emotional maladies as they are presented within
Hamlet, not only allow his audience to sympathize with the tragic
prince Hamlet, but to provide the very complexities necessary in
understanding the tragedy of his lady Ophelia as well. It is the poor
Ophelia who suffers at her lover's discretion because of decisions she
was obligated to make on behalf of her weak societal position. Hamlet
provides his own self-torture and does fall victim to melancholia and
grief, however, his madness is feigned. They each share a common
connection: the loss of a parental figure. Hamlet loses his father as
a result of a horrible murder, as does Ophelia. In her situation is
more severe because it is her lover who murders her father and all of
her hopes for her future as well. Ultimately, it is also more
detrimental to her c! haracter and causes her melancholy and grief to
quickly turn to irretrievable madness. Critics argue that Hamlet has
the first reason to be hurt by Ophelia because she follows her father's
admonitions regarding Hamlet's true intentions for their beginning
love. In Act 3, scene 1, line 91 Hamlet begins with his malicious
sarcasm toward her. "I humbly thank you, well, well, well," he says
to her regarding her initial pleasantries (Johnson 1208). Before this
scene, he has heard the King and Polonius establishing a plan to deduce
his unusual and grief-stricken behavior. Hamlet is well aware that
this plan merely uses Ophelia as a tool, and as such, she does not have
much option of refusing without angering not only her busybody father
but the conniving King as well. Hamlet readily refuses that he cared
for her. He tells her and all of his uninvited listeners, "No, not I, I
never gave you aught" (lines 94-95). Some critics stress, as does J.
Dover Wilson, that Hamlet has a right to direct his anger to Ophelia
because even though many critics "in their sy! mpathy with Ophelia
they have forgotten that it is not Hamlet who has 'repelled' her, but
she him" (Wilson 159). It is possible that Wilson does not see the
potential harm to Ophelia should she disobey her authority figures
(i.e. her father and her king). Furthermore, Ophelia cannot know "that
Hamlet's attitude toward her reflects his disillusionment in his mother
. . . to her, Hamlet's inconstancy can only mean deceitfulness or
madness" (Lidz 158). She is undeniably caught in a trap that has been
layed, in part, but her lover whom she does love and idealize. Her
shock is genuine when Hamlet demands "get thee to a nunnery" (line
120). The connotations of the dual meaning of "nunnery" is enough in
and of itself to make her run estranged from her once sweet prince, and
it is the beginning or her sanity's unraveling as well. Hamlet's
melancholy permits him the flexibility of character to convey
manic-depressive actions while Ophelia's is much more overwhelming and
painful. "Shakespeare is ambiguous about the reality of Hamlet's
insanity and depicts him as on the border, fluctuating between sanity
and madness" (Lidz 156). Hamlet mourns for his father, but it is the
bitterness and ill-will that he harbors towards his mother for her
hasty marriage to his uncle that is his most reoccurring occupation.
His thoughts of Ophelia are secondary at best. When it happens that
Hamlet accidentally slays Polonius, he does not appear to be thinking
of the potential effect of his actions on Ophelia. Hamlet has sealed
her fate, and along with the "vacillations in [his] attitude and
behavior toward her could not but be extremely unsettling to the very
young woman who idolized [him]" she does not have much in the way that
is positive for her (Lidz 157). Throughout the entire murder scene in
Act 3, Scene! 4, Hamlet does not remark about the damage he has done
to Ophelia. His emotional upswing is devoted entirely to his mother,
and while his emotions are not an imitation, he does admit that he
"essentially [is] not in madness,/ But mad in craft" (lines 187-188).
Ophelia is then left to mourn her father, but it is not his death alone
that spurns her insanity. Her predicament is such that she is forced
to fear and hate her father's murder who is also her lover and the one
person to whom all of her future hopes were pinned -Prince Hamlet.
"Her entire orientation to the future has suddenly been destroyed," and
with her brother gone, Ophelia has no one to turn to for comfort (Lidz
157). Hamlet then delves further into his manic feigned madness and
Ophelia is cheated into the belief that he really is mad. The options
for her sanity are none; melancholy and grief are madness for
malcontent Ophelia. Hamlet and Ophelia are confronted with the
"irretrievable loss of a love object, " however, it is Ophelia's
dilemma that is the more horrible of the two and is indelibly more
tragic. The audience may of the general opinion that Polonius is
bordering on senility, and is a spy who meddle in affair that do not
demand his participation, however, he is Ophelia's sole parent. We are
able to discern that his harsh attitude toward his daughter at the
beginning of the play may not be cruel for cruelty's sake; Polonius
may actually be showing signs that he is overly protective of Ophelia
and instructs her to deny Hamlet's "tenders" because they represent a
threat toward his position as her father. We might also infer that as
Ophelia's only parent for such a great duration in her young life that
Polonius may actually favored her -letting her act as the replacement
for her mother in her father's life. These ideas are not to implicate
their relationship as an abusive Oedipal ci! rcumstance. It is
interesting that the same situation can correspondingly be applied to
the relationship that Hamlet shares with his mother. Hamlet is
fatherless. While this is a more recent position for him, it is
interesting to note that rather than have his loss bring him and his
mother closer, it only serves to bind him in his melancholy and agony.
He battles within himself of doing harm to his mother. Hamlet may very
well see his mother's infidelity to his father's memory as an
infidelity to him as well. This Oedipal Complex is more injurious to
his character, and is the determining force for his unsuccessful
relationship to Ophelia. Ophelia has nothing to do with this emotional
inadequacies, and is nonetheless a victim of them. Her death is the
responsibility of Hamlet, who at her gravesite "exhibits some temporary
marks of a real disorder" (Mackenzie 903). It is short-lived, however,
and Hamlet again retakes his vengeance upon his father's murderer
--using his ! melancholy as a dull weapon. "He realizes that his
emotions are often going to rush beyond his control [and] the fiction
that he is mad will not only cloak his designs against the King, but
will also free him from the rest of the play" (Campbell 104). It is
his fiction that is the leading cause of Ophelia's demise as well as
his own. There is no way out of the created situation for either of
them. One could imagine that if this were a different play, Hamlet
could ask for Ophelia's forgiveness, but that is not the play. The
melancholy, grief, and madness that Hamlet suffers from may well have
been the propelling force for all of his unfortunate action in
Shakespeare's play. It is worth allowing that the first of the two are
real; his melancholy and grief are not counterfeit. Ophelia is the
more tragic of the two because her madness is not feigned, and
furthermore, that it is caused by the very love of her life is even
more disastrous for her poor young life. They are each malcontents
with no real happiness made available to them given their unfortunate


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