As one of only two female characters in Hamlet it seems surprising that Ophelia is presented as unsubstantial and entirely passive. She is polarized by her love for Hamlet and sense of duty to her father, and these feeling bind her completely. She neither questions her father’s demands and instructions nor queries Hamlet’s supposed madness, as both attempt to use her for their own gain. Bound by duty to the men in her life, to her father and brother she is the eternal virgin – the vessel of morality whilst to Hamlet she is a sexual object, she is unable to comprehend these contradictory expectations. The dilemmas these relationships cause force Ophelia to reflect on the irreconcilable contradictory selves that her men demand and this ultimately forces her into madness. Through an exploration her relationships with her brother and father, of her descent into madness and her death, it becomes clear Ophelia is used to destructively further divide the Danish court and augment the sense of systemic corruption.
It seems natural to start with Ophelia’s relationship with her father, Polonius. Polonius instantly asserts his dominance over Ophelia by declaring “I would not…have you…give words or have talk with the Lord Hamlet” – he immediately attempts to block Ophelia’s burgeoning romance and in doing so destroys any sense of autonomy and freedom she may have. This sense of Ophelia’s subjugation and passivity is augmented by her response, “I shall obey, my lord” which instantly presents her as entirely submissive and easily manipulated. This moment foreshadows the way Ophelia is pawned by Polonius to establish the validity of Hamlet’s madness in Act 3 scene 1, evidence that Ophelia is used by the male protagonists to further divide the Danish court and so augment the sense of systemic corruption. Furthermore, most importantly perhaps are the expectations Laertes and Polonius have of Ophelia. Laertes tells Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet’s “unmastered importunity” and that to open her “chaste treasure” to him would be a “loss [of] honour”. The use of “treasure” here immediately presents female virginity as a token of honour and purity. The importance of virginity is augmented through “The canker galls the infants of the spring”. The use of “canker”, meaning cancer, immediately presents Hamlet as something corrupt and destructive and here Laertes seems to attempt to manipulate and alter Ophelia’s view of her would be lover. The clever use of “galls” is again suggestive of venality and when applied to virginity Laertes suggests that without it Ophelia would be impure and contaminated. Shakespeare’s constant use of natural images being corrupted, seen here in the “gall[ing of the] spring”, seems symbolic of the systemic corruption seen in “the state of Denamark”. This presentation of virginity and the values discussed would be shared by Shakespeare’s audience. For the Elizabethans a women’s virginity was seen as a sign of purity and innocence, values highly important in 16th century Britain. The importance with which Laertes discusses Ophelia’s virginity and his demand for Ophelia to “fear” Hamlet is a clear attempt to manipulate her against her love. This once again highlights Ophelia’s susceptibility to the men in her life and highlights the way Ophelia is used to destructively further divide the Danish court and augment the sense of systemic corruption.
Unlike Hamlet’s metaphysical “antic-disposition”, Ophelia’s madness is presented as a product of supposed female nature. The description of her “spurn[ing] enviously at straws [and] speak[ing] in doubt” presents Ophelia as hysterical – something typically associated with crazed women. Indeed in madness she “sings” explicit sexual references – “baker’s daughter” a symbol of lust and prostitution – and this immediately seems to suggest that in Shakespeare’s time a discussion of female sexuality was reserved for the unhinged and mad. Indeed her madness seems entirely symbolic, by tossing flowers and herbs during her mad ramblings – “there’s rosemary…and there’s pansies” – she symbolically deflowers herself, perhaps alluding to a loss of virginity, and the impurity of character this causes is mirrored by her physical madness. This idea of Ophelia being purely imbued with symbolism would be backed up by Bridget Lyon who wrote, “Ophelia is most persistently presented in terms of symbolic meanings.” She suggests that her character is used by Shakespeare as an emblem and icon of femininity. This is seen particularly during her madness where she parades the stage “sing[ing]” of flowers. Furthermore, her madness seems to be used by Shakespeare to physically display the corruption evident in the Danish court. The devastating effects corruption can cause seem to be embodied by Ophelia as she is driven mad by Polonius’ and Hamlet’s attempts to manipulate and control her. Shakespeare further augments the sense of corruption and drives further divides in the Danish court by using Ophelia’s madness to inspire Laertes to revenge. Laertes’ violent and acerbic “Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye! By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight” immediately foreshadows the death and destruction to come. Claudius’ intensely corrupt nature is displayed as he uses Ophelia’s madness to manipulate Laertes into enacting revenge on those responsible for it – “and where th’offence is, let the great axe fall”. It seems clear therefore that Ophelia’s madness is used by Shakespeare to further divide the Danish court and augment the sense of systemic corruption.
Finally, it is interesting to note the nature of her death. Her death is announced by Gertrude, “Your sister’s drowned, Laertes”, in act 4 scene 7. Of course “drowned” signifies Ophelia died in water and this is interesting. Drowning can be clearly associated with female fluidity – it is symbolic of tears, traditionally a feminine display of sadness – and it seems fitting Ophelia is killed by a substance as easily manipulated as she was. Indeed, Gertrude’s description of her suicide, elegy even, is filled with beautiful images of “fantastic garlands” and “brook[s] all typically feminine images. This again highlights Ophelia’s superficiality, she is a symbol of femininity and the emblemic nature of her character is again highlighted by her death, surrounded by symbols of femininity – namely water and flowers. This is a point also theorized by phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard who argues that “drowning becomes the truly feminine death in the dramas of literature and life, one which is a beautiful immersion and submersion in the female element” and this is clearly exemplified by Ophelia’s death in water surrounded by symbols of femininity. It is important to note that she dies off stage, her death is not seen as important enough to be visually represented. This immediately suggests that Shakespeare viewed her as a plot device, meant to tear the opposing sides of the Danish court further apart. Not only is she used as a pawn by the characters in the play she is also a practical device used by Shakespeare to drive and move the plot. Furthermore, her death seems to be constantly alluded to as suicide, “she drowned herself in her own defence”. For a Shakespearian audience this would be seen as the ultimate form of corruption, not permissible for a Christian burial (indeed, her funeral is described as “maimed rites” – the priest does not want to conduct the ceremony due to the nature of her death), this suggestion of suicide seems to be another comment on the corrupt nature of the Danish court. Finally, Ophelia’s funeral becomes a battle ground, “[Grappling with him]” – as Laertes and Hamlet fight, this highlights how even in death Ophelia is used to destructively further divide the Danish court.
Overall, an exploration of Ophelia’s relationships with her father and her brother immediately highlight her susceptibility to manipulation. This combined with her descent into madness and the treatment of her eventual death quickly highlights how her character is used by Shakespeare to destructively further divide the Danish court and augment the sense of systemic corruption.
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