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t essaysHamlet: The Character of Ophelia
Ophelia is gentle, loving and beautiful. She is also obedient to her father and loyal to her family and it is this which draws her into the circle of disaster and leads to her “untimely death”. She is deeply in love with Hamlet and believes his “tenders” to be sincere, but her obedience to both her father and her brother must come first. Laertes tells her to beware of Hamlet’s interest as it is driven by lust, not love. He also points out the difference in their background and rightly concludes that Hamlet is not in a position, as heir to the throne to choose freely who he will marry.
Polonius is also scornful of Hamlet’s motives and concerned that he will be discredited by Ophelia’s conduct. His command to her not to see Hamlet again is brutal, as is his decision to use her as a decoy to sound out the reason for Hamlet’s eccentric behaviour. The fact that she obeys would be quite understandable to Shakespeare’s audience, if not to a present day one, since filial obedience was a fundamental part of the life of the time. Note also how differently Laertes is treated by his father, compared to the lack of regard shown to Ophelia by Polonius. Women had little status, and Ophelia’s wishes are not considered at any time. Torn apart as she is by divided loyalty it is no wonder that the strain on her eventually leads to her madness and subsequent death.
That she loves Hamlet is without question. She is distraught when she observes his behaviour before the nunnery scene, and after his savage rejection of her in that scene she laments his “noble mind..here o’erthrown” She also grieves for herself, “Oh woe is me, t’have seen what I have seen, see what I see.” She is sophisticated enough to understand the ways of the world, too, as we see in her dialogue with Hamlet before the mousetrap play, when she obviously understands the meaning of his bawdy remarks, and also in her quick understanding of her brother’s likely conduct when he is away at school.
Her madness is triggered by loss of her father, murdered by Hamlet, whom she also believes to be mad. The pathos of the mad scene is emphasised by the language of loss in some of the songs she sings and the overt sexuality of others. In fact the sentiments of Ophelia for Hamlet in the nunnery scene, are, ironically applicable to herself later in the play.
Her story parallels Hamlet’s. They think they have both been deserted by one they love; both lose a father through murder and both go to an untimely death; both are sensitive, caring souls whose innocence is exploited by others. No character has anything evil to say about Ophelia at any time and of all the deaths which occur in the play as a result of Claudius’s original murder, hers is perhaps the most pathetic.