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Examine Shakespeare's presentation of Ophelia and how a modern audience might respond to her

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Examine Shakespeare’s presentation of Ophelia and how a modern audience might respond to her.

“Ophelia’s main function in the play is to illuminate a particular facet of Hamlet’s decline.” This was noted by Angela Pitt.We can see thatthroughout Hamlet, this is very true. Ophelia is presented as a character of secondary importance, not only to the plot, but also to other characters. This can be seen by her relationship with her father, Polonius, and her brother, Laertes, and also with Hamlet. Nowadays, a modern reader may find the world she lives in oppressive to women, and this is alien to a post-feminist society. However, to a Shakespearean audience this would be normal. Women were almost second-class citizens, and had no real rights of their own. Even though Queen Elizabeth I was in charge of England, this did not fit in with the conventions of the time. It is said that a woman who saw Elizabeth I pass her a royal procession said, “Oh Lord! The Queen is a woman!” Despite the different titles of “King” and “Queen” being masculine and feminine, it was simply unthinkable for a figure of authority to be anything but male. Ophelia is written in a way that was common with the time it was set, which was in 1603.

        In Act 1 Scene 3, Ophelia is getting advice from her brother, Laertes. Rex Gibson commented, “Women’s status and roles were subject to the tyranny of patriarchy.” We can see this when Laertes gives her advice about Hamlet, and warns her not to,” chaste (your) treasure open/ To his unmastered opportunity.” He is doing this because he fears that it will ruin the reputation of the family, because he says, “Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain.” He is more concerned about the reputation of his family than he is about Ophelia’s feelings. The fact that Laertes is telling Ophelia what to do shows possibly that he cares for her, but more likely that he can control her, because as a woman, she is incapable of making her own decisions. During this scene we can see that Ophelia is obedient towards Laertes because she says,” I shall the effect of this good lesson keep.” However, she shows a spirited side of her personality by saying to him,” And recks not his own rede.” This challenges conventions of the time. In this scene, a modern reader may find Ophelia spirited, as she is able to challenge what her brother has said to her.

        However, in the same scene when she talks to her father Polonius, she is very submissive. Polonius suggests that she is foolish to believe Hamlet because, “You do not understand yourself so clearly.” This suggests that he understands her more than she understands herself. Also he demands her to tell him everything, because he says, “Give me the truth.” This indicates that she cannot have a private life. Polonius is very patronizing to Ophelia also, because he says, “You speak like a green girl,” He suggests to her that Ophelia does not know what she is talking about. However, Ophelia accentuates this patriarchal role because she refers to him as “My lord.” This indicates a relationship where parameters are strictly defined. Ophelia is accepting his greater power and authority over her. Also, she says, “I do not know my lord what I should think.” This suggests she needs to be told by him what her viewpoint is. This shows Polonius has lots of control over her. She also gives into his demands, because she says,” I shall obey.” This implies that Ophelia knows her place in this society run by men. A modern reader may think that Ophelia is too submissive, whereas a Shakespearean audience would think her behaviour is normal.

        In Act 2 Scene 1, Polonius inquires if Hamlet has made any more advances on Ophelia. He tries to manipulate Ophelia into telling the truth by saying,” Have you given him any harsh words of late?” This erodes away Ophelia’s individuality. Ophelia has been brought up with other men making decisions for her. She is consistently seen as lacking in strength of mind and character. On both occasions that she is questioned about Hamlet she is unable to account for her feelings, because she says, “My lord I do not know.” Polonius has encouraged this lack of judgement, as he says, “Think yourself a baby.” He tells her what to think and gives her no opportunity to make decisions for herself. Her own father denies her an identity. A modern reader would find it very hard to relate to this; because of the liberty women have today. We would sympathise with Ophelia, because she is almost made a prisoner in her own life by her father. However, a Shakespearean audience may find this normal, as it fits in with social conventions.

        Another example of Ophelia being denied privacy is when Polonius devises a plan to prove that Hamlet is mad with love. However, Polonius will use his daughter in this. He treats Ophelia as his property, to do with as he chooses. He says, “I’ll loose my daughter unto him…” Once more, he makes decisions and Ophelia must comply. The word “loose” is reminiscent of language used to describe the treatment of animals. This reinforces the sense of Ophelia being a piece of property. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia confirms her insignificance as an individual. He only to provoke Polonius, by commenting on her promiscuity, mentions her. The soliloquy at the end of the scene shows that she is not in his thoughts at all. She has been sidelined by Hamlet, as Hamlet becomes more absorbed with how he can avenge his father’s death. Other peoples’ attitudes to Ophelia control what happens to her. We are once again reminded that Ophelia’s “main function in the play is to illuminate a particular facet of Hamlet’s decline.” A modern reader would feel yet more sympathy for Ophelia, because she is not in Hamlet’s thoughts. A Shakespearean audience would also feel sympathy for her, because she has just been rejected by the man she loves.

        In Act 3 Scene 1, Ophelia is used to find out if the cause of Hamlet’s madness is love, or rather the lack of it. Her father and the king spy on a private conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia. At the start of the scene, she is not greeted by anybody. This reinforces her insignificance. She is commanded by Polonius, when he says, “Walk you here.” This yet again shows her inferiority. Hamlet rejects Ophelia many times, by saying, “I loved you not.” This causes her considerable distress. He speaks of his resentment of women, and expresses his disgust by saying, “Get thee to a nunnery.” Ophelia is innocent but Hamlet expresses bitterness towards females, possibly because of his mother’s hasty marriage. Ophelia is then controlled and used by Hamlet as she was by her father. Other people and their intentions always govern her position. Ophelia’s words at the end of the scene express her grief about Hamlet, because she says, “And I of ladies most deject and wretched.” Also, her detailed description into Hamlet’s character gives us great insight into her own. Through her we get a glimpse of the man Hamlet was before his father’s death, because he is described as “courtier, soldier, scholar…” Ophelia’s submissive behaviour is the more poignant, because we can see that it is enforced by others, not a lack of feeling or intelligence. The comments by Polonius and Claudius in this scene suggest that neither show any indication that they appreciate Ophelia’s suffering. Claudius does not address her directly, but sees her simply as an instrument used to test his theory about Hamlet. He dismisses her quickly: “Love? His affections do not that way tend.” Polonius only offers fleeting concern, “How now Ophelia?” and immediately goes on to reinforce the real purpose of the encounter between Ophelia and Hamlet- to spy on them. His words explicitly silence her again, “You need not tell us.” We are reminded he completely denies Ophelia a private life. Her emotional involvement is made public. Her powerlessness is again obvious. It is not only allowed by other characters, but also demanded by them.         

        Hamlet also treats Ophelia very badly. We have already seen he has cruelly rejected her in the previous scene. They meet again in Act 3 Scene 2. Hamlet makes many references to sexual themes. Throughout this scene, she shows her inferiority to Hamlet, by addressing him as, “My Lord.” This only reinforces her inferiority to the male sex, and she does not come across as independent. However, as the scene progresses, we can see that Ophelia becomes more confident, and even sarcastic toward Hamlet, for example, “You are as good as a chorus my lord.” This shows that she has a degree of confidence.

        However, the next time we see Ophelia, in Act 4 Scene 5, we can see that she has gone mad. She is stricken with grief because of Hamlet’s rejection of her, and also because Hamlet has killed her father. Ophelia sings songs to the queen, which have themes of love and death that can be traced to things that have happened earlier in the play. These themes are so intermingled however, that they can be seen to refer to the loss of the man she loved, Hamlet, and her father’s death. Her songs also echo the advice Laertes gave her about Hamlet, because she says, “…before you tumbled me/ You promised me to wed.” This may suggest that she has been used by Hamlet for sex, and that the advice her brother gave came too late. Ophelia’s madness has made her behaviour change dramatically. The once timid Ophelia freely speaks to the queen. Laertes realises how Ophelia is expressing her true feelings because he says, “This nothing’s more than matter.” He finally takes notice of what she has to say. This is ironic, because when she is mad, people are interested, even though she can no longer look after her own life.  Ophelia also causes controversy. She sings inappropriately about the “maid” betrayed by her lover. To acknowledge this unseemly behaviour would be unacceptable for a woman of Ophelia’s social status and role in court. A modern reader would feel sympathy for Ophelia. Insanity is the only thing that gives her an opportunity to break away from the restrictions she had faced in the play.

        We learn in Act 4 Scene 7 that Ophelia has drowned. She floats in the water, “Her clothes spread/ wide, And mermaid-like while they bore her up.” and doesn’t try to rescue herself. As Angela Pitt comments, “Gertrude’s version of her death presents her as a poor innocent, oblivious of danger to the last.” Ophelia’s death matches her attitudes as we have seen in her life, weak and passive. Ophelia doesn’t try to escape, and this could suggest that she wanted to die. For a modern reader, we would feel pity for her, because suicide is the only way some people can end their sadness. However, a Shakespearean audience would not react well to this. They viewed suicide as a sin; because they believed only God had the power to take someone’s life away. A person who committed suicide would not be allowed a burial, and they would bring disgrace to their family.

        Ophelia’s funeral takes place in Act 5 Scene 1. This is when Hamlet first learns of her death. He is overcome with grief, and says, “I loved Ophelia, forty thousand brothers/could not.” This sounds very excessive. Even if the love expressed here is sincere, it comes too late, highlighting once more Ophelia’s inability to control what happens to her. Ophelia is yet again being used by Hamlet and Laertes, as a scapegoat for a fight. She has always taken second place in concern to men. She is yet again sidelined, and this is even more tragic at her own funeral. A modern reader would feel that Hamlet and Laertes have no respect for Ophelia, because they fight at her funeral in her grave. We would feel very shocked and outraged by a show of violence at such a time. A Shakespearean audience may understand though, because they would realise that it would be Laertes duty to avenge his father’s death, at any time possible.  

        In conclusion, it is very clear to see that Ophelia is presented as a character of secondary importance as an individual throughout Hamlet. This is interesting if we compare her with many other females in Shakespeare’s plays, for example Lady Macbeth and Beatrice. She is not valued as a person in her own right, and we can see that Ophelia is treated more like an object than a human being. Only when she is insane do people take notice, and this is very tragic. A modern reader would feel a lot of sympathy for Ophelia, because of the way she is treated. In a post-feminist society, we would feel Ophelia is very oppressed by males throughout the play. This is very strange, because nowadays, women are allowed the same amount of liberty as men. However, a modern reader could be very frustrated with Ophelia. She is very passive, and doesn’t stand up for herself. She actually accentuates the patriarchal role of her father, brother and Hamlet. A Shakespearean audience would also feel sympathy throughout the play. Despite the fact that cultural values and structures have changed meaning that Ophelia often seems rather pathetic to a modern audience in her lack of initiative, Shakespeare has still created in her, a character that modern and Jacobean audiences alike can relate to.


Gibson, Rex, Cambridge student Guide: “Hamlet,” Cambridge University Press 2002

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Heinemann, 1996

Pitt, Angela, “Shakespeare’s Women,” David and Charles, 1881

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