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The Dramatic Function of Ophelia in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'.

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Introduction

The Dramatic Function of Ophelia in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' In William Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' the character Ophelia performs a very interesting and important role in the elaboration of the plot. Ophelia is a tragic victim, a common component of Shakespeare's revenge tragedies and something that the audience would have come to expect. It is perhaps surprising that a vulnerable and frail character such as Ophelia could have the great impact on the play that she does. Understanding her reactions to the patriarchal society in which she lives through her relationships with the men in her life adds greater depth to the play. Her character is revealed through her interactions with Polonius, Laertes and Hamlet, and their characters in turn revealed through their relationships with her. Ophelia allows better understanding of Hamlet's complex personality. Ophelia also highlights key themes of the play, including corruption, patriarchy and deception. Before her function can be analysed, Ophelia's character must be understood. Shakespeare presents her as a character of weakness, one to respond to with pity and sympathy. She has been read in very different ways- as shown in the greatly varied portrayals of her in different films. The conventional view is that she is a pure and innocent victim, but another reading of her is that she is a clever, sexually experienced but somewhat confused and naive girl. I believe that Ophelia is the epitome of goodness, childlike and na�ve, and that it was Shakespeare's intention to evoke sympathy for her. I think that she teeters upon the edge of adult knowledge, with those around her fighting to suppress her sexuality. She is not sexless and does demonstrate understanding of Hamlet's bawdy language. Hamlet uses broad sexual innuendo, to which her response of 'you are naught, you are naught' (III.ii.148) reveals that she is offended by it, at once showing that she understands, but certainly disapproves of, his language. ...read more.

Middle

and an 'unmatched form and feature of blown youth' (III.i.162) but has now been 'blasted with ecstasy,' only serves to make Hamlet all the more tragic. Ophelia's description cannot fail to evoke sympathy for him, be he truly mad or not. In addition, it is Ophelia's dramatic function to elucidate Hamlet's tragic flaw- his indecisiveness and inability to act. This leads to his downfall, and it is vital that the audience appreciate this. He speaks of "some vicious mole of nature'... 'Shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault," to show that one character flaw can corrupt the entire person. Hamlet's inconsistent behaviour towards Ophelia demonstrates his inability to make up his mind. This leads to his delay in dealing with Claudius and thus his demise. It is highlighted in conversation with Ophelia, when he states 'I did love you once' (III.i.115) then "I loved you not." Only when she is buried can he conclude "I loved Ophelia." Unless he has no time to reflect (for instance, when he kills Polonius), he appears incapable of deliberate action. Ophelia lends insight into Hamlet's flaw by mirroring it. She is an entirely passive character; any action she takes is merely a response to others' actions. Rather than actively jumping, she simply did not attempt to rescue herself when the branch holding her broke. This inaction is as characteristic of Ophelia as it is of Hamlet. The exchange between Ophelia and Hamlet increases dramatic tension in the play. The realisation of Ophelia's deceitfulness causes the terrible outburst of abuse as, adding to pre-existing feelings of betrayal by Gertrude, the other woman he loves has also let him down. Gertrude chose a brother over Hamlet's dead father and now Ophelia chooses a father over Hamlet. She also pushes the plot along because his violent rejection of her; "I loved you not" - convinces Claudius that he is not really mad for her love and so immediately he determines to send Hamlet to England. ...read more.

Conclusion

to benefit them in terms of power. Ophelia exemplifies this, confused by what is happening around her as she strives to do what Polonius, Laertes and Hamlet want her to. Polonius does not advise Ophelia to be true to herself as he advises Laertes, but points out that Hamlet has the freedom to do as he wishes whereas she does not. She is subject to the double standard of the difference between male and female freedom of choice and action. Laertes is treated very differently by his father in comparison to the lack of regard he shows Ophelia. Ophelia's wishes are never considered- women had little status. Gertrude, too, has limited influence. Claudius and Polonius wield the power. Both women die but Ophelia's end bears particular significance because she is driven to it by events she cannot control. Her death indicates the corrupting effects of the male-dominated political realm of Elsinore, in which, as Polonius shows, there is little room for the consideration of love. All of the characters fail in the sinful world of Elsinore, where there is no possibility for a fulfilled life. Ophelia's demise adds to Shakespeare's bleak message that evil can triumph. Defeat seems inevitable, whether they accept the conditions of Elsinore and live with the deceitful principles of the political world as Polonius does, or seek out love, as Ophelia does, or attempt to find sense in things, like Hamlet. In conclusion, through Ophelia a greater appreciation of other characters is achievable. She illuminates aspects of Hamlet- his suspicion of women and indecisiveness and, by comparison and contrast with her, also his strength, nobility and sanity. She gives insight into his nature both prior to and following his father's death, therefore allowing the audience a better understanding of (and more sympathy for) him. Also revealed are aspects of Laertes and Polonius' characters. Shakespeare uses Ophelia to add more depth to the themes of the play, namely the dangers of patriarchy, illusion and corruption. It is through Ophelia that Shakespeare achieves a genuinely tragic response to the play 'Hamlet'. Louise Shirley 12/13 1 ...read more.

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