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Ophelia In Hamlet Essay

1531 words - 7 pages

Hamlet is a revenge tragedy which focuses primarily on Hamlet’s desire and attempt to avenge his father’s death. Part of the tragedy of Hamlet revolves around the character Ophelia and his relationship with her. Usually, critics regard the tragedy of this subplot to stem from Hamlet’s loss of love. Elaine Showalter notes that Ophelia is only present in 5 of the 20 scenes in the play and that very little is known about her background. Another scholar, Lee Edwards, adds that “We can imagine Hamlet’s story without Ophelia, but Ophelia literally has no story without Hamlet” (qtd. in Showalter 283). Despite her relative absence, Ophelia still holds much of the readers’ and play ...view middle of the document...

Unlike Hamlet, who can act according to his own will and speak his mind as he wants, Ophelia must find an alternative to express herself. The only out that she sees is in madness and eventually death. As a mad woman, Ophelia would not be bound by the societal restrictions of women; she could voice herself; however, even in madness she is not free. Even though she is able to have a voice, she still has no freedom of choice and she is ultimately regarded as nonsensical and her words are taken to be simply mad-talk. Whereas Hamlet has the power and potential to change his fate, Ophelia does not and her death is tragic because the only escape she sees from her oppression is madness and death. Thus, her limited options in a patriarchal society and her realization of those limitations are what make Ophelia's death the true tragedy of Hamlet.

As a woman in a society dominated by men, Ophelia has few choices in life. While unmarried she would have to obey her father and once married she would have to obey her husband. It is clear from the text that Ophelia is a proper woman for her time. She obediently does as her father tells her without complaint. Even if she does not want to comply with the rules, when her father gave the order, she obeyed. Her real attitude is clear when she has a conversation about chastity, first with Laertes, her brother, then with Polonius, her father. After Laertes rather explicitly warns Ophelia to fear losing her virginity, she replies by telling him not to lecture her, “Whiles, a puffed and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, / And recks not his own rede” (1.3.48-50). She is able to rebuke her brother to some extent, but when her father gives her the same lecture and tells her not to accept Hamlet’s advances, she simply replies, “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.135). This early scene in the play sets up Ophelia’s frame of mind. Although Ophelia wants to believe Hamlet is true to her and “Hath given countenance to his speech… / With almost all the holy vows of heaven” (1.3.112-13), her father’s word is law and what he says she must follow, for “if she refuses Polonius, she risks social ostracism and grave insult to the man who capriciously controls her future” (Campbell 58). Essentially, Ophelia was the property of her father. Mary Floyd-Wilson explains that “Polonius’ application of economic terms to Hamlet’s overtures transforms Ophelia into a commodity…The issue of Ophelia’s chastity concerns Polonius as a parent and a politician—a virginal Ophelia has a better chance of attainting Hamlet’s hand in marriage” (401). As such, Ophelia’s feelings and desires are suppressed by her inability to freely voice herself in a strict patriarchal society that views her as a sexual object for trade.

Although Ophelia’s complacency seems extreme, during the Renaissance, she would have been diagnosed with hysteria. Women of Ophelia’s...

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