30 March 2015
An Analysis of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet Ophelia is one of the most popular female characters in Shakespeare’s plays. She enjoys many appellations from bards -“most beautified Ophelia,” “sweet Ophelia,” “Poor Ophelia,” “minist'ring angel.” She is beautiful, obedient and loyal to her family, maybe even too loyal. Shakespeare integrates a great deal of analytical thought in his writing. Like in any other character, readers can find symbolism, motifs, and representative in the character of Ophelia. Although Ophelia seems to be simplistic or static, her astute words reveal that she does not lack intelligence, opinion, or understanding. Ophelia represents gender issues in both current society and the Elizabethan Age; she is victimized and objectified by her own father, brother and lover. Ophelia’s weakness that eventually leads to her insanity and death is not ignorance or obedience, but a lack of action, which is also a representative of female characteristics in Shakespeare’s society. Ophelia only appears in five of twenty scenes in Hamlet. In just five scenes, Shakespeare clearly demonstrates how Ophelia is dominated by male characters. Throughout the play, Ophelia is told what to do and is impartial in the decision making process over her own matter. “For the male characters in the play—such as Hamlet, Polonius, and even Claudius—Ophelia is merely a convenient tool to be exploited and manipulated” (Chen 2). Act 1 scene 3 features Ophelia’s first conversation with her brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius. They are advising Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet. Laertes says to Ophelia “Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, / And keep you in the rear of your affection, / Out of the shot and danger of desire” (1, 3, 33). Laertes shows true concern about Ophelia’s wellbeing; he loves and cares for her especially when he refers Ophelia as “my dear sister.” He warns Ophelia to be aware of the potential consequences of being too involved with Hamlet. In turn, Ophelia has deep respect for Laertes. After Laertes gives Ophelia instructions for dealing with her relationship with Hamlet, she says to Laertes “Tis in my memory lock'd, / And you yourself shall keep the key of it” (1, 3, 85). By saying this, Ophelia hands Laertes the ability to make decisions for her and the key to her thoughts. The way Polonius, Ophelia’s own father, treats her sharply contrasts with the way Laertes treats her. Also in act 1 scene 3, Polonius demands Ophelia to tell him what Laertes has told her, and instead of giving advice to her, he blames her for potentially making him to look like a fool. He says to Ophelia,
Marry, I'll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or--not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus--you'll tender me a fool (1, 3, 105).
From this, it is obvious that Polonius only cares about his own reputation, and he is concern about Ophelia only in relation to his own goals, ambitions and reputation. In the same scene, Polonius asks Ophelia, “Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?” (1, 3, 103), her response to her father is “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (1, 3, 104). She asks her father what to think; this exhibits extreme dependence and submissiveness. As quoted above, Polonius claims to “teach” (1, 3, 105) Ophelia how to think, and he tells Ophelia to think of herself as a “baby” (1, 3, 105) and “green girl” (1, 3, 101). He compares Ophelia to a baby, someone who does not has the ability to think and make decision. He considers Ophelia very immature and naïve, and he has enormous power over Ophelia. With Ophelia’s loyalty, she decides to obey Polonius’s demand, despite her strong interest in Hamlet. At the end of that scene, Ophelia says to Polonium, “I shall obey, my lord” (1, 3, 136). She is willing to sacrifice her love for Hamlet to obey