Characterization of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet
In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, the character of Ophelia is perhaps the most tragic, as her wishes and desires are constantly sublimated in favor of the scheming characters around her. Essentially she is used as bait for Hamlet, and when her father dies, she is left to her own madness and death (a death whose circumstances leave open the possibilities of accident or suicide). By examining the characterization of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, it will be possible to see how the play uses her conversations to heighten the tragedy of her death and subsequently implicate the other characters, and especially Polonius and Gertrude, more fully in her breakdown and death, thus revealing the destructive nature of gender stereotypes and the social roles they reinforce.
Before examining the character of Ophelia in more detail, it will be useful to briefly examine previous critical work on the subject of Ophelia's characterization in play as a means of orienting this study within a critical context as well as providing some relevant observations for the eventual consideration of Ophelia. A look at Maurice Hunt's essay "Impregnating Ophelia" will offer a way of looking at the text with an eye towards Ophelia's possible pregnancy and how it is expressed in the play's subtle characterization of her, which in turn will demonstrate how Ophelia's characterization throughout the play is formed by the characters around her.
As Hunt notes, "certainly the question of whether Ophelia is pregnant with Hamlet's child is not original," but his consideration is unique because of the novel proposition that "Shakespeare involves the complicity of the playgoer or reader in the possible impregnation of Ophelia, that impregnating her is in fact the consequence of the playgoer's or reader's 'pregnant' imagination, as this imagination plays over her characterization" (Hunt 641). It is important to note that Hunt is "not in [his] essay ever claiming that Ophelia is in fact pregnant, or that she has had sexual intercourse with Hamlet," but rather "that Shakespeare successfully gets auditors to imagine that she is pregnant, or has strong carnal appetites," so that in the end, "impregnating, or not impregnating, Ophelia, occurs -- or does not occur -- as a consequence of the playgoer's or reader's intentions with regard to Polonius's daughter" (Hunt 641). This is why Hunt uses the metaphor of the 'pregnant' imagination; because the origin of Ophelia's possible pregnancy is the mind of the reader or audience, then only those readers or audience members whose imaginations are 'pregnant' with the possibility of pregnancy will imbue Ophelia with this detail.
This conceptualization is crucial to understand, because it reflects in the audience/play relationship some of the same dynamics which occur in the play itself, between other characters and Ophelia. She plays a number of different roles for different people, and one can see her eventual madness and death as the expression of her inability to maintain an identity following the loss of one of these roles, namely, that of daughter. One may read Ophelia as something of an empty vessel, forced to keep her own personality and desires largely unexpressed as a result of her historical and societal position so that the meaning in her life is created by her relation to other characters.
When the roles of daughter and lover come into mortal conflict following Hamlet's murder of Polonius, she is unable to deal with the resultant trauma, having never been given the opportunity to develop an independent personality and psyche beyond those imposed upon her by her social roles. This is not to suggest that Shakespeare is engaging in any kind of misogynistic stereotypes of frailty or hysteria in his characterization of Ophelia, but rather that he is using Ophelia's descent into madness and death as a means of pointing out the destructive nature of these stereotypes and the social roles they prescribe for individuals. With this in mind, it is now possible to begin an analysis of Ophelia in key moments throughout the play, in order to see how her relationships with other characters (namely, Polonius and Gertrude) serve to repress her psychological development such that she is unable to effectively cope with the loss of Polonius.
Immediately upon her introduction into the play, Ophelia's forced subservience to other characters is demonstrated, because nearly the entirety of her first scene if spent being lectured by her brother and father to stay away from Hamlet. Reading their entreaties now makes them seem almost quaint, as Laertes begs his sister to "weigh what loss your honor may sustain, / If with too credent ear you list his songs, / Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open / To his unmaster'd importunity" (Hamlet 1.3.30-32). The ludicrousness of Laertes overbearing instructions is pointed out by Ophelia, when she retorts that he should "Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, / Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, / And recks not his own rede" (1.3.47-51). Ophelia is attempting to point out the double standard that Laertes is engaging in, and she nearly succeeds except for the arrival of Polonius, who cuts their conversation short before starting in on his own.
Whereas the social structures of the time allowed Ophelia the opportunity to openly challenge her brother, and to do so far more eloquently than his own fumbling attempts to encourage chastity, she is not allowed to rebut Polonius so directly, and thus must play dumb, stating "I do not know, my lord, what I should think," and telling Polonius that "I shall obey, my lord" (1.3.104-136). This scene is crucial for understanding how the other characters affect Ophelia's psychological development, because it briefly flirts with the idea of freedom before shutting it down entirely (and explains why Laertes was not listed among Ophelia's important relationships earlier in this essay).
As the reader will recall, the thesis of this essay is that Ophelia's madness and death are the result of her internalization of the roles prescribed for her by others, so that when one of these roles is destroyed with the death of Polonius, she is unable to cope, having been rendered ill-equipped through her time spent accommodating the whims of others. However, upon her first introduction Ophelia has far more agency, cleverly arguing with her brother and in some ways putting him in his place for not minding his own business. Thus, although their relationship helps to define them both, their relationship is an equitable one, with each influencing the other so that Ophelia is not ultimately made subservient to Laertes (this is why Laertes was not listed among the relationships which stunt Ophelia's psychological development). However, Laertes leaves almost immediately, so that brief hope of an equitable life is taken away from Ophelia at the beginning of the play, and she never recovers afterwards. This scene further demonstrates the repressive nature of her relationship with Polonius and the retarding effect it has on her psychological development, because Polonius tells her to "think yourself a baby," which she ultimately agrees to (1.3.105). This infantile psychology renders her unable to cope with Polonius' death, so that her madness may ultimately be traced back to this scene, with everything else that happens afterwards only serving to speed her along towards her inevitable demise.
Later in the play, Ophelia is used as bait by the king and Polonius (and by default, Gertrude) in order that they might listen in to Ophelia and Hamlet's conversation in order to determine his plans. The scene demonstrates the utter powerlessness Ophelia has been forced into at this point, because she has been chosen to participate in the sting without any input of her own. While one might expect this kind of wildly disrespectful behavior on the part of Polonius or the king (who did murder his own brother, after all), but this scene also reveals the enabling nature of Gertrude, who, as queen, serves to reinforce the gendered stereotypes and restrictions of their society. Thus, after the king has outlined his plan, Gertrude addresses Ophelia and says "for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet's wildness" (3.1.38-40). Hopefully this demonstrates how fully Gertrude, as the only other female character in the play, serves to support the restrictions imposed upon Ophelia by the other characters, and especially her father, because the best she can do is hope that Hamlet is acting weird because Ophelia is just so pretty.
Gertrude will remain important later, as she relates the story of Ophelia's death, but briefly it is worth pointing out Hamlet and Ophelia's interaction in this scene, because it demonstrates why this essay does not hold Hamlet accountable for her death in the same way Polonius or Gertrude, even though Hamlet is the one who actually kills Polonius. Although Hamlet is decidedly cruel, telling Ophelia that "If thou dost marry,…