“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
― William Shakespeare
Ophelia’s character in Shakespeare’s famous production Hamlet is one of great mystery. With few lines, or even scenes, I found myself thinking “why is so much emphasis placed on her?” I discovered upon further investigation, however, that even though at first glance Ophelia’s character may seem like an insignificant part of the piece, in reality she plays a vital role in developing its theme of insanity vs. sanity.
From the start of the piece her character’s unparalleled “goodness” is obvious. Despite his persuasion she tells her father that Hamlet has “given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven” (Shakespeare I.III ). Despite her father’s doubts, Ophelia still remains confident in his affections. Yet, the fact that she agrees to cease communication with Hamlet, despite her confidence in his sincerity, shows her immense love and respect for her father. For her to describe his correspondences as using “all the holy vows of heaven” reflects a proper courting. In fact Ophelia prays for the help of heaven several times, including twice during her staged encounter with Hamlet when she proclaims: “O, help him, you sweet heavens” and “Heavenly powers, restore him” (Shakespeare III.II). Not only is she a compassionate woman but also a godly one; which in Hamlet’s era would have no doubt been a very desirable trait because of the values that went along with that. This only makes it all the more cruel when Hamlet tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare III.I). Unfortunately, Ophelia’s kindness also makes her an easy target; which is why Hamlet chastises her for the sins his mother has committed. In many ways she is much like a child; obedient to her father, loves unconditionally, and quite naive in that she has absolutely no idea about what is going on around her. It is this picturesque kindness that makes her such an important part of the plot.
With murders and deceit around every corner, the castle of Denmark is filled with evil. King Claudius, the most guilty of all, confesses himself “O, my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s murder!” (Shakespeare III.III). Yet, he is unwilling to apologize or admit to his sins because of what they have gotten him. Despite the threat of eternity in hell, his greed is stronger than his guilt. Even Hamlet is the cause of six deaths before the play is done. Not only that, but he verbally abuses those he loves most telling his mother:
Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an unseamed bed,
Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty. (Shakespeare III.IV)
Though honorable in his intentions, Hamlet is the epitome of an antihero because he wounds everyone around him either mentally or physically; much more than the antagonist. With all of this chaos existing throughout the play, it would be easy to lose sight of the magnitude of what is going on. After listening to Hamlet’s mad rambling long enough, it begins to sound ordinary; and with all the murdering and lying taking place there is danger of becoming desensitized to it. This is exactly why Ophelia’s character is so important. Her innocence shows the opposite side of the spectrum to express the level of immorality of the other characters. This is why Shakespeare molded her into the epitome of kindness. Therefore, she is vital to the theme of insanity because her complete soundness shows just how close to irrationality the others have come.
Ironically, Ophelia is ultimately the only one to become genuinely mad. Gertrude captures this when describing Ophelia’s death pronouncing:
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (Shakespeare IV. VII)
To describe her as “incapable of her own distress” suggests that Ophelia is so far gone she does not even understand that she is in danger; and thus is a hazard to herself. Throughout the play Hamlet’s sanity is constantly tested and the question of whether or not he has gone totally insane hovers over everything. Yet, in the end Ophelia becomes a true picture of lunacy. Hamlet becomes pale in comparison and instead seems more tormented than senseless. Thus, his actions and dealings with his father’s ghost become legitimized because one can no longer argue the ghost is simply a hallucination of a mad man. Hence, Ophelia also plays a key role in the matter of insanity because she depicts the demeanor of a truly insane person, thereby proving Hamlet’s stability; which in turn proves his father’s ghost is real and that his quest for vengeance is valid.
Through her journey from complete kindness to utter madness, Hamlet’s theme of sanity vs. insanity is completely dependent on Ophelia. Her sanity helps to portray the level of evil taking place throughout the acts, and her insanity reveals the saneness of others; particularly Hamlet. Because of Ophelia, Hamlet is proven innocent and the king guilty. Her part may seem small, but she does not speak much because little is needed of her for her to serve her purpose.
Creative commons photos by: Frances Macdonald, Gabriel Von Max, Benjamin West,Eugène Delacroix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Click photos to be taken to their source.