The Power of Silence
Because of her few lines and limited appearances, Ophelia, of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” is easily mistaken as nonessential to understanding the plot. The greater part of the play draws attention to the excitement of characters such as Hamlet and King Claudius, relegating Ophelia to the background. Further insight reveals, however, that Ophelia serves a vital role in the development of the theme of insanity/sanity in the play: in Act I, Scene 3, her purity and constant obedience serves as a grounding symbol of innocence, and in Act 4, scene 5, she depicts a true picture of madness to juxtapose Hamlet’s sanity.
There is a combination of forces at work that lead to Ophelia’s madness. Magda Romanska claims: “Ophelia continues to be a virtual stand-in for the enigma of a morbid teenage girl: a silent and suicidal question mark, torturing herself to achieve the ephemeral image of morbid feminine ideal” (487). As many critics do, this article focuses entirely on Ophelia’s early love affair with Hamlet and her father’s forbiddance of it rather than her loss of a dearly loved father and the chastisement she receives from the man she loves. With both Laertes and Hamlet away and Polonius dead, Ophelia loses everyone she cares about. There seems to be a propensity for scholars to overlook the young attractive female characters, like Ophelia, as mere accessories to the male lead. The depth of her personality, and its significance, is disregarded as if she could be replaced by any female character and has little effect to the plot. Yet, she is much more than just Hamlet’s pet, thrown into the play for sexual appeal. Ophelia’s specific nature is highly important.
Fig. 1. The above word cloud is comprised of all the words spoken by Ophelia in “Hamlet” by Willliam Shakespeare.
From the start of the piece, Ophelia’s unparalleled “goodness” is apparent. Such wholesomeness is initially presented through such traits as devoutness and concern. Ophelia prays for the help of heaven several times, including twice during her staged encounter with Hamlet: “O, help him, you sweet heavens” and “Heavenly powers, restore him” (Shakespeare 3.1.135,143). Again and again Ophelia pleads for Hamlet, reflecting her genuine distress for his wellbeing. Her dedication to her faith by turning to God portrays the devotion she gives to all those she loves (Polonius, God, Hamlet). As perceived in Fig. 1, the words most used by Ophelia include sweet, God, heaven, pray, sings, and lord. Though she does not speak heavily, Ophelia’s lines maintain her wholesome persona by pointing towards her religion and benevolence. Unfortunately, her kindness makes her vulnerable to Hamlet’s chastisement; as he seen he imposes Gertrude’s sins upon Ophelia: “for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Shakespeare 3.1.140-141). Though she is in no way the woman Hamlet describes, Ophelia serves as a safe place for him to release his frustration. Much like a child, she loves unconditionally and remains remarkably naïve to what is about transpiring around her. This perfect kindness is what reveals the gaping moral discrepancies of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet.
Ophelia’s purpose consequently is to serve as the opposite side of the spectrum, revealing through her innocence the level of immorality in the other characters. With murders and deceit around every corner, the castle of Denmark is consumed by evil deeds. 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 3.3.37). Yet, he is unwilling to apologize or reveal the truth to his family because of the treasure his deeds have won him, including Gertrude. The queen is living in adultery alongside her husband taking on her dead husband’s brother after mere weeks. Though what part exactly Gertrude played in the death of the former king is unknown she does tell Hamlet: “Oh, Hamlet, stop! You’re making me look into my very soul, where the marks of sin are so thick and black they will never be washed away” (Shakespeare 3.4.82-89). She therefore admits she has been guilty of something terrible. As the antihero, Hamlet is not entirely innocent, as he is the cause of six deaths by the closing of the curtains. In multiple instances he verbally abuses those he loves most as with his scolding of 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 3.4.92-95)
Though honorable in his intentions, Hamlet wounds everyone around him either mentally or physically; more so even than the Claudius. The chaos existing throughout the play threatens to mislead the plot. One could become desensitized to Hamlet and Claudius’s murderous plotting after enduring it for an extended amount of time. Therefore, Ophelia is vital to the theme of sanity and insanity because her complete soundness exposes just how close to immorality Claudius, Gertrude and specifically Hamlet, have come.
Even in her death, Ophelia maintains her role as a symbol of purity and holiness. Upon the approach of Ophelia’s funeral procession, Hamlet questions Horatio: “The queen, the courtiers: who is this they follow? And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken the corpse they follow did with desperate hand Fordo its own life: ’twas of some estate” (Shakespeare 5.1. 202-206). There seems a certain irony in Ophelia’s funeral in that she is given a simple ceremony (maimed rites, in Hamlet’s words) resulting from her shameful death. Yet, Ophelia is the most innocent character of the play; the most undeserving of such proceedings. While she is scarcely allowed to be buried in the church plot, characters like Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet will presumably receive extravagant services. Everything about Ophelia’s life however, contrasts that of the others. The entirety of the fifth act is dedicated to her shameful burial whereas the other characters are given a quite indistinct group death. Perhaps this discrepancy between the play’s deaths is further proof of the villainous qualities of the characters set against Ophelia’s purity.
Some critics argue in contradiction of Ophelia’s purity because of the vulgar songs she sings amidst her mad ramblings. At one point she sings: “Then up he rose, and donned his clothes, and dupped the chamber door. Let in the maid that out a maid never departed more” (Shakespeare 4.5.35-38). Her song about the lost virginity of a maid seems at first not an appropriate choice for a pure and holy figure. Yet, Chapman argues well when he writes that
The assumption here seems to be that since mad Ophelia has been manifestly thinking about sex, she cannot therefore also be thinking about religion. Such reasoning, however, mistakenly imposes a modem understanding of sex and religion as separate categories onto an early modem worldview that saw them as profoundly connected (Chapman 111).
As seen in the way in which doctors proscribed marriage as a cure for hysteria and greensickness, sexual relationships were a key part of Christian marriages. It does not corrupt Ophelia’s innocence therefore for her to talk about such things. The supposed provocativeness that some use to create a sexual image of Ophelia is just another tie between her and her faith, further supporting her image of purity.
Ophelia’s conformity to her father, while vital in her role as a symbol for purity, is also a major contributing factor in her downfall. She explains to Polonius that Hamlet has “given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven” (Shakespeare 1.3.113-114 ). For Ophelia to describe the correspondences as using “the holy vows of heaven” argues that Hamlet has in fact been properly courting her; the significance being that as a righteous figure it is important that Ophelia not engage in an inappropriate relationship with him. Even in the face of her father’s doubts, Ophelia still remains confident in Hamlet’s affections. However, by agreeing to her father’s insensitive wishes she reflects her immense love and respect for his fatherly authority. Ophelia seems to feel for Hamlet, but her allegiance is to Polonius because, until she marries, a proper daughter would submit to her father. This is reflected well when she hands over to Polonius the private letters she receives from Hamlet; thereby invading the prince’s privacy. While such actions could appear to be a betrayal to Hamlet, they represent an important part of Ophelia’s character. While those around her are constantly fighting against each other, she behaves without confrontation, keeping the perspective of right and wrong intact.
Because Ophelia is so obedient to her father, his death tragically affects her life and ultimately helps lead to her madness. The relationship she held with Polonius was like that of a subject to a dictator. She casts away any of her own ideas, at one point telling her father, “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” to which he responds: “Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby” (Shakespeare 1.3.104-105). Ophelia is constantly directed in her actions by her family and even the King and Queen. As a result, her complete obedience keeps herself from any fruition of personal desires. Therefore, when Polonius is murdered, Ophelia loses not only someone she loves but also the person who has been directing her every move for the entirety of her life. Though the death of Polonius frees Ophelia from his control, her identity dies beside him. Such loss of self, combined with grief, creates the picture of true insanity she becomes.
In submitting to her father, Ophelia is denied the privilege of marriage and thereby experiences another contributing influence to her madness. In his forbiddance of his daughter toward Hamlet, Polonius says: “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth, Have you so slander any moment leisure, As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet” (Shakespeare 1.3.132-134). Because Ophelia lives to obey her father she keeps from herself and Hamlet the love they both desire. According to Campbell: “Physicians liberally prescribe marriage as one cure for hysteria since regular sexual intercourse is a privilege of the socially sanctioned marital institution and anchors” (Campbell 2). Early modern beliefs would have held that in denying Ophelia the chance to marry and enjoy a sexual relationship, Polonius helps to bring about her mental illness. Even though Ophelia does not go insane until after the death of her father, his presence while still alive was strong enough to leave a permanent mark. If Ophelia had denied her father and brothers warnings and accepted Hamlet’s pursuits, she may very well had kept her mind. Yet, because of the pure spirit she possesses she obeys and as a result bears many hardships.
Despite great dispute, 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 4.7.175-181)
The description of Ophelia as one “incapable of her own distress” suggests that she is so far departed that she no longer realizes her danger; and is consequently is hazardous to herself. Coursen claims that “Ophelia does not drown herself “intentionally,” but she does not try to save herself, existentially or spiritually, either” (Coursen 2). The reality is then, that Ophelia is simply beyond sound thinking; she is truly mad. Thus when juxtaposed against Hamlet’s constantly questioned sanity, Ophelia serves to contrast his mental state with a true picture of unwellness.
Ophelia’s most important role in showing authentic madness is to reveal the villain of the play. Although Hamlet tells Horatio that he plans to put on a strange deposition many academic articles still argue that Hamlet truly goes insane (Shakespeare 1.5.172-174). This, therefore, is why Ophelia’s true lunacy is so important. Ophelia’s senseless rambling and apparent insanity suggests that Hamlet is tormented rather than truly mad. She depicts the demeanor of a truly insane person, thereby suggesting Hamlet’s stability; which in turn grants credibility to Hamlet’s ghostly apparition and his quest for vengeance; King Claudius is thereby uncovered as the true antagonist. Without Ophelia, therefore, Hamlet could very well be a murderer. As explained by Rhodes, Ophelia “appears alive in only five scenes of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, and speaks very few lines; her body rather than her speech is the primary agent of her identity” (Rhodes 2). Unlike Hamlet, the words that Ophelia speaks need not be verified; her importance is to serve as the opposite side of the spectrum showing first good from bad and then mad from sound for the audience.
Rather than approaching Shakespeare’s work without questioning our gender expectations, it is important to realize is significant. More credit should be given to Hamlet’s intelligence, that his love would not be given lightly nor would it be based purely on beauty. Ophelia is much more than a mere sex symbol there to keep the attention of the audience. Through her journey from complete kindness to utter madness, Hamlet’s theme of sanity vs. insanity is dependent on Ophelia. Her goodness helps to portray the level of moral corruption taking place throughout the acts, and Hamlets contrived insanity is proven through her genuine madness. The “otherness” her character holds reveals, however, that perhaps being good within a rotten state comes with a dear price.
Campbell, Erin E. “‘Sad Generations Seeking Water’: The Social Construction Of Madness In O(Phelia) And Q(Uentin Compson).” Faulkner Journal 20.1-2 (2004): 53-69. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 July 2014.
Chapman, Alison A. “Ophelia’s ‘Old Lauds’: Madness And Hagiography In Hamlet.” Medieval And Renaissance Drama In England: An Annual Gathering Of Research, Criticism And Reviews 20.(2007): 111-135. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 July 2014.
Coursen, H. R. “Ophelia’s Doubtful Death.” Christianity And Literature 27.3 (1978): 28-31. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 July 2014.
Rhodes, Kimberly. Ophelia and Victorian Visual Culture. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company. Print
Romanska, Magda. “Ontology And Eroticism: Two Bodies For Ophelia.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 34.6 (2005): 485-513. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 July 2014.
Shakespeare, William, and Philip Edwards. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.