Ophelia is beautiful, gentleand loving, capable of deepaffection for her father andHamlet but also lacking in thestrength that would enableher to stand up for her loveror help her to endure themurder of her father.
Her beauty is commented onby several characters andGertrude hopes that thisbeauty may be capable ofdistracting Hamlet from hisgloomy thoughts:III.1.38-41
“And for your part Ophelia, I dowishThat your good beauties be thehappy causeOf Hamlet’s wildness. So shall Ihope your virtuesWill bring him to his wonted wayagain”
It may be argued that Opheliawas too easily persuaded tostop seeing Hamlet, but wemust remember that there wasmuch greater emphasis placedon filial duty in Shakespeare’sage than in our own.
In addition, Ophelia has beentold by her brother thatHamlet’s regard stemmedfrom lust not love and that, inany case, he is not free tochoose his own wife:I.3.5-9 and 16-21
“For Hamlet, and the trifling of hisfavour,Hold it a fashion, and a toy in blood,A violet in the youth of primy nature,Forward, not permanent, sweet, notlasting,The perfume and suppliance of aminute”
“but you must fear,His greatness weighed, his will is nothis own,For he himself is subject to his birth.He may not, as unvalued persons do,Carve for himself, for on his choicedependsThe sanctity and health of this wholestate.”
Later, when her father alsosuggests that Hamlet is onlytrifling with her, Opheliaagrees to obey her father’scommand not to see himagain:I.3.132-6
“POLONIUS: I would not in plain termsfrom this time forthHave you so slander any momentleisureAs to give words or talk with the LordHamlet.Look to‟t I charge you. Come yourways.OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord”
Although Ophelia obeyed herfather’s command, it is clear thatshe loved Hamlet. She isextremely upset when she firstnotices that Hamlet is behavingstrangely:II.1.73“Oh my lord, my lord, I have beenso affrighted”
Her sympathy for the youngPrince is obvious as shedescribes his appearance:II.1.79-82
“Pale as his shirt, his knees knockingeach other,And with a look so piteous in purportAs if he had been loosed out of hellTo speak of horrors –”
Ophelia allows herself to be usedby Polonius and the King in aneffort to prove whether or notHamlet’s madness is the result ofunrequited love, but there can beno doubt as to the depth of herown feelings after the interview.Hamlet criticised and rejected herand her response is one of grieffor him and also for herself:
“Oh what a noble mind is here o‟erthrown!The courtier‟s, soldier‟s, scholar‟s, eye, tongue, sword,Th‟expectancy and rose of the fair state,The glass of fashion and the mould of form,Th‟observed of all observers, quite, quite down,And I of ladies most deject and wretched,That sucked the honey of his music vows,Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,Like sweet bells jangled, out of time and harsh;That unmatched form and feature of blown youthBlasted with ecstasy. Oh woe is meT‟have seen what I have seen, see what I see.”
Ophelia is an innocent, young girlbut not ignorant of the ways of theworld. She understands Laertesand her father when they urge hernot to allow her love of Hamlet toover-rule her judgement and shecertainly understands the bawdypuns used by Hamlet in III.1.119-43 and also in III.2.222-7:
“OPHELIA: You are as good as achorus my lord.HAMLET: I could interpret betweenyou and your love if I could see thepuppets dallying.OPHELIA: You are keen my lord, youare keen.HAMLET: It would cost you a groaningto take off mine edge.
Ophelia is capable of wit. She listens attentively to her brother’s admonishing in I.3 and then reminds him of his own behaviour:I.3.45-51
“I shall th‟effect of this good lessonkeepAs watchman to my heart. But goodmy brother,Do not as some ungracious pastors do,Show me the steep and thorny way toheaven,Whiles like a puffed and recklesslibertine
Ophelia is overwhelmed by her lossof Hamlet, followed so quickly by themurder of her father. Her mindsnaps and her full pathos is broughthome to the audience in IV, whenshe appears wearing garlands offlowers and singing little bits offolksongs, all of which deal with theloss of a loved one, through eitherdesertion or death:
“He is dead and gone lady, He is dead and gone;At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone.”
In her madness, Ophelia losesher inhibitions and sings of sexuallove in a way that reminds theaudience of Hamlet’s outburst inIII.1.119-43:IV.5.58-66
“By Gis and Saint Charity, Alack and fie for shame,Young men will do‟t if they come to‟t – By Cock, they are to blame.Quoth she, „Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed.‟He answers – So would I ha‟ done, by yonder sun, And thou hadst not come to my bed.”
Ophelia’s story parallels Hamlet’s.Both think they have been desertedby the one they love; both have losta father through murder and both goto an untimely death.Ophelia may lack the tragic dignity ofsome of Shakespeare’s otherheroines but she inspires pathos inthe audience. Like many ofShakespeare’s young heroines sheis motherless and so has no womanto turn to for advice when difficultiesarise.
It is worth adding that nocharacter in the play has anythingevil to say of Ophelia.All regard her as young, beautifuland innocent, and as tooimmature to endure the hardshipsshe had to suffer.