An Analysis of Ophelia’s Madness in Hamlet
This essay provides an in-depth analysis of Ophelia’s madness in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It explores the psychological and societal factors contributing to her mental state, including her relationships with Hamlet and Polonius, and the oppressive nature of the Elizabethan society. The analysis seeks to understand Ophelia’s character beyond her madness, examining her as a symbol of innocence and the tragic impact of her environment. The essay aims to offer a nuanced view of Ophelia’s madness, considering both feminist interpretations and historical context. At PapersOwl, you’ll also come across free essay samples that pertain to Hamlet.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a political play about the struggle of a young Danish prince, Hamlet, to avenge the murder of his father. In his distress, he casts aside his lover, Ophelia, who spends the majority of the play confused and bewildered by the prince’s actions. At the same time, she is pressured by her brother, Laertes, and her father, Polonius, to stay away from Hamlet. After her father has been stabbed by Hamlet, Ophelia subsequently goes mad and drowns in a brook, though it is unclear whether or not she committed suicide. Ophelia’s madness is a result of her inability to cope with the manipulation of the male figures in her life, ultimately making her a symbol of ruined purity.
The patriarchal society of Denmark’s nobility has already oppressed Ophelia, forcing her to be subservient to others, despite her own wishes. Her subordination is evident from the very beginning of the play, in which she follows the demands of her brother and father to reject Hamlet’s love. She attempts to argue her brother’s orders, “But, good my brother, / Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,/ Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, / Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads / And recks not his own rede” (1.3.50-55), indicating that she truly does believe Hamlet’s words of affection and has an opinion in the matter. However, when her father 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. / Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways,” she replies with only “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.141-145). Ophelia is expected to act passively, giving in to her father’s will, despite the protestations she gave to her brother. In Denmark’s society, there is no way for Ophelia to express her own opinion, especially since young women like her are often expected to act demure and ladylike to become good marriage candidates. In the end, she is forced to avoid Hamlet, thereby closing her heart to him and setting herself on the path to self-destruction.
How it works
Ophelia becomes the victim of manipulation when she is used by her father and King Claudius to spy on Hamlet, thus rendering her as impure in the eyes of the prince. Claudius and Polonius have Ophelia interact with Hamlet while they watch from a distance, intent on finding a reason for Hamlet’s feigned madness. When Hamlet asks, “Where’s your father?” Ophelia replies, “At home, my lord,” to which Hamlet remarks, “Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in his own house. Farewell” (3.1.141-144). Perhaps Hamlet has realized that Ophelia is lying, as Polonius is actually spying on him, or he has caught on that Ophelia is being used in a ruse, and her concern for him may not be genuine. Hamlet, in his madness, berates Ophelia, saying “You jig and amble, and you
Ophelia’s madness is her final vent of frustration. Her lamentations about lost maidenhood and innocence are likely a mourning for her sanity cracking under pressures from male figures. As she sings songs of death and betrayal, Claudius remarks: “O, this is the poison of deep grief. It springs / All from her father’s death, and now behold!…poor Ophelia / Divided from herself and her fair judgment,/ Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts” (4.5.80- 93). Instead of questioning what Ophelia’s madness is truly caused by, the people around her attribute it to the loss of her father. The fact that they believe her life revolves around her father shows that in noble society, women are expected to be subordinate to their fathers and husbands. To the characters, Ophelia’s madness is assumed to be caused by the fact she now has neither a husband nor a father. However, she sings, “How should I your true love know / From another one?…He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone” (4.5.28-35). This shows that Ophelia’s madness is partially caused by Hamlet – he has left her heartbroken and betrayed. It is the contradiction between what Polonius says to her – which is to stay away from Hamlet – and Hamlet’s rejection of her despite her love for him, which causes Ophelia to feel trapped and distraught. There is no other way for her to escape besides madness because it’s the only way where she will no longer have to act in the proper way she was taught to without losing her honor. However, she already has lost her purity, as her insanity has muddied her innocence to the point of no return.
Even Ophelia’s death is passive, as described by Gertrude: “When down her weedy trophies and herself / Fell in the weeping brook…But long it could not be / Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death” (4.7.197-208). She is weighed down by her clothing and pulled down by the water, making no visible effort to fight death – it is a parallel to how she is pulled down by the constraints of her society, yet unable to find an escape. The muddying of Ophelia’s innocence under the suppression of Danish court society and her eventual descent into madness is what marks her as a tragic yet memorable heroine in literature.