Essay on The Character of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet


Shakespeare portrays Ophelia as a tragic female character who is crucial to the development of the other characters and the thematic ideas in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia, who once relied on and was treated harshly by the men in her life, has it all taken from her. She goes mad, feeling lost and grieving the deprivation of the men she loved. Along with her representation of being a woman in the Elizabethan time period, she also helps to develop the major theme of “Love versus Loyalty”. Throughout the course of the play, even though Shakespeare barely wrote her in any scenes, his inclusion of her as a character can be seen being developed as a minor character along with the play’s themes. 

All throughout Ophelia’s lifetime she was always told what to think and how to act by the men she loved in her life. This shows her lack of independence and individuality. She clearly depends on the men in her life to make any decisions, an example of where this is shown is in Act 3 Scene 2 Line 124 “I think nothing, my lord.” Her lack of confidence in her own opinion shows the way she feels inferior to men’s thoughts against hers. So, when Hamlet kills Polonius it results in him getting sent far away and the death of Ophelia’s father who she loved dearly. In effect to this major turning point in the play, she goes mad, she’s lost two of the most important men in her life who she relied on for guidance and who she had cared deeply for. “Is she to be buried in Christian burial, when she willfully seeks her own salvation?” (V.i.1-2) Here the gravediggers are getting ready for her burial because her madness soon leads her to commit suicide feeling as it is the only escape.

In the play there’s two major themes Shakespeare includes that Ophelia faces which impact her and the play’s development. The first major theme that is extremely important and affects the play’s plot is love versus loyalty. Evident in this quote “Be something scanter of your maiden presence. Set your entreatments at a higher rate than a command to parle. For Lord Hamlet, believe so much in him that he is young, and with a larger tether may he walk than may be given you. In few, Ophelia, do not believe his vows, for they are brokers.” (I.iii.130-136) Polonius is telling Ophelia to ignore Hamlet because he does not truly love her and the things he is telling her are all lies and things he cannot act upon. So, she is conflicted between choosing loyalty to her father or her love for Hamlet. Hamlet makes it difficult for her as he acts out when she ignores him as seen in Act 2 Scene 1 Lines 87-91 “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced, no hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle, pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other.” He’s clearly in distress about Ophelia ignoring him for he is seen all messily unbuttoned and disheveled in his clothes. As the play progresses, the constant conflict between love and loyalty do not stop. She ends up choosing loyalty to her father after Polonius’ death at the hands of Hamlet. 

Written in the middle ages, Hamlet reveals the unfair disadvantages and misogyny women had experienced in the early 17th century. The second of the two major themes Shakespeare includes that effect Ophelia’s development is the theme of “Women.” He clearly writes Hamlet in a way where you can witness the oppression of women. Being an outcome of the sexist environment she was raised in, all of Ophelia’s decisions are based on the world of men. “Come, go with me. I will go seek the king. This is the very ecstasy of love, whose violent property fordoes itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings as oft as any passions under heaven that does afflict our natures.” (II.i.113-118) In this quote, Polonius is telling Ophelia to come see the king with him and to then spy on Hamlet. When Ophelia goes on to speak to Hamlet he then degrades her and tells her to go to a nunnery. “Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.” (III.i.149-152) Hamlet, along with all the other men of the Elizabethan time period, can be seen oppressing women to gain control and get what they want. This includes Polonius and Claudius who also are using Ophelia as an object to their game and schemes between one another. As time went on, after using her for what they needed they just saw her as a liability and basically abandoned her. This just continues to show how Ophelia, along with all women of the Elizabethan era, had to constantly go out of their way to appease men and do what they had to do to fit men’s needs. 

Shakespeare’s Hamlet includes Ophelia, who is portrayed as a tragic woman in the Elizabethan era faced with difficult decisions to appease the men in her life. Her importance to the play is crucial with her helping to develop the major themes of “Love versus Loyalty” and express the clear historical context of gender inequality. After being used as a pawn in a conflict between men which results in the loss of her father and Hamlet, whom she had deep love for, it causes her to go into a state of madness. All through the play she consistently experiences a number of difficult decisions which impact the plot, the other major characters, and her sanity. 

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