Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a complex character in her own right. She is controlled by her male relatives and isn’t set free truly till madness sets in. She is loved like a daughter by Queen Gertrude, first loved and then abused by Hamlet and above all used as a bargaining tool by Laertes and Polonius. In Shakespeare’s time the way her father and others treated her wouldn’t have been uncommon and the shock would have come from her bawdy behaviour when she went mad whereas a modern audience would be more shocked and disgusted at the poor treatment she is given by her family and Hamlet.
Ophelia as she is initially presented is the dutiful and attentive daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. We see she respects and cares for the opinions of her father and brother, we see this when they are giving her advice in regard to her relationship with Hamlet. “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart. ” Though following this speech we can also see the differences between the relationships of Ophelia and her father and Ophelia and Laertes.
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With Laertes we can see a certain degree of repartee between the two with a line such as, “While like a puffed and reckless libertine himself the primrose path of dalliance treads and recks not his own rede. ” Whereas after receiving similar advice from her father she merely says, “I shall obey my lord. ” This could be due to the fact that Polonius uses a lot less tactful language than Laertes, “Affection? Pooh, you speak like a green girl unsifted in such perilous circumstance. This could be due to Polonius consistently treating his daughter as an object or bargaining tool and persistently speaks in monetary terms to her with his overuse of the word “Tenders” and phrases such as “set your entreatments at a higher rate,” “which their investments show,” “tenders for true pay which are not sterling. ” These are Polonius possibly unwittingly showing us how he sees his daughter. He’s more worried as to how she’ll make him look than how she’ll make herself look, “you’ll tender me a fool. When explaining to Ophelia about her situation with Hamlet, Polonius makes Ophelia seem in the wrong by speaking down to her, “think yourself a baby. ” To contrast with this Laertes speaks to her at a normal level, “be wary best safety lies in fear,” “Farewell Ophelia and remember well what I have said to you,” Laertes doesn’t even specifically tell her what to do but she understands nonetheless. Later we see further to the lengths that Polonius sees his aughter as a bargaining tool when he offers her up to the service of Claudius, he says, “I’ll loose my daughter to him,” meaning he’ll leave his daughter alone with Hamlet showing his dedication to the cause of Claudius. Though this too reflects upon Ophelia, despite her love of Hamlet she does her father’s bidding and assists their plot. This shows that above all she is inclined to do what her father says and nothing shall change that, her heavy dependence on her father can be seen in the scene after Polonius has died she says to Laertes, “I would give you a violet but they all withered when my father died. This shows how despondent she is and it could also in my opinion represent the ‘withering’ of her sanity and spirit. Hamlet is seen in several parts of the play to badger and abuse Ophelia but from what we learn from the letters from Hamlet to Ophelia shown to Claudius by Polonius we learn that Hamlet seems to truly love Ophelia writing things like, “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia” and “I love thee best, O most best, believe it. This is a total contrast as to how Hamlet treats her in later parts of the play, such as the famous nunnery scene, “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners,” in this scene he thoroughly abuses Ophelia compared to his letters of infinite love for her, though this is arguably brought upon Ophelia by her own actions directed by her father, “Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers, Not of that dye which their investments show. This is his way of saying to reject his advances and with the Hamlet’s very strong contemplation of life and death and the onset of possible depression this rejection on Ophelia’s part is possible to have tipped him over the edge. Though it is also arguable that he has planned his vicious verbal assault on Ophelia as he says previous to it, “The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons. Be all my sins remember’d. ” This could be an apology on his part to Ophelia in the form of an aside.
Other than his verbal assault he also uses lewd language with Ophelia for example his conversation with her during the players scene; ” Lady, shall I lie in your lap? ” “No, my lord. ” “I mean, my head upon your lap? ” “Ay, my lord. ” “Do you think I meant country matters? ” “I think nothing, my lord. ” “That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. ” “What is, my lord? ” “Nothing. ” This scene is a prime example of Hamlet talking in a lewd fashion to Ophelia and this way of speaking could be an influence on her later madness.
Gertrude speaks to Ophelia with love and affection that seems very genuine, “And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness: so shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted way again, to both your honours. ” This shows that she has a care for Ophelia but it more so shows her care for Hamlet, but then the idea of Gertrude feeling motherly feelings toward Ophelia is seen in the lines, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife; I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid, and not have strew’d thy grave. This shows her previous hopes for Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. Ophelia’s madness sets her free, she is able to speak in a lewd and outrageous fashion and very often in song. She speaks of things that have affected the play previously and more so about the possibility of an illicit relationship between her and Hamlet, “How should I your true love know From another one? By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon. ” This is one of her songs that she sings to Gertrude once she has gone mad with grief from her father’s death. Which is also sung about by Ophelia; He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone. ” These songs are her personal views on the previous events in the play, she sings the bawdy songs to illustrate her feelings to Hamlet and how their previous relationship could have been illicit and how Hamlet mistreated her. Then there are songs more about her father’s death and her speech regarding the various plants she gives to people, “There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end”
This is the last we see of Ophelia until her very idealized death, she is returned by Shakespeare to a state of innocence and femininity. Her death is entwined with nature from the, “fantastic garlands” of “Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,” to how it is the breaking of a branch that causes her to fall into the river. It is made to sound a quite devastating death even describing the brook as “weeping,” this shows the effect it may have on some of the other characters, though it’s also seen as natural as her falling in the water was described like, “like a creature native and indued. Her death is where characters namely Hamlet and Laertes start to argue over who can grieve most and best with lines such as, “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers Could not, with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her? ” This shows even in death Ophelia is just a tool for the men in her life to get back at each other. The fact is Shakespearian audiences would view males’ treatment of Ophelia as if it were the done thing, she is to be seen and not heard, post Womens Rights audiences would view it as unusual and probably abusive.
Then when it came to her madness the audiences again would differ, the Shakespearian audience like the characters would be shocked at Ophelia’s madness and bawdy behaviour, whereas a modern audience with it becoming increasingly more acceptable for women to speak illicitly in the open that it wouldn’t shock a modern audience in the same way. Ophelia is a complex character who I feel is used abused and repressed in many ways.