Contemporary double standards

Shakespeare shows us a girl whose treatment epitomises the double standards applied at the court of Elsinore.

More on the treatment of women: The fact that, in Shakespeare's day, all female parts were played by young men, gives an added irony to this. (See The Theatre: The role of women.)

The criteria for honourable female behaviour are very different from those expected of men:

  • Her brother is allowed to go away to Paris to study
  • Ophelia spends her time ‘sewing in (her) closet' or reading a prayer book
  • Laertes is suspected of ‘drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling', and also ‘drabbing' (associating with Polonius telling Ophelia to remain chasteprostitutes) which Reynaldo thinks ‘would dishonour him', but Polonius does not agree; such behaviour, he feels, is the natural result of allowable liberty in a young man
  • Ophelia, however, is warned in no uncertain terms by both brother and father that she must not risk losing her honour (by which they mean, her virginity): 
‘Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.
Fear it, Ophelia.'

Obedience versus love

  • After all the advice given her by Laertes and Polonius, which climaxes in her father's command not to ‘give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet', Ophelia does not, apparently, feel in any position to argue; she simply says, ‘I shall obey, my lord.'
  • When Hamlet appears to her in her closet, in a state of distress and with his clothing disarranged, her first reaction is to tell her father
  • She also gives up to her father love letters which Hamlet has written her
  • On Polonius' command, she agrees to be ‘loosed' as a trap for Hamlet, whilst they are spied on
  • Presumably also at Polonius' command she offers Hamlet back the gifts he has given her.

In Act V scene i we learn from Hamlet that he loved Ophelia:

‘Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love/make up my sum' but it is not surprising, given Hamlet's view (based on Gertrude's behaviour) that women are frail and fickle, that he should be so bitter with Ophelia in Act III scene i.

Ophelia's role in the drama

Did Shakespeare give us such an obedient and passive Ophelia to underline the role of women at Elsinore? There are only two who speak: Gertrude and Ophelia.

It is possible to see Ophelia both as a parallel with Gertrude:

  • a woman who is loved by Hamlet but whom he comes to see as corrupted by the court

and, as a contrast:

  • a pure virginal creature who has not succumbed to the sexual licence of Gertrude (Ophelia seems shocked by the sexual innuendo of Hamlet's comments to her at the play: ‘Do you think I meant country matters?' ‘I think nothing, my lord').

It is also possible to see Ophelia as a parallel with the very man who, feeling he has been rejected, rejects her in turn: Hamlet.

  • Both are children of a beloved and powerful father who has been murdered
  • Both take refuge in madness. (See Structure.)
  • Ophelia's madness, however, seems genuine rather than feigned, as Hamlet's probably is.

Mad sanity

Like Hamlet's speech, which ‘Though it lack'd form a little, / Was not like madness', so Ophelia's ‘mad' words are very revealing. As Laertes says, ‘This nothing's more than matter.'Ophelia and her gifts of flowers

  • Ophelia's presents of flowers are, we assume, shrewdly allocated: fennel suggests flattery, and columbines stand for unfaithfulness, whilst rue is for repentance (Shakespeare does not tell us who gets what, but we may guess). She seems for the first time to be conveying a strong personal opinion
  • In particular, Ophelia's songs, which are about love — physical and consummated — show a very different side of her nature to the repressed, virginal and obedient daughter we saw in the first three acts of the play:
‘Then up he rose and donn'd his clothes
And dupped the chammber door,
Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more …

Young men will do't if they come to't —
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, “Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed.”'

The effect of Ophelia's death


Ophelia drownedOphelia also presents a parallel to Hamlet in her association with suicide. He contemplates it; she is thought to have committed it (though there is doubt, since Gertrude's description is of a girl who falls into a stream when a branch breaks).

However, Ophelia's burial allows Shakespeare to present us with a graphic illustration of death and decay.

Feelings revealed

Ophelia's burial gives us a new understanding of Hamlet's real feelings about her, and also of the feelings of Laertes and Gertrude:

  • The queen now reveals, ‘I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife' — a complete contrast to the fears of Laertes and Polonius in Act I scene iii that she is beneath a Prince's notice
  • Laertes describes her as being ‘fair and unpolluted' — again, a complete contrast to Hamlet's comments to her (Act III scene i) that all women are seen as corrupt: ‘Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny'.

Of Ophelia's own feelings, motives and attitudes to Hamlet, we know almost nothing; Shakespeare gives her few lines, and, unless we can count her speech at the end of the interview in Act III scene i, when in fact she knows she is being overheard, no soliloquy.

Like most other characters in Hamlet, Ophelia is problematic.

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