Ophelia. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and potential wife of Prince Hamlet. She is a pawn, a traitor, a breeder of sinners, a woman defined by her relationships with the men around her. But never once is she allowed to be just Ophelia. She is one of only two female characters in the play. We want to find out what caused Ophelia to be driven into madness and learn what role a woman in the medieval times plays.
In terms of the prompt, she had the biggest role in reconciling certainty with her honour, as she is one of the most morally conflicted characters in the play besides Hamlet. We do know that Ophelia is torn between two contradictory roles. Her father and brother believe that Hamlet would use her, and throw her innocence away because she could never be his wife. To her father and brother, Ophelia is the eternal virgin, the vessel whose purpose is to be a dutiful wife and abiding mother. To Hamlet, she is a sexual object, a corrupt and deceitful lover.
Her heart has convinced her that Hamlet loved her, though he swears he never did. With no mother to guide her, she has no way of deciphering the contradictory expectations. Just like Hamlet, the medieval concept that the father’s word is unquestionable governs Ophelia. But her sense of romantic love also rules her. How can she be obedient to her father and true to her love? However, Ophelia cannot balance her loyalties and love and therefore drowns in a brook with the too heavy burdens of responsibility. Shakespeare demonstrates that when an individual has conflicting responsibilities, it leaves them to struggle with restoring honour and certainty, and therefore leads them to take desperate measures to deal with the dividing loyalties. In taking these desperate measures, they often undermine their certainties in order to figure out their uncertainties.
“I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” (1.3 line 591)
Ophelia says this in reply to Polonius’s warning about Hamlet. The quote suggests her struggle with restoring her honour, as she formally addresses her father, not wanting to become a disgrace to her family. Because of her social standing as a woman, Ophelia would not be allowed to voice her opinion, much less reject the warning offered by Polonius. Her heart is deceived by Hamlet, and with it comes the blindness of love. In the medieval times, women were considered to be “property” owned by men. In other words, Polonius, being her father, “owns” her as his property. Because Hamlet has not married her, Polonius’s words hold more power over Ophelia then Hamlet’s persistent affection. The societal concept that a father’s word is undeniable haunts Ophelia, and she therefore can offer no resistance to her father’s words. The only way Ophelia would become Hamlet’s “property” is through marriage, and Polonius is cautious about Hamlet’s love, as he would then have to give his ownership of Ophelia to Hamlet if they were wed. It is here that Shakespeare shows Ophelia’s conflicting loyalties; her perceived love for Hamlet, and the opposition of Laertes and Polonius. Because of Ophelia’s constant desire to please and certify the honour her father and brother hold over her, Polonius instructs Ophelia to distance herself from Hamlet. At the same time, Laertes uses her honour and her trust in him as leverage to control her loyalties.
CREATIVE PIECE #1 (Kelley):
A Story of a Flower:
Here is a girl.
A girl named as help.
She is innocent and pure, laughing in a daisy field.
But the crow flowers of her youth are stung,
By the flowering nettles of long purples.
She places rosemary on the bodies of the dead,
Watching the violets wither.
The pansies of her heart are shot down,
As the tears of her sorrows water the weeping willow.
CREATIVE #1 EXPLANATORY PARAGRAPH (Kelley):
For my creative piece, I wanted to focus on the flower symbolism Ophelia offers in the play. I have always been intrigued by symbolism; I like the idea of using tangible objects to represent abstract things. In the poem that I wrote above, I describe the story of Ophelia, replacing the feelings of her struggle with retaining honour and restoring certainty with flowers. I based my poem off of two quotes:
- First, the line where Ophelia enters the room crazily singing songs and handing out herbs and flowers: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.”
- Second, the line where Gertrude tells Laertes that Ophelia has drowned: “There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples”
In the first quote listed above, Ophelia seems to have gone insane with grief after the death of her father, Polonius. She says that rosemary represents remembrance; in other words, Ophelia wants to remember her father. Her father was the epitome of her honour. The concept where a father’s word is absolute no longer governs her. From here, Ophelia has lost her previous existence. Before, she was a choiceless being, but now she is left with the uncertainty of continuing to abide by her father’s orders, or pursuing her romantic love. However, having not been able to make a decision by herself before, Ophelia becomes insane do to the lack of authority or rather, certainty over her life. She no longer has someone to make a decision for her, and the appearance of options prove too much for her too handle.
On the other hand, one could also interpret the rosemary as a sign for Laertes to remember Ophelia. It is suggested that with the uncertainty of her future with Hamlet, Ophelia can no longer be honourable to her family. With the rosemary being a symbol of remembrance, one could assume that the pansies, or rather, her thoughts were to commit suicide, as having an uncertain future drove Ophelia to the brink of insanity. However, she still wants her beloved brother to remember her, and thus it is implied that Ophelia is planning to commit suicide.
In the other quote, when the Queen describes Ophelia’s death, the flowers she has holds much significance. She drowns covered in crow flowers, which represents her childishness at not being able to make decisions. On the other hand, Ophelia (presumably) dies a virgin, represented through the daisies which symbolize innocence. A nettle is a plant/herb that is sharp and stinging, which represents Ophelia’s pain at not being able to receive her love for Hamlet, and the death of her father. The “long purples” are assumed to be orchids which symbolizes romantic love; Ophelia’s love for Hamlet. It is interesting that Ophelia drowns near a weeping willow, a tree that symbolizes forsaken love. It could be that she chose to drown there because of her unreciprocated love for Hamlet. In my poem, Ophelia watches the bodies of the dead wither with the violets. Violets are a symbol of faith, and she loses the faith of her certainty and honour after the death of her father. This is demonstrated by the quote, “but they all withered when my father died.”
My poem tells the story of Ophelia through the usage of flower symbolism. I decided to have about three shifts in my poem. First, she starts off as an innocent girl, ignorant of the world around her, free of the weight of the honour that she must hold. Second, she falls in love with Hamlet, and begins to shoulder the burden of retaining honour while restoring her certainty. In other words, obeying her father while hoping for her love to be reciprocated. Lastly, Ophelia proves that she can no longer bear the strain of honour and certainty, and she “waters the weeping willow” or becomes one with earth after dying a helpless death.
- Ophelia: name means “help” in Greek
- Crow flowers: ingratitude/childishness
- Flowering nettles: sharp and stinging – pain
- Daisies: Ophelia’s innocence/virginity
- Long purples (orchids): sexual love
- Weeping Willow: forsaken love
- Violets: faith -> “but they all withered when my father died”
- Rosemary: remembrance
- Pansies: thoughts
CREATIVE PIECE #2 (Hijab):
CREATIVE #2 EXPLANATORY PARAGRAPH (Hijab):
People have a strange way of dealing with the uncertainties past happenings tend to throw upon them. More often than not, the individual tosses and turns these events over and over, in the hopes that a meaning will eventually show itself. In doing so, the past ends up becoming a sort of beacon from which certainty can be drawn- a romanticized kind of hope. Such was Ophelia’s fate as well. Though there was almost certainly no one there to witness her tragic death, Gertrude presents the court with an idealized, beautified version of Ophelia’s demise. In the eyes of the court, Ophelia died as a woman should have; innocently, tragically, gracefully, without any sign of protest or struggle, any sign of having been alive in the first place. It’s as though this description of Ophelia’s death is meant to erase any notion of her death being influential; her death was an accident, a casual fatality, unessential to the grand scheme of things. Ophelia was a flower whose death was to be expected come the bitter cold of Denmark.
Her death was not meant to stain the hands of those who were attempting to wipe themselves clear of her.
To some, Ophelia may have been a violet, the light hues of which were supposed to blend into the background, softly, quietly. Most flowers, however, crumble and decay during the winter of their lives. Ophelia did just the opposite; her madness allowed her to bloom. She was most honest, most upfront, when she found her voice in her madness. She called out Gertrude on her infidelity, and Claudius on his cunning and disloyal nature. She exposed snippets of her treatment at Hamlet’s hands, her grief for her father. Even in her gentle demeanor, her soft hues, Ophelia was able to stain Hamlet red. He was the one who crushed her, and as a result, both his hands and his conscious were tainted with the realization of what exactly he had done to her honour, her certainty. This picture represents that Ophelia’s death was not just the quiet, submissive death Gertrude painted it to be; it was a means to push Hamlet towards acceptance, action and certainty.
It was a death that pushed the others to realize the reality of the tragedies and griefs she had experienced. And it was her death that served as a caution towards the ways in which her honour was tainted. Ophelia’s death permeated into the lives of those around her as their influence had filtered into hers. Indeed, her death continues to influence many a broken hearts around the world. It’s just unfortunate that the only way her voice was able to echo was was when it was silenced.
TRANSITION PARAGRAPH (Kelley):
Ophelia is unable to decide which part of honour or certainty she wishes to pursue. Honour, where she distances herself away from her romantic love, obeying her father’s orders. Or certainty, where Ophelia could have ignored her father, and turn to pursue her love for Hamlet. When Ophelia lies to Hamlet and tells him that Polonius is home when he is concealed in the room eavesdropping, Ophelia proves she cannot choose between her honour she must retain, or the certainty she could have in a relationship with Hamlet. She has no way to reconcile the contradictory selves the men around her demand her to be, and still retain a balance.
In the end, Ophelia has chosen to follow her honour instead, and her choice seals her fate. The choice of which relies on the security of her father, Polonius. Ophelia’s desperation to remain balance drives her to the brink of insanity, and she has no means with which to restore her honour and certainty within herself. Ophelia is driven mad by her unreciprocated love for Hamlet, and is a victim of a society that has created impossible expectations for its women. However, as a choiceless existence, she is caught between her father’s and brother’s restrictive instructions and Hamlet’s crushing demands. Ophelia is trapped in a world with no options, and thus, has no alternative but to throw herself into the river to drown.
PERSONAL CONNECTION (Hijab):
Once upon a time, somewhere in Denmark, there was a girl who so loved her father and brother, but was torn between them and her lover.
Somewhere in Denmark, there was a girl whose honour was only ever secondary to the honour of those around her, and thus, she was expected to sacrifice herself for others.
Somewhere in Denmark, there was a girl who went mad from all the grief and hurt she was supposed to silently uphold.
Somewhere in Denmark, there was a girl who drowned as silently as she lived, a girl who tried to beautify the world around her but ended up just another casualty.
But this girl doesn’t reside only in Denmark. Her influence has spread over the boundaries of time, past the confines of the page and into the hearts of those who encounter her. She’s a name that has found a home in the girls that are trying to forge their own paths in a world that won’t make way.
She is Ophelia.
At almost every turn, women have been reduced to symbols, simple characters on a page, instead of their human identities and longings. In Eastern and Asian cultures especially, the honour a family holds is observed and gauged through the women of the household. Eastern culture places great value on the family unit. The honour of the family is intertwined; a mistake on the part of one family member could prove detrimental to the whole family, because your honour is what fuels your sense of certainty towards your self-worth. There are eyes that follow you everywhere you turn, zooming in on your every little slip-up.
There is fear in making mistakes, both as a girl but also as a human.
Ophelia is a character whose struggles resonate with girls all over the world, because in some ways we have all been her, or encountered her. We see the Ophelias-alone, silenced- in the women around us who have been pushed down by the weight of a man’s ego, by the pressure that comes from having your sense of honour being someone else’s toy. They are not seen as individuals, but rather as units that either build up or tear down the family’s social standing. Her need to constantly look to others puts her in a place where she is desperately trying to please, prove she is worth the honour others bestow on her.
Ophelia’s conflict with her roles and responsibilities, as well as her own underdeveloped sense of self, drive her to seek her certainty and honour in those around her. Her sense of honour is dependent on how others perceive her, be it her father, her brother or Hamlet himself. The main reason why she struggles with finding any certainty and restoring her honour is because even her own honour is not her own. It is tied to the honour of her family and her class. Her honour serves as a way to boost Polonius’ and Laertes’; Hamlet goes so far as to call Polonius a fishmonger, alluding to the fact that her father has prostituted Ophelia.
In other words, she’s expendable, a resource through which her family tries to obtain certainty regarding Hamlet’s actions. When Ophelia tries to find certainty by becoming a spy for her father, she ends up undermining and betraying the reality of her own situation, doubting the certainty of Hamlet’s love out of fear for his future actions. Her desperate need to reconcile the conflict between her loyalties and her honour and certainty is what leads to the destruction of both. In trying to help her family find honour and certainty, Ophelia must sacrifice her own. Her honour is compromised in all of her interactions with Hamlet, where she must pretend that she doesn’t understand all the innuendoes he directs towards her. Her honour is twisted by her father because she is reduced to a tool by those around her; even to those who love her, she is nothing more than text on a page.
INSIGHT PARAGRAPH (Hijab):
The concept of honour is universal, both in its hold on an individual, and on the impact it has on the way we perceive others. We live in a world where self-worth is based upon the concept of maintaining honour and discipline. As it is, your sense of honour acts as your safeguard in the world, and thus its preservation is a necessary stepping stone in building yourself a respectable standing. After all, one of the easiest ways to live your life is by building a place of respect for yourself in the hearts of others.
However, as Shakespeare has demonstrated to us through Hamlet, balance is key, even in matters of certainty and honour. You can only attempt to influence people’s perspectives to a certain extent; the rest is in your hands and your actions. If you try desperately to please everyone with your actions, you will never succeed, because try as you might, you can’t control every single thought another holds about you. Ophelia is many things all at once-more human than text on a page- but we can only ever paint her with our perceptions. We get the most comprehensive look at Ophelia when we view through how others in the book perceive her. Shakespeare cautions us on doing the same with real people. Had Ophelia placed more weight in her own self-worth and established honour internally instead of externally, she would not have become a pawn to those around her. You are in charge as far as your actions go. You shouldn’t view yourself and your reputation as putty in the hands of others, because by taking control and ensuring your own certainty, you allow your honour to form an anchor for you in the face of instability. Instill in your sense of honour the certainty that your self-worth allows you, not the self worth you have been prescribed.
“If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry. Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.”
Where do you turn when you own nothing at all- not your own honour, nor any semblance of certainty?
Who do you go to when those who claimed to care for your honour are the ones that sold it cheaply, when the one who you were certain loved you denies it and takes instead to destroying any remaining semblance of honour?
Ophelia’s honour was what gave her value in the eyes of others, and solidified their trust and certainty in her. It was only ever the sense of honour others attributed to her that she could rely on, because of the time period she was born in and the people she was around. She owned nothing- not her honour, not Hamlet’s loyalty, not even a proper burial. When Polonius ordered her to stop seeing Hamlet, her uncertainty in Hamlet and his love lead her to seek certainty in the domineering-but familiar- influence of her father and brother. When her honour becomes a tool with which to regain certainty, she is once again thrown into turmoil over what she can believe, and once again, she turns to others to determine her sense of certainty in herself. Her desperation, her innate desire to please and borrow an identity leads her to undermining necessary uncertainty in the face of reluctant certainty. Turning to Hamlet leaves her even more bruised and battered then she was initially as she grapples to reconcile the chasm between her honour and how others perceive her because of it. She was a flower never allowed to blossom into an identity that fit her. Only in her madness was she finally free to be-
Ophelia. A victim, a heroine. A violet in hue, in honour and virtue. A daughter, sister, lover. A tool, a spy, both the traitor and the betrayed.
A heartbroken girl, who died more certainly than she lived.