Shakespeare’s works defy simple readings. The nuanced and layered stories and the complex and fleshed-out characters cannot be boiled down to the good guy and the villain. Generally, readers are ready and willing to delve into these nuances, but in the case of Ophelia, the opposite is true. An analysis of her and what drives her starts and ends at the surface, no deeper, and the title character of Hamlet adopts credit for all the depth that Ophelia deserved. The uncharitable interpretation of Ophelia as a meek and innocent girl is not only overly simplistic; based upon the evidence from within the play, this interpretation is blatantly incorrect. She presents a facade of obedience, but beneath her words, her actions reveal a strong-willed and intelligent woman, one who rarely receives the recognition she deserves. From Ophelia’s introduction, to her intense heartbreak in act three, to her ultimate death in act four, Ophelia remains a character with immense depth. She maintains a double life the likes of which Hamlet could never dream of, balancing the innocent persona her surroundings have forced her to construct with her true, powerful self.
Ophelia’s first appearance in Hamlet lays her character bare, should the reader be brave enough to analyze. Her facade of obedience is established and its necessity demonstrated, but her true confidence remains palpable through her actions in the scene. Ophelia’s public persona is not difficult to miss, as it serves as the primary interpretation of her character. Through her immediate agreement to her family’s advice and her claims that she “does not know…what [she] should think” (1.3.113), she is clearly creating an image of innocence and naivety. However, this is not her true self. Her words of obedience are at odds with her behaviour in this scene, and her past actions. For instance, Ophelia consistently defends her relationship with Hamlet, directly going against the advice of those around her. She even goes as far as to make a witty remark at her brother, gently reprimanding him for his hypocrisy in telling her to be proper. This is not the behaviour of a girl who believes her father to be God; these are the actions of a woman who knows what she wants and has a difficult time keeping herself from fighting for it. She is strong enough to fight for what she wants but intelligent enough to know that she must do so gently and covertly. Another indication of this true Ophelia is the existence of her relationship with Hamlet in the first place. Had she been completely meek and obedient, she would never have defied her family’s wishes and pursued Hamlet. Additionally, it is not consistent with Hamlet’s character that he would fall so deeply in love with someone purely based upon appearance. With all his introspection and intellect, it makes far more sense that his attraction to Ophelia would be based upon an attraction to her mind as much as to her body. If this is true, and Ophelia is truly a powerful woman, why does she maintain this facade? The answer can be found throughout 1.3; Ophelia is under the perpetual control and critique of her family. She does not have the freedom to decide her own path for herself, and she recognizes this – a testament to her intelligence. Instead of being in a perpetual battle, Ophelia takes the path of least resistance and creates a persona that will placate her external influences so she can continue living as she wishes. These dual selves coexist for as long as they can, but as the play progresses, the opposing Ophelias begin to work against each other. This conflict, rather than a dramatic loss of innocence, provides a far more compelling and realistic explanation for Ophelia’s turmoil for the majority of the play.
The nunnery scene is often touted as the core example of Ophelia’s extreme innocence and lack of resolve, but the interpretation of Ophelia having greater strength provides a far better explanation. Instead of being improbably sheltered and unbelievably stupid, Ophelia becomes a deeply conflicted and real character dealing with a very real and very profound heartbreak. Within the scope of the play, Hamlet is shown to be the only character that knows the real Ophelia to any degree. When he greets her at the beginning of this scene, he does it with joy and affection, ending his gloomy monologue to appreciate her. However, when Ophelia speaks, obediently regurgitating her father’s script due to her awareness of his looming presence, Hamlet’s countenance immediately changes. He becomes notably hostile and cruel to her, indicating that he knows a very different Ophelia and thus can pick up on the change in personality immediately. The fact that this Ophelia only appears to Hamlet when her father is watching further solidifies that Ophelia’s innocent act is for the benefit of others, and doesn’t reflect the truth. In response to her falseness, Hamlet’s first question is, “Are you honest?” (3.1.113) All of his attacks throughout the scene target Ophelia’s lies. This critique fits with the interpretation of Ophelia’s double life, as it expresses Hamlet’s frustration with her falseness in the presence of her father. When compared to the common interpretation, it grounds both characters more in reality, making Hamlet far less needlessly cruel, and making Ophelia far less ignorant and foolish. Instead of being rude due to a single incident, Hamlet’s abuse is based upon a history of frustration, thus rationalizing his intensity. Instead of being unreasonably foolish and totally unable to react to Hamlet, Ophelia becomes an intelligent character carefully choosing her words to maintain appearances. Due to the presence of her father, evidence of Ophelia’s strength is sparse in this scene, but her honest self cannot help but appear from time to time. Her comment about beauty having “better commerce than with honesty” (3.1.119-120) is an outright idiotic statement if her innocence is assumed, but the comment has meaning beyond the surface, much like the woman who speaks it. Ophelia’s life prevents her from being honest, so her suggestion that there may be better, more important things than honesty is a quiet defence to Hamlet of her way of life. She is not ignorant enough to believe that honesty is unimportant, but she is framing her defence in this way to maintain her image for her father. This shows her intelligence, while also demonstrating the strength of her will and how difficult it is for her to ignore her true feelings. The scene’s end is another indication of Ophelia’s complexity; as she falls to shambles after Hamlet’s exit, she cries that a “noble mind is here o’erthrown.” This statement takes on an interesting double meaning based upon her past actions. While the words apply to Hamlet, they also apply to Ophelia. Her true self, her intelligent and powerful mind, has been overthrown by the necessity of her facade, and her strength of will makes this impossible for her to accept. Thus, she is distraught, not only for the loss of young love, but she is emotionally shattered to do the loss of her outlet and the conflict between what she desperately wants and what she must do. Ophelia’s past actions, Hamlet’s speech, Ophelia’s responses, and their shared intensity all speak to Ophelia’s double life, and the internal strife caused by the conflict between these two identities. If Ophelia is accepted to be simple, this interaction loses all this additional meaning, becoming dramatic and nonsensical. Ophelia is dissatisfied with the lot that life has provided her, and ultimately her manner of coping with her discordant selves is possibly the clearest and most compelling indication of her internal strength beneath the appearance she constructs.
In a play whose plot revolves around purposeful madness, it is remarkable how often the possibility that more than one character could be employing this tactic is overlooked. Ophelia is unhappy with her life, with the losses her facade has caused and the corruption and controlling forces she is constantly surrounded by in the rotten state of Denmark. She knows she cannot escape any of these forces, so she demonstrates her strong will and genius by devising the same plan as Hamlet: to feign madness. This indicates that she is at least as intelligent as Hamlet, having been able to devise a plan that allows her to express herself without creating the suspicion and constant surveillance that Hamlet created for himself. In addition, it is an indication of her will, with Ophelia being so determined that she is willing to do whatever she can to express herself and follow her own path. Her past actions are indication enough that this is true, but the clearest indication within the scene are the flowers. Amid her “madness”, Ophelia gives her brother rosemary for remembrance of their father, whose death was so quickly glossed over by politics that she didn’t get the chance to process properly. She gives people pansies for her thoughts, finally free of the controlling influence of her external influences. For the king, she has fennel and columbines for adultery and betrayal. For herself and the queen, she provides the rue of the scorned woman. She has daisies for no one, with daisies representing innocence, because she believes all the innocence and purity has left the court with her simple and well-meaning father’s death. Finally, she states that the violets have died, showing that her faith in people has withered. All of this clearly demonstrates Ophelia’s genius; she was able to speak her mind clearly without risking her reputation and was also clever enough to figure out what exactly was afoot in the court (as shown by the symbols of the king’s flowers). Her rambling has a definite purpose, and the claim that she is truly mad from her loss of identity is blatantly incorrect. She is not weak in identity; she shows her strength by taking the risks associated with criticism in the name of being true to her desires. In the absence of her father and brother’s controlling influences, this Ophelia is front and center, and the meek girl who “did not know what to think” is long gone. Through her false madness, she was able to express her true brilliance and her strong will, overcoming the limits imposed upon her.
Ophelia’s story is one of actions and words. If Hamlet has a core lesson, it is that those two concepts rarely match. All of her actions, from her introduction, to her internal turmoil with Hamlet, to her inevitable end all indicate her complexity and strength, despite her innocent words saying otherwise. And yet, despite the evidence being present, this reading of Ophelia is incredibly rare. Do we as readers honestly believe that a person could be so foolish? It would appear that, to some degree, readers are suffering from the same delusion that affected Ophelia’s accidental oppressors. She was read as beautiful and delicate and nothing more, and her true beauty was missed due to internal biases. The Ophelias of the world deserve a second look. Though they be but little, they are fierce.
Author’s note: I really wanted to explain the symbolism of the featured image because I put a lot of thought into it. Orchid mantises are known for their impeccable camouflage and flower-like appearance. Most people think they appear harmless, but, as a mantis owner myself, I can tell you that these little guys are far from delicate. They can go toe to toe with insects their size and bigger, and can even pack a nasty punch to humans if you get in their way. I felt that this was an excellent allegory for Ophelia. She, too, puts effort into blending into the demands of her habitat and is viewed as fragile. However, she holds a quiet power that should be respected, just like the mantis. I hope I did an ok job convincing you of that. Thank you for reading, I know it was a lot, but I hope I shed some light on a new way of seeing a commonly pigeonholed character.