Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet“Follow her close, give her good watch, I pray you” (IV.5.73).
Ostensibly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the riddling, enigmatic, inscrutable theatrical character par excellence. His motives, madness, conflicting morals and existential struggles are ambiguous to say the least. When analysing his character, Laertes and Fortinbras are often brought in as examples of less extreme characters dealing with similar but more tangible dilemmas. The idea that there may be someone who exceeds Hamlet in instability and incomprehensibility is unfathomable. But if one looks at the character of Ophelia, this notion not only becomes a viable possibility: it becomes unignorable. For while Hamlet is constantly struggling to define himself, leaving a trail of cast-off identities, disgustedly flinging one black outfit after another out of his wardrobe as he tries to remain true to himself, his father’s memory, and his stirring unconscious, we only see Ophelia in borrowed robes. She is dressed up like a dummy, paraded around, and dismissed. With her final exit, we are left with a handful of ill-fitting stage costumes, none of them designed by her. It is significant that in the whole play, she is referred to by name nineteen times in total– the majority of the time, she is Polonius’ daughter, Laertes’ sister, or merely “she” or “her.”
Ophelia’s first two lines are questions, but not of the “To be or not to be” variety. “Do you doubt that?” and “No more but so?” (I.3.4-9) imply a state confusion, insecurity, and disorientation– of “blinkered” experience, of externally-imposed tunnel vision that leads to a staggering, stilted walk through life. From her first entrance, we are presented with …
… ultimate act of self-assertion. For not only is she shaming the court and her family, talking in riddles to the brother who preached to her, and acting out to an extreme the lesson constantly reiterated by her father, the inability to live without his guidance. She is not merely distorting the pastoral “green girl” image, making a gruesome picture of the carefree, virginal “Rose of May.” She is spitting in the face of the God who placed her in such an impotent position in the first place. And this is the real tragedy of Ophelia’s life and death. Because while Hamlet dies with the knowledge that he has fulfilled his mission, Ophelia has no mission. Her first independent act, what ought to denote the beginning of a life composed of her own initiatives, is the truncating of that life. Her beginning is her end– the house pet, released into the wild, withers and dies.