Ophelia’s fate in Hamlet, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, bothers me. A whole lot. So I’ve read and reread the play, and watched it and re-watched it. My conclusion: a whole lot of really smart people have missed some important aspects in her characterization.
I can’t say I understand her any better than anybody else. But I don’t understand her any worse, either. I notice things. I ask questions.
For a long time, scholars saw her as a virtuous woman cruelly wronged and driven to madness. That’s certainly the version we got in high school, where all the lewd comments and innuendo stay hidden. But that was just an interpretation based on our cultural prudishness. Modern interpretations and performances make the innuendo quite clear, from the very beginning, when Laertes points out that Hamlet has offered her “private audiences,” to the end, when she uses folk songs to reveal to the king and queen that she lost her virginity to Hamlet. And if that’s not enough, she responds teasingly to Hamlet’s lewd banter when they watch the play. (Why she does that after he’s already scorned him, I don’t understand.)
With that new understanding of Ophelia comes a second vision: a poor maiden tricked by Hamlet into losing her virginity, who then descends into a sad madness and commits suicide.
But there’s something else going on as well. You know how Hamlet’s madness is always in question? At times, he uses it to conceal treasonous speech. The other characters make this clear when they say things like, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” He also uses it politically, to undermine the king’s authority as part of a revenge plot.
Ophelia does the same thing. She’s one of the four characters out for revenge against a murdered father: young Fortinbras, whose father was killed by Hamlet’s; Hamlet, whose father was killed by his uncle; Laertes, whose father was killed by Hamlet; and Ophelia, whose father was also killed by Hamlet and his reputation sullied by the king and queen. Her revenge is more circumscribed, because as a woman she could hardly take a rapier and slay anybody. Here’s how she does it:
1) By using her madness to spread rumors against the king and queen. In Act 4, Scene 5, line 5, a gentleman tells the queen, “She speaks much of her father, says she hears / There’s tricks i’ the’ world, and hems, and beats her heart, / Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt . . .” Horatio follows up by warning that she might strew “dangerous conjectures in ill-bred minds.”
2) By threatening to set Laertes on the king and queen. In Act 4, Scene 5, line 75, she warns, “My brother will know of it.” And then he shows up — not alone, but backed by an army of commoners who are so fed up with the royalty that they want to install him as king. Dangerous things, words.
3) By using songs about her dead father to spur Laertes to revenge. (Act 4, Scene 5, line 190.)
4) By using flowers to accuse Hamlet, the king, and the queen. Here’s an interesting interpretation, based on the meanings her flowers had in Elizabethan times: “Ophelia’s Flowers and Their Symbolic Meaning” by Katarina Eriksson. “Rue” was used for abortions, so when Ophelia says (to the queen?) “O, you must wear your rue with a difference,” she is implying that the queen’s rue was for adultery, and hers for pregnancy. The columbine she gave out was a symbol for male adultery and foolishness, so she’s insulting the king too — in front of witnesses.
Is Ophelia’s madness partly feigned, like Hamlet’s? I think so.
That’s a third vision of Ophelia: a wronged woman who takes what little power she does have in a patriarchal society and wields it with a vengeance.
If she has some measure of political cunning later in the play, what about earlier? Maybe so. It’s clear that she understands the ways of the world when, after Laertes lectures her about the dangers of hanging out with Hamlet, she tells him not to be hypocritical the way some pastors are, lecturing her while himself treading the “primrose path of dalliance.”
But perhaps there’s a little more to it. In Act 3, Scene 1, the king orders Ophelia to speak with Hamlet while he and Polonius spy on their conversation. Hamlet is very cruel to her. He asserts that all woman are unfaithful and therefore she is, too — or will be. It’s impossible to know what he’s really thinking. At some point in their conversation, he figures out that he’s being spied on and that Ophelia is being used as a pawn. So he could be faking it, or he could be angry because of the queen, or he could be angry because he believes that Ophelia, like everybody else in Elsinore, is lying for personal gain.
Is she? It’s impossible to say. But let’s think about her financial situation for a minute. As a noblewoman, she is supposed to marry somebody, who will then support her. Hamlet, at first, seems like a possible catch — although, as Laertes points out to her, Hamlet will be expected to make a political marriage instead. But then he goes mad. And he has ruined her reputation. (Polonius heard about the “private audiences” by way of rumor.) If there’s any chance she can get Hamlet back, she’ll probably take it.
And, as it turns out, there is a sort of change. The king and queen would have forbidden the marriage if Hamlet had towed the line and supported their marriage. But in his madness, he’s spreading all kinds of rumors. Who knows what else he’ll do? The king has already tried to bribe Hamlet’s affections by explaining that he is still in line for the throne. (Act 1, Scene 2, line 113.) If he could just get Hamlet married off, he’d have to behave himself. Unless Ophelia is a fool, she’d know all that when she obeys the king’s orders to be a political pawn.
So there is, possibly, a fourth vision of Ophelia: as a Jane Austen hopeful, who understands her financial situation and takes steps to improve it through marriage.
Which of these visions of Ophelia is the true one? Who knows. You’d really have to be an Elizabethan, watching the play, to understand all the political intrigues and innuendo — and even then, her character might be ambiguous. Maybe it isn’t possible to do anything other than misread Ophelia.
Still, I have to say, I like some of the readings more than others. I like the readings where Ophelia has power. And the ones where she connives politically, instead of being a passive victim destroyed by her own sexuality. Maybe, after time and reflection, I’ll decide that these possible readings redeem the play for me.
In the meantime, off to something more fun. Measure for Measure, here I come.