Ophelia is a minor female character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but she has an important role by being a foil for all the corrupted characters in the play. She comes from an aristocratic Danish family, being that daughter of the king’s chief-counsellor, Polonius. She also has a brother called Laertes, who loves her dearly, as does her father. They both try to offer her a sheltered life, far from political intrigues and problems, but in the end, they fail lamentably. Shakespeare does not offer Ophelia’ description but we do know that she is very fair, being the embodiment of the era’s ideals of beauty. She therefore must be very thin, delicate and mignon, which is suggested by the way easiness with which Hamlet is able to grab her by the wrist and her impression of the strength of the grabbing.Ophelia’s traits also correspond to those of an ideal feminine character, as she is innocent, weak and completely dependent on men. Her father Polonius and her brother tell her what to do, and she does not act, and does not take any decisions by herself. She is passive character, as all the women in Shakespeare’s age were supposed to be. As such, she is a foil for Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, who betrays the memory of her late husband by marrying someone else within one month after his death, and who appears to be a sexualized woman, which was a despicable trait for women in that century, and deeply disappoints Hamlet.
Instead, Ophelia is a sensitive young woman, who constantly acts as an innocent maiden and her honor is ferociously protected by her male relatives. She frequently sings, gathers flowers and work on tapestries, which are childish and feminine occupations which make her almost seem angelic and disconnected from the real world. She loves Hamlet with all her heart, and wishes to become his wife, but she obeys her father as a well-bred daughter, and does not protest when he tells her not to see him again, in beginning of act 3. She simply replies, “I shall obey, my lord”, which shows that she is the quintessential good daughter. Polonius simply wants to protect her innocence by keeping her away from Hamlet. However, later, Polonius corrupts her by telling her to spy on Hamlet and asks her to lie to him. Ophelia does not protest this time either, and does as she is asked. She uses her charm to his own purpose, and this disgusts Hamlet, who sees her as corrupt as his own mother. However, she is not corrupt, but rather, she is rather naïve in trusting her father and brother to tell her what is better for her, but also, very compliant and static. She seems to be a one-dimensional character, which does not evolve throughout the play. Rather, she devolves, as she falls into madness.
Her madness is caused by her father’s death, at the hand of Hamlet. Not being able to cope with this painful reality, she redraws into herself, and into a world of fantasy. Madness was at times considered a sign of sanctity and Ophelia’s character is so pure that she could be considered a Saint. However, because of her pure heart, she could not have a future in the corrupt world portrayed by Shakespeare. Therefore, she dies, by falling from a willow into the river and drowning. Ophelia becomes a tragic character because of her weakness and her incapacity to act in the real world, and to face the tragedies she has to deal with. Even in death, she does not become an active character, remaining passive and unable to decide, because she does not choose death. Her death is an accident, caused by her madness and not a suicidal act. As such, she remains a sinless, angelic young woman to the very end.
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