Ophelia

April 22, 2006

Ophelia's the kind of character that I always find tough to crack. I feel like she's important on a thematic and emotional level, but that the role itself is almost underwritten. She's so much in the power of other characters that her actions — which are always my way in to understanding a character — seem overwhelmed by her obstacles, and it's hard to tell what she's specifically trying to accomplish. The plethora of flower images that Shakespeare associates with her from the very beginning of the play certainly make her character more vivid, but offer no easy and straightforward analytical assistance.

Ophelia is initially defined by her relationships to other people in the play. She is Laertes' sister; they seem on happy terms, able to joke together even as he warns her to watch out for Hamlet. She has something romantic happening with the Prince, and it's unclear how far this has proceeded. A case could be made that some lines imply a physical relationship is already under way, but on an explicit level it's all about his courtship of her. And she is the daughter of Polonius. I've already written about how I think Polonius does care about her, but that he has a difficult time expressing that kind of emotion. No mention is made of Ophelia's mother.

I take it as given that Ophelia and Hamlet do really love each other, and that if Old Hamlet had lived eventually they would have gotten married. A contrary interpretation is possible, but would lower the stakes tremendously.

In her first scene (other than a possible non-speaking appearance in the first big court scene), we see her exchanging farewells with Laertes, and we see both Laertes and Polonius warning her that Hamlet does not really love her. Polonius specifically orders her to stop accepting his courtship, and she meekly agrees to obey. She breaks up with Hamlet offstage, and we next see her rushing to Polonius after a confrontation with the apparently mad Prince. She describes Hamlet's mad behavior in great detail, leading Polonius to admit to her that he was wrong — that Hamlet must really love her after all, and that her rejection of Hamlet is likely what has driven him mad. So from very early in the play, the heavy weight of responsibility is placed on Ophelia's shoulders. As far as she knows, her obedience to her father caused her to drive Hamlet insane.

As I wrote that last sentence, I realized that I've said the same thing about each of the three characters I've broken down so far. Polonius, Gertrude, and Ophelia each believe they are the cause of Hamlet's madness.

Next, Ophelia goes along with her father's plan to prove that Hamlet's madness is caused by rejected love. Gertrude's line implies that Ophelia might be able to bring Hamlet back to sanity, and perhaps that is exactly what Ophelia is trying to do. Interestingly, she begins her staged confrontation with Hamlet by returning his love letters, reprimanding him for treating her unkindly. Perhaps she is trying to provoke a display of madness here — perhaps returning the letters was Polonius' idea. On the other hand, she could be genuinely reprimanding him for his previous mad behavior towards her. In the offstage breakup, she could have told him she was only doing this on her father's orders and that she would like to stay on good terms. If so, his bizarre treatment of her would earn him this kind of reprimand.

Either way, her lines here provoke a completely unexpected reaction from Hamlet. He's relating everything she says and does back to Gertrude, and to what Hamlet sees as Gertrude's betrayal of her first marriage. Perhaps his lines about honesty are his rather oblique way of explaining to her why he can no longer allow himself to love her — a strange twist, given that she's the one who has broken up with him. He tells Ophelia that he did love her, then that he didn't, and then tells her to enter a convent (the bawdy interpretation of "nunnery" in this instance is thoroughly and convincingly debunked in the Arden). He says he's a bad person, and that she should not want to have children with him — or indeed with anyone.

Then he seems to figure out that this entire confrontation is a set-up, that Polonius is listening in (the Arden's argument against this is entirely unconvincing, especially taking into account the shift in emphasis of her lines following this moment, which show that Hamlet has suddenly put back on his guise of madness). Just before leaving the scene, Hamlet specifically says that Ophelia's womanly behavior has made him mad — I believe this is intended to throw Polonius (and, through him, the King) off the true scent, but Ophelia might well take it as further confirmation that she has caused Hamlet's madness. I've cut her soliloquy here, for which I now offer my sincere apologies to whatever wonderful actress I end up casting in this role next week.

Ophelia is flirted with quite bawdily by Hamlet at the play. She is polite, and tries to contain his antic disposition. And that's the last we see of the sane Ophelia, unless I steal a bit from the Campbell Scott Hamlet (and probably many others) and have Ophelia witness Hamlet's joking about stowing Polonius' dead body.

Ophelia's madness is no mystery. Her boyfriend murdered her father in a fit of madness, and so far as she knows his madness was caused directly by her actions. To be honest, I've never found her mad scene particularly compelling — we get it, it's sad, let's move on — and so it became an obvious candidate for the many many cuts I've had to make. It's still there, but greatly compacted. The Arden spends fifteen full pages analyzing her songs and her distribution of flowers. My feeling is that it's great to know that her reference to the baker's daughter might hint that she's lost her maidenhood to Hamlet, but that all a modern audience really needs to get is that her mind and then her life are casualties of Hamlet's delayed revenge.

That's Ophelia's function in the play — she is what's at stake for Hamlet, and she helps motivate Laertes' desire for revenge. Hamlet's inability to commit to a course of action leads directly to her death, and his understanding of this enables his transformation of awareness by the end of the play. That's all well and good, but to direct her scenes I need to know what she's trying to do herself. As of now, I think her greatest want is simply to please her father and everyone else. She wants to make people happy; she wants to do the right thing. In doing so, she accepts the changes her father pushes on her, and this causes conflict with change-abhorring Hamlet.

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