The character Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet plays a very interesting and important role in the elaboration of the plot. In the beginning, she starts off in a healthy state of mind, in love with her boyfriend Hamlet, yet controlled by her father in regard to their relationship. During the play she encounters several troubling experiences involving Hamlet which cause her to become distressed. Near the end, the death of her father leaves Ophelia mentally unstable and in a state of madness that eventually leads her to death. So, due to all of the unfortunate events that took place with the people she loved the most in her life, Ophelia gradually becomes mad, and in the end passes away.
Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s love for each other in the beginning was very real. Following the death of his father Hamlet falls in love with her, and is much attracted by her beauty. It is not uncertain, however, that Ophelia is very much controlled by her father. She is the daughter of Polonius, the chief advisor to the new King Claudius, and a highly respected man. Her father demands that she tell Hamlet at once that she can no longer be with him and tells her “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth have you so slander any moment leisure as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways.” (I.iii.132-35). It is clear that here Polonius is making decisions for his daughter, regardless if she really loves Hamlet or not. She feels very unimportant and helpless now, and because of this develops a lack of emotional confidence and strength. All she can reply is “I do not, my lord, what I should think.” (I.iii.104). She is used to relying on her father’s direction and has been brought up to be very obedient. As well, her brother Laertes agrees with what their father is saying. He also tells Ophelia that Hamlet is no good for her “Perhaps he loves you not” (I.iii.16). He thinks that Hamlet only loves her because he wants to seduce her, and demands his sister to never see him again. Ophelia can only accept her father and brother’s beliefs and writes Hamlet a letter which informs him that she can no longer see him. As a result, she begins to feel alone with very little independence. At this point in the play Ophelia’s emotions are what help contribute to her madness.
There are a few other incidents in the play which help in the course of Ophelia’s madness. When Hamlet receives the letter from Ophelia he is affected terribly by her words. The next time she sees Hamlet she is surprised and even a bit frightened by his behavior. He did not look like he usually does, and he acted very strange towards her. He held her by the wrists and stared deeply into her face, long and hard, then storms out, leaving her intensely troubled and saddened. After that she tells her father, and he believes
that Ophelia’s love is what made him mad. “That hath made him mad” (II. i.110). Polonius then goes to tell the King and Queen of Hamlet’s strange behavior and plans to spy on Hamlet to prove he’s gone mad. Ophelia now is left feeling guilty. When she sees Hamlet later on she tries to speak with him, but is rejected coldly. He does not listen to her and screams harsh words leaving her feeling worthless and embarrassed. “…I loved you not.” (III.i.119). “Get thee to a nunnery.” (III.i.121) “… you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures, and make you wantonnes your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t;” (III.i.146-48) This incident causes Ophelia to become slightly disturbed. She sits weeping while her father and the King practically step on her weak body to find out more reason for Hamlet’s actions. In this depressed state all she can say is “O! woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, what I see!” (III.i.163-64) So, because of Hamlet’s rudeness and rejection through this part of the play, Ophelia is driven even more closer to insanity.
Perhaps the biggest cause of Ophelia’s madness was the death of her father. The news of Polonius’ death was just enough to throw her over the edge of insanity. What’s worse, she finds out that her dearest father was murdered by the one she loves, Hamlet. Ophelia now goes completely mad and has lost all control over her mind. She begins singing songs to herself that don’t really make sense to anyone. “He is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone…” (IV.V.29-30). The King now feels pity for her because she has lost so much, “O! this is the poison of deep grief; it springs all from her father’s death.” (IV.V.75-6). It becomes clear now, when she sings the song about a maid on St. Valentine’s day, that the way Hamlet treated her was a great contribution to her insanity. In this song she says “Quoth she, before you tumbled me, you promis’d me to wed” (IV.V.62-3) You can tell by the words she sings that she is upset because Hamlet slept with her during their relationship and had promised her they’d get married. These are now the final stages of Ophelia’s madness. When Laertes comes to visit he is greatly confused by his sister’s behavior. She does not talk to him now as herself, she sings and speaks of rosemary’s and pansies which are invisible to everyone else. She says goodbye to her brother for the last time, leaving him filled with rage and grief. A short while after, Ophelia is found dead in a river, having drown that afternoon. Some believe her death was suicide and some assume that it was an accident. Unlike the other characters in the play, Ophelia died from loving too much, being too innocent, and too pure. She died because of her virtues, while others perished because of their faults. She did nothing wrong, but so many wrongs were dealt to her. Therefore, it was these factors, especially the loss of her father, which caused her to become mad.
Ophelia’s madness progresses throughout the play as she comes across more and more unfortunate incidents. She starts off happy with Hamlet by her side, but due to the fact that her life was under so much control by her father she lost him. The occurrences after their breakup were even more unsettling to Ophelia because of the unpleasant way Hamlet treated her. The death of her father is more than she can bare, and she ends up going completely insane. Ophelia’s madness and the events that lead her to it are key parts in the plot in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet.