As we progress through the play, we discover different people who could be held responsible for Ophelia’s death. At the beginning of the play, it seems as if Hamlet is solely responsible for her death; however, as we progress, we see how different people had a part to play in the cause of her death. In Act 1 Scene 3, we see Ophelia’s relationship with her brother and her father, as they warn Ophelia against her interaction with Hamlet. Firstly she speaks with her brother, Laertes, about her relationship with Hamlet. Laertes states that if Hamlet says he loves you, ‘it fits your wisdom so far to believe him’.
This is saying to Ophelia that she is naive, and this is because she has never experienced matters like this before; however, while he is saying this, he is not being patronized as such. This shows us that although he is trying to protect her, he also doesn’t trust her judgement entirely. From this and the fact Laertes states that Ophelia should ‘Fear it, my dear sister’, by it he is referring to Hamlets apparent feelings towards her, we can see that he feels protective over her. This portrays to us that their relationship is one of trust and close friends. Rather than instruct her in a patronizing manner, he speaks to her in a way that is kind and yet explains what he is trying to tell her.
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Ophelia values Laertes opinion as she states she will ‘effects of this good lesson keep’; however, she tells Laertes that he should take a leaf out of his book and follow his advice by saying ‘do not, as some ungracious pastors do’ From this conversation between the two of them, we see how the closeness between them meant their intentions towards each other were always good. When responding to Laertes, Ophelia speaks little and questions him a lot. For example, where she says ‘No more but so?’ after Laertes states that Hamlet’s love for her is a passing thing, she questions him rather than directly retaliating.
By this, we can see that she respects his advice, but another reason for her questioning manner may be the politeness she must convey to her brother as she is a woman. Rather than argue, she must hint and suggest through her questions what she is genuinely trying to tell her brother, for example, where she says, ‘do you doubt that?’. Laertes had doubted that she would maintain contact with her, and rather than ask him outright why he thinks that she subtly questions him, he reveals it is due to Hamlet’s love for her that he doubts her.
During Ophelia’s interaction with Polonious, after Laertes leaves to go to school, we see another possible cause of Ophelia’s madness. This cause is the controlling, harsh demanor of Polonious, which we see as Ophelia is forced to explain the subject of ‘something touching the Lord Hamlet’. This conveys to the audience that Ophelia is trapped and has no privacy in her matter with Hamlet. Ophelia cannot trust her father as we see her not explaining the true extent of Hamlet’s action, as when Polonious queries ‘Mad for they love[?]’, Ophelia replies, ‘…I don’t know’. This conveys to the audience the secrecy that Ophelia has used to distance herself from Polonious, which is unnatural as she should be close, seeing as her father.
Polonius infers to the audience he has been spying on Ophelia’s; he states, ‘ i feared he did but a trifle.’ This shows us that his assumption of Hamlets actions were wrong, proving that he had been observing the pair. Ophelia tones down Hamlet’s affections towards her when telling Polonious what happened; she could be doing this perhaps because she knows Polonious will relay the information to Claudius. We see this toning down where Ophelia casually says ‘he made many tenders,’ meaning that she says to Polonious she doesn’t believe they were true.
Another interpretation as to why Ophelia is toning down Hamlet’s affections may be that she is trying to convince herself there is nothing between the two of them. This attempt to distance herself from Hamlet is portrayed where she explains to Polonious that ‘as you did command […] and denied his access to me’. By saying this, it is inferring to the audience that she is thinking that all Hamlet wants her for is sex, not a relationship. This conveys the confusion Ophelia is feeling due to damaging relationships with both her father and Hamlet, which could have added to her madness and consequent death.
Polonious’ manner towards Ophelia is demanding and quite rude, as he states ‘you’ll tender me a fool’ if she doesn’t manage Hamlet well. This is unfair towards Ophelia as she cannot control Hamlet’s feeling towards herself, and this blaming of Ophelia means we can infer that there is a bad relationship between the pair. He is using Ophelia’s conscience to make sure she doesn’t ruin not only her reputation but that of Polonious; this is selfish of him because he is putting a lot of pressure on her for his own benefit. From all of this ,we can see that Ophelia’s relationship with her father is based aontheir reputation, not their love tor each other. We see Polonious as selfish for putting Ophelia’s well-being and sanity second to both his and her reputation.
Therefore we can see here one of the more direct causes of Ophelia’s insanity, as Polonious control her to the extent that when he says she mustn’t become involved with Hamlet, she say’s ‘i shall obey, my lord’ thus showing that when the play was set women did as was told without question. This aspect of court life for women may have led to Ophelia’s insanity and consequently her death. Another reference to Polonius’s belief that Ophelia is naive is where he says, ‘ think yourself a baby.’ By saying this, he likens her to a baby, much to her embarrassment, as it shows just how little her father trusts her judgement.
While talking to Ophelia, Polonious takes a sarcastic approach to the subject of Hamlet’s intentions towards Ophelia. We see this sarcasm when Polonious says, ‘ Do you believe his tender, as you call them?’ This quote shows us his doubt in Hamlet’s intentions for Ophelia; by the way, he sarcastically adds ‘as you call them to the end. By doing this, he is making out that Ophelia is either lying or Hamlet’s intentions are not sound. Furthermore, the sarcastic manner in which this is stated makes out that Ophelia is wrong for believing in Hamlet, which would be infuriating for Ophelia.
In response to Polonius, Ophelia is more polite, to begin with. We see this when she says ‘so please you’; this yet again adds to the feeling of her lower status within the court compared to her father. Another interpretation of this formal language is that Ophelia does not know how to interact with her father on a social level due to the upbringing with him she has had. Rather than state my father, as would be the term used in a regular interaction between father and daughter, she says ‘my lord,’ which shows us the distant relationship they maintain.
Through the contrast between the relationships between Ophelia and her brother and father, we realize how much she needs support from her family. We see her reaching out to her father, where her tone gets angrier, and she says, ‘almost all the holy vows.’ Her father dismisses her, however, as he doesn’t which to believe in this. Rather than help her, he helps himself by stating, ‘his vows are brokers’ and forbidding her to see Hamlet. Taking this course of action almost certainly added to her madness, which led up to her death. By forbidding her to see him and saying Hamlet is lying to her, it would have added to her broken heart that Hamlet had caused.
Now that her brother had gone to school, she had no one to talk to, which meant she could not get these emotions out. This will have added to her madness due to the solitary way Ophelia is left to deal with her problems and emotions. In Act 2, Scene 1, we see another interaction between Ophelia and her father, Polonious. In this scene, we witness Polonius’s control over Ophelia and the way he blames her rather than himself. Firstly, we see that Polonious enters in a bold manner and demands to know what is wrong with her, when she states she is ‘much affrighted’, he immediately asks why and Ophelia is trapped into telling him unwillingly. Next, we see Ophelia’s nervousness at telling Polonious what happened; because when she speaks, she uses lots of punctuation, indicating to us she is speaking in a rushed and agitated manner.
As well as the rushed manner, Ophelia has moments where she seems to pause for a while, such as ‘horrors— he comes.’ This could be interpreted as her looking back into the past and thinking about what happened, or she may think of how she should say it not to give away the whole story to Polonious. From this interpretation, we can see that Ophelia is quite a clever character who knows not to give away too much information as he is not entirely trustworthy. We see this where Polonious states that this information should be relayed to Claudius immediately: ‘seek the king.’ This and the fact that Polonius blames Ophelia for Hamlet’s anger, ‘that hath made him mad’, shows us that he is a cowardly character.
This would have impacted Ophelia, as a father figure should be the epitome of courage and put the protection of his children first. Polonious fails to deliver this to Ophelia. Polonious’s lack of protection is portrayed throughout the play to directly link to his job ad advisor to the King, as not answering the king truthfully would have been heresy/treason. This dependency on relaying information to Claudius is seen to explain Hamlet’s tenders to Ophelia: ‘ i have found the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.’ This shows us he is betraying his daughter for the sake of his job, meaning he is devoted to Claudius entirely. We realize from this that Claudius is an indirect cause of Ophelia’s madness as he is the one that caused Polonius to betray his daughter and spy on her as well (both of which would have added to her madness.)
Hamlet’s actions untoward Ophelia are realized specifically in Act 2 Scene 1. Ophelia’s apparent confusion at Hamlet’s actions is portrayed where she states: ‘[he] took me by the wrist.’ This conveys the abrupt manner in which Hamlets deals with Ophelia. Hamlet’s lack of respect and his absence of knowledge when it comes to interacting with women is easily deduced from this interaction between the pair. This lack of knowledge is apparent where Hamlet ‘falls to such perusal of my [Ophelia’s] face’, as the experience is inferred by Ophelia to be particularly scary.
Through these points the audience can deduce that Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship is highly confusing, and that this confusion has implications on Ophelia’s sanity as she is getting mixed messages from Hamlet. These mixed messages which could possibly have added to Ophelia’s madness are seen firstly where he is kind and loving toward her ‘ i did repel his letters’. This conveys to the audience that Hamlet was bestowing affections on Ophelia, but she was being forced to deny them. This contrasts with the abrupt manner in which Hamlet ‘held her hard,’ showing a different side to him.
The fact that Ophelia has to explain all of Hamlet’s actions to Polonious indicates to the audience that she lacks control over her life. The embarrassment Ophelia could have felt due to this may have been a factor in her madness and eventual death. In addition, she knows that the intimate details of her private life were being told to the King may have left her feeling a lack of control, which could have also added to her loss of insanity.
We see Hamlet’s contrasting behaviour toward Ophelia in both Scene 1 and 2 of Act 3. Firstly in Scene 1, Hamlet’s erratic, verbally aggressive behaviour is bestowed on Ophelia, showing us his anger and disregard for Ophelia. For instance, Hamlet talks rather morbidly during his monologue: ‘to be or not to be.’ Talking about suicide is associated with madness, and this therefore infers that Hamlet’s sanity is not quite whole, which implies that his actions aren’t 100% his own. However, we can see Hamlet’s conscience is intact, as he almost asks for forgiveness for what he’s about to do to Ophelia, ‘be all my sins remembered’.
By saying this, Hamlet shows the audience he must care a little for Ophelia, no matter what he says to her face. Being spied upon by Polonius and Claudius causes Hamlet’s actions and words to be exaggerated, ‘i am very proud, revengeful, ambitious,’ to portray his apparent madness to the King and his subordinate. Doing this makes it evident to the audience that Hamlet is putting on a show, and therefore being purposefully vindictive to Ophelia. This cruelty to Ophelia adds to her confusion and madness, as his behaviour is so erratic she knows not what to believe when Hamlet talks to her.
A sense of madness in Hamlet is conveyed in the way he talks in riddles, confusing both himself and Ophelia. Where Hamlet says ‘puzzles the will,’ we see his exaggeration of his madness and the fact he is purposefully playing up, indicating that his sanity is intact enough to plot and conceive plans. After Hamlet’s grand entrance, Ophelia changes the topic to their relationship state, as she has been instructed to do, yet again conveying to the audience that Ophelia is trapped. Due to the fact, Hamlet knows he is being spied upon, he states that ‘ i never gave you aught’, meaning he didn’t give her any indication he liked her. We know this to be a blatant lie, as we have heard of the interactions between them both that have been going on.
He then admits that he did like her by saying ‘i did love you once’, and then again changing his mind by saying ‘i loved you not’. These statements may have left Ophelia upset and confused, and making her doubt her own judgement just like everyone else doubts her, just as her father does due to his constant questioning of her. This doubt in her may have led to adding to her madness and therefore her death. The cruel way Hamlet told her that he didn’t love her will have made her feel used, and made a mockery of them. All of these emotions pent up inside of Ophelia, with no-one to talk to will have made her mad in the head as she has been left to deal with all these feelings alone.
Hamlet’s verbal abuse towards Ophelia continues when he says she should ‘get thee to a nunnery’, as she is not worthy to have children as she would only provide girls who would become sinners like herself. Hamlet’s lack of respect for women is yet again highlighted here as he sees all women as sinners. While Hamlet is littering her with abusive comments, she cries out ‘ O’help him’. This cry could be seen as Ophelia asking Claudius and Polonious to stop Hamlet, yet they don’t, and she is let down and left to deal with her problems herself. This isolation is another aspect of Ophelia’s progressive lapse into madness, as she has no one to talk to or be helped by. Another interpretation of her cry for help could possibly be that she is upset to see her lover falling into madness, and it genuinely scares her that he isn’t himself.
In Act 3 Scene 2, we see Hamlet’s actions towards Ophelia change completely. Yet again he is verbally abusing her, but this time it is more subtle and more public, which is completely in contrast to the previous scene. For example, we see him insinuate that all she thinks about is sex, in front of the entire court: ‘shall i lie in your lap?’ By saying this, he seeks to embarrass and confuse her in front of the entire court, as when she says no he immediately protests that he didn’t mean ‘country matters’ and she is imagining it all. This portrays the fact that Hamlet is one of the main causes of Ophelia’s death, as he is cruel and fickle to her.
Rather than air this new apparent taste for Ophelia in a respectful manner, Hamlet says his tenders in an open, disrespectful and almost joking manner. We see this ‘affection’ for her inferred as when asked to sit next to his mother, he moves over to Ophelia, stating, ‘here’s a metal more attractive.’ This would have been not only embarrassing for Ophelia but also confusing as in the previous scene; he was telling her to ‘get thee a nunnery’ as if he didn’t like her at all. This highly erratic behaviour will not only have left Ophelia confused but angry, as the entirety of the court will have heard the disrespectful manner in which Hamlet flirts with Ophelia.
From the above interaction between them, we can decipher that the relationship between them is very strained. We see Hamlet’s outright comments being ignored by Ophelia’s polite, controlled answers, ‘no, my lord’. Hamlet exaggerates everything he does within this scene and makes himself out to be madder than he truly is. We see this sense of exaggerated madness, when he states that his father has only ‘died within these 2 hours’, when actually it has been over 2 months. This statement is seeking to provoke Claudius, and make him feel guilty before the play within a play so that his guilt will get the better of him and he will be crushed. We see Ophelia’s indignation at the plan in which Hamlet is hoping to trap Claudius’s conscience when she says ‘what means this?’
In response to Ophelia, Hamlet becomes scarily merry and sarcastically uses wordplay to jest Ophelia with, ‘marry this is miching mallecho’. Hamlet does this to keep the nature of the play safe, while still being light-hearted and toying with Ophelia, much to her disdain. Through Hamlet’s wordplay, he offends Ophelia to the degree where her politeness stops, and she actually answers back to him. He says ‘not you ashamed to show’, stating that she sleeps around and she is explodes back at him by shouting ‘you are naught’. This is Ophelia trying to convince herself that Hamlet’s remarks do not hurt her as she doesn’t care for him when actually we can tell this is not true due to the way she interacts with Hamlet.
This confusion in Ophelia’s mind of how she actually feels about Hamlet would have been cause enough for her madness, but adding Hamlets shaming of her to the court; we can truly understand the direct cause for her madness. The structure of the interaction between Ophelia and Hamlet is one of the short sentences. These short sentences become a rally of questions of Ophelia, ‘what is it my lord?’ and answers from Hamlet ‘Nothing’. This structure allows us to see the battle of wills in this scene, and the fact that their interaction is brief which therefore means every single word counts, so is highly important.
The speech between the two characters is broken into 2 parts, before the play within a play and during it. This has been done so we can see the reaction Hamlet gets out of Ophelia after she sees the way he has set Claudius up. When Ophelia comments on the playing saying ’tis brief’, Hamlet immediately spots an opportunity to offend and upset Ophelia by saying ‘as woman love’. This criticism of Ophelia is bound to make her feel used, and angry at Hamlet. From Act 3 Scene 2, we can see that Hamlets erratic behaviour is beginning to take its toll on Ophelia and this makes us see that Hamlet is the direct cause of her madness.
However, we see in Act 4 Scene 5, where Ophelia herself goes truly mad, that everyone had a part to play in her death. As she hands out flowers, she places them with the people she believes they signify in her head. This is the only way she can convey her feelings to everyone without speaking outright, which was unacceptable for ladies. Firstly, we see that she still cares for Polonious as she hands out rosemary, ‘that’s for remembrance.’ From this we can see that she does not see him as to blame particularly, as otherwise she wouldn’t do such a kind gesture for him. However, this is not the case with Queen Gertrude, where fennel is bestowed untoward her.
Fennel signifies flattery, and this has been placed with Gertrude because she submitted to Claudius’s flattery and didn’t care what damage it did to Hamlet. Gertrude was meant to be a role model figure for Ophelia, yet she did not deliver. Therefore, she could be seen as having a small amount of impact on Ophelia’s sanity since Gertrude abandoned Ophelia and didn’t help her out when she needed female advice. The next flower Ophelia brings out is ‘pansies. That’s for thoughts.’ The pansies could have been given to both Laertes and Polonius. Instead, she tells them that they were both in her thoughts, even though they hadn’t been there.
Yet again, it is almost as if she forgives them for not being there. From this, we can decipher that although they were both not there for her, which may have led to her isolation and madness, she still cares for them and does not hold a grudge against them for this. The columbines would have been given to Claudius, as he has been a figure of adultery throughout. The columbines also signify the foolishness of adultery; therefore, she is fearless by giving them to Claudius. It is a rude statement she is making. She makes another brave move when she hands out Rue to Gertrude. Rue signifies female adultery and eternal suffering.
By handing this to Gertrude, she accuses her of what other people would not say to her face. Ophelia’s deteriorating state may be her last chance to get these emotions of betrayal of her chest; therefore, she can say what she means by handing out the flowers. The fact that she is brave enough to accuse Gertrude and Claudius of adultery shows just how mad she has become, as what she had done would have been very rude and therefore punishable. This offence that could have resulted in death due to treason for Ophelia shows us how far into her madness she has sunk, portraying to the audience that Ophelia is particularly suicidal in this scene.
When she hands herself rue, she feels pity for herself because she is now going to eternally suffer in her eyes as she has been left alone. She has been brought up to see women as sinners, which shows that she has given in to that belief as the rue signifies. When Ophelia brings out the daisy, she could be sarcastically giving it to Claudius because she knows what he has done by murdering old Hamlet. Therefore, he is most definitely not innocent. However, this could also be interpreted as Ophelia just looking at it, making out that she feels no one is worthy of the daisy and innocent.
Lastly, when she says ‘violets, but they withered all,’ due to her father’s death, we see that she now sees that no one is faithful anymore. Her faith in Laertes had lapsed as he had not been there for her when she needed him. Her faith in Claudius and Gertrude is gone, as they haven’t done an excellent job of keeping the court in an order or helping her out. And lastly, her faith in Polonious is gone, as he is gone and therefore she sees that she has no faith left for anyone. Another interpretation may be that by saying they ‘withered all’, she says there is no faith left anywhere, like losing faith in humanity overall.
Claudius’ initial act of murdering Old Hamlet was the catalyst for the entirety of the play. Without the murder, neither Ophelia nor Hamlet would be dead. Claudius, unlike Hamlet, committed his cruel acts while 100% sane, which shows us his cruelty and disregard for other people. However, Claudius did not set out to hurt Ophelia; therefore is not the leading cause of her death, just an indirect one. In conclusion, Hamlet had a massive part to play in Ophelia’s death. However, he was not the only one to blame. Laertes did hardly anything wrong, except going when she needed him most, which was not his decision to make but Claudius’s.
Therefore Laertes is not to blame for this; more so, Claudius is the one to blame. Polonius’s lack of trust and constant betrayal of Ophelia to Claudius also led to Ophelia’s death. Therefore we can see he did have reason to be blamed for her death. However, Claudius initially guided and instructed Polonius; therefore, he is to blame for this as well. Gertrude had only a small part to play in Ophelia’s death. Rather than being a mother figure to Ophelia, which is what she needed, Gertrude was weak towards Claudius and did not stand up for herself like Ophelia needed her female influence to do.
However, this is not alone Gertrude’s fault, as Claudius was yet again leading her, and she did what she did to please him as he seduced her into it. Lastly, Claudius was at fault for Ophelia’s death as his murder of Old Hamlet was the catalyst for all the events that led up to her death. Although he did not do anything to her directly, he had the most indirect effect on her. All of his decisions, such as sending people to spy on herself and Hamlet, ended up hurting their relationship, which led to her madness.
Therefore, we can see Claudius having the most significant amount of blame out of all the characters, second to Hamlet. However, Hamlet is still, in my view the one holding the most responsibility for her death as he toyed with her by sending confusing mixed messages out of malice, not always madness. Therefore I believe Hamlet is mainly to blame for Ophelia’s death directly, but Claudius played a big part in it indirectly without even Ophelia herself noticing.