Denied the freedom of speech, she cannot survive the contemptuous conversations of the cruel world. Being a female in a kingdom full of chaos and deceitfulness, the harmless Ophelia is forced to keep silent and surrender to the domineering men in her life. Her lover feigns madness in an attempt to avoid prosecution of murder. By hiding behind his mask of insanity after accidentally killing Ophelia’s father, Ophelia’s lover ultimately loses his true-love: Ophelia. Hamlet is the name of Ophelia’s lover and the title of Shakespeare’s most renowned play. Although Ophelia is not the focal character in Hamlet, the audience is moved by the subtleness and complexity of her mind. The audience feels sympathetic towards Ophelia because she is completely undeserving of her emotional and physical suffrages throughout this tragedy. Ophelia’s character can be developed through the use of the literary devices of figurative imagery, symbolism and irony.
First, Ophelia’s character is unearthed by the use of figurative imagery. This literary device functions to uncover the messages hidden behind Ophelia’s fractured speech and unpredictable actions. By drawing comparisons between what is unfamiliar to something that is familiar to the reader, figurative imagery can change complex ideas into relatable concepts. Ophelia’s character can be described as loving, gentle and innocent through the use of flower imagery. Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, first introduces this flower imagery associated with Ophelia:
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A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,
(I, iii, ll. 7-10)
In this quotation, Laertes is trying to convince Ophelia that Hamlet is not to be trusted and that his love for her may be deceitful. Laertes compares Hamlet’s love for Ophelia to a violet, which flowers in the early spring and smells very sweet, but does not last long. He believes that, like a violet that withers away shortly after blooming, Hamlet will soon fall out of love with Ophelia and she will be left alone. By warning Ophelia of Hamlet’s possible mistrust and by having concern for her feelings, Laertes shows the audience how deep a bond exists between himself and Ophelia. However, the fact that Laertes and his father both have little faith in Ophelia’s decisions shows that they think of Ophelia as vulnerable and incapable. Even after being rebuked, Ophelia has hope for her relationship with Hamlet. She calls him the “rose of the fair state” (III, I, l. 154). Ophelia’s direct comparison of Hamlet and a rose can be interpreted as her belief that Hamlet should be the heir to the throne, just as a rose is considered to be the king of all flowers.
However, one may also speculate that this metaphor is an emblem of Ophelia’s abiding love for Hamlet; a rose is often associated with love, passion and beauty, and, therefore, can represent Ophelia and Hamlet’s intimate relationship. In addition, a rose, like love, has thorns that prick and cause pain. Previous to the “mouse-trap” scene, Hamlet speaks with Ophelia using an angry tone that frightens the maiden and leads her to believe that her lover is insane. Ophelia’s realization that her love for Hamlet is aimless is the thorn that pricks Ophelia.
As the thorns of life, the death of her father and the loss of a lover, continue to break Ophelia’s heart, she sinks into a period of severe depression. Eventually, Ophelia commits suicide and the gentleness of her character is ultimately revealed through the peacefulness of her descent into the afterlife. When Ophelia dies, she is surrounded by “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purple” (IV, vii, ll. 168-169). Even when buried, flowers are buried along with her as “sweets to the sweet” (V, I, l. 237). Thus, Ophelia’s character can be depicted through the use of figurative imagery.
Next, Ophelia’s character is revealed through the use of symbolism. Flowers, which are constantly associated with Ophelia, symbolize the truth she possesses in her mind. Ophelia is the solitary character, who recognizes the corruption and the deceiving nature of the kingdom in Hamlet. The other characters choose to hide their secrets from the world, as guilt and frustration accumulate inside of them. In her insanity, which, ironically, possesses an undertone of logic, Ophelia distributes specific flowers to each character.
Every flower symbolizes a certain attribute associated with the character and Ophelia’s judgment of that character. Ophelia first issues rosemary, a symbol of remembrance, to her brother. She offers this flower to her brother so that he might remember (their) recently deceased father. Laertes understands the meaning behind her donation of rosemary and says, “this nothing’s more than matter,” (IV, V, ll. 172). Ophelia also gives her brother pansies for thoughts, urging him to reflect on the madness of the recent events in the kingdom. Ophelia presents a fennel that symbolizes flattery and marital infidelity to Claudius, who is guilty of tainting his late brother’s widow by wedding her. Ophelia gives columbine, for unfaithfulness, to the queen, accusing her of incestuous behaviour.
Ophelia gives rue to herself and the queen. This action represents a need for repentance. Ophelia suggests that the queen “wear [her] rue with a difference” (IV, v, ll. 180-181). Ophelia believes that while she is, indirectly, the cause of her father’s death through her companionship with Hamlet, the queen is directly responsible for the death of her late husband. Gertrude must also ask for forgiveness for her crime of incestuous marriage. The violet, for loyalty, may symbolize the faithful friend found in Horatio. When Ophelia says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died” (IV, v, ll. 181-183) she is referring to her disappointment in Hamlet for killing her father. The daisy, symbolizing deceit, is given to Claudius for trying to conceal his murderous crime. Through the distribution of flowers, Ophelia becomes the judge. She is able to judge others because she herself is above judgment in her state of insanity. As one can see, the development of Ophelia’s character in Hamlet relies on the use of symbolism.
Finally, Ophelia is better understood in the presence of irony. The unfolding of Ophelia’s true character is situational irony in itself because the audience’s original belief that Ophelia is merely a silent bystander is completely contradicted in act five, scene four when Ophelia is suddenly knowledgeable of the truth and urges the audience to hear the cause of her sadness. Until Ophelia’s mind becomes mentally imbalanced, she is depicted as a naïve, young girl, deviated only by the sins of her lover, Hamlet. He is the only toxin in her blood, the robber of her virginity.
Ophelia, who once lived in a confused state unable to demonstrate any maturity, cannot cope with the loss of her father and her lover. As Ophelia performs her foolish ballads before the crown, all of the spectators, except Laertes, are unable to comprehend the seriousness of her lyrics. In her songs, Ophelia is revealing the cause of her insanity and uncovering the secrets of the other characters. Interestingly, the subjects of Ophelia’s songs alternate between her father’s death and the romance she was denied, the sources of her severe depression. She reveals her sorrow for her father’s death by singing:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
(IV, v, ll. 28-32).
The severity of Ophelia’s grief shows that she loves her father very much. Ophelia also muses over her father’s improper burial when she utters, “larded with sweet flowers which bewept to the grave did not go with true-love showers” (IV, v, ll. 38-40). Ophelia is upset that her father has left the material world and all that is left in memory of him is his modest grave. Amid these lines, there is also a hidden meaning that foreshadows Ophelia’s ironic death. Ophelia’s death is situational irony because she drowns draped in flowers, very opposite to her father’s untraditional burial that did not have flowers. A love song about St. Valentine’s Day gives the audience an insight into the romantic rejection she has experienced:
Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clo’es,
And dupp’d the chamber door,
Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more.
(IV, v, ll. 48-55)
Ophelia finishes off her ballad “I’ll make an end on’t” (IV, v, l. 57) with another ironic ballad:
By Gis and By Saint Charity,
Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do’t if
They come to’t –
By cock they are to blame.
Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to Wed.
‘so would I a done, by younger sun,
And thou hadst not come to my bed.’
(IV, v, ll. 58-63)
Ophelia admits that Hamlet has taken away her virginity and that he had promised to wed her. Verbal irony is used when Ophelia makes use of the word ‘cock’ (IV, v, l. 62). Ophelia deliberately uses this word, meaning God, to represent a penis. While the spectators probably understand the meaning of the word ‘cock’ referring to God, Ophelia wants them to pick-up the hidden message of the sins of men – their penises. These ballads are ironic because while Hamlet, who is only pretending to be insane, cannot bring himself to confession, Ophelia is able to reveal the truth in her state of insanity. As made obvious through the use of irony, Ophelia becomes an incoherent messenger of the truth.
Conclusively, Ophelia seems to be a blameless, young girl: an innocent victim of cruel punishment. However, following close examination of her character, there are many indications of flaws in this image. No human can grasp perfection because being sinless is unachievable in nature. There are always defects in the model of goodness and Ophelia flaunts these blemishes of humankind. She keeps her feelings bottled up inside until the pressure becomes too intense. Finally, her cork pops and the truth pours out, drowning the beautiful maiden in her anguish and staining the walls of Elsinore with injustice, denial and mourning.
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