Without any substantial maternal guidance, Ophelia is a lost soul in William Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet.” Right from the beginning, it is clear that Ophelia is subordinate to the men she interacts with. On the other hand, the men she interacts with are aware of this fact as exemplified by how her brother and her father address her with veiled contempt. It can be argued that Ophelia’s character represents the subordination and ill-treatment of women during that time and era.
The situation of Ophelia in the story is that of a young girl who, from an early age, is brought from a life of privacy into the circle of a court.” (Vanderlyn 92). One of the most striking aspects of Ophelia’s character is her cluelessness and her ability to maintain her femininity. Lack of maternal guidance, possession of a naïve spirit, and lack of exposure are the main reasons for Ophelia’s unhealthy love to Hamlet and her subsequent tragedy.
Ophelia is most likely an orphan as no mention of her mother is made during the entire play. Moreover, Ophelia lacks a substitute mother figure in her life. Ophelia depends on her father Polonius and her brother Laertes for nurture and guidance. Ophelia does not have any nostalgic feelings towards her mother, a sign that her mother “might have died when she was an infant” (Brown 1). Ophelia’s father acts as her primary guardian and counselor. She lacks the privilege of receiving advice from her kind.
For example, her father and her brother are the ones who stress to her the need for maintaining her chastity. Receiving advice of this type from a male figure is “not only inappropriate, but it is also moot as her seducers are men themselves” (Floyd-Wilson 397). Everything Ophelia knows about men, she has learned from her father and her brother. For instance, their interferences in her relationship with Hamlet are based on their male perspective. Ophelia’s lack of maternal influence reduces her to a lone ranger.
In a patriarchal world where women are treated as objects and are almost overrun by men, Ophelia would have benefited from having a maternal confidant. Possibly, the confidant would have offered advice that would have helped her maneuvers in the patriarchal society. Her relationship with Hamlet is contrary to the wishes of her father.
Given that her father is the only influential parent in her life, the decision to go against his wishes weighs heavily on her conscious. It is possible that this decision contributed to her insanity and subsequent suicide. Any maternal influence would have helped dilute the tension that surrounded Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship.
Ophelia’s exists in a society that is dominated by men. This limits her choices in life, and her whole existence is reduced to loyalty and obedience to the men in her life. Ophelia’s life did not have many freedoms. However, her submissiveness is not personal, but it applies to all the women of her time. For instance, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother reveals that “submissiveness is something that was expected from all women” (Floyd-Wilson 397).
Ophelia’s tragic love for Hamlet is directly related to her submissiveness towards her father and at times, her brother. Throughout her youth, Ophelia obeys her father without questioning his authority. Ophelia obeys her father’s orders without questioning them as witnessed when her father warns her against a relationship with Hamlet to which she replies, “I shall obey, my lord” (Shakespeare 11).
Nevertheless, Ophelia’s submissive nature is not reflective of her innermost feelings. For example, she respectfully criticizes her brother for applying double standards when it comes to chastity. This scene reveals that Ophelia’s submission does not mean that she lacks an opinion of her own. This submission is what keeps Ophelia from questioning the dynamics of her relationship with Hamlet. It is correct to argue that Ophelia’s tragic insanity could be related to her submissiveness because she lacked a healthy outlet for her feelings.
Ophelia’s naivety makes her easy to manipulate. Hamlet constantly manipulates Ophelia to do whatever he wants. At first, Hamlet tries to convince her to be his lover and then uses her to perpetuate his fake madness. He performs several ‘crazy’ antics in front of her hoping that she will “speak of the horrors” she saw (Shakespeare 23).
Also, Hamlet uses Ophelia as the tool of her revenge against his mother, Gertrude. Instead of being honest with Ophelia, Hamlet uses her to perpetuate his negative stereotypes about women. “Hamlet’s cold-heartedness proves to be too much a burden for Ophelia” who loves Hamlet with all her heart (Bierman 1).
Ophelia spends all her days being shielded in Lord Chamberlain’s household. Both her father and her brother are very protective of the young Ophelia. Other than Hamlet who is very suspicious towards Ophelia, everybody else is aware of her good nature. Her good nature is also apparent to the audience. On the other hand, Ophelia has “gone through life oblivious to the harsh realities of life” (Brown 1).
This naivety is fostered by the fact that her father and her brother love her very much, and they are willing to do anything to guarantee her happiness. Ophelia is not involved in any political matters at the King’s court (Barnet, Burto and Cain 112). She spends her days gathering flowers and practicing needlework. She is also very appreciative of the love her brother and her father show to her. Being sheltered proves to be disadvantageous to Ophelia. For instance, Ophelia lacks the real-world experience that she can use when defending herself.
Even though her love for Hamlet is quite strong, she is not able to defend it. Her naïve nature leaves her at the “mercy of her father, who makes all decisions for her” (Dane 1). When Polonius dies, she is unable to cope, and she eventually loses her mind. Lack of exposure proves to be one of the factors that contribute to her tragedy.
Her entire life is engineered by forces that are out of her control. When the time comes for her to manage her affairs, Ophelia finds that she “does not have the necessary expertise” (Taylor 6). It would be prudent to assume that exposure to the real world would have been beneficial to Ophelia’s plight.
Ophelia’s tragic fate seems to be sealed right from the beginning. While all the men in the play spend their time calculating their next moves, Ophelia sits at the court waiting for the men to make decisions for her. When the men are gone, her lack of experience in real-world issues proves to be tragic.
Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s character as the epitome of tragedy in “Hamlet.” Her lack of maternal guidance and her frail nature are her main weaknesses when traumatic events bombard her. When she realizes how powerless she is, her actions spell out the greatest tragedy in her life.
Barnet, Sylvan, William Burto, and William Cain. Literature for Composition. New York, NY: Pearson Publishing, 2007. Print.
Bierman, Elsinore. Frailty, thy name is woman: Portraits of Ophelia. Web.
Brown, Heather. Gender and Identity in Hamlet: A Modern Interpretation of Ophelia. Web.
Dane, Gabrielle. Reading Ophelia’s Madness. Web.
Floyd-Wilson, Mary. “Ophelia and Femininity in the Eighteenth Century: Dangerous Conjectures in Ill-Breeding Minds’.” Women’s Studies 21.4 (2002): 397. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York, NY: WW Norton, 2011. Print
Taylor, Mark. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Explicator 65.1 (2006): 4-7. Print.
Vanderlyn, Bertha. “Shakespeare’s Gentle Heroine.” Fine Arts Journal 14.3 (1903): 91- 94. Web.