Hamlet Dramaturgy

Informing Bethany Lutheran College's Spring 2013 Production. Shows at: April 19, 20, 26, 27 at 7:30pm and April 21 at 2pm

Character Notes: Five Reasons Why Ophelia is Crazy

At the outset of the play we meet Ophelia, a sweet young lady who appears to be pretty, intelligent, and a symbol for courtly innocence and decorum. By the end of the play, Ophelia has drowned, potentially an act of suicide, or just a symbol of the madness she has fallen in to. What makes Ophelia go through such a rapid change? Perhaps you already have an answer, but here are a few theories on the topic that I found to be really intriguing:

1) She is heart-broken over Hamlet.

This is a pretty obvious theory and a commonly held one by many critics. Whether Hamlet’s madness or Hamlet’s rejection of her love drove her to the brink is widely debated, and regardless of Polonius’ death, Ophelia clearly has been shaken by Hamlet’s wavering attitude and affection.

The difference in who Ophelia is more heart-broken over can only be found in the script, and as a theatre artist you have to decide if key turning moment in the script for Ophelia’s instability is when she comes to her father and the king upset over Hamlet or if it happens somewhere offstage when she finds out about the death of her father. Surely there is no clean-cut answer, there never is, but the idea that Ophelia is more heart-broken over the loss of her father or more heart-broken over the loss of Hamlet tells you a great deal about her character and what she values.

2) She is heart-broken… over Polonius.

Many theorists and critics focus on Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet, but in reality, your father dying would be hugely traumatic as well. This theory is interesting to me because it seems counter-intuitive to the script, almost everything is motivated and driven and centered on Hamlet, for Ophelia’s death to not have anything to do with him seems impossible. Then again, for her not to be deeply affected by the loss of her father is equally unlikely. I don’t care if she’s a lovesick teen, if her father died, she will be distraught over it.

3) She is pregnant.

This is perhaps the most intriguing theory on Ophelia I have ever read. Benji recently sent me this fascinating site that talks about how there are clear signs in the text that Ophelia has lost her maidenhood to Hamlet and is pregnant. The article specifically references songs that Ophelia sings, the way Laertes talks to her before leaving for school, and the fact that Ophelia keeps rue, the abortive flower, for herself.

4) She is torn between Hamlet and Polonius.

This site as well as Carol Neely’s article on “Madness” assert that Ophelia is defined by the men in her life, namely Hamlet and Polonius. Ophelia is torn between her affection for Hamlet and her duty to her father, Polonius. The Cliff Notes of Ophelia’s character analysis states that the moment Ophelia lied to Hamlet, telling him that her father was home instead of hiding with Claudius watching the interaction, was the moment Ophelia chose sides. Supposedly, that choice is what caused the rift in Ophelia’s psyche and made the loss of both men, in various ways, impossible for Ophelia to bear.


This is a clip from the 1990 film of “Hamlet.” Helena Bonham Carter plays Ophelia.

5) She is surrounded and manipulated by men.

Gabrielle Dane’s article “Reading Ophelia’s Madness” discusses the subtle-y of Ophelia’s situation and the reality of the situation she is in. Dane talks about how Ophelia is used as a pawn, specifically by Polonius, as the men of the court deal with Hamlet and his mental situation. Because Ophelia is manipulated by her own father and brother without a thought to her own emotions, she begins to lose a sense of self-hood that is imperative in retaining sanity. Ophelia cannot trust her beloved father or her lover, Hamlet, because they are all simply using her against each other. By this logic, of course she went insane.

Sources/More Reading: 

– Carol Camden wrote a fantastic article titled “Ophelia’s Madness” in which she pretty neatly goes over a variety of theories and quotes several critics. Camden sees Ophelia’s madness as being complex and driven primarily by the loss of Hamlet.

– “By the Way, Ophelia is Pregnant” is a witty commentary by Alex Epstein from his blog “Crafty Screenwriting.” Benji found it and sent it to me, so he is really to credit for this blog post!

– Kaitlyn Bryant, the stage manager, lent me a book titled “Ophelia” by Lisa Kline, which is essentially the story of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view.

– The Cliff Notes’ analysis of Ophelia provides an interesting perspective on Ophelia as a symbol. While Cliff Notes is not a good source to have an entire character analysis based on, it certainly sparked an idea in my head that helped me read the text from a different angle.

– Gabrielle Dane’s “Reading Ophelia’s Madness

– “‘Documents in Madness’: Reading Madness and Gender in Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Early Modern Culture” by Carol Neely. Gabrielle Dane references this article in her writing, saying that Neely calls for the reader to approach Ophelia’s character with a sense of shapeliness of character. Neely spends a large portion of her article on how Ophelia is represented verbally in the script and how this represents the fragmentary, borrowed nature of her character.

– “Women in Hamlet” a site that briefly goes over the psychology behind Ophelia’s character and asserts that Ophelia is simply a pawn, defined by the male relationships in her life.

– I have not finished reading this article, but so far Yi-Chi Chen’s essay titled “Pregnant with Madness: Ophelia’s Struggle and Madness in Hamlet” fairly neatly divides up the phases Ophelia goes through in the play and how she deals with the relationships in her life.

Lydia Grabau, Dramaturg

8 comments on “Character Notes: Five Reasons Why Ophelia is Crazy

  1. Aaron Wendroff
    March 15, 2013

    #3 is really interesting. I don’t think I would’ve picked up on those hints (from the article you linked to). The abortive flower I think is the most fascinating part. And that Gertrude might have seen Ophelia’s drowning but done nothing about it? I’m going to have to go back and reread that part.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      March 15, 2013

      Yeah! I am definitely intrigued by that. And from everything I have read, everything Epstein says in that post is accurate.

  2. Rae Gleason
    March 16, 2013

    Yesterday you and I talked about how it might be possible that Ophelia is feigning madness herself (since there is the parallel debate over whether Hamlet is feigning madness). You pointed out that the symbolism behind her distribution of the flowers and plants suggests that she is still in control of her senses, but something that occurred to me later was this–does madness mean a complete loss of control?

    The argument that she is not actually insane because she is able to draw keen observations and conclusions about the motives and actions of others, to me, implies that madness or insanity always equals a complete psychotic breakdown. That seems much too simplistic. It’s entirely possible for someone to be “unhinged,” in that he or she has distorted perceptions of reality and makes skewed judgments, yet he or she still retains the mental capacity for logical, intelligent thought. To me, it seems that Ophelia is functioning somewhere along these lines. She’s clearly having trouble processing the recent events, but she IS processing them.

    Fun fact (except not fun)–the majority of suicides among bipolar and cyclothymic individuals occurs on the “upswing” of the cycle, as the individual begins to come out of a depressive episode. They have regained some of their usual energy but have not lost the depressed and hopeless thoughts, so it’s a dangerous combination. Now I will apply that to the play. Ophelia’s entire world has just been shattered. It would make anybody plunge into a depression–in fact, that would not be an unhealthy response, depending on the duration of the episode. Suppose that Ophelia mopes about for a while, brooding on the recent events, figuring it would be better to die than to live in such a terrible, chaotic world. The point where she would begin to regain her energy is exactly when she dies.

    Actually, what strikes me now as the most tragic part of Ophelia’s death/suicide is that, since such traumatic events would be difficult for anyone to deal with, she is apparently driven to suicide because she has NO ONE to talk to or help her cope. Probably for any other event she would have turned to her father (who is now dead), her brother (who is far away), or Hamlet (who is also the source of her turmoil), but now none of those people can help and she doesn’t seem to have any other close friends. That is very sad.

    • Michael
      March 20, 2013

      I think you’re definitely on to something, Rae. I appreciate the psychological testimony on this. From the writer’s perspective, too, madness can serve as a marvelous tool for hidden meanings and plays on words that simply wouldn’t work anywhere else. I think it’s a good writer’s responsibility to do exactly what Shakespeare does here with Ophelia, to insert some subtext and symbolism.

      As for which of these reasons is most compelling, I would have to say a combination of all of the above, except #3. For such an intelligent, beautiful young woman to suddenly lose control of all her senses, I think it would take a plethora of causes, several being contradictory. However, the assertion that she is pregnant, while certainly drawing on evidence from the text, is a stretch. Frankly, I’m just not convinced, although the idea of it is intriguing.

      • Michael
        March 20, 2013

        Sorry, I have to follow up:

        The idea of Ophelia’s pregnancy is truly fascinating. However I have several problems with it. For one, this cruelty on the part of Hamlet would be the “unnatural” sort of cruelty he precisely wants to avoid. Were this the truth of the matter, I have difficulty seeing the character as anything more than a monster, a base, damned monster, and finally, what do we care for his ultimate end? (You may cite Richard III and ask the same thing, but the context is different: in no way do we want Richard to “win,” but always we root for Hamlet.)

        As we see in V.i., Hamlet leaps into Ophelia’s grave in passionate love for her. To abandon both her and her unborn child and yet to love her so is a hefty contradiction. Besides this, I firmly believe that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is true. He himself mourns about “the pangs of despised love,” so I think he not only knows what he’s doing to her, but feels those pangs when she first “despises” him at her father’s beck. This love, I think, is not one that could leap to adulterate actions. Hamlet would know what a ruinous thing it would be for Ophelia for him to “use her and leave her.” Furthermore, when he announces in III.ii, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?” he knows what inferences may be drawn, and he is emphasizing only his own “off-ness.” One may argue that this line, too, may point to some affair, but again, Hamlet would know what ruin Ophelia would come to if such a thing were exposed, so why would he risk it?

        All my arguments here are largely based on a particular understanding of Hamlet’s character. Ophelia’s, too, I think, because she has always seemed to me a chaste woman. I can see how there might be many arguments against my belief on this, but I’m trying to read the characters within the overall theme of the story. That being said, I again must say that I find the notion of Ophelia’s pregnancy to be fascinating, for one primary reason:

        This again could point to the theme of ruinous revenge. Hamlet indeed does love her, and ironically when he pushes her away “to save her,” she, with her unborn child, dies. I have to look at what I truly believe to be one of the primary things on Shakespeare’s mind when writing this play, that being the death of Hamnet his son. Any parent who has lost a child, especially a young child, certainly has felt a sense of helplessness in the face of that death, wondering whether there mightn’t have been anything he could have done. Indeed, this could also spread to a new height, that the parent blames himself for that death, even if it is only a sin of omission. Could Shakespeare have communicated that self-blame into the subtext of Hamlet, who would, in this interpretation, indeed be the cause of his child’s death?

        But again, I think the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia get in the way here. Claudius’ act of murder was an abortion to their relationship, and to the further life and prosperity of each. I don’t think Shakespeare needs to add the abortion of an infant to this theme. It is enough.

        Mr. Epstein writes that “her madness has a point to it.” Well, certainly it does. There is sufficient cause, I think, without there being adultery and a bastard child involved.

        The warning of Laertes to Ophelia regarding the truth of Hamlet’s fickleness I think need not be wholly interpreted as Epstein does. Apart from my own role in this production, I think the character of Hamlet is largely misunderstood by the other characters: e.g. he seems to be the only one willing to mourn for his father longer than a month, meanwhile it is condemned by Claudius (the murderer, mind you, who has ulterior motives for causing everyone to lose the memory of the king) as “impious stubbornness” and “unmanly grief.” The complete lack of respect for the dead on the part of everyone else necessarily causes Hamlet to swing to the opposite extreme on the pendulum, and to become overly depressed and melancholy.

        As for Polonius’ complaint and warning, we know the man to be a windbag, which (while not necessarily devaluing his credibility or his perception) does necessarily prescribe that he feels it his duty to give his daughter advice from whatever small cause he may find, and that this advice will be long and drawn out.

        Hamlet says to Ophelia, “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.” Does this mean that they sinned together? No. If they are truly in love, if they really did spend time together (even chaste time), could he not ask that she pray for him? I think it not unfit that a friend may ask a friend to pray for his forgiveness, and one whom he loves? Even more so.

        “To a nunnery” – necessarily whorehouse? No. Perhaps in his love for her he would advise her to depart totally to such a chaste place as a nunnery, since he cannot have her, and all men are “arrant knaves.” Or, if he is indeed “barbed” in his reply and truly indicates a place of sin, he knows she is dishonored not because he dishonored her, but because she lies to him. She is there, bait, so that her father and Claudius can watch him.

        I return now to the meaning in her mad songs. I do not believe that she is lucid here, but again, Shakespeare uses madness to have some fun wordplay and symbolism. Why sing about a maid seduced by her lover? A: She is mad and her madness manifests itself rather bawdily and grossly; B: She has indeed been “used and abandoned” by Hamlet, though perhaps not literally. Hamlet’s “mock-warning” to Polonius against his daughter’s conception was, as pointed out, done while “assuming his ‘antic disposition.'” I think he merely prefigures his own direction to Ophelia that she go to a nunnery. Again, I am convinced that Hamlet seeks in vain to protect Ophelia since he must dedicate himself wholly to his revenge. The warning to Polonius is, ironically, exactly what Hamlet wants, for Ophelia to be chaste and safe. The evidence of the flower rue, I think, need not go further than its symbolism of regret. Remember that she gives it also to Gertrude. Now, maybe she demonstrates the thought that, should Gertrude conceive again with Claudius, such a child must be destroyed, or that Hamlet, her son already born, ought not have been (a thought previously expressed by the prince himself). The latter, I think, may be the most compelling, but in this, of course, such an “abortion” must needs be only symbolic. Why oughtn’t Ophelia’s own “abortion” be equally symbolic? I.e. Gertrude should not have had sons, so Ophelia will not. This is merely a reflection of Hamlet’s own dictum, “I say, we will have no more marriages.” No more sinners will be bred. As for Epstein’s assertion, “Presumably Shakespeare would have given Ophelia something painless if she had intended to poison herself; hemlock, say,” against using rue, remember that she drowns: it is said that there are few more agonizing deaths than such.

        “A reader writes in to remind me just how specific Gertrude is when she later describes Ophelia’s suicide — as if she saw it, but did nothing about it. That would make perfect sense if Gertrude knew Ophelia’s problem, and agreed that suicide was her only real option.” I find this abominable. Let all the rest go, this I cannot allow. When Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death, she notes that a branch breaks, an “envious sliver,” causing Ophelia to tumble into the waters. To accuse Gertrude of passively allowing Ophelia to die, intentionally, is the same as to accuse those students at school shootings of passively allowing the shooter to go on with his business because they were too terrified to move and intercede.

        My point is this: all the evidence which Epstein brings to the table can be interpreted in other ways. Ultimately, given the characters of Ophelia and Hamlet, I think those other ways are preferable. Call me naive, but I would rather hold the image of a lovely, innocent Ophelia who is destroyed as collateral damage in the rampage of a man who loves her.

      • hamletdramaturgy
        March 21, 2013

        Michael, I have to agree with you that Epstein’s theory is too reductive. I think the ultimate problem with it is that it is an easy answer to Ophelia. Shakespeare did not write easy characters with easy answers. You are right to trust your instinct on Ophelia’s character as chaste and intelligent, certainly the language she uses does not create the image of a woman, no longer a maid. Furthermore, if she and Hamlet were lovers, why would she be so upset when he comes into her room with his “doublet all unbraced”?
        I think the important thing about this article is that it’s making us analyze why we feel that Epstein is wrong. What is it about the way Shakespeare writes Hamlet and Ophelia that assures you they aren’t simplistic characters?
        I don’t think your hopes are naive, because they are universal. If Hamlet is as Epstein paints him, he is not such a sympathetic character. And if Ophelia is, in fact, pregnant that removes the innocence and fragility that make her character so moving and tragic.

    • hamletdramaturgy
      March 21, 2013

      Rae, I would absolutely agree with you. If Ophelia does commit suicide, or even if she didn’t and is simply mad, it is absolutely because she has no way to deal with the situation. Even before her father dies it is clear Polonius is manipulating her to gain control and influence with the king. Hamlet, who she truly cares for, completely rejects her. And Laertes, even when he returns, is hell bent on the revenge of Hamlet, her beloved. Even Gertrude, who is supposedly like a mother to her, seems to be preoccupied with Hamlet and her hot new marriage with Claudius.
      Sometimes I feel as thought Ophelia is the most tragic character. I know that is perhaps ridiculous to say compared to Hamlet… but she is so tragic because she does not even get the recognition Hamlet does for his tragic story. She has no Horatio to tell her story, it just gets folded into Hamlet’s.

    • I_Fortuna
      August 31, 2016

      Part of Ophelia is processing the event but at the point when her father is killed, she begins to fall apart. Her personality begins to tear apart and become fragmented. She is overwhelmed by first the pregnancy, then the rejection of Hamlet and then the death of her father.
      At the point of Hamlet’s rejection she begins to “panic” about her future and the response she may get from her father now that she is pregnant and rejected. Her madness culminates with the death of her father.

      How can anyone say she is feigning madness when she is a sheltered sensitive girl without the guidance or love of her mother?

      As a man, how could the author know the mind of a fragile girl? He is one of a few that might understand and is able to impart this in the play.

      Only a girl who has been though multiple tragedies in a short space of time could relate to this madness presuming she conquers it. Otherwise, the prospects are grim.

      We cannot presume to compare the mores of today with those of the author’s time. This girl would have had no future and been completely disgraced and under the care of no one unless a relative, possibly her brother, decided to take her in. She was feeling completely hopeless and abandoned and, thus, gave in to madness and imminent death. IMHO.

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2013 by in Notes from the Dramaturg, Performance.

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