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