Ophelia’s Madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
William Shakespeare’s writings have left many readers pondering what the actual meanings of his plays are, and why the characters act in a certain manner. In Hamlet, a great deal of scholarly detective work has been done to unravel the unique complexity of his text, such as, why Ophelia became mad. There were many factors that could have led to Ophelia’s insanity.
Carroll Camden believed that Ophelia’s madness was induced by the death of her father, Hamlet’s denied love for her, Polonius’s orders for her not to make contact with Hamlet, the lectures given to her from Laertes and Polonius, Hamlet’s indication that Ophelia was responsible for his madness, and his many insults (253). All these occurrences stimulated Ophelia’s madness and caused her to take her own life.
The first reason that may have provoked Ophelia’s madness was through the conversations she had with her brother. In Act I, Scene III, Laertes diminished Ophelia’s self-confidence by telling her that Hamlet’s love for her will not last forever. He also tried to advise her not to be mesmerized by Hamlet’s charm. Being a respectful sister, she kept Laertes’s advice in consideration.
Similarly, Polonius destroys Ophelia’s dignity, “Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl,/ Unsifted in such perilous circumstance (I. iii. 107-8).” He calls her an immature girl, inexperienced in foolish matters. Ophelia defends her love for Hamlet, “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me… My lord, he hath importuned me with love in honourable fashion… And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of heaven (I. iii. 105-20).”
Ophelia’s responses opposed her father’s negative remarks about Hamlet. She is persuaded that their love is true. Polonius then frightens her, “Ay, springes to catch woodcocks! I do know,/ When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul/ Lends the tongue vows… Do not believe his vows…. I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth/ Have you so slander any moment leisure/As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet (1. iii. 121-33).”
In those two conversations, nothing inspired Ophelia to be with Hamlet. Laertes and Polonius both insulted Hamlet and told her not to believe in Hamlet’s vows. As a result, Ophelia obeyed her father’s commands not to make contact with Hamlet. Against her own will, she followed her family’s requests. This must have been a heart-aching situation for Ophelia.
These scenes caused Ophelia a great amount of distress, but she was even more devastated when she encountered Hamlet during the scene in which Polonius and Claudius spied upon. “I love you not (III. i. 127),” those four harsh words spoken by Hamlet destroyed Ophelia’s belief in their love for one another. Not only that but Hamlet goes on insulting her. “Get thee to a nunnery… I have heard of your paintings well enough (III. i. 130-50).” Ophelia now believes that she herself is the immediate source of Hamlet’s madness (Camden 249).
Soon after Hamlet leaves the previous scene, Ophelia expresses genuine distress from Hamlet’s insanity in a soliloquy. “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,/ That sucked the honey of his music vows,/ Now see that noble and most sovereign reason… O woe is me,/ T’have seen what I have seen, see what I see (III. i. 163-9).” Hamlet’s pretended madness actually contributed to Ophelia’s real madness (Camden 249).
After such an incident, no one comforted Ophelia. Polonuis treated her as if she was a tool for spying and had no feelings, “How now Ophelia!/ You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said,/We heard it all (III. i. 186-8).” He then goes on chattering about another scheme with Claudius. He did not realize Ophelia’s distress cause by Hamlet’s monstrosity. It is evident that Ophelia is experiencing a great amount of emotional pain.
Once more, Hamlet strikes Ophelia with his witticisms in Act III, Scene II, at the performance of The Mousetrap. Ophelia’s terse and polite replies gave the impression that she feels uncomfortable having that conversation with Hamlet.
To this point, Carroll Camden’s statements as to why Ophelia had gone mad are acceptable. However, I disagree with the fact that Ophelia’s madness was stimulated by her father’s death. Roderick Benedix said, “No girl becomes insane because her father dies, least of all Ophelia” (qtd. in Camden 247). I also agree with what Katherine Mansfield stated, “And who can believe that Ophelia really loved him (qtd. in Camden 253)”. An example of Ophelia’s hatred towards her father is when she sings about a “baker’s daughter (IV. v. 44).” She is referring to the way her father used to treat her before he died.
Ophelia has a unique form of madness unlike Hamlet’s and Laertes’ because it a mixture of love and hate. An example of hate is when she sings about a “baker’s daughter.”(Act IV,Sc.5,42) Ophelia is referring to the way her father used to treat her before the tragic incident of his death. A love within her madness is when she speaks about the events on “Valentine’s day.”(Act IV, Sc.5,48) When Ophelia speaks about Valentines day she is referring to the events of romance that she was denied. Ophelia’s madness is brought on by her lack of being able to demonstrate any maturity in trying to cope with her losses and in return can only inflict her madness on the court.