Ophelia as a Sexual Woman in Shakespeare's Hamlet
In Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet, it is possible for the audience or reader to come to
view Ophelia as an innocent victim trapped in the most tragic circumstances. She was an
obedient and loving daughter to her father Polonius. Ophelia obeyed him, when he
ordered her to stop seeing Hamlet, her love, and even when she was asked to betray her
love, acting as a decoy to allow the King and Polonius to discover the source of Hamlet's
grief. Her naive nature is evident in this love that she has for Hamlet, even though he
promised to marry her, took her virginity, mistreated her, and finally left her. Her young
age and motherless upbringing left Ophelia completely unprepared for a crisis like the
death of her father and the insanity of Hamlet.
However, it is possible to interpret Ophelia's eventual insanity as a result of her
guilt and involvement in her own sexual rebellion. In the 1996 movie version of Hamlet,
directed by Kenneth Branagh, Ophelia, played by Kate Winslet, is not portrayed as the
entirely innocent girl one expects. During the course of the movie, the viewer can watch
Ophelia evolve from the young innocent girl to a sexual woman, and then, finally, a
woman stricken with grief and insanity.
The most poignant example of this metamorphosis appears in Act IV, Scene V of
Shakespeare's Hamlet. It takes place long after Ophelia is set up by the King and
Polonius to act as a pawn in their attempt to discover the reason for Hamlet's insanity.
Also prior to Act IV, Scene V, Hamlet gives the famous "Get thee to a nunnery" speech,
leaving a frightened Ophelia. This scene is also the first time we see Ophelia after the
accidental murder of her father by Hamlet.
This scene begins with Horatio and some gentlemen convincing Gertrude, the
Queen, to speak with Ophelia, who has gone mad. Ophelia enters and speaks of love,
betrayal, and her father's death through song, verse and finally prose. She exits, just
before her brother, Laertes, arrives. There is a great deal of commotion because the
commoners are outside demanding Laertes be made king. Laertes storms in to confront
Claudius, the King, and accuse him of murdering Polonius. Laertes is cut off by the
entrance of the mad Ophelia. She speaks somewhat nonsensically about herbs and
flowers. She mentions rosemary, pansies, fennel, rue, and a daisy. Ophelia informs
Laertes that all the violets withered at the time of her father's death. This only angers
Laertes more, and the scene ends with the King promising to prove his innocence to
Shakespeare's word choice for Ophelia in this scene helps the viewer to perceive
her madness. Ophelia has suddenly become an outspoken and honest critic as opposed to
the shy daughter of Polonius. She is no longer restrained by the conventions of normal
speech and social constraints. She requests that the Queen "mark" her words which are
surprisingly filled with great...