It is widely believed that “Living life without honor is a tragedy bigger than death itself” and this holds true for Hamlet’s Ophelia. Ophelia’s death symbolizes a life spent passively tolerating Hamlet’s manipulations and the restrictions imposed by those around her, while struggling to maintain the last shred of her dignity. Ophelia’s apathetic reaction to her drowning suggests that she never had control of her own life, as she was expected to comply with the expectations of others. Allowing the water to consume her without a fight alludes to Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia as merely a device in his personal agenda. Her apparent suicide denotes a desire to take control of her life for once. Ophelia’s death is, arguably, an honorable one, characterized by her willingness to let go of her submissive, earth-bound self and leave the world no longer a victim.
Ophelia’s accidental drowning shows her as a victim of circumstance among people who seek to assert dominance over her. Mimicking Laertes’ advice to Ophelia, Polonius, in a condescending tone, chastises his daughter and forbids her from associating with Hamlet:
POLONIUS. Think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly,
Or—not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus—you’ll tender me a fool (1.3.105-109).
Ophelia is conditioned to obey Polonius and Laertes’ commands, thinly veiled as guidance for her “own good.” She is never trusted to have a mind of her own, often having her intelligence openly insulted, causing her to be dependent on the men in her life. These men exercise authority over her, patronize, and degrade her, lowering her self-esteem to a non-existent level, and leaving her a defenseless, helpless girl who always seeks reassurance from others. When Gertrude describes Ophelia’s drowning, it is implied that she unknowingly placed herself in the dangerous position, “She chanted snatches of old lauds / As one incapable of her own distress” (4.7.174-5). Even in death, she displays yielding and passive behavior: Ophelia does not have the intention of committing suicide, though she fails to save herself from sinking. She is essentially a casualty of a society that enforces unreasonable expectations for its women and is never afforded the liberty of thinking for herself and making her own judgments and decisions. Her passive death represents the lack of control she has over her own person and the dependence she has developed on other people. Therefore, Ophelia is mentally unstable and not capable of realizing that her life is on the line. Ophelia is trained by the men in her life to be compliant with their demands, preventing her from practicing her autonomy and enabling her to be easily manipulated by Hamlet.
Making use of her dutiful and obedient personality, Hamlet victimizes Ophelia and her lack of resistance to his treatment is paralleled in her surrender to the water and subsequent...