Blake Nichol Dr. Susan Jones Composition II March 20, 2011 The Suicide of Ophelia Romanticized by modern females, downplayed by literary critics and somewhat overlooked by the general public, the character of Ophelia in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” offers the reader a tantalizing mystery – did Ophelia truly commit suicide? Bear in mind that in the deeply religious culture that was the basis for the inception of Hamlet, suicide was a mortal sin, bearing with it the consequence of eternal punishment and damnation, burial in unconsecrated ground and shame to be forever associated with the deceased.
Or, perhaps, was Ophelia’s death an accident, or a murder? While there is certainly room for conjecture centering on Ophelia’s murder or on accident, it was in fact, a suicide. Ophelia’s madness and suicide are the counterpoint to Hamlet’s feigned madness and accidental death. In addition, Ophelia’s death is yet another death caused indirectly by the lust for revenge that Hamlet has, as his words spurn her into madness and into the waters of her final resting place.
The causes of Ophelia’s suicide are several-fold. Firstly, Hamlet’s rejection of her is a terrible blow, not only because Ophelia cares for Hamlet, but because her position in society is tenuous at best. Her father has passed away, Laertes is absent, and she is essentially at the mercy of the King for her basic human needs. Add to this pressure the religious views on female propriety, and in her own mind, Ophelia feels as though she only has a few options.
A couple options she has are to enroll herself in a nunnery as Hamlet so callously suggests prior to her descent into madness, or to marry, which Hamlet summarily rejects in his conversation with her. The unspoken choice that remains to Ophelia is death, which, of course, does carry the stigma of eternal damnation. However, Ophelia is driven mad by her situation and is undoubtedly not in a position to truly contemplate the consequences of her actions by the time of her suicide.
Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia is an obvious blow. In Act Three, Scene One, Hamlet tells Ophelia repeatedly to “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare). At this point in the play, Hamlet is angry, and perhaps his treatment of Ophelia is not directly related to her, but more related to women in general or his mother, whom he feels betrayed his father by marrying Claudius so quickly. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, married Claudius, Hamlet’s Uncle, shortly after Hamlet’s father was murdered by Claudius, which Hamlet is trying to prove.
His mother’s part in the murder of Old King Hamlet is unclear; however, her betrayal of Old King Hamlet in young Hamlet’s eyes is no less than murder as she wed the man responsible for the king’s death. Thus, when Hamlet lashes out at Ophelia, he does not mean to cause her the anguish that his words give rise to, as his remorse in later scenes is evident. However, intentionally wounding Ophelia or not, his words have an obvious effect on her. In a rather callous and misogynistic fashion, Hamlet tells Ophelia that he “loved her once”, then immediately tells her that she should not have believed him, “I loved you not” (Shakespeare).
Hamlet continues to harangue Ophelia, telling her as well that “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Shakespeare, 3. 1), which means that women are responsible for the sins of men, creating monsters out of them, (specifically referring to his mother, as Hamlet believes that Gertrude’s lustfulness may be what caused Claudius to murder Old King Hamlet). Hamlet’s apparent cruelty, however, may be tempered somewhat as he tells Ophelia that men are all “arrant knaves” (Shakespeare) as well, and she should believe none of them.
For Ophelia, however, the advice that Hamlet throws into his diatribe on women is not enough to temper the blow. Hamlet, in this scene, has heaped guilt upon Ophelia, blaming women for the follies of men, destroyed her hope for a marriage to him or any kind of relationship, and even rejected any notion that he might have once loved her. For a young woman, this is a difficult revelation to assimilate, and Ophelia does not succeed in overcoming these heartaches. This blow to her self esteem proves fatal. Hamlet’s relation to the maternal has often turned on a psychology complete with Freudian repressed infantile fantasies and adult son’s fears and revulsion of complex female relationships and interactions” (Kumamoto 4). This insight into Hamlet’s behavior, and how deeply seated (yet, possibly unconscious) his revulsion of Ophelia’s desires may have been makes it easier for the reader to understand how his almost intuitive reaction to Ophelia is what, in turn, provokes her madness and thereby, her death.
Hamlet could not, from a psychological standpoint, have loved Ophelia genuinely or pursued a life with her if he was fixated on his mother and at the same time, repelled by her blossoming sexuality and what he feels is her (his mother’s) impiety and harlotry. Ophelia, on the other hand, is quite a bit different than Gertrude, and her relative foil in the play. At times, Ophelia’s madness is misunderstood as being sexually fixated, which is incorrect if this is the only portion of her madness that is being examined.
In order to truly understand Ophelia’s madness, the reader must understand fully the references Ophelia is making, and the connection between the sexuality and religion of the times. In the 1400s, sexuality was inextricably linked to religion – within the confines of marriage, sexuality was encouraged, as procreation was the aim for all marriages – namely in the issuance of an heir in royalty. However, outside the bonds of matrimony, sexuality was frowned upon and punishable.
Chastity for a female, as well, was of the utmost importance and virginity prized. Ophelia, having these avenues close to her in the rejection of Hamlet and the later death of her father, may have sunk into madness as an inability to cope with these changes, and her madness lead to her suicide. Alison Chapman describes Ophelia’s madness, her ravings and her intertwined sexuality and religion, when she writes, “Ophelia’s mingling of eroticism and Catholicism makes sense: it comes as no surprise that a woman who slides into a debased (i. . , eroticized) madness should simultaneously give voice to a debased (i. e. , Catholic) series of religious utterances” (112). Chapman is referring to Ophelia’s musical musings to the King and Queen, when she has fallen into madness in act four. Ophelia sings, By Gis and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; By cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed (Shakespeare, 4. ). Chapman goes on to explain to the reader that Ophelia’s ravings actually “raise resonant questions about the position of women in England’s religious past and thus about the relationship between sexuality and sanctity” (112). Ophelia’s mad ravings seem to bring her some form of comfort, however brief, and create a sorrowful air about her character as the nature of the songs she sings reveal the pain that she is feeling and the sexual nature of the thoughts that are driving Ophelia to this, and ultimately to her suicide.
It should be noted, as well, that if Ophelia is feeling that she is unable to be sanctified by marriage to Hamlet, that her acceptance of damnation by suicide may be no more abhorrent to her than damnation by either sexual relations with Hamlet that did not end in marriage (although unproven in the story, can certainly be speculated, as Hamlet offers to lie his head in Ophelia’s lap, making reference to lying with a maiden, perhaps in private in Act three Scene two) or the prospect of life as a spinster or nun.
Ophelia, as well, after Hamlet’s cruel rejection of her, speaks of her own state of mind and her disappointment in and worry for Hamlet, as well as her own wretched state. Ophelia says of Hamlet “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! ” (Shakespeare, 3. 1). This shows her concern for Hamlet, and that she thinks he might be mad, or, perhaps, that she feels that Hamlet has been driven to this state by his feelings for Gertrude and her unconventional marriage to the murder of his father.
Perhaps at this point, Ophelia is beginning to understand, if not give voice to, the Oedipal complex that Hamlet is experiencing. This is followed closely, however, with revelations from Ophelia about how she is personally feeling. And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, That suck’d the honey of his music vows, Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh; That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me, To have seen what I have seen, see what I see! (Shakespeare, 3. 1).
It is easy to see that Ophelia is feeling “dejected and wretched”, as she says. She fell for Hamlet’s lies, believing that he loved her or cared for her deeply. What Ophelia does not realize is that Hamlet may truly care for her, but he is unable to express it, and he may feel that it is in her best interest to protect her innocence from him, as he knows what he is plotting to kill Claudius in revenge. However, the end result is one and the same for Ophelia – rejection. In addition, Ophelia is seeing Hamlet’s madness, and perhaps, his desire to be with his mother and his plot to kill the King.
She says, “Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh” (Shakespeare, 3. 1). She is saying that Hamlet is out of tune – unlike himself. In this, she means she sees his madness, but it is possible that Ophelia is much more observant than the critics give her credit for and that she is seeing that Hamlet is either upset by her behavior or upset by his mother’s behavior, and that this emotional reaction leads to two things. The first thing is, of course, Hamlet’s Oedipal complex, and the second being, by extension, the plot to revenge Hamlet’s father in killing Claudius.
Were Ophelia to come to these two separate revelations past the knowledge of Hamlet’s rejection, it is not a far leap to think that this is what drives her to her madness and suicide. She would have the burden of knowing that the man that she is in love with, and possibly even had sexual relations with, is rejecting her to protect her, jealous of his mother’s sexuality and possibly coveting her attentions and plotting to kill the murderer of his father and the King of Denmark. Therefore, life to Ophelia may be forfeit, as her future with Hamlet is surely destroyed not only by his rejection, but by his plot and plans for revenge.
In addition to this burden of love gone badly, Ophelia is an adolescent girl. According to Carol Gilligan’s psychological theory of female development, “girls undergo a crisis in adolescence” that make females more vulnerable than males at this point in their lives (Marshal, 709). ”By acting out the madness that Hamlet feigns and the suicide that he theorizes, the representation of Ophelia absorbs pathological excesses that threaten Hamlet, but never overwhelm him” (Neely 55).
In other words, Ophelia represents Hamlet’s madness, in its true form, and acts out his wishes for death in her own suicide because she is more vulnerable than he, which is in concurrence with Gilligan’s theory of vulnerability in adolescent females compared to males. The evidence for Ophelia’s suicide being deliberate is strong. She is an adolescent girl, in a difficult place mentally and emotionally simply because of her age. Add to that factor a lover or one she hopes will be a lover rejecting her, whether or not for her own good is inconsequential.
Additionally, there are the views of the times on sexuality and marriage – that sexual relations may only come within the confines of marriage, lest they are looked upon as a sin, and Ophelia’s dwindling prospects at marriage as her hopes with Hamlet are crushed. Ophelia also may have figured out or understood on some level Hamlet’s plot to kill Claudius and his incompatibility for marriage or the prospect of a future because of that. However – it must be pointed out that Gertrude seems to believe that Ophelia’s suicide is an accident – whether or not she was mad.
Gertrude claims Ophelia is “one incapable of her own distress” (Shakespeare, 4. 7) and appears to think that the suicide is accidental, even if it were deliberate, done in the throes of madness as it was (Neely, 55). This brings, of course, the question of culpability to the forefront, as one must decide if accidental can be applied to an act that was done with any kind of deliberation, no matter what the state of mind of the individual.
However, given Gertrude’s nature, it seems unlikely that she could wittingly consign Ophelia to the fires of hell for eternity by believing that she did indeed commit suicide deliberately. In deciding whether Ophelia’s death was indeed an act of deliberate suicide or an accident, the evidence points to an act of deliberation. Ophelia’s character itself leads the reader to this decision; however, the character herself must be examined in that she is the counterbalance to Hamlet’s madness. Ophelia’s madness is real, while Hamlet’s is feigned.
Hamlet contemplates suicide, but Ophelia does it – and this role that her character must partake to balance the play is essential in deciding that Ophelia did commit suicide intentionally. Works Cited Chapman, Alison A. “Ophelia’s “Old Lauds”: Madness and Hagiography in Hamlet. ” Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 20. (2007): 111-135. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 22 Mar. 2011. Kumamoto, Chikako D. “Gertrude, Ophelia, Ghost: Hamlet’s Revenge and the Abject. ” Journal of the Wooden O Symposium 6. (2006): 48-64. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 2 Mar. 2011. Marshall, Elizabeth. “Schooling Ophelia: hysteria, memory and adolescent femininity. ” Gender & Education 19. 6 (2007): 707-728. Sociological Collection. EBSCO. Web. 22 Mar. 2011. Neely, Carol Thomas. “Distracted Subjects: Madness And Gender In Shakespeare And Early Modern Culture”. Print. Cornell University Press: New York. 2004. Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. ” Print. Stamford: Longmeadow Press. 1990. Taylor, Mark. “Shakespeare’s HAMLET. ” Explicator 65. 1 (2006): 4-7. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 22 Mar. 2011.