Background and Summary
Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most performed play in history. The exact date at which this play was written is unknown. There is in fact much speculation about exactly when this play was written. Shakespeare wrote plays from the early 1590’s until his death in 1616. His final plays were collaborative works, some with John Fletcher. Shakespeare likely wrote this play for Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an acting troupe that performed many of his plays. Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed their Shakespearian works largely at the Globe Theater in Southwark, which is a district of London. He likely wrote this play with the idea that Richard Burbage would play Hamlet himself. Burbage already had experience in many of Shakespeare’s plays; Shakespeare knew he could play the turbulent character that is Hamlet. The character Hamlet is a confused young man, whose confusion only grows under the influence of Ophelia.
Hamlet undergoes a number of trials and tribulations during the play; discovering the fratricide of his father, the spurn of his lover, and his flight on a pirate ship. The prince of Denmark, Hamlet, has returned from school to find his father dead and his mother remarried to his uncle. He finds this position to be precarious, he even says “I am too much i’ the sun”. This quote illustrates how sensitive his position is; he is in the spotlight of the sun.
Additionally Shakespeare used the homophonic nature of sun; Hamlet feels treated too much like a son by a man not his father. This feeling of having too much attention is magnified by the attentions of the young Ophelia. Hamlet appears half-dressed and half-crazed in Ophelia’s room. He does not say a word only nods three times. Ophelia tells her father Polonius of Hamlet’s crazed actions which forces her father to eavesdrop to find proof of Hamlet’s madness. Through this he overhears Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, subsequently Ophelia lies to Hamlet, and she perhaps seals his fate in madness and despair. Ophelia being the cause of Hamlet’s insanity continues through the “Nunnery” scene and her funeral which returns Hamlet to attends. Throughout the play the actions of Ophelia reveal her to be the lynchpin in the madness that is Hamlet.
Ophelia’s effect on Hamlet is entirely systematic. From the start, Ophelia is confusing Hamlet. Shakespeare uses the subplot of interactions between Ophelia and Hamlet as a foil. Shakespeare is playing the interactions of the young lady against Hamlet. Hamlet is an intelligent young man and having been raised as royalty is no stranger to court intrigue. Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge of this to better play Ophelia against Hamlet. Ophelia is perfectly placed to prey on Hamlet’s natural suspicions, intelligence, and courtly nature. Were Hamlet innocent of the ways of his upbringing, he might never detect the subtle plots of Ophelia and her family.
Ophelia’s Early Interactions
From their first meeting in Hamlet, it is seen that Ophelia is present during Hamlet’s most crazed moments of the play. In Act 2 Scene 1, shortly after telling of how Hamlet appeared disheveled and unspeaking, Ophelia said “No, my good lord; but, as you did command, I did repel his letters and denied his access to me.” This meeting came immediately after the Hamlet met the ghost of King Hamlet. Shakespeare has used the timing of this meeting to shock Ophelia and give her reason to repel Hamlet’s affections. This confuses Hamlet, and drives him to the emotional heights of his conflicts during the play. Without the additional emotional turmoil of Ophelia accepting and rejecting his advances, Hamlet is unlikely to have reached the frenzy that caused such speeches as “To be or not to be”. Shakespeare has played Hamlet perfectly here, giving Ophelia a chance to react to Hamlet at his worst.
Shortly after musing whether “To be or not to be,” Hamlet meets Ophelia with quite some disdain. Since Ophelia has turned on his advances, he suggests she “get thee to a nunnery,” which is word play. Shakespeare does not have Hamlet suggest that Ophelia go to a holy place, but rather to a place most unholy. At the time, nunnery was another name for a whore house; and Hamlet, his advances accepted then rejected was so enraged that he told her to a whore house. This is clearly Shakespeare showing the audience how insane Hamlet has become; the stress of his family issues coupled with Ophelia’s seeming uncertainty is too much. Hamlet cannot deal with the two pronged assault of stressors.
Shakespeare again preys on Hamlet’s courtly nature. After arguing with Ophelia, he asks after her father to ascertain if he is behind her actions. Ophelia lies and reports that he is in their chambers but Hamlet knows this for a lie as Polonius would not be in his chambers at that hour. Shakespeare knows his audience is aware that Hamlet is knowledgeable about palace intrigue; he uses this to take advantage of Hamlet’s sense of insecurity. Hamlet cannot know if Polonius or his daughter was involved in the plot to murder his father. Shakespeare has used the deceit of a loved one to spur Hamlet’s decent into madness. Hamlet cannot possibly ignore the fact the object of his affections has lied to him.
Ophelia’s Demise and Otherwise
Ophelia seems to feel poorly about her betrayal of Hamlet, she has allowed her father to dirty her conscience. Shakespeare uses a rather unusual literary device, that of hendiadys, when Ophelia speaks of herself she says “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched.” This is a device where an author chooses to emphasize attributes by joining them with a conjunction instead of having one modify the other. Shakespeare is using this to emphasize how Ophelia feels after being spurned by Hamlet. Ophelia has now understood how much turmoil she has put Hamlet through; Shakespeare had not shown before how deeply Ophelia cares for Hamlet. Shakespeare allowed Ophelia to be a puppet of her father without remorse until she realizes how badly she may have hurt young Hamlet. Ophelia’s passiveness in Polonius’s ploy could only lead to more turmoil for the young prince.
Ophelia’s death, although unknown to Hamlet when he appears in the graveyard, likely spurs his actions during the funeral. Shakespeare allows for the cause of Ophelia’s death to be unclear; whether she climbed the tree to commit suicide or it was an accident is not known. Shakespeare leads his audience to believe it was suicide; her lover has spurned her and has disappeared. Her father has been killed by her former lover. She says “…there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays,’ where Rue is another pun, she is referring to regret, that for Hamlet and for betraying him. Simultaneously, she is speaking of an herb that is used to treat bruises and pain; she is in pain from Hamlet spurning her and the death of her father. Shakespeare is yet again showing how deeply she cared for Hamlet and how allowing herself to be used in her father’s plots has hurt her. Hamlet has singlehandedly destroyed Ophelia’s family, her brother is full of rage, destined to die on his own sword to Hamlet. Shakespeare has used Ophelia and her family to ensnare Hamlet; they have worked the bellows on the forge of Hamlet’s insanity.
Conclusion and Summary
Shakespeare’s continued use of puns is a hint at Hamlet’s dual nature, that of sane and insane. The idea of a pun is that it itself has a dual meaning, when a word means two different things when interpreted in two different ways. Hamlet’s insane nature is brought out most often by the actions of Ophelia. Without her, Hamlet is likely to have been in control of his emotions during the events of the play. Shakespeare used the influence of Ophelia to give Hamlet an excuse to fight with Laertes and to kill Claudius. Without Ophelia, Shakespeare has no way to bring the shocking conclusion of this tragedy.
In his sonnet 90 Shakespeare continues from the previous sonnet about a love betrayed. He says “If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last, When other petty griefs have done their spite But in the onset come;” (Ma, Fenghua p.943). Shakespeare is stating he would rather lovers or friends betray early, to be the first to betray and not the last. Ophelia was the last to betray Hamlet, Claudius killed his father, and Hamlet was ignorant of the betrayal of Polonius. Shakespeare clearly knew the power of a lover’s betrayal, and used that against Hamlet to the best of his ability. The sharpest knife that Shakespeare could forge was the betrayal of Hamlet by Ophelia.
- Puchner, Martin, Suzanne C. Akbari, Wiebke Denecke, and Barbara Fuchs. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. , 2014. Print.
- Ma, Fenghua. “The tragic vision in the fair youth group in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 4, no. 5, 2014, p. 941+. Literature Resource Center