Ophelia, painting by Alexandre Cabanel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project
, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
Modern stage interpretations of Hamlet place a great deal of emphasis on the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, more so, perhaps, than Shakespeare himself intended. Some go so far as to place the pair in the same category as other great tragic couplings in Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello and Desdemona, to name a few. Many cite Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia, his murder of Polonius, and his exile to England as the leading causes of Ophelia’s madness in Act IV, but I submit that while these are important factors in Ophelia’s breakdown, there’s a more definitive cause that has been overlooked by most who comment on it, though it is spelled out quite plainly within the text of the play. Equally so, I believe that Shakespeare never intended for these characters to be paired, at least not in the same way other couples in the dramas and comedies have been portrayed.
Judging by Shakespeare’s other works, if there was any sort of relationship intended between Hamlet and Ophelia, Shakespeare would have gotten to the point more quickly and left no doubt as to how they related to each other. With other famous couples, their affection or antagonism toward one another is established fairly quickly in the play, onstage and in full view of the audience. Beatrice and Benedick from the comedy Much Ado About Nothing, encounter one another in the first scene of the first act. Romeo and Juliet, perhaps Shakespeare’s most tragic couple, meet by Act I, Scene IV and interact extensively onstage after meeting. Hamlet and Ophelia, by contrast, only have two direct onstage encounters in the entire play and the first isn’t until the beginning of Act III, engineered by Polonius and Claudius, not the characters themselves. Neither meeting is particularly affectionate, certainly not the stuff of great romances. Hamlet’s first encounter with Ophelia starts out somewhat playful, but quickly turns hostile once he realizes they’re being overheard by Polonius and Claudius. At no point in the play do Hamlet and Ophelia meet onstage at his or her specific instigation. Hamlet sits with her at the play within a play, but their conversation does not imply an intimate relationship between them, despite the number of crude jokes Hamlet makes at Ophelia’s expense.
While Ophelia speaks of Hamlet’s attentions toward her, we see no direct evidence of it onstage, with the exception of Hamlet’s behavior at her grave, and the grave scene has numerous other inconsistencies to it. Her description of Hamlet’s behavior when he comes to her chambers makes his actions sound very odd, but the only onstage source we have for this account is Ophelia herself. In the chronology of the play, the scene Ophelia describes falls just after Hamlet has encountered the ghost, learned that his uncle most likely killed the King and usurped the kingdom, and sworn his friends to secrecy about it. It seems highly unlikely that after encountering his dead father’s ghost and being told to avenge his father’s murder, that Hamlet’s first thought would be to drop in on Ophelia to pursue a meaningless dalliance.
Most important, Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s actions sounds completely at odds with the brooding and melancholy prince Shakespeare has presented up to this point, who so far has done little more onstage than lament his father’s death and his mother’s marriage, and react to seeing his father’s ghost. When Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude of Hamlet’s attentions toward Ophelia, Gertrude is skeptical that this is the actual cause of Hamlet’s distress, though she acknowledges it as a possibility. The two times we witness Hamlet with Ophelia, he either keeps her at arm’s length or taunts her for supposed sexual improprieties. Any attention he shows her is mainly for the benefit of others in the room, who already suspect him of admiring Ophelia, and seems designed to reinforce their belief in his odd behavior. He does seem to imply she’s either in a relationship with or being pursued by someone, just not him.
My theory is that it’s not Hamlet who’s been showering Ophelia with attention, but Claudius. He’s already committed murder to gain the throne and win the hand of Gertrude, his sister-in-law, which was considered an incestuous act at that point in history, so adultery and assault certainly wouldn’t be a problem for him. While most will point out that Ophelia specifically says it’s Hamlet, and has a letter signed by him, this doesn’t mean Claudius isn’t the actual culprit. One question to ask is whether or not Hamlet is the given name of the character and his father, or the family name, since both father and son bear that name. We have a parallel instance with old and young Fortinbras. It was common in Shakespeare’s time for nobles to be known by their title or family names rather than their given names, and “Claudius” could either be the throne name Hamlet’s uncle adopted to distinguish himself from his brother, or his given name. If this is true, then Claudius would also be Hamlet, since he’s the brother of the king and the uncle of the prince by that name. I believe there are numerous clues within the context of the play to support the idea that Claudius and not Hamlet has his eyes on Ophelia.
In their first face to face encounter in Act III, Scene I, when Ophelia tries to return Hamlet’s letters and trinkets, Hamlet acts like he doesn’t know what she’s talking about and denies giving them to her. He then berates her and implores her to go to a nunnery. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners.” This scene echoes a theme Hamlet started in his conversation with Polonius in Act II, Scene II, where Hamlet calls him a fishmonger. After asking Polonius if he has a daughter, Hamlet counsels Polonius:
“Let her not walk i’ the sun: conception is a
blessing: but not as your daughter may conceive.”
Polonius misses the significance of the speech, believing it to be a lovelorn rant, but these instances mark two notable times in the play where Hamlet expresses concern over Ophelia’s chastity, first while talking to her father, and then while talking to her directly. His use of the word “sun” is significant in helping to sort out what Hamlet means. In his first appearance in Act I, Scene II, Hamlet utilizes a pun on the word “sun” to indicate the king. “Not so my lord, I am too much i’ the sun.” It seems that Hamlet is warning Polonius not to let his daughter catch the attention of Claudius.
Later in Act II, Scene II, before the players enter, Hamlet refers to Polonius as Jephthah, the biblical judge of Israel, who sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a promise to God in exchange for victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11:34-39). Hamlet seems to imply Polonius may also be unwittingly sacrificing his only daughter in exchange for favor at court. The account in Judges states that Jephthah’s daughter willingly submits to her fate, but requests that she be allowed to wander in the hills for several days to lament that she’ll never become a bride. In his scene with Ophelia at the start of Act III, Hamlet implores her to go to a nunnery, and curses her, stating that if she decides to marry, she should be sure she’s “chaste as ice, as pure as snow” — another warning to guard her chastity. In Act IV, Scene V, when Ophelia enters in a distracted state, in some of the songs she sings she laments the loss of her maidenhood, and seems to be singing to a suitor who took advantage of her.
Before Ophelia enters in her mad state, Gertrude refuses to see her. Horatio insists that Gertrude talk to her, claiming Ophelia’s rantings have set off scandalous rumors throughout the kingdom. In the brief interlude before Ophelia enters, Gertrude herself alludes to what Ophelia’s been saying:
“To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss:
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”
When Ophelia enters, her opening line is dripping with sarcasm, “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” After Gertrude speaks to her, she immediately launches into a song for Gertrude:
“How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.”
From there her lyrics begin to allude to her father’s death, invoking images of a headstone, shrouds, and a grave. However, once Claudius enters and addresses her, all Ophelia’s songs change their tone and theme, switching from a lost loved one, to a lost lover, and are directed at Claudius, prompting him to make several attempts to plead with her. Her most explicit song is:
“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.”
Why would Ophelia be singing about the loss of her maidenhood simply because her father died? There’s been no suggestion of an incestuous relationship between them, and while Polonius did not always act warmly toward her, his treatment of her was not outside the bounds of a typical father/daughter relationship as depicted elsewhere in Shakespeare. Also, there’s no suggestion that she and Hamlet had a sexual relationship, though Polonius, and possibly Laertes, suspected it was possible.
After Claudius pleads further with her, she concludes:
“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.”
Ophelia’s (and, perhaps, Shakespeare’s) use of “sun” is telling here, since use of the term by Hamlet has already established it as a metaphor for Claudius.
Once Ophelia leaves, Claudius is quick to relate what she’s said to grief over her father, but, as Polonius said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” Much of Ophelia’s behavior seems to be that of someone who’s suffering from severe psychological trauma. Her father’s death must surely have been traumatic for her, particularly with the implied cover up of what happened, but Ophelia’s brother was still alive and would undoubtedly come to join her if she needed him, and she probably had every reason to expect she’d be able to count on the support of others at court to help her deal with the loss. So, while it was traumatic, Polonius’ death in and of itself is probably not what pushed Ophelia over the edge. Her behavior, however, combined with the lyrics of the songs she directs at Claudius, strongly implies she’s been sexually assaulted, and she also makes it very clear who she’s accusing.
In Shakespeare’s time, the term “rape” did not have the same connotations it does today. Often times, it meant a man who contracts marriage with a woman simply to have sex with her, and in other cases, it means a man who’s seduced a woman into having sex without her father or family’s consent to their relationship. Each time it’s mentioned in Shakespeare, the offense is not against the woman, but the woman’s father or her family, since young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent on their own. While it’s not discussed at length in Hamlet, in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet objects to marrying Paris, Lord Capulet spells out in rather violent terms, that Juliet is his property for him to dispose of as he so chooses, and if she’s not happy with the arrangement her choices are cloister or death. When Polonius confronts Ophelia about Hamlet in Act I, his concern is mostly for how badly it reflects on him, than on Ophelia, and a number of her mad songs allude to losing her maidenhood outside of a marriage which would have required her father or brother’s consent. It would have been entirely in character for Ophelia to turn to the King for comfort after her father’s death, and it would have been totally in character for Claudius to take advantage of her already fragile state. Loss of her father followed by the loss of her innocence would have been more than enough to bring about the mental state she exhibits in Act IV.
If Claudius is the one who’s been sending Ophelia trifles early in the play, he may have signed off as Hamlet, to confuse her or anyone else who intercepted the gifts. A king would be in the ideal position to create or authorize the spread of rumors to cover his own misdeeds. Polonius implies that rumors are circulating of Ophelia entertaining Hamlet in private, but Ophelia does not confirm this. From her discussion with Polonius in Act I, it sounds like most of the entreaties from Hamlet have been in writing, or through trinkets delivered by messengers. When he presents his case to Claudius and Gertrude, he reads a letter signed by Hamlet, but does not present evidence of face to face encounters between Hamlet and Ophelia. There is the scene where Ophelia claims Hamlet appeared before her in a distracted state, but this happened out of view of the audience, and the description of Hamlet’s behavior seems inconsistent with the character we’ve gotten to know in the play. Since Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, it’s possible they bear enough of a resemblance to one another to confuse Ophelia in the dim light of her chambers, particularly if Claudius is trying to deceive her, possibly by wearing clothes similar to Hamlet’s. Given this, it’s entirely possible Ophelia herself may not realize who’s actually been wooing her, as seems implied from the play. By the time of her “mad scenes” however, she’s learned the truth, undoubtedly in the worst possible way.
This casts a new light on Ophelia’s death, which also happens offstage. The only account we have comes from Gertrude and it’s not clear whether she witnessed the death personally or was relating what someone told her. According to her account, Ophelia fell into a brook while trying to hang a flower garland, and didn’t have the presence of mind to save herself before her soaked clothing pulled her under the water. Given how vivid her description is, it’s implied that Gertrude witnessed the drowning, which begs the question of why no one on shore attempted to save Ophelia. If Gertrude was present, she no doubt had the typical entourage a Queen would have surrounding her, so it seems someone would have been able to get to Ophelia before she went under. Gertrude makes no mention of any rescue attempts at all, other than stating that Ophelia didn’t try to save herself. In general, people who make accusations about a king, even in a distracted state, don’t last very long. During the scene at her grave, the priest expresses doubts that Ophelia’s death was accidental as was claimed, though he suggests she killed herself. At the very least, his suspicions suggest that Gertrude’s account was not accepted as the undisputed truth.
At the graveside, Gertrude says she had hoped Ophelia would be Hamlet’s wife. This seems curious given how much emphasis was placed in the first three acts on telling Ophelia that she could not pursue a relationship with Hamlet due to his royal status. Gertrude, queen to two kings and mother to a prince, should have known the rules as well as anyone. She also was party to the discussion Polonius had with Claudius regarding Hamlet’s attentions toward Ophelia in Act II where it was stated that Polonius told Ophelia Hamlet was “out of thy star” so Gertrude should have realized that marriage wasn’t part of the plan.
The graveyard scene in Act V, Scene I also raises a number of other inconsistencies with what has gone on before. First, Hamlet doesn’t seem to recall that he killed Laertes’ father, which was a factor in the mental state that led to death of Laertes’ sister, and can’t understand why Laertes might have some issues with Hamlet popping up at Ophelia’s funeral to profess his love for her. Second, after spending most of Act III keeping Ophelia at arm’s length, and, at one point, outwardly accusing her of using her beauty to drive men mad, Hamlet suddenly decides she’s the love of his life, to the extent that he’s willing to make a spectacle of himself at her funeral. In the next scene, Hamlet exhibits guilt over his treatment of Laertes, but once again seems to forget how much in love he was with Ophelia, as she’s never again mentioned by him.
It’s highly likely that many of the inconsistencies come from the way the plays were assembled for publication. In some cases, an actor may have been recalling snatches of dialogue from memory, with the character he played getting more dialogue or scenes than others, or the printers may have been working from a draft in progress, not the final version. It’s also possible that the play we know today was assembled from bits and pieces of several staged versions of the play, cobbled together by members of Shakespeare’s troupe without the playwright himself there to guide their work. Thus the ambiguity of Ophelia and Hamlet’s relationship which allows actors and directors to reinvent the nature of it for each new generation. For all that happens to her, the reality is that Ophelia is largely known by the reactions she invokes in other characters than for her own direct effect on the actions of the play. She remains the archetypal loving sister and obedient daughter broken by the tragedies of her life, which is a tragedy in and of itself.
For quick online reference to the play, I used the resources at the Shakespeare server at MIT.
For footnotes on the various archaic phrases and references, I used The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare volume of Hamlet.