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Reports & Essays: Literature - Shakespeare

"AND""OR"


Hamlet and Ophelia
Melancholy, grief, and madness have pervaded the works of a great many playwrights, and Shakespeare is not an exception. The mechanical regularities of such emotional maladies as they are presented within Hamlet, not only allow his audience to sympathize with the tragic prince Hamlet, but to provide the very complexities necessary in understanding the tragedy of his lady Ophelia as well. It is the poor Ophelia who suffers at her lover's discretion because of decisions she was obligated to make on behalf of her weak societal position. Hamlet provides his own self-torture and does fall victim to melancholia and grief, however, his madness is feigned. They each share a common connection: the loss of a parental figure. Hamlet loses his father as a result of a horrible murder, as does Ophelia. In her situation is more severe because it is her lover who murders her father and all of her hopes for her future as well. Ultimately, it is also more detrimental to her c! haracter and causes her melancholy and grief to quickly turn to irretrievable madness. Critics argue that Hamlet has the first reason to be hurt by Ophelia because she follows her father's admonitions regarding Hamlet's true intentions for their beginning love. In Act 3, scene 1, line 91 Hamlet begins with his malicious sarcasm toward her. "I humbly thank you, well, well, well," he says to her regarding her initial pleasantries (Johnson 1208). Before this scene, he has heard the King and Polonius establishing a plan to deduce his unusual and grief-stricken behavior. Hamlet is well aware that this plan merely uses Ophelia as a tool, and as such, she does not have much option of refusing without angering not only her busybody father but the conniving King as well. Hamlet readily refuses that he cared for her. He tells her and all of his uninvited listeners, "No, not I, I never gave you aught" (lines 94-95). Some critics stress, as does J. Dover Wilson, that Hamlet has a right to direct his anger to Ophelia because even though many critics "in their sy! mpathy with Ophelia they have forgotten that it is not Hamlet who has 'repelled' her, but she him" (Wilson 159). It is possible that Wilson does not see the potential harm to Ophelia should she disobey her authority figures (i.e. her father and her king). Furthermore, Ophelia cannot know "that Hamlet's attitude toward her reflects his disillusionment in his mother . . . to her, Hamlet's inconstancy can only mean deceitfulness or madness" (Lidz 158). She is undeniably caught in a trap that has been layed, in part, but her lover whom she does love and idealize. Her shock is genuine when Hamlet demands "get thee to a nunnery" (line 120). The connotations of the dual meaning of "nunnery" is enough in and of itself to make her run estranged from her once sweet prince, and it is the beginning or her sanity's unraveling as well. Hamlet's melancholy permits him the flexibility of character to convey manic-depressive actions while Ophelia's is much more overwhelming and painful. "Shakespeare is ambiguous about the reality of Hamlet's insanity and depicts him as on the border, fluctuating between sanity and madness" (Lidz 156). Hamlet mourns for his father, but it is the bitterness and ill-will that he harbors towards his mother for her hasty marriage to his uncle that is his most reoccurring occupation. His thoughts of Ophelia are secondary at best. When it happens that Hamlet accidentally slays Polonius, he does not appear to be thinking of the potential effect of his actions on Ophelia. Hamlet has sealed her fate, and along with the "vacillations in [his] attitude and behavior toward her could not but be extremely unsettling to the very young woman who idolized [him]" she does not have much in the way that is positive for her (Lidz 157). Throughout the entire murder scene in Act 3, Scene! 4, Hamlet does not remark about the damage he has done to Ophelia. His emotional upswing is devoted entirely to his mother, and while his emotions are not an imitation, he does admit that he "essentially [is] not in madness,/ But mad in craft" (lines 187-188). Ophelia is then left to mourn her father, but it is not his death alone that spurns her insanity. Her predicament is such that she is forced to fear and hate her father's murder who is also her lover and the one person to whom all of her future hopes were pinned -Prince Hamlet. "Her entire orientation to the future has suddenly been destroyed," and with her brother gone, Ophelia has no one to turn to for comfort (Lidz 157). Hamlet then delves further into his manic feigned madness and Ophelia is cheated into the belief that he really is mad. The options for her sanity are none; melancholy and grief are madness for malcontent Ophelia. Hamlet and Ophelia are confronted with the "irretrievable loss of a love object, " however, it is Ophelia's dilemma that is the more horrible of the two and is indelibly more tragic. The audience may of the general opinion that Polonius is bordering on senility, and is a spy who meddle in affair that do not demand his participation, however, he is Ophelia's sole parent. We are able to discern that his harsh attitude toward his daughter at the beginning of the play may not be cruel for cruelty's sake; Polonius may actually be showing signs that he is overly protective of Ophelia and instructs her to deny Hamlet's "tenders" because they represent a threat toward his position as her father. We might also infer that as Ophelia's only parent for such a great duration in her young life that Polonius may actually favored her -letting her act as the replacement for her mother in her father's life. These ideas are not to implicate their relationship as an abusive Oedipal ci! rcumstance. It is interesting that the same situation can correspondingly be applied to the relationship that Hamlet shares with his mother. Hamlet is fatherless. While this is a more recent position for him, it is interesting to note that rather than have his loss bring him and his mother closer, it only serves to bind him in his melancholy and agony. He battles within himself of doing harm to his mother. Hamlet may very well see his mother's infidelity to his father's memory as an infidelity to him as well. This Oedipal Complex is more injurious to his character, and is the determining force for his unsuccessful relationship to Ophelia. Ophelia has nothing to do with this emotional inadequacies, and is nonetheless a victim of them. Her death is the responsibility of Hamlet, who at her gravesite "exhibits some temporary marks of a real disorder" (Mackenzie 903). It is short-lived, however, and Hamlet again retakes his vengeance upon his father's murderer --using his ! melancholy as a dull weapon. "He realizes that his emotions are often going to rush beyond his control [and] the fiction that he is mad will not only cloak his designs against the King, but will also free him from the rest of the play" (Campbell 104). It is his fiction that is the leading cause of Ophelia's demise as well as his own. There is no way out of the created situation for either of them. One could imagine that if this were a different play, Hamlet could ask for Ophelia's forgiveness, but that is not the play. The melancholy, grief, and madness that Hamlet suffers from may well have been the propelling force for all of his unfortunate action in Shakespeare's play. It is worth allowing that the first of the two are real; his melancholy and grief are not counterfeit. Ophelia is the more tragic of the two because her madness is not feigned, and furthermore, that it is caused by the very love of her life is even more disastrous for her poor young life. They are each malcontents with no real happiness made available to them given their unfortunate circumstances.

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