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Why Has Ophelia Gone Mad?

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Ophelia in the fourth act of Hamlet is demonstrably insane, but the direct cause of her slipped sanity is something that remains debatable. While it is evident that Ophelia is grieving over the death of her father, Polonius, as Horatio says of her “She speaks much of her father, says she hears / There’s tricks in the world, and hems, and beats her heart” (4.5.4-5), a secondary cause of Ophelia’s madness may be in fact about her failed relationship with Hamlet as well.

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Shakespeare has presented Ophelia as the prominent female in the play. This maybe because she has a very close relationship with Hamlet. Also, there seems to be two different sides to her. This is a happy lively side and a dark sinister point which becomes more dominant later in the play. Ophelia is Polonius’ daughter, a beautiful young woman with whom Hamlet has been in love. Ophelia is a sweet and innocent girl, who obeys her father and her brother (Laertes). She has the potential to become a tragic heroine, to overcome the adversities inflicted upon her, but instead, she crumbles into insanity, becoming merely tragic. The reason why she has the potential to become a tragic heroine is because of the fact that she is innocent and hasn’t done anything wrong, yet so much happens to her and is portrayed as a tragic figure. Ophelia is a character who has been viewed differently by audiences from different ages. A modern audience would view her as weak and timid in comparison to today’s women. She obeys the males and fulfils what she believes to be her duty. A Victorian audience would view her as an ideal woman; they would see her as idealistic, beautiful and would see her as a role model. Ophelia has the “perfect life”; she has a safe home in the walls of Elsinore Castle and is cared for greatly by others. The extent to which Hamlet feels betrayed by Gertrude is far more apparent with the addition of Ophelia to the play. Hamlet’s feelings of rage against his mother can be directed toward Ophelia, who is, in his estimation, hiding her base nature behind an appearance of perfection. Ophelia is portrayed as distressed throughout the play by Hamlet’s treatment of her. Hamlet says he loves her but she must remember that a prince is not like ordinary men. Princes can choose wives for themselves, so she must be careful to protect her good name – and her virginity. When Laertes leaves for Paris, Polonius turns his attention to his daughter, and lectures her about her friendship with Hamlet. He is afraid that Hamlet will seduce his daughter and orders her to end her friendship with him. She decides to obey her father’s orders and is reluctant to see him. She comes to find her father after Hamlet had badly frightened her. She describes how he came into her private room, only half dressed. His doublet was not buttoned, and his stockings were loose around his ankles, he did not say anything meaning he was very upset. When Ophelia explains this to her father, he decides that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia. The decision is helped by the fact he has found out that Ophelia has been refusing to see the Prince or to even receive his letters. From this, Ophelia will be confused because one minute she is forbidden to see Hamlet and the next her father allows it. In Act Three Scene One, Ophelia hands back to him the little presents that he had given her in the past. Hamlet gets angered by this, and lets loose on Ophelia all the bitterness he has been feeling since his mother’s marriage to Claudius. He then begins to suspect Ophelia too, and seems conscious that there are unseen listeners to their conversation. In this apparent madness, he drops a veiled threat: “I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already – all but one – shall live”. His departure with a final result leaves Ophelia terribly upset and quite convinced of his madness. Hamlet’s madness seemed to have had an effect upon Ophelia, because Hamlet is taking all his anger out on her, which seems to be unfair because she has no involvement, and is innocent. This makes Ophelia a tragic figure because Hamlet is putting all his anger on her, which makes Ophelia upset, which shouldn’t be the case because she shouldn’t be the victim throughout any of this.

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The two sorts of madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are between the Prince Hamlet and delicate Ophelia. The couple fulfills functioning archetypes: the strong-minded man, the weak-minded woman. One faces the risks of avenging a father; the other is lost without one; both conquer self-control to find their satisfaction. The elaborate purpose of Hamlet’s madness is to cloak his investigation. For Hamlet, madness is a performance. He does it to mystify the other characters, but the weaving of it provides the same message: Hamlet cannot be controlled. The on-going squabbles Hamlet argues are often to do with women and failed devotion. Because of this, most of the characters from Rosencrantz to Gertrude to Ophelia herself, believe his madness is based on love. As if a man who is strongly unappreciated would burn with insane, screwball anger. Or, in reduced words: that Hamlet is controlled by the conduct of women. The notion provides amply to why Hamlet wishes Ophelia away to a nunnery, and despises his mother’s unexpired passion. If he could cure this female waywardness then that would leave Hamlet to be the sensible fellow he was. But these women no longer guide Hamlet because of their femininity and faithlessness. His hate for them is a rejection, and a freedom. Though Hamlet’s flippant manners toward his mother, and his lover, don’t deny how love can unravel a man’s rationality, there is a stronger reason for his disposition. Hamlet’s insanity always sobered by dire events

This provides an anecdote for him to be only acting mad but to an end. How he denies himself of murdering Claudius at the confessional is a popular example, as well as his trickery to composing a play to weed out said king’s deceitfulness. The strongest example reigns from his antagonizing of Gertrude only to be leveled down by killing of Polonius. This unplanned act frightens him to reconsider his antics. To appear the better but irresponsible person, he blames the moment it on the miscalculations of insanity. Unfortunately, the repercussion drives harder than expected. Hamlet is sent away because he’s out of order, and upon his return blazes all the more wronged and aware as his procrastinated motives had brought on the death of Ophelia. The madness of Ophelia is textual, and resides on two very familiar concepts for a heretic: sex and immaturity. One features the shortcomings of a woman with passion (Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1623). The other spotlights how childlike women are, that they deserve guidance at every turn. The result is an appealing, literary example of how the childish women work against their best interest (Kay, Margarita A. 1998).

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By and large, the fact that she was unsuccessful at her attempt to help the prince and probably added to his banishment from the kingdom was in part what drove her mad. She knew what she had to do but she had failed

Now she had an unborn child to deal with. As she attempted to gather the herbs needed to facilitate her abortion she failed here also as it led to her accidental drowning. She was a strong woman who did all she could to help the man she loved. Her failure to help him drove her to madness and ultimately her death.

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Kay, Margarita A. Healing with Plants. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1623. The Oxford Shakespeare

Hamlet. Ed. G.R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

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