Even as a minor character in the play Hamlet, the character Ophelia plays a vital part in the development of both the plot and thematic ideas. However, Ophelia is an extremely complicated character as she can be read in many different ways. This in effect causes the readers or audience to be more insightful and gain a greater understanding of the plot and thematic ideas in the play such as "Love and Loyalty," and "Madness." When exploring the character of Ophelia we must take into consideration personal beliefs, knowledge and outside criticisms which may affect our reading of the character. For example, if the reader analyses Ophelia's character from the perspective of feminism, concerned with the equal rights and fair treatment of women, or historical context, an understanding of what it was like in the period of time the play was both written and set; their views of the character will differ, which then causes the reader to have a more in depth understanding of the plot and themes.
Ophelia is present in only a few scenes of the play. This is due to the fact that when the play was written in the Elizabethan period females were considered to be very "private" sort of people. There job was to stay home, look after the family and complete the housework. They were not allowed to perform and therefore there are very few female characters in Shakespeare's plays. If a play did consist of female characters they were generally played by young boys, which effectively caused restrictions and limitations amongst characterisation. Using feminism makes it possible to believe that Ophelia is not to pose as a main character of the play, but to act as a "foil," to help the audience understand the more important characters in the play. Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's feelings of love for both Hamlet and her father are prime examples of the use of Ophelia as a foil. In both instances she is being used to help the audience identify the emotions and discrepancies of Hamlet and her father. Unfortunately, as Ophelia's presence is limited it is believed that her character, although important, is poorly developed and therefore provides readers with the opportunity to make up their own judgement.
Ophelia can be argued as a character that despite her beauty is weak, frail and easily controlled. Her lack of self confidence makes her an easy target for Hamlet's abuse. Ophelia has a very connected relationship with her brother, Laertes, and father, Polonius, but unfortunately she allows them to tell her how to live her life. An example of this is where Laertes warns Ophelia against having a relationship with Hamlet:
For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,
(Act 1: Scene 3 lines 5-10)
He suggests to Ophelia that Hamlet may not actually love her, he just wants a girlfriend because that is the "fashionable" thing to do. That is what everyone else his age is doing and therefore it is not true everlasting love. Furthermore, Polonius uses his "parental power" to convince Ophelia that she is too young and doesn't understand that her decision to go with Hamlet would be a bad option. He also explains to Ophelia that as they are noble, continuing her relationship with hamlet will affect not only her life but also the lives of her family members:
Marry, well bethought.
'Tis told me he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous.
If it be so - as so 'tis put on me,
And that in way of caution - I must tell you
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? Give me up the truth.
(Act 1: Scene 3 lines 90-98)
These two situations both demonstrate the theme of "Love and Loyalty." In both instances Ophelia is being warned against her love for Hamlet. She is put in the situation of having to choose between her love for Hamlet or her loyalty to her family. However, as the play continues so does the situation between "Love and Loyalty," and we begin to notice that Ophelia lacks an identity of her own. She is dependant on the men in her life as is evident in Act 3: Scene 2 (line 126), where she states "I think nothing, my Lord." At this point she has been hurt so badly and is so confused that she doesn't consider her thoughts to be important. Unfortunately, as time goes on the conflicts continue and Ophelia is forced to choose loyalty over love causing her to go into a state of madness.
Madness is a theme evident throughout the entire text. It is evident in Hamlet, Ophelia, Polonius and Laertes. When discussing Ophelia's character, her madness is almost always at the centre of controversy. Some people believe that Ophelia's madness was caused by "erotomania," which the Elizabethans referred to as "female love-melancholy." Ophelia has also been interpreted as a young girl who "felt" too much and somehow allowed theses feelings to overcome her. It would be quite simple for such an action to drive a person to madness, just as Ophelia was driven mad. If this was the cause of her madness it suggests that it stemmed from some sort of frustrated erotic passion between herself and Hamlet. However, a more interesting suggestion is that Ophelia's madness was caused by the death of her father or more importantly, the removal from all the male connections of the hierarchy. Ophelia was living in a patriarchal world where women were extremely dependant on men. Once all the men in Ophelia's life were gone she could not cope as she relied on them for advice and direction. If this is the case Ophelia then becomes the victim. This type of madness no doubt causes a different reaction by the audience toward the character. Instead of being just some lovesick girl who drove herself insane, Ophelia becomes the "innocent" woman who loved her father so dearly that someone else has caused her grief and driven her mad. However, when taking the perspective of a feminist we begin to see the "madwoman" as a heroine, a powerful figure that rebels against both the family and social order.
At first glance Ophelia seems like a simple character. However, an in depth reading of her character proves otherwise. Although Ophelia can be argued as a woman who is weak, frail and ultimately driven to madness by the death of her father and her love for Hamlet, an understanding of feminism and historical context helps the audience to better understand Ophelia's complicated character which can have multiple readings. However, as a poorly developed character we are able to make our own judgement and hypothesise the plot and thematic ideas. In essence, Ophelia's character is just like a book in which you "choose your own ending." Her character is both limited and incomplete. Therefore, in order to gain an understanding of the plot and the thematic ideas of, "Love and Loyalty," and "Madness," we must create a complete perception of Ophelia. However, no matter what interpretation you choose, you will still come out in the end with a woman represented poorly.