Sweet Ophelia, Or Not?

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade November 2001

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Sweet Ophelia, or not? In studying about Ophelia and trying to understand why she went mad, I became increasingly curious about Ophelia's chastity. The idea that Hamlet and Ophelia had a sexual relationship is lacking in hard evidence, but the slightest possibility makes it probable, doesn't it? Many of the interactions concerning Ophelia in the play would be easier to understand if, in fact, there was a sexual relationship. Does this mean that Hamlet was correct in generalizing all females as lustful harlots? Certainly not. Ophelia loved Hamlet and she believed that Hamlet loved her as well. Hamlet had promised to marry Ophelia and she trusted his word. A sexual relationship would have been kept quiet, but it would not have been unheard of. Without a sexual relationship, and with a perfect, good, chaste Ophelia, Hamlet's attitude would be based completely on what he saw as his mother's infidelity and betrayal.

Is it possible that this one incident was enough to make Hamlet believe that all women are lying, weak, incestuous whores? Two lines in the play make it easy to assume that Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia is because of his generalization of all women. The first appears in Act I, Scene II, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (Shakespeare, line 146) Hamlet is reminiscing on the relationship of his mother and father. It is obvious that Hamlet feels betrayed by his mother. All of his life he has seen her loving his father and hanging on him "as if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on," and then within a month she marries his father's brother (Shakespeare, line145). The image he has of his mother is shattered. He feels that in her weakness and lust she betrayed the King Hamlet, thus destroying Hamlet's trust in her and perhaps all women. The second incidence of specific generalization occurs in Act III, Scene II. Ophelia comments that the prologue of the play is brief. Hamlet replies, "As a woman's love" (Shakespeare, line 153). This is referring to the Queens brief period of mourning for her deceased husband, and "o'erhasty marriage" (Shakespeare, line 56). Hamlet projects this shallowness on all women. Without the ability to view Hamlet's relationship with any other females, we can only assume that Gertrude's relationship with Claudius causes Hamlet to distrust all women. But if Ophelia had been perfect in purity, wouldn't Hamlet falter in that assumption for a moment? Could he not realize that Ophelia had been the epitome of goodness? Ophelia was raised by her overprotective father and brother who obviously didn't approve of Ophelia having a relationship with another man. Yet somehow Hamlet and Ophelia had managed to have a relationship serious enough to make a commitment of marriage. Surely this relationship had gone on in private before Polonius and Laertes became aware of it. If Ophelia would keep this from her father and brother, there could easily be more to the relationship than she is willing to reveal. Hamlet decides that Ophelia is unfaithful, like his mother, because she ultimately proves loyal to Polonius rather than to himself. She obeys her father when he forbids her to see Hamlet, and then she aids in the plot to find the cause of Hamlet's madness. In reality, Ophelia has not been sexually unfaithful, but her betrayal is enough for Hamlet to perceive her so.

In almost every scene including Ophelia there is a strong sexual content. When Ophelia is first introduced in the play, her brother and father warn her that Hamlet's intentions might not be honorable and may lead to her disgrace. Later as Hamlet addresses Polonius, he speaks of Ophelia conceiving. When Ophelia approaches Hamlet to return his things, Hamlet suggests that she go to a nunnery. Sexual banter is exchanged between Ophelia and Hamlet before the Mousetrap play. Lastly, in Ophelia's madness she sings songs with strong sexual meaning. These incidences lead the omniscience reader to believe that a sexual relationship could be possible.

One questionable scene that could suggest a sexual relationship is when Polonius is questioning Hamlet in Act two, Scene two. Hamlet warns Polonius about allowing Ophelia to walk out in the sun for fear that she might spontaneously conceive. This comment is referring to Polonius' order that Ophelia not see Hamlet or accept any of his letters. Hamlet says, "Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to't." (Shakespeare, line 185). Hamlet is remarking that since Ophelia is not permitted to see him, there is no chance that she could conceive by him. Perhaps then, if she were permitted to see him it would be possible that she might conceive. Also, Hamlet's words are "as your daughter may conceive." This leaves the possibility that she might be pregnant. In this case, Hamlet would be saying that he is not responsible, therefore shirking his responsibility of marrying Ophelia.

During the ploy to find the cause of Hamlet's madness, Ophelia approaches Hamlet to return his belongings. Hamlet tells her to go to a nunnery. At this time, "nunnery" could mean a brothel. Hamlet knows that due to his circumstances he cannot marry Ophelia. If Ophelia is still pure and virgin, this would not mean the end of her options. She could eventually marry another.

Her father is still alive at this point, and is obviously in no hurry to rid himself of his baby girl, so she is not abandoned. There is no reason that Ophelia should need to go to a nunnery in any sense of the word. A female had no possessions of her own. The only thing that she had to offer was her chastity. If on the contrary, Ophelia did not have this, her future would look much more bleak. If she were to marry another, she would be guilty of sexual sin. Therefore, she might as well go to a nunnery and commit herself to whoredom. With Hamlets suggestion of her sexuality, Ophelia begins to comment about his apparent madness. But remember, Ophelia knows that they are being watched and the reason behind it. There is no indicator that Hamlet is aware of the hidden audience.

For a pure, sheltered, guiltless, young lady Ophelia is well aware of the sexual innuendo that Hamlet suggests before the Mousetrap play begins. It was a common practice for a man to sit at the feet of a lady and lay his head in her lap. When Hamlet asked Ophelia if he could lie in her lap, Ophelia declined. Obviously, Ophelia thought that Hamlet meant something more sexual. If this were an uncommon practice it would be easier to assume that Ophelia had misunderstood and was astonished. Knowing that this was common, we can only assume that Ophelia had her mind in the gutter. Perhaps Hamlet had meant to lie his head in her lap, but realized that Ophelia thought he had meant something else. If it were a sexual remark, Ophelia definitely caught it and then tried to play it off. Ophelia is the one to continue the conversation with Hamlet saying, "You are merry, my Lord" (III. ii Line 122). She must not have been too uncomfortable by the exchange. Later, when Hamlet continues the sexual banter, Ophelia comments on his keenness and even offers her opinion.

Many have purposed that Hamlets "antic disposition" was not merely an act, and that he was actually insane. It is quite easy to see how Hamlet might have gone mad. His father dies and his Queen mother marries his uncle, shattering the very image he has of his mother and dishonoring his fathers memory, (not to mention knocking him out of his rightful position on the throne). He then speaks to the ghost of his deceased father who reveals to Hamlet that his uncle is not only an incestuous adulterate, but also guilty of the King Hamlets murder. Hamlet is then commissioned by his fathers ghost to revenge his death. Hamlet realizes that his future actions make it impossible for him to marry Ophelia. All of his friends, as well as Ophelia, plot against him to aid the king. His whole life has been turned upside down by an amazing sequence of events in a remarkably short time. Yet, as easy as it would be for one to go mad under these circumstances, it is still debated. Ophelia on the other hand, had gone mad without a doubt.

Ophelia also lost her father. The one who has raised and protected her all of her life. There is no indication that Ophelia knows that Hamlet was the cause of her fathers death. She lost her boyfriend, and her brother left town for a while. Her circumstances are not near as horrid as Hamlet's, yet she loses her sanity and commits suicide. During Ophelia's madness she sings songs with strong sexual meaning. One of the songs Ophelia sings states "By Gis, and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do't if they come to't, By Cock they are to blame.

Quoth she, "˜before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed.' (He answers.) "˜So would I "˜a' done, by yonder sun, And thou hadst not come to my bed.'" This might be easy to pass off as mere coinicidence if it were not accompanied by more of the same. Ophelia passes out flowers to Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes. To Gertrude she gives rue, and keeps some for herself. Rue is symbolic of repentance and sorrow. Ophelia says, "We may call it herb of grace a' Sundays." What would Ophelia have to repent of? Rue was also a well known and commonly used herb for inducing miscarriage. Ophelia also sings a song that says "For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy" In her madness, perhaps the truth comes out. When she has no reason left within her to keep her from exposing her crushed dreams.