by Sam Ruck (Circle 5)
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.
The evidence suggesting that she is simply mourning her father is obvious, as lines from one of her many “songs” points towards grieving over an aged relative “His beard as white as snow / All flaxen was his poll” with flaxen here indicating a white or grayed head of hair (4.5.190-191). This line directly references an older man and because of this detail, Polonius’s death has obviously taken its toll on Ophelia’s psyche, causing her to spout such wild and woeful songs. Further explicit references to Ophelia’s father, such as “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say a made a good end.” give more credence to Ophelia’s shattered mental state, as she is constantly fixating on the death of Polonius, so much so that every single thing reminds her of his passing (4.5.180-181). Ophelia’s madness is perhaps overtaking her so much so that she does not even recognize whom she is talking to in this instance–her brother Laertes. Because Polonius was such a vital figure in her life, she is likely bereaved beyond help and thus does not recognize her brother.
However, the explicit sexual references in Ophelia’s songs perhaps account for her obsession with the now absent Hamlet, as in “promising his love” to her earlier in the play and then being scorned, she is doubly heartbroken alongside the death of her father. With lines like “Young men will do’t if they come to’t / By Cock, they are to blame” signifies a strange and perhaps oblique reference to a promiscuous or simply flighty man who promises love (or sex here with the word “cock”) but backs out after a brief time (4.5.59-60). This is compounded on by a following line, “You promised me to wed, / So would I ‘a’ done, by yonder sun, / An thou hadst not come to my bed.” and it is this part of Ophelia’s song that likely damns Hamlet as a cause of her mental fracturing (4.5.62-64). Though the man in the song has promised the speaker that they will soon wed, he has left her for no apparent reason and like Hamlet’s alleged claims of love and marriage to Ophelia, so too has Hamlet broken those vows for reasons unbeknownst. It is likely that Ophelia has fixated upon Hamlet’s “detestable” oath breaking so much so that in not requiting her love, Hamlet has broken both her heart and her poor mind.
Ophelia exists as a tragic character in Hamlet and one that is entirely pitiable because of unfortunate circumstances that she has been put through.