Ophelia’s Madness

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.

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13 thoughts on “Ophelia’s Madness

  1. Kristin Ludwig

    Sam,
    We both wrote about Ophelia! It is interesting to me that you believe her suicide is due to both her father’s death AND her complex relationship with Hamlet. I definitely feel that before Polonius dies she is effected by how Hamlet treats her, which the argument I made in my post. I wonder if her father didn’t die would she have reacted to this accident in way? Would she have been more proactive with trying to fight the current of the stream? Or would her fate be the same? It is interesting to analyze this scene to see that both her father’s death and Hamlet’s act led to her madness. I wonder which had more an effect? SO many questions that are generated by your post. Well written!

  2. Kristin Ludwig

    Sam,
    We both wrote about Ophelia! It is interesting to me that you believe her suicide is due to both her father’s death AND her complex relationship with Hamlet. I definitely feel that before Polonius dies she is effected by how Hamlet treats her, which the argument I made in my post. I wonder if her father didn’t die would she have reacted to this accident in the same way? Would she have been more proactive with trying to fight the current of the stream? Or would her fate be the same? It is interesting to analyze this scene to see that both her father’s death and Hamlet’s acts led to her madness. I wonder which had more an effect? SO many questions that are generated by your post. Well written!

  3. Jackie

    Hi Sam,
    I thought your post was interesting because you had a lot to say about Ophelia! I agree with the fact you believe her suicide is due to both her father’s death and her complex relationship with Hamlet. I also think that before Ophelia died Hamlet had a huge effect on her which might have played a huge role with her death. Maybe if Hamlet wasn’t such an ass to her she wouldn’t have committed suicide because I think that was truly the last straw for her. I think both her father’s death and her relationship with Hamlet made her depressed and unfortunately made her commit this awful act of suicide. The fact that the water completely weighs her down and she doesn’t even car is shocking because she shouldn’t have died but her showing that shows how depressed she was.

  4. Brianna Aldrich

    Sam,
    I really liked the points you brought up about Ophelia, I wrote about her in my blog post as well. Ophelia seems to be much a more complex character the more that I read about her and I think she is underrated because of that. I think that the most obvious cause that leads to Ophelia’s death is her father’s murder, but I like your point that it could indeed be because of her obsession with Hamlet, who has gone “mad”. I never picked up on those lines of her song in relation to Hamlet breaking his promise of marrying her. I still don’t know if I see Ophelia’s death as a suicide because of the fact that her clothes led to her death and all, but with all of the circumstances around her, I think that she definitely did not fight her death for a purpose. I also wondered why she doesn’t reach out to her brother for comfort, with him being so determined to seek revenge for their father, and I wonder how the plot would have changed as he stepped in to comfort her like he should have. Great points!

  5. Dana

    Sam,
    I think that throughout Hamlet, madness is exhibited in many forms and Hamlet’s madness is very different from Ofelia’s. Hamlet’s madness is directly correlated to his father’s death and the appearance of his father’s ghost. Even though, in the beginning, Hamlet is only feigning madness, he is certainly troubled (to say the least) at the end of the play. Ofelia’s madness seems a little more delicate and sudden. Despite whether or not the cause of her madness is her father’s death or the loss of her “boyfriend” or something entirely different, Ofelia almost falls into madness. It is almost as though the natural order has been disturbed by the death of King Hamlet and Ofelia is a casualty in the war to get the state of Denmark to not be quite so rotten…

  6. balfek1

    Hi Sam, I like your post and your analysis of Ophelia’s character. Although she is tragic, she is also used at will with the men around her. In the begining of the play Ophelia knows that Hamlet loves her yet decides to keep her distance because her brother tells her to. She is used as a ploy by her father to test Hamlet’s maddness. Ophelia is forced to give up the one she loves due to what other’s are telling her to do so, and because of her father’s prying he ultimately dies. Ophelia’s maddness I believe, like you, is caused be her loss of her loved ones. Hamlet ridiculed her and her father, I’m assuming a person closest to her as there is no mention of a mother, dies unexpectingly. I assumed her song at 4.5.62-64, insinuates an alleged intimacy she had with Hamlet, and his promise to marry her if she were to agree to intimacy. The fleeing from marraige, I thought was caused do to a lack of purity in Ophelia. Over all, your post cleared up some misconceptions for me and went in depth on a character I would have liked to discuss more in class.

  7. Danielle Lown

    Sam,
    I really enjoyed your post any how you revolved it around what you considered to be Ophelia’s madness. I too wrote about Ophelia, however based it on her heartbreaking death. I like that you included her singing in what you believed to be madness, because I too brought up her “mindless” singing in my post about her death. At that point in time, it seemed to be an attribute to Ophelia letting herself go; but since you are comparing and including it within the madness of Ophelia I now find myself second guessing whether or not it was her letting herself go or if she was in fact mad. Ophelia was a very unique character and was portrayed to us as a female character unlike many of the other’s we’ve read about this semester. I think that Hamlet and Laertes carried on Ophelia’s madness when she passed away and they both jumped into her grave.

  8. Sam Jacklitsch

    Hi Sam,
    I too agree you regarding Ophelia as a pitiable character in this Shakespeare play. I know the focus is mainly on Hamlet and his questionable madness, but in a way I definitely see how Ophelia went somewhat mad as well! I loved your analysis on Ophelia and your text examples on how she viewed each horrific death of her loved ones. Ophelia’s random singing was the first sign of madness when I first read it because instead of trying to save herself from drowning she was just calmly singing and letting the heavy water pile on top of her and her clothing. Her death can be viewed as a suicide which is what I had originally thought, but now after reading what you wrote, it can be viewed as Ophelia seriously becoming mad from all the tragedy she faced all at once. With the loss of her father, brother, and her lover all extremely close together is enough to make anyone go mad I suppose. I do pity her as a character because now she is truly on her own and I feel Hamlet and her family is partially to blame.

  9. Orr Klein

    Sam,
    I really liked the points you made about Ophelia and her madness. Her madness stems from the death of her father but carries over once she’s lost Hamlet. You are right though, her character exists as a tragic character, unfortunately so because her character is so interesting. Ophelia’s songs show her slipping into further madness with a lot of bizarre sexually-laced lyrics and while reading this portion of the play I just felt bad for her. It’s upsetting to see anyone go through all of these unfortunate circumstances because it realistically can happen to anybody.

  10. Joe

    Sam,

    I think your suggestion that Ophelia’s madness is also the consequential result of her failed relationship with Hamlet is totally credible. As you’ve done, it’s important to recognize that Ophelia is obviously mourning her father, and with great reason (he was indeed a vital figure in her life, especially considering she hadn’t been married yet). Many of the lines throughout her singing episodes also support your claim, as you aptly discuss. But, we can’t ignore the lines that signify the other figure her grieving is fixated upon: Hamlet. I agree with your point in saying that the sexual references in Ophelia’s songs do account for her love of Hamlet. There aren’t any other characters in the play that her references to promised love could be accountable for
    either. Ophelia hasn’t any direct control over the influential characters in her life. She has no way to prevent the death of her father, and no way to reason with the loss of Hamlet’s affection. Because of these is, Ophelia certainly is one of the most pitiable characters in Hamlet, and perhaps one of the only characters whose “madness” is justifiable.

  11. Samantha Mitchell

    Sam,
    I like the way that you wrote about Ophelia singing as her madness. I do think that she is a tragic character in this play, and I do think that it is in a pitiable way, because of the events that she has gone through. I think that you did a great job analyzing Ophelia’s character, and I think that it helpful as a reader to see the different aspects of her character development to understand what she is going through. There are many different things that contribute to Ophelia’s death, and I like that you put it all out there.

  12. Antonia

    I think that you’re absolutely right in saying that Ophelia’s insanity is caused by a combination of Polonius’s death and Hamlet’s spurning of her, and murder of her father. We see in act III that Ophelia is shaken by how Hamlet is treating her harshly where before he was kind and gentle. She’s being torn between two very influential men in her life. The first is her father, Polonius, who bids her stay away from Hamlet, and then go to Hamlet to help spy on him. The second is Hamlet himself, who promised much to Ophelia, and whom Ophelia has probably has sex with. It’s implied through several of Ophelia’s songs, the one you mentioned, and her one just before that where she sings “Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more” (4.5.54-55). It must also be difficult for her to reconcile the fact that her lover murdered her father, and in doing so took away all present support systems from her. It’s quite the strain to put on anyone’s mental state.

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