In act IV what stands out most to me is Ophelia. She is an empty headed girl who lets the men in her life tell her what to do. She is so co- dependent that when her father dies she is lost, literally. Ophelia loses her mind. She speaks in riddles as she can no longer make sense of the world without her father to tell her what to do. It is not evident to me whether or not Hamlet’s departure is a contributing factor to Ophelia’s madness because she does not outwardly demonstrate her feelings towards him.
When we first meet Ophelia her brother is warning her about Hamlet telling her to fear him, “Be wary then; best safety lies in fear;” (1.3.43). Twice more in the course of his speech, he cautions her to “fear” Hamlet. Laertes is instructing Ophelia not to think for herself but just to be afraid. Immediately after her she receives the third degree from Laertes, her father proceeds to instruct her on how to conduct herself. At no point does she assert herself. She does tell her father, “I don’t know, my lord, what I should think” (1.4.104) but does concede to “obey”.
In the exchanges between Ophelia and Hamlet she is either void of emotion or being a dutiful pawn (daughter) in following her father’s plan. Hamlet transposes his ill feelings towards his mother in the guise of concern for Ophelia’s wellbeing. He warns Ophelia of the danger she is to men and that she should lock herself away. Hamlet speaks offensively to Ophelia yet she just tells him he is being impolite. An implication of Hamlet & Ophelia’s familiarity is when he tells her, “It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge” (3.2.228). I would think that this comment would be enough for a proper lady to get up and move away from such crude and obnoxious comments.
After hamlet murders Polonius, Ophelia is no longer coherent. She sings songs. One of the songs she sings alludes to a virgin to sleeping with a man and then his refusal to marry her. There is mention of shame, “Alack, and fie for shame!”(4.5.58). It could potentially be an implication to her relationship with Hamlet. If that is the case, it only strengthens my opinion that Ophelia is a week minded female because she should have known better than to sleep with Hamlet. Her father and brother’s repeated warnings should have resonated within her.
Ophelia reminds me of a receptacle. She takes her father and brother’s advice. She accepts Hamlets displaced aggression toward females. Finally without her father to fill her head she takes on water to fill the void. My initial annoyance with the weak character Ophelia subsides when I think of her in this way. Instead it is sad but as Laertes reminds me, “Too much of water hast though poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears” (4.7.157-158).
*One of my favorite John William Waterhouse's pieces.