Dr. Susan Jones
March 20, 2011
The Suicide of Ophelia
Romanticized by modern females, downplayed by literary critics and somewhat overlooked by the general public, the character of Ophelia in “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” offers the reader a tantalizing mystery - did Ophelia truly commit suicide? Bear in mind that in the deeply religious culture that was the basis for the inception of Hamlet, suicide was a mortal sin, bearing with it the consequence of eternal punishment and damnation, burial in unconsecrated ground and shame to be forever associated with the deceased. Or, perhaps, was Ophelia’s death an accident, or a murder? While there is certainly room for conjecture centering on Ophelia’s murder or on accident, it was in fact, a suicide. Ophelia’s madness and suicide are the counterpoint to Hamlet’s feigned madness and accidental death. In addition, Ophelia’s death is yet another death caused indirectly by the lust for revenge that Hamlet has, as his words spurn her into madness and into the waters of her final resting place.
The causes of Ophelia’s suicide are several-fold. Firstly, Hamlet’s rejection of her is a terrible blow, not only because Ophelia cares for Hamlet, but because her position in society is tenuous at best. Her father has passed away, Laertes is absent, and she is essentially at the mercy of the King for her basic human needs. Add to this pressure the religious views on female propriety, and in her own mind, Ophelia feels as though she only has a few options. A couple options she has are to enroll herself in a nunnery as Hamlet so callously suggests prior to her descent into madness, or to marry, which Hamlet summarily rejects in his conversation with her. The unspoken choice that remains to Ophelia is death, which, of course, does carry the stigma of eternal damnation. However, Ophelia is driven mad by her situation and is undoubtedly not in a position to truly contemplate the consequences of her actions by the time of her suicide.
Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia is an obvious blow. In Act Three, Scene One, Hamlet tells Ophelia repeatedly to “get thee to a nunnery” (Shakespeare). At this point in the play, Hamlet is angry, and perhaps his treatment of Ophelia is not directly related to her, but more related to women in general or his mother, whom he feels betrayed his father by marrying Claudius so quickly. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, married Claudius, Hamlet’s Uncle, shortly after Hamlet’s father was murdered by Claudius, which Hamlet is trying to prove. His mother’s part in the murder of Old King Hamlet is unclear; however, her betrayal of Old King Hamlet in young Hamlet’s eyes is no less than murder as she wed the man responsible for the king’s death. Thus, when Hamlet lashes out at Ophelia, he does not mean to cause her the anguish that his words give rise to, as his remorse in later scenes is evident.
However, intentionally wounding Ophelia or not, his words have an obvious effect on her. In a rather callous and misogynistic fashion, Hamlet tells Ophelia that he “loved her once”, then immediately tells her that she should not have believed him, “I loved you not” (Shakespeare). Hamlet continues to harangue Ophelia, telling her as well that “wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them” (Shakespeare, 3.1), which means that women are responsible for the sins of men, creating monsters out of them, (specifically referring to his mother, as Hamlet believes that Gertrude’s lustfulness may be what caused Claudius to murder Old King Hamlet). Hamlet’s apparent cruelty, however, may be tempered somewhat as he tells Ophelia that men are all “arrant knaves” (Shakespeare) as well, and she should believe none of them. For Ophelia, however, the advice that Hamlet throws into his diatribe on women is not enough to temper the blow. Hamlet, in this scene, has heaped guilt upon Ophelia, blaming women for the follies of men, destroyed her hope...