Understanding Ophelia's Madness

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Understanding Ophelia's madness in Hamlet plays a key role in understanding her character. The opening of Act IV Scene v shows the extent of her madness, with her incessant singing and prattling worrying everyone. The characters attribute her madness to come “All from her father's death” (IV.v.76). However, according to Carroll Camden, a renowned critic, this is wrong. The cause of her madness is not the tragic death of Polonius, but the death of everything between her and Hamlet.

Ophelia is crestfallen when she is told that she cannot meet with Hamlet anymore. She thinks back on the advice her father and brother had given her about the shallowness of Hamlet's love, and at first she does not believe them. However, her stubbornness against her father's will is tested when Hamlet appears in her bedchamber, looking haggard and unkempt. He grabs her arm, brushes her hair away, and heaves a great sigh. He then leaves, staring at her with an unwavering gaze. This makes Ophelia feel guilty, thinking that she is the cause for Hamlet's madness when in fact this is a call for help. After Polonius dies and Hamlet leaves for England, Ophelia looks back on this, wondering if there was anything she could have done to help. This, given time and two other aspects of her life, caused her to turn deeper and deeper into herself, until she was twisted into madness.

Ophelia further blames herself as the cause for Hamlet's madness when he starts to insult her and her father in the beginning of Act III. He repeatedly asks her if she is chaste and comments on her behaviors, the use of makeup, and the apparent seduction by womankind. This is “language that no sensitive girl could endure with equanimity” (Camden 249), and it hurts Ophelia deeply. She begins to wonder if her father and brother were right about Hamlet's love. She asks herself if she truly loves him, and if he truly loves her, and she cries, “O, woe is me / T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see”...
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