Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a complex character in her own right. She is controlled by her male relatives and isn’t set free truly till madness sets in. She is loved like a daughter by Queen Gertrude, first loved and then abused by Hamlet and above all used as a bargaining tool by Laertes and Polonius. In Shakespeare’s time the way her father and others treated her wouldn’t have been uncommon and the shock would have come from her bawdy behaviour when she went mad whereas a modern audience would be more shocked and disgusted at the poor treatment she is given by her family and Hamlet.
Ophelia as she is initially presented is the dutiful and attentive daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. We see she respects and cares for the opinions of her father and brother, we see this when they are giving her advice in regard to her relationship with Hamlet. “I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart.” Though following this speech we can also see the differences between the relationships of Ophelia and her father and Ophelia and Laertes. With Laertes we can see a certain degree of repartee between the two with a line such as, “While like a puffed and reckless libertine himself the primrose path of dalliance treads and recks not his own rede.” Whereas after receiving similar advice from her father she merely says, “I shall obey my lord.” This could be due to the fact that Polonius uses a lot less tactful language than Laertes, “Affection? Pooh, you speak like a green girl unsifted in such perilous circumstance.” This could be due to Polonius consistently treating his daughter as an object or bargaining tool and persistently speaks in monetary terms to her with his overuse of the word “Tenders” and phrases such as “set your entreatments at a higher rate,” “which their investments show,” “tenders for true pay which are not sterling.” These are Polonius possibly unwittingly showing us how he sees his daughter. He’s more worried as to how she’ll make him look than how she’ll make herself look, “you’ll tender me a fool.” When explaining to Ophelia about her situation with Hamlet, Polonius makes Ophelia seem in the wrong by speaking down to her, “think yourself a baby." To contrast with this Laertes speaks to her at a normal level, “be wary best safety lies in fear,” “Farewell Ophelia and remember well what I have said to you,” Laertes doesn’t even specifically tell her what to do but she understands nonetheless. Later we see further to the lengths that Polonius sees his daughter as a bargaining tool when he offers her up to the service of Claudius, he says, “I’ll loose my daughter to him,” meaning he’ll leave his daughter alone with Hamlet showing his dedication to the cause of Claudius. Though this too reflects upon Ophelia, despite her love of Hamlet she does her father’s bidding and assists their plot. This shows that above all she is inclined to do what her father says and nothing shall change that, her heavy dependence on her father can be seen in the scene after Polonius has died she says to Laertes, “I would give you a violet but they all withered when my father died.” This shows how despondent she is and it could also in my opinion represent the ‘withering’ of her sanity and spirit.
Hamlet is seen in several parts of the play to badger and abuse Ophelia but from what we learn from the letters from Hamlet to Ophelia shown to Claudius by Polonius we learn that Hamlet seems to truly love Ophelia writing things like, “To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia” and “I love thee best, O most best, believe it.” This is a total contrast as to how Hamlet treats her in later parts of the play, such as the famous nunnery scene, “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners,” in this scene he thoroughly abuses Ophelia compared to his letters of infinite love for her, though this is arguably brought upon Ophelia by her own actions directed by her father, “Do...
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