The famous Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet encompasses several complicated themes: revenge, self-destruction, betrayal, internal moral struggle, and love. Prince Hamlet wanted to avenge his father and succeeded at a terrible cost, as an entire Danish royal family went extinct, and the realm was effortlessly claimed by the Norwegian crown prince Fortinbras. Hamlet sacrificed everything to achieve his goal, and love was one of those sacrifices he made along the way. A burning obsession with vengeance forced Hamlet to reject the humanistic ideals he learned from his time abroad and turned him into a desperate, bitter man. The love between Ophelia and Hamlet became a casualty of Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and former lovers joined it in death. Therefore, while the love storyline takes only a secondary place in the play, it serves as additional evidence of how destructive revenge can be, adding an important layer of depth to the plot.
The Tragic Character of Ophelia
Ophelia plays a crucial part in the tragic love storyline, even though she remains a background character with unclear motivation from the beginning and until her death. She fits into an “ingénue” archetype — a naive, romantic, and lovely young woman in a ruthless world of courtly intrigues (CliffsNotes). Given that fact, she enjoys a minimal degree of personal freedom in a male-dominated medieval society, and all of her important actions are dictated by her father, Polonius, and brother Laertes. For example, Laertes warns her to beware Hamlet’s confessions of love since he will not marry Ophelia due to being the Danish prince and a possible heir to the throne:
Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will: but you must fear,
His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth (Shakespeare)
Ophelia dutifully obeys her father and brother until she loses her mind. Her lines usually consist of humble and docile agreement with their teachings and proposals, and she tries to remain loyal to her family in all circumstances.
Overall, Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s character to underline the destructive nature of intrigues and vengeance, as Ophelia becomes an innocent victim of Hamlet’s schemes of revenge and her father’s and king’s manipulations to investigate them. In that regard, Ophelia was mistreated, betrayed, and abused by the men who surrounded her (Jillian, 18). That makes Ophelia the most tragic and sympathetic figure of the play because, unlike the other, she never had a chance to save herself and escape her horrible fate.
Hamlet’s Love for Ophelia
Hamlet gave an oath to his father’s Ghost and put all his mind into the plan of vengeance. He solely focused on this goal and neglected everything; he even pretended to be insane. In the end, this obsession ruined his life and destroyed his love for Ophelia; however, that does not mean that Hamlet’s feelings for her were fake or superficial. He wrote affectionate love letters and sent her gifts from abroad, but Ophelia’s father and brother instructed her to avoid Hamlet’s affection. One of the first things Hamlet did after arrival to Elsinore was visiting Ophelia, and his insane image genuinely shocked her:
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d,
Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors–he comes before me (Shakespeare).
However, Ophelia could not go against her father’s and brother’s will and treated Hamlet dismissively, as they suggested beforehand:
No, my good lord, but, as you did command,
I did repel his fetters and denied
His access to me (Shakespeare).
That was another blow of fate; Hamlet was already consumed with plans of vengeance and disgusted by the fact that his mother Gertrude hastily married king Claudius. A rejection and indifference from his beloved mistress drove him further into hatred and bitterness. Later, Hamlet expresses them in his conversation with Ophelia; he says that he never loved her and finds refuge from an inner pain in a misogynistic rant (Marino, 832):
God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another:
you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures…
To a nunnery, go (Shakespeare).
After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet seemingly realized what his obsession with vengeance did to his love; however, the point of no return had already been passed:
I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum (Shakespeare).
In summary, Hamlet passionately loved Ophelia but was blinded by vengeance and could not understand that other people dictated her cold attitude towards him. Bitterness and frustration got better of him and killed his love both in literal and figurative senses.
Ophelia’s Love for Hamlet
Ophelia loved Hamlet as genuinely as he loved her but unfortunately had little to no influence over her life and decisions due to her position in society. She could not disobey her father and especially king Claudius, so she had to play a part in their schemes. To be more precise, Ophelia was manipulated into partaking, as queen Gertrude convinced Ophelia that everything would be done for Hamlet’s good:
And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness: so shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again (Shakespeare).
She truly believed in Hamlet’s madness and genuinely expressed her feelings. She was sorry for him even after hearing his rant full of insults:
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword (Shakespeare).
Ophelia was forced to choose between her love and duty before family, and she had to prioritize the latter since she had no authority to express her opinion or be sincere with Hamlet. She could not explain her cold and dismissive behavior to him since that would be against her father’s will. Therefore, Ophelia was put in front of a moral dilemma with no viable solution, which led her to a real madness and untimely death.
In conclusion, it can be stated that Hamlet genuinely loved Ophelia, and her love for him was real as well. However, Hamlet’s way of vengeance and Ophelia’s forced loyalty to her family destroyed their love, and the death of love added an extra touch to the tragic atmosphere of the play. Hamlet caused death and chaos in Denmark on his own, and while he had serious reasons to act as he did, Ophelia fell an innocent victim of his vengeance. Therefore, Shakespeare made her a truly sympathetic tragic character who suffered due to self-concerned conspiracies and motivations of surrounding people.
“Character Analysis Ophelia.” CliffsNotes, Web.
Jillian, Luke. “What If the Play Were Called Ophelia? Gender and Genre in Hamlet.” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1–18.
Marino, James J. “Ophelia’s Desire.” ELH, vol. 84, no. 4, 2017, pp. 817–839.
Shakespeare, William. ” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Web.