Caitlin Jeffery

Exploring the depths of digital literature

One may smile, and smile, and be a villain

on March 1, 2013

This is probably my tenth-ish reading of Hamlet and I still love this play. The complexity, depth, and interpretation of these characters are just so rich that it hooks you in. Each reading I find myself re-evaluating my stance on characters, their motives, their meanings. How many works can you say do that?

I have to say, no matter how often I read this play I always feel bad for Ophelia. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hamlet and the complexity of the characters, but her character just breaks my heart. While it is often debated if Hamlet does truly love her, I feel in his quest for vengeance he punishes Ophelia. At the same time, she never has faith in his love for her.

I love the part when Polonius reads his letter to Ophelia to Claudius:

“Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.”

Hamlet tells her to not doubt him or his love, but Polonius dissuades Ophelia:

“And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
‘Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star.
This must not be.’ And then I prescripts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;”

Polonius thinks that Ophelia rejecting Hamlet drives him “Into the madness wherein now he raves, And all we mourn for.” In fact, it is she that is driven eventually to insanity and suicide. Ophelia is very much a game piece in Hamlet, being used by her father. Hamlet is so resentful of females at the moment because of his mother cheating on his father and the events surrounding his father’s death, that he is completely distrustful. I really do believe he loves Ophelia, but he isn’t in the right mental place to do anything about it. This poor girl just doesn’t understand because she has no knowledge of what is going on in Hamlet’s head. Heck most readers are still trying to figure out what is going on in Hamlet’s head! When she rejects him as her father asks, it just adds fuel to the fire that Hamlet has against females and makes him more resentful because he can see she is being used as a pawn and wants her to make her own choices. After he discovers her death, he professes his deep love for her:

“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum.”

In the end this is a tragedy play for a reason. Poor Ophelia.


8 responses to “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain

  1. “While it is often debated if Hamlet does truly love her, I feel in his quest for vengeance he punishes Ophelia. At the same time, she never has faith in his love for her.”

    I believe that he truly loves her but is so bent on destroying Claudius that she becomes collateral damage, as does Polonius. Hamlet can’t break out of character for fear that his plan will be found out, and she proves herself unworthy of his confidences by plotting against him. This play is messy and one persons betrayal begets another, hence it being called a tragedy.

  2. carrieglovka says:

    “Ophelia is very much a game piece in Hamlet, being used by her father. Hamlet is so resentful of females at the moment because of his mother cheating on his father and the events surrounding his father’s death, that he is completely distrustful.”
    I love this analysis on Ophelia and she is being manipulated by her father in order to probe Hamlet’s mentality. It does seem like Hamlet loved Ophelia once, but he has developed a sour taste in his mouth. I had originally thought he was just too preoccupied with his plan to nurture his feelings for her. I think you tie together his anger and repulsion with his mother very well in being an attribute of women in general. I too felt sorry for Ophelia, she seems innocent and naive to the chaos around her; she is an innocent.

  3. theblume says:

    This is so true! I loved the romance portions of the play, but I got the feeling the situation with his mom and uncle makes feel disgusted with relationships and women. I think this affects his courting of her.

  4. vonepho says:

    I love that your blog centered on Ophelia. And I do agree with Megan that she’s “collateral damage” in Hamlet’s scheme. However, I do think Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is sincere, and when he says: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love /Make up my sum.” it is further validation. The one thing that makes me curious about Ophelia’s death is why Gertrude didn’t help Ophelia as she was drowning? After all, she was there. Instead, Gertrude went on this speech about how Ophelia fell into the water after falling from a tree, and “chanted snatches of old lauds.” It just seems odd.

    • kbehre says:

      Excellent question, and an important reason to study genre conventions! You’ve honed in on an imperfection of sorts in the play, caused by the fact that Ophelia’s drowning can’t be believably acted out on an Elizabethan stage. So, someone has to describe what happened, and Gertrude gets that task. If we are to believe that Gertrude witnessed a part of the drowning, we are to take a cue from the other characters who seem to understand that there wasn’t anything Gertrude could have done.

  5. “I really do believe he loves Ophelia, but he isn’t in the right mental place to do anything about it. ”

    I couldn’t agree more. I think deep down he wants to love her and trust her, but he’s at the whim of the maelstrom of plots against (and perpetrated) by him. All the demeaning remarks he makes to her I see as him lashing out in the moment, consumed with his rage and sadness. I don’t think he wants to hurt her, but he’s consumed and when people are on quests for revenge there are always those that don’t survive the journey. She’s an incredibly sympathetic character, though still not wholly blameless–damn, I love this play.

    • kbehre says:

      The thing that sets Shakespeare apart from other dramatists is this: Other dramatists develop one character, or maybe a couple of characters, in deeply relatable and dynamic ways. In Shakespeare’s works, all of the characters are human. Virtually every character who speaks more than a dozen or so lines has some nuance, some complication, and all of the major characters are dynamic. It is absolutely incredible.

      • Even the grave-diggers had a strange and unnerving humanity and insight into life. They were not simply props furthering the plot. No one takes as much care with a grave-digger as they do a prince, except Shakespeare.

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