Insanity during the Elizabethan Era was viewed as possession by an otherworldly creature. Shakespeare, one of the most famous playwrights of the time, delved into madness and insanity in many of his plays, including Hamlet. Several characters within Hamlet could be considered as mad, most notably Hamlet and Ophelia. While Hamlet’s every move is documented within the play, Ophelia is a minor character who is more often part of the scenery. However, Ophelia’s transition from a naive girl to one of madness is abrupt and striking in nature and can be seen as a representation of her freedom to express her feelings and opinions that had once been overlooked by her overbearing father and brother.
Within the play, it is apparent that there is a large patriarchal influence on the characters, and is most evidently shown with Ophelia. She is noticeably naive, lacking judgement and willpower, allowing the male figures around her, including Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes, to exploit and manipulate her. While in Polonius’ home in Act I Scene III, Laertes speaks to Ophelia about Hamlet’s misogynic attitude towards women:
Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity. (1.3.29-32)
Laertes warns Ophelia to not fall for Hamlet’s charm and tells her that it would be shameful to be seduced by such a greedy individual. He implies that Ophelia lacks control and is too hasty with her desires, allowing herself to be manipulated by others. Polonius also rather more harshly accuses Ophelia of being naive:
Affection, pooh! You speak like a green girl
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance. (1.3.101-102)
He expects her to be more sophisticated as a noble woman, but instead, she is “like a green girl” and, in his eyes, less than ideal. Confronted by both Laertes and Polonius, Ophelia goes against her own wishes to court Hamlet and instead follows the influence of the two men closest to her. Being a woman in a patriarchal society, Ophelia is unable to express her own opinions and is forced to follow the wishes of the men around her.
As the play progresses, Ophelia transitions to a seductress, although she still has little power over her actions. When Claudius demands to know if Hamlet is truly mad, Polonius offers Ophelia as a ‘sacrifice’ to Hamlet as a way to determine Hamlet’s level of sanity. When Hamlet hears of this, he addresses Polonius:
Hamlet. O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius. What a treasure had he, my lord?
One fair daughter and no more,
The which he lovèd passing well.
Polonius. (aside) Still on my daughter.
Hamlet. Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?
Jephthah was a warrior who had sacrificed his daughter to a higher being after being victorious in a battle. Hamlet compares Polonius to Jephthah but rather than being humiliated, Polonius does not mind sacrificing his daughter for his benefit. It is in this manner that both Polonius and Claudius utilize Ophelia as an object for seduction. However, while she is still exploited by men around her, she is able to act as a seductress and attempt to discover Hamlet’s true intentions in her own way. Her mission to seduce Hamlet provides her a means to express her feelings for Hamlet, and she is able to prove her value as a worthy noblewoman when she takes her position as the subject of the prince’s love.
After Polonius’ death in Act III Scene IV, Ophelia transitions to her final phase of madness. Ophelia’s insanity stems from her dependence on familiar male figures. With the death of her father, she is no longer able to depend on him and creates an imaginary voice that she can listen to and follow. Therefore, rather than being possessed by a demon, it can be argued that Ophelia is in possession of herself and the voice she has created. With the death of her father, she is free to do what she pleases, and she shows that this is true by acting like a madwoman in front of everyone she encounters, no matter their status. When a gentleman reports his thoughts upon Ophelia’s rambling, he states:
Her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshapèd use of it doth move
The hearers to collection. They yawn at it
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts,
Which, as her winks and nods and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought. (4.5.7-13)
The gentleman states that although her words don’t actually mean anything, Ophelia is still able to express herself in a way such that others attempt to decipher her words. Rather than echoing her father’s wishes, Ophelia is able to create her own meaning and convey it to others.
Through the analysis of Ophelia’s transition from naivety to insanity, it is determined that Ophelia’s madness may be representative of her freedom of expression. While surrounded by dominant male figures, Ophelia is controlled and unable to articulate her own opinions. With her father gone, however, Ophelia no longer needs to be confined. Ophelia’s eventual freedom symbolizes her deconstructed mind and restored individuality.