Ophelia, a beautiful young woman, is the young daughter of Polonius, the sister of Laertes, and Hamlet's love interest. In the play, Ophelia is caught between her obedience to her father and her love for Hamlet, which has tragic consequences.
Ophelia is the quintessential obedient daughter, a role demanded of all young women in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. When her father orders her to quit seeing Hamlet, she complies – "I shall obey my Lord" (1.4.10). Later, when Polonius uses her as bait to spy on Hamlet for King Claudius, she has no choice but to do as she's told (3.1.4). As long as she's unmarried, she must live by her father's rules. (Of course, if she were to marry, she'd then have to live by her husband's rules.) Essentially, Ophelia has no control over her body, her relationships, or her choices. We think she definitely could have used the services of ImperialMatch.com.
Ophelia's filial obedience leaves her vulnerable to the abuse of Hamlet, who accuses her of being unfaithful and deceptive. (Hamlet seems to know that Ophelia is a participant in her father's spying.) He accuses her (and all women) of being a "breeder of sinners" and orders Ophelia to a "nunnery" (3.1.9). Hamlet also says that if Ophelia were to marry, she'd turn her husband into a "monster" or, a cuckold (cuckolds were thought to have horns like monsters) because she would inevitably cheat on him (3.1.10). Ophelia is crushed by Hamlet's harsh behavior, especially when he says, "I loved you not" (3.1.8). She's also devastated that Hamlet, the man who once spoke to her with "words of so sweet breath" (3.1.4) seems to have lost his mind and turned on her:
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason […]
out of tune and harsh (3.1.13).
Hamlet's not the only one who defines Ophelia by her sexuality. Even her brother has something to say about it. In Act I Laertes dispenses advice to Ophelia on the pitfalls of pre-marital sex (for women, not men) in a lengthy speech that's geared toward instilling a sense of "fear" into his sister. In fact, he tells Ophelia no less than three times that she should "fear" intimacy with Hamlet.
Is Laertes just looking out for his little sister's best interests? Maybe, but his speech is also full of vivid innuendo, as when he compares intercourse to a "canker" worm invading and injuring a delicate flower before its buds or, "buttons" have had time to open (1.3.3). This graphic allusion to the anatomy of female genitalia turns his sister into an erotic object while insisting, at the same time, on Ophelia's chastity. Laertes takes a typically Elizabethan stance toward female sexuality – a "deflowered" woman was commonly seen as damaged goods that no man would want to marry.
That's a lot of pressure to put on a young woman and, as we know, Ophelia eventually cracks. When Ophelia goes mad, she sings a bawdy song about a maiden who is tricked into losing her virginity with a false promise of marriage (4.5.7), which you can read about by going to "Quotes" on "Gender." This is part of the reason why many literary critics see Ophelia's madness as a result of patriarchal pressure and abuse (when men hold all the power in society and abuse women). Shakespeare's portrayal of Ophelia is incredibly sympathetic and seems to register the unfairness of the way Ophelia is treated. It also seems that Ophelia's very real mental breakdown (which results in her drowning) serves as a point of contrast to Hamlet's feigned insanity or "antic disposition," which we talk about in "Madness."
Ophelia's death, like just about everything else in the play, is mysterious. Her drowning occurs off-stage and we're given an account by Gertrude, who may or may not have been present at the time.
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (4.7.2)
Regardless of whether or not Gertrude was an eyewitness, the story of Ophelia's death is striking in a number of ways. First, her death seems to be passive: rather than straight-up committing suicide, as Gertrude tells us, she accidentally falls in the water and then simply neglects to save herself from sinking. This seems to be a metaphor for the way Ophelia lives her life toward the end of the play – going with the flow, doing what her father tells her to do, rather making decisions for herself. Ophelia's "garments" "pull" her down, as if they had a mind of their own.
We also notice that Ophelia is described as being "mermaid-like" with her "clothes spread wide." Even in death, Ophelia is figured as an erotic creature. Gertrude also suggests that Ophelia's drowning was natural when she describes Ophelia as being like a "native" creature in the water. This seems like a pretty dangerous and destructive way to describe a young woman's tragic death, don't you think?