Ophelia is a character in William Shakespeare's drama Hamlet. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and potential wife of Prince Hamlet. She is one of only two female characters in the play.
In Ophelia's first speaking appearance in the play, she is seen with her brother, Laertes, who is leaving for France. Laertes warns her that Hamlet, the heir to the throne of Denmark, does not have the freedom to marry whomever he wants. Ophelia's father, Polonius, who enters while Laertes is leaving, also forbids Ophelia from pursuing Hamlet, as Polonius fears that Hamlet is not earnest about her.
In Ophelia's next appearance, she tells Polonius that Hamlet rushed into her room with his clothing askew and a "hellish" expression on his face; he only stared at her, nodding three times without speaking to her. Based on what Ophelia told him, Polonius concludes that he was wrong to forbid Ophelia from seeing Hamlet, and that Hamlet must be mad with love for her. Polonius immediately decides to go to Claudius, the new King of Denmark and also Hamlet's uncle and stepfather, about the situation. Polonius later suggests to Claudius that they hide behind an arras to overhear Hamlet speaking to Ophelia, when Hamlet thinks the conversation is private. Since Polonius is now sure that Hamlet is lovesick for Ophelia, he thinks Hamlet will express his love for her. Claudius agrees to try the eavesdropping plan later.
The plan leads to what is commonly called the "Nunnery Scene". Polonius instructs Ophelia to stand in the lobby of the castle while he and Claudius hide. Hamlet enters the room in a different world from the others, and recites his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. Hamlet approaches Ophelia and talks to her, saying "Get thee to a nunnery." Hamlet asks Ophelia where her father is and she lies to him, saying her father must be at home. Hamlet realises he is being spied upon. He exits after declaring, "I say we will have no more marriages." Ophelia is left bewildered and heartbroken, sure that Hamlet is insane. She knows that ultimately it is she that broke him because she lied. She was the woman he had loved and a friend whom he trusted and she lied to him. After Hamlet storms out, Ophelia makes her "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" soliloquy.
The next time Ophelia appears is at the "Mousetrap Play", which Hamlet has arranged to try to prove that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Hamlet sits with Ophelia and makes sexually suggestive remarks; he also says that woman's love is brief.
Later that night, after the play, Hamlet kills Polonius during a private meeting between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. At Ophelia's next appearance, after her father's death, she has gone mad, due to what the other characters interpret as grief for her father. She talks in riddles and rhymes, and sings some "mad" and bawdy songs about death and a maiden losing her virginity. She exits after bidding everyone a "good night".
The last time Ophelia appears in the play is after Laertes comes to the castle to challenge Claudius over the death of his father, Polonius. Ophelia sings more songs and hands out flowers, citing their symbolic meanings, although interpretations of the meanings differ. The only herb that Shakespeare gives Ophelia herself is rue; "...there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o' Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference". Rue is well known for its symbolic meaning of regret, but the herb is also used to treat pain, bruises and has abortive qualities.
In Act 4 Scene 7, Queen Gertrude reports that Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree (There is a willow grows aslant the brook), and the branch had broken and dropped Ophelia into the brook, where she drowned. Gertrude says that Ophelia appeared "incapable of her own distress". Gertrude's announcement of Ophelia's death has been praised as one of the most poetic death announcements in literature.
Later, a sexton at the graveyard insists Ophelia must have killed herself. Laertes is outraged by what the cleric says, and replies that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven when the cleric "lie[s] howling" in hell.
At Ophelia's funeral, Queen Gertrude sprinkles flowers on Ophelia's grave ("Sweets to the sweet"), and says she wished Ophelia could have been Hamlet's wife (contradicting Laertes' warnings to Ophelia in the first act). Laertes then jumps into Ophelia's grave excavation, asking for the burial to wait until he has held her in his arms one last time and proclaims how much he loved her. Hamlet, nearby, then challenges Laertes and claims that he loved Ophelia more than "forty thousand" brothers could. After her funeral scene, Ophelia is no longer mentioned.
In productions of Hamlet
While it is known that Richard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare's time, there is no evidence of who played Ophelia; since there were no professional actresses on the public stage in Elizabethan England, we may assume that she was played by a boy. The actor appears to have had some musical ability, as Ophelia is given lines from ballads such as Walsingham to sing, and, according to the first quarto edition, enters with a lute.
The early modern stage in England had an established set of emblematic conventions for the representation of female madness: dishevelled hair worn down, dressed in white, bedecked with wild flowers, Ophelia's state of mind would have been immediately 'readable' to her first audiences. "Colour was a major source of stage symbolism", Andrew Gurr explains, so the contrast between Hamlet's "nighted colour" (1.2.68) and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78) and Ophelia's "virginal and vacant white" would have conveyed specific and gendered associations. Her action of offering wild flowers to the court suggests, Showalter argues, a symbolic deflowering, while even the manner of her 'doubtful death', by drowning, carries associations with the feminine (Laertes refers to his tears on hearing the news as "the woman").
Gender structured, too, the early modern understanding of the distinction between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's: melancholy was understood as a male disease of the intellect, while Ophelia would have been understood as suffering from erotomania, a malady conceived in biological and emotional terms. This discourse of female madness influenced Ophelia's representation on stage from the 1660s, when the appearance of actresses in the English theatres first began to introduce "new meanings and subversive tensions" into the role: "the most celebrated of the actresses who played Ophelia were those whom rumor credited with disappointments in love". Showalter relates a theatrical anecdote that vividly captures this sense of overlap between a performer's identity and the role she plays:
"The greatest triumph was reserved for Susan Mountfort, a former actress at Lincoln's Inn Fields who had gone mad after her lover's betrayal. One night in 1720 she escaped from her keeper, rushed to the theater, and just as the Ophelia of the evening was to enter for her mad scene, "sprang forward in her place ... with wild eyes and wavering motion." As a contemporary reported, "she was in truth Ophelia herself, to the amazement of the performers as well as of the audience—nature having made this last effort, her vital powers failed her and she died soon after."
During the 18th century, the conventions of Augustan drama encouraged far less intense, more sentimentalised and decorous depictions of Ophelia's madness and sexuality. From Mrs Lessingham in 1772 to Mary Catherine Bolton, playing opposite John Kemble in 1813, the familiar iconography of the role replaced its passionate embodiment. Sarah Siddons played Ophelia's madness with "stately and classical dignity" in 1785.
Many great actresses have played Ophelia on stage over the years. In the 19th century, she was portrayed by Helen Faucit, Dora Jordan, Frances Abington, and Peg Woffington, who won her first real fame by playing the role. Theatre manager Tate Wilkinson declared that next to Susannah Maria Cibber, Elizabeth Satchell (of the famous Kemble family) was the best Ophelia he ever saw. The American scholar Tina Packer argued that Ophelia is trapped within the imprisoning world of the Danish court, and only by losing her mind can she escape. Packer argued that Ophelia's problems stem from being too dutiful a daughter as she obeys her father in rejecting Hamlet and returning his gifts to him, as she is untrue to herself, thus settling herself up for her downfall.
Ophelia has been portrayed on screen since the days of early silent films. Dorothy Foster played Ophelia opposite Charles Raymond's Hamlet in the 1912 film Hamlet. Jean Simmons played Ophelia opposite Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning Hamlet performance in 1948; Simmons was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. More recently, Ophelia has been portrayed by Anastasiya Vertinskaya (1964), Marianne Faithfull (1969), Helena Bonham Carter (1990), Kate Winslet (1996), Julia Stiles (2000), and Daisy Ridley (2018). Themes associated with Ophelia have led to movies such as Ophelia Learns to Swim (2000), and Dying Like Ophelia (2002).
In many modern theatre and film adaptations she is portrayed barefoot in the mad scenes, including Kozintsev's 1964 film, Zeffirelli's 1990 film, Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film, and Michael Almereyda's Hamlet 2000 (2000) versions.
Fictional characters inspired by Ophelia
- Tara Knowles in the FX cable TV drama Sons of Anarchy is an Ophelia allegory.
- Ophelia in Giannina Braschi's postcolonial novel, United States of Banana (2011), is a 21st century passive-aggressive, who threatens to slash her wrists when arguing with her ex-lover Hamlet; the staged adaption by Juan Pablo Felix was produced by Columbia Stages in New York City in 2015.
- Ophelia, in Paul Griffiths' novel let me tell you (2008), is a derivative of Shakespeare's character who tells her story in her own words, in the literal sense that she can use only the words she is given in the play. She speaks of her childhood, of her parents and brother, of Hamlet, and of events leading up to the point at which the play begins.
- Psychologist Mary Pipher named her non-fiction book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), after Shakespeare's Ophelia.