Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet—Seen Truly at Last!


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Horatio Discovering the Madness of Ophelia
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Horatio Discovering the Madness of Ophelia”

One of the great, new things in Eli Siegel’s critical and dramatic masterpiece, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited, is his comprehension of the character of Ophelia.  It is comprehension magnificent in scholarship, warmth of feeling, and knowledge of the human self.  And it’s true to the play, to the lines Shakespeare wrote. As actor, I’m tremendously grateful to have had the honor to present what I learned from Mr. Siegel’s seeing of Ophelia as I performed the role—one of the deepest,  most rewarding experiences of my career.

Who Is Ophelia? 

Who is Ophelia?  What is her character?  What can women today learn about ourselves through understanding this young woman of Denmark in Shakespeare’s immortal play?  It’s been felt by audiences and also by critics over the years that Ophelia is an innocent, naive girl, who loves Hamlet, and is deeply hurt by his severity with her, sees his distress as madness, and later, grief-stricken, goes mad herself, drowning in a brook.

Yet if we study the play carefully, this pathetic and noble picture is not in keeping with the character Shakespeare created.  For example, when, in Act I, Scene 3, we first hear Ophelia speak, as her brother Laertes warns her against Hamlet, and she banters lightly with him, she gives no hint of her true feeling. Can we surmise that the demure Danish girl is not just naive, but perhaps crafty?

And when, a little later, Ophelia’s father, Polonius, tells her “in plain terms from this time forth” not to “give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet,” she makes no protest, doesn’t say: “But father, I care for him”—instead has this short line: “I shall obey, my lord.”

How different this is from the way Shakespeare portrays other young women, say Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Miranda, in The Tempest, or even Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—who gracefully and bravely stand up to their fathers in behalf of the men they love.

Then, in scene 1 of Act III, after Hamlet’s  “To be, or not to be” soliloquy—the thoughtful, deeply questioning Prince sees Ophelia and speaks to her—and we find that she’s hurt, miffed because Hamlet hasn’t come to see her “for many a day.”  She’s not interested in what he feels having recently lost his father, King Hamlet.  The big thing is he’s neglected her and so, she immediately reproaches him, and says she’s giving back presents he gave her, because “rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”  What makes Hamlet unkind, mean in Ophelia’s eyes?  It’s because he’s been deep in thought about something other than herself!   And she’s angry, as a woman today can be, because: “ should be the most important thing in the world to this man!”

Does a Woman Have Motives?

“Ophelia,” Eli Siegel explained, “has been seen too often as one sadly affected by other people’s doings.”  But, he continued, “It is hard to be alive and not have motives.”  What is Ophelia’s motive as she talks with Hamlet?—while  her father has hidden himself to hear them converse?  Does she want to show herself sincerely to Hamlet, or fool him by presenting a pretty, winsomely sad arrangement of herself?  Is she motivated by love and the desire to know, or something very different?  Is she after something narrow, or something wide, generous?  For all her demureness, is Ophelia deeply cold?

Again, this is so different from Juliet, who, in the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, tells Romeo that in loving him, she’s larger, richer, and she’s grateful: “My bounty is as boundless as the sea. / My love as deep: the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.”  We hear nothing like that from Ophelia.  In fact, when Hamlet asks her two questions:  “Are you honest?  Are you fair?”—which could be usefully asked of any person: she’s very much offended, and makes no attempt to answer honestly, or offer any possible criticism of herself.  Said Mr. Siegel of her:  “If you are not self-critical, you can hardly be honest.”

For example, after Hamlet scolds Ophelia roundly, giving examples of her pretending and bad ethics, she decides he’s lost his senses, exclaiming: “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”—and proceeds to pity herself:  “O woe is me,/ To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!”  Commented Mr. Siegel:

We have Shakespeare showing the person whose own mind will be “overthrown” exclaiming most about the mental peril of another, and the mental misfortune.  We find that Ophelia is severer on Hamlet’s state than the King is—the King says:  “What he spake, though it lack’d form a little, / Was not like madness.” But Ophelia is a bold judge. She doesn’t have much of an inclination to enter into another’s mind; but if that mind is not in keeping with what she is looking for—there—it is meeting, or it has met, disaster.

Shakespeare Shows—Ill Will Has Results

Can a woman of today—not in a play—sum up a man very quickly, decide he’s no good, excoriate him angrily, even call him “crazy” because he doesn’t behave in keeping with what she wants?  Have women all over the world figuratively wiped the floor with a man, given way to unjust scorn, and later punished themselves by feeling very bad, low, depressed?  What effect will Ophelia’s failure to understand Hamlet, to have good will for him, have on her as the play proceeds?  What was Shakespeare’s intention here?  That is one of the large, new things Eli Siegel explained, enriching immeasurably Shakespearean scholarship, and benefiting all of humanity:

The ready way Ophelia has of negatively appraising Hamlet is an indication of what is to happen to her.  Hamlet is intense, hardly urbane;  acrimoniously stylistic; harshly descriptive of feminine possibility—but sense is honored. The sense is what Ophelia doesn’t want to see.  Such a lack of mental going forth bodes not well. And, as was said, the way Ophelia sees madness in another—and Shakespeare perhaps meant it—is a prefiguring of insanity for Ophelia later.