Hamlet: Character Profile - Ophelia



Basic Facts:

Ophelia is portrayed as a naive and submissive female in the play. She seems to love Hamlet and appears to feel that he has mutual feelings towards her. At the same time, she is submissive because she has to obey the male characters in the play including her brother and father.


At times Ophelia appears to be little more than a pawn controlled by the male figures in the text who use her in an attempt to outwit one another. Polonius seems quite dismissive of his daughter’s feelings and Ophelia has several interactions with Hamlet where he appears to intentionally hurt her, all of which evoke sympathy for her. Ultimately, her unnecessary and undeserved death adds an additional layer of tragedy to the play.








I shall the effect of this good lesson keep as watchman to my heart. But, good my brother, do not, as some ungracious pastors do…

Ophelia is assuring Laertes that she will keep follow his advice, which shows how obedient and respectful she is to her brother.


However, perhaps because of their closeness in age and familial relationship, this is the one male figure that Ophelia does not appear to be completely in awe of and as such we sense an intimacy and closeness between them as not only is she is talking about her love life but she also admonishes him to follow his own advice as well. Moreover, the stichomythia that is regularly used in the scene reinforces their closeness because they keep on finishing off each other’s sentences, showing that they know each other well and can have discussions.



Tis in my memory lock’d, And you yourself shall keep the key of it.

Here Ophelia assures Laertes that she will follow his advice with an image that implies that she is handing him the key to her mind and memory. This image, although presumably intended as an endearing response to her brother’s concerns, reinforces the sense of male control and patriarchy that runs through this scene.



I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

Superficially at least this line appears to imply that Ophelia is lost and confused and unsure about what to do in response to Hamlet’s protestations of love. However, a more sinister analysis of the line suggests that Ophelia is actually asking Polonius to tell her what to think and so, from a feminist perspective, we can read this as an image of female compliance with a patriarchal power structure where Ophelia begins by reinforcing stereotypes about the inability of women to think for themselves before abdicating her decision to a, presumably more reliable, male figure.



My lord, he hath importun’d me with love in honorable fashion.

Ophelia is defending Hamlet even though her brother and father have both warned her about the dangers of their relationship. Her defence suggests a genuine affection for Hamlet because she chooses to believe in him despite the views of others. At the same time, Ophelia is naive because she only cares about Hamlet’s claim that he loves her without considering the difference in status between them.



I shall obey, my lord.

After briefly attempt to argue that Hamlet’s love for her is genuine, Ophelia finally concedes to her father’s will. The shortness of her reply that she is willing to “obey” her father even though she still loves Hamlet, emphasizes her submissive character.



Pale as his shirt … As if he had been loosed out of hell to speak of horrors

Ophelia describes the appearance of Hamlet when he comes to her in her chamber and forms the image of him being a ghost. She is frightened and does not know what to do, so she immediately turns to her father. Her reliance on Polonius to solve problems for her reinforces the sense that she is dependent on male figures and does not have the ability to think for herself.



I was the more deceiv’d

This is Ophelia’s response to Hamlet’s claim that he never loved her when they meet in the chapel in Act III. Previously Ophelia defended Hamlet against her father and this makes Hamlet’s claim that he did not love her even more hurtful. The fact that her father is hiding nearby to overhear Hamlet’s words accentuates the humiliating nature of the scene and a palpable sense of sympathy is created here as we see Ophelia exploited by both Hamlet and her father for their own ends. Hamlet, to create the impression that he is mad and thus lull Claudius into a false sense of security, and Polonius to prove that Hamlet’s love for Ophelia is what caused his insanity.


90 – 91

Hamlet: Is this a prologue or the post of a ring


Ophelia: ‘Tis brief, my lord.


Hamlet: As woman’s love.

Shakespeare once again evokes sympathy for Ophelia as a result of this interaction with Hamlet that occurs while watching the dumb show at the start of the play. Ophelia’s genuine response to Hamlet’s comment about the shortness of the prologue is twisted into a comment on the brevity of female affection and his sharpness here as well as the way in which he unfairly uses Ophelia to criticize all women seems unnecessarily cruel. Once again Ophelia appears as the image of a powerless female who is pulled hither and thither by the more powerful male characters.



I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died. They say a’made a good end - [sings.] ‘For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.’

In this scene in Act 4 Ophelia in her madness is distributing flowers to the members of the court and the pathos of the scene inspires considerable sympathy from the both the characters on stage and the audience. This sense of pathos is intensified by the use of imagery that suggests death and decay – ‘withered’, ‘end’ and ‘died’ – and the poignant contrast with images of ‘joy’.




Role in the play:

Ophelia is one of the few female characters in the play and this relative absence of women in combination with the way in which male figures are the central focus of the plot (when you think about it Hamlet is fundamentally nothing more than the story of a power struggle between male characters) reflects the voicelessness of women and their exclusion from positions of power in patriarchal societies. The passivity and powerlessness of the female gender role is also reinforced by her dependence on men and her submissiveness.


Aside from the feminist perspective, Ophelia is also used to create tension in the play as the audience questions whether or not Hamlet really loves her. In the beginning, Ophelia appears to love Hamlet and we have reason to believe that he feels the same way in return. However, in the later scenes Hamlet publicly humiliates Ophelia with sharp and provocative words, which seems to suggest his lack of love because he is intentionally hurting her. Nonetheless, at her funeral, Hamlet seems to be devastated when he finds out that Ophelia has died and he then emotionally declares that he loves her before fighting with Laertes in her grave. Tension is thus developed as a result because their relationship is unpredictable and this arouses the audience’s interest.


Shakespeare also uses Ophelia to evoke sympathy as result of her tragedy, especially when she is used in the games that Hamlet plays with Polonius and Claudius as these ultimately contribute to her madness and her accidental death. As a submissive female, Ophelia cannot fight back against the dominant male characters when they use her as a tool and manipulate her around and her inability in taking action portrays her as a victim in the play hence the audience take pity upon her.


Ophelia also contributes to the characterization of Polonius as a cold-hearted and self-serving courtier. Despite being her father, Polonius treats her coldly and uses Ophelia as a tool to impress Claudius’ and this helps to undermine any feelings of sympathy that we might have for him when he is killed.


Finally Ophelia also contributes to the characterization of Hamlet. When comparing their speech it is clear that in her madness Ophelia talks in prose and cannot communicate properly with the rest of the characters and this in turn implies that Hamlet, who could always communicate, was not completely insane … or at least not insane in the same way. This comparison leads the audience to question whether Hamlet is truly mad and thus raises one of the questions that has continued to intrigue and perplex readers about this play through the ages.