Literary Wisdom

“A Ministering Angel Shall My Sister Be” (Shakespeare V.1.251): Ophelia’s Mental and Physical Death as Instigator of Moral Good in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

The following piece was finished on April 10, 2019, as my 11-page capstone essay for AP English Literature and Composition.

Writing any sort of literary criticism is difficult to accomplish. It involves much more than reading a book or watching a version on film or even listening to commentary; a worthwhile, least biased piece of criticism comes from “permitting the text to interpret itself”. One essay that manages to achieve a balance of insight and textual devotion remarkably well is Yi-Chi Chen’s “Pregnant with Madness—Ophelia’s Struggle and Madness in Hamlet”, which explains Ophelia’s “three-phased transformation from Polonius’ timid daughter…to the seducer…and, finally to the mad woman” and manages to portray her admirable qualities without holding to the more feminist versions of such traits (1). To the eternal devotees of Hamlet—and more so, of his ladylove—Chen’s essay could not bring more delight, but, as in everything of which one considers himself an aficionado, the conclusion brings sadness because the thing one loves is no longer…“to be” (III.i.56). At the end of her essay, Chen poses that Ophelia’s struggle concludes in physical death and that no one pays heed to her in her mental death (15,19). Nevertheless, Shakespeare leaves little traces of Ophelia’s steadfast morality even after both her deaths, and these traces remain largely unanswered for in Chen’s essay. With that omission in mind, then, another essay attempts to expound upon Ophelia’s ethical and spiritual beauty in her death—for when she floats down the river of mortality, she lives all the more in the hearts of those she loved most.

Ophelia lives in Gertrude, whose wandering soul knew not conviction—or if it did, it did not last too long. Though Hamlet confronts her and shows her pictures and pleads for her to turn her heart to righteousness, he also treats Gertrude violently and yells in her face and in doing so gives not a clear sign to the audience of his mother’s true opinion of him, for one knows not whether Gertrude lies on his behalf or rejects him when she states about her son, “[He is] [m]ad as the sea and wind, when both contend/Which is the mightier” (IV.i.7-8). In the midst of Prince Hamlet’s too-much-feigned ecstasy, the revered playwright leaves his audience to conclude that Gertrude did indeed feel remorse, but merely for a little moment—and it thus follows that, for four scenes of the fourth act, Shakespeare leaves Gertrude’s soul untouched by his commentary. At the beginning of the fifth scene, however, Gertrude stands broken not by Hamlet’s bloody sword or feigned ravings, but by the unassuming flower of the castle—Ophelia. Just after the Danish queen refuses to speak with the maiden, and the servant pleads for her pity, he states the following in response to the Queen’s “What would she have?” (IV.v.3):

She speaks much of her father; says she hears

There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart;

Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,

That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,

Yet the unshaped use of it doth move

The hearers to collection[.] (IV.v.4-9)

Although the servant had pled for pity on Gertrude’s part toward Ophelia, he cannot help but see the otherworldly nature of her words and stand in wonder at it (Shakespeare IV.v.4-9). Unconsciously, however, he also encourages the Queen to consider his words not only within the dilemma of whether to permit Ophelia into the chamber, but also within the spiritual clamor of her bosom—the clamor that Hamlet had attempted to cure but left unremedied. There remains no other explanation for Gertrude’s sudden elaboration on sin when she bids Polonius’ daughter to come in:

Let her come in. [Exit Gentleman]

To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is,

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss:

So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt. (IV.v.16-20)

Critic Yi-Chi Chen poses that Ophelia “is merely ignored because none of the people in the court would admit the corruption that is gradually destroying the court”, yet here one finds a beautiful negation—or at the very least, an exception to this principle (15). Gertrude does not invite Ophelia alone into the room; with her admission of her “sick soul” (Shakespeare IV.v.17), she also invites conviction, though she did not think much of the mad Ophelia before (Shakespeare IV.v.17). Nevertheless, it is in Ophelia’s death and burial that Shakespeare confirms Ophelia’s restored place next to Gertrude, when for the first time someone approves of Hamlet and his ladylove’s matrimony:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell! [Scattering flowers]

I hop’d thou shouldest have been my Hamlet’s wife;

I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,

And not have strew’d thy grave. (V.i.253-256)

Though Gertrude formerly expressed hopes that Ophelia’s “virtues/Will bring him [Hamlet] to his wonted way again” and thus acknowledged the sane Ophelia’s moral superiority, it is only when the maiden has passed into eternity that Gertrude once and for all declares the young girl’s restoration to that place, if not to an even higher ethical pedestal (Shakespeare III.i.40-41). The Queen never would have confirmed this to the audience, let alone triumph so well over herself, had it not been that Ophelia had perished.

Ophelia lives not only in “the beauteous majesty of Denmark”, but in her brother Laertes as well (Shakespeare IV.v.21). When he arrives at Elsinore after hearing of his father’s death, the son has naught else in his heart but obligation and vengeance:

How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with.

To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!

Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!

I dare damnation. To this point I stand,

That both the worlds I give to negligence, 

Let come what comes; only I’ll be reveng’d

Most thoroughly for my father. (IV.v.130-136)

Thus he casts all realms of eternity aside, not in self-sacrifice, but in words too hastily spoken—and indeed, he would certainly have acted irrationally upon those words and convictions if Ophelia had entered a moment later. The fury that rises in Laertes in his conversations with the “vile king” stems from his solid belief that Claudius murdered his father; as such, Claudius’ outright denial of this belief would most likely have been ineffectual had Laertes been able to respond (Shakespeare IV.v.115):

That I am guiltless of your father’s death,

And am most sensibly in grief for it,

It shall as level to your judgment pierce

As day does to your eye. (IV.v.149-152)

Consequently, Laertes would likely have “dare[d] damnation” were it not for the mad Ophelia entering at almost the selfsame moment and immediately altering his utterances of eternity to “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,/She turns to favor and to prettiness” (Shakespeare IV.v.133) (IV.v.187-188). Even sooner upon seeing her, Laertes proclaims his love for Ophelia—a love not too evident in his relationship with Polonius—as a portion his cause for vengeance when he says, “By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight,/Till our scale turn the beam” (IV.v.156). Afterward, though, lies another temptation, for most of Act IV’s seventh scene portrays Claudius seeking to combine irrationality into Laertes’ recently gentled temper—and to some extent, Laertes complies and conspires alongside the king against Hamlet. This establishes a parallel between this scene and Act IV, Scene v, for Laertes’ inner conflict, his inclination to turn to permanent hatred, is soothed by the other sense of Ophelia’s death. At the end of Act IV, Ophelia’s death is not merely mental. It is bodily, and with that death, he complies to compassion, even though he desperately wishes to fight it:

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,

And therefore I forbid my tears; but yet

It is our trick, nature her custom holds,

Let shame say what it will; when these are gone

The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord!

I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze,

But that this folly douts it. (IV.vii.185-191)

Nevertheless, although Ophelia gives Laertes a longing for goodness, and thus saves his soul from rotting in blackness forever, he decides to kill Hamlet even though “’tis almost ‘gainst my conscience” (Shakespeare V.ii.300). One wonders whether Ophelia truly had much of an effect. But when Laertes lies on the floor of the Danish court, the place which serves as his deathbed, Ophelia’s gentle reminders of goodness to her brother burst into victory when he exclaims, “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:/Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,/Nor thine on me!” (V.ii.333-335) As the audience hears the glorious Christ-like words of Hamlet pour pleas of forgiveness upon Laertes’ soul, they realize that, although “[h]er death…leads to the duel”, Ophelia gently nudges her brother to struggle for goodness, to adopt some nobility in his vengeance, and ultimately to receive redemption from her dearly beloved: “Heaven make thee free of it!” (Chen 17) (Shakespeare V.ii.336)

Ophelia lives inside her Prince’s bosom in more than one sense, however. Hamlet’s extension of forgiveness to Laertes is only a first-fruit of the alteration which Ophelia has inspired in him. When Hamlet rejects Ophelia and pronounces her a “breeder of sinners”, the maiden does not leave him but instead “delivers a beautifully tragic soliloquy. She reveals her true nature; she is unselfish and loyal to the memory of the prince she has loved” (III.i.122) (Shakespeare 108). Critic Lilly Romestant shares a similar interpretation when she states in “Ophelia and the Feminine Construct”:

  “O, help him, you sweet heavens,” she exclaims, when he begins to vehemently rail against her, and, “O heavenly powers, restore him!” (3.1.134, 141). She cries out due to fear, most likely, but not fear for herself– fear for him, for his soul, and who he once was. “Restore him,” she says, indicating that she senses the cruel turn in his temperament, but rather than pray for herself and for her own protection against it, she intercedes on behalf of her lover, that he be restored to his former self. Then, as if that is not evidence enough of her true love for him, her soliloquy after his departure concretizes it. (5)

Unfortunately, Ophelia at this point knows not what sort of effect her intercession will bring, for Hamlet does not restore her to himself while she lives in the bodily sense, and later on her songs in madness will tell of a lover’s rejection. As Chen phrases the idea, “…Hamlet, whose love for her has faded, is considered ‘dead and gone’ in Ophelia’s mind” (12). Here one finds that while Ophelia lives, Hamlet is dead and seemingly forever bewildered…but Shakespeare does not permit their roles in his story to stay in this condition. Instead, they immediately switch roles by the end of Act IV; Hamlet finds a rejuvenated spiritual and mental state while Ophelia, alas, dies “in the weeping brook” (Shakespeare IV.vii.175). When Hamlet rejects his previous course of action and despairs for all he had wrought upon those he loved—in effect, permitting his old methods and motivations to perish that he might become a new man—Shakespeare uses the same water imagery he uses in Ophelia’s death, bringing to mind Ryken’s commentary on the literary sea change: “…Hamlet has been to sea and returned, which is an archetypal death-and-rebirth symbol in literature. To this day we have a common saying about a ‘sea change’ to name a distinct change in a person’s behavior or situation” (67). Not only that, but both Ophelia’s physical death and Hamlet’s spiritual renewal happen at almost the exact same time, with Claudius reading Hamlet’s letters of return in Act IV, Scene vii, and hearing of Ophelia’s death at the end of that scene. The connection may not be causal, but it does form another dimension of Fox-Good’s plenty-viable “‘mad-double’” theory (qtd. in Chen 11). In addition, where her physical death is a parallel to his spiritual one, Ophelia herself becomes the primary symbol of Hamlet’s coming of age. Says Terri Montegrano in her commentary on Act V, Scene i, “This scene marks the end of the flower imagery in the play and, as such, it accentuates Ophelia’s tragedy. With her goes the last of Hamlet’s youth and Hamlet’s dreams” (Shakespeare 184). Ryken echoes this idea in his Hamlet commentary book:

When Ophelia lived, Hamlet repudiated her. Now that she is dead, he regains his love for Ophelia: “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum” (lines 259-61). As Hamlet now accepts a relationship that in his distraught state he had cruelly destroyed, he rises in our estimation. Maynard Mack writes regarding act 5, “Hamlet accepts his world and we discover a different man….[Shakespeare] leads us to expect an altered Hamlet, and then…provides him.” (67)

Nevertheless, no coming of age is complete without the protagonist finding something as well. As such, it is in the grave scene where one finds Hamlet beginning to resolve the questions of “To be, or not to be” (Shakespeare III.i.56-88). When the Prince utters this passage to the mourners, he indirectly reveals to the audience that he would rather take “[t]he slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than perish by his hand (Shakespeare III.i.58):

’Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:

Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?

Woo’t drink up easel? eat a crocodile?

I’ll do’t. (Shakespeare V.i.284-287)

Consequently, Ophelia’s physical and mental deaths support her loved one and reveal in him what God has worked in his heart.

One question, however, remains unanswered at the end of this consideration: how does Ophelia bring such life to the world around Elsinore? How is she capable, being the most oppressed, most bewildered, most vulnerable character of the play? Because, in her helplessness, she submits and trusts. Though bounded by a society where any step outside of duty and in her own judgment is spat upon, she finds little nooks and crannies of opportunity wherein she might brighten the world with sweetness (Shakespeare 19-20). When Gertrude says, “[S]o shall I hope your virtues/Will bring him to his wonted way again”, Ophelia cannot help but say, in submission and yet in a righteous one, “Madam, I wish it may” (III.i.40-41) (III.i.42). When Laertes bids her to “fear” for her “chaste treasure”, she immediately recognizes his wisdom and says, “I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep,/As watchman to my heart” with such a maturity that it cannot help but compel the audience to wonder if she is capable of sexual temptation (Shakespeare I.iii.33) (Shakespeare I.iii.31) (I.iii.45-46). When Hamlet insults her time and again with pitiful bawdiness, Ophelia stands strong and still believes that there is yet some good in him when she attributes his behavior to being “merry” (Shakespeare III.ii.128). Ophelia knows eternal compliance, but she will risk her own mental welfare to love others. Considering her “[f]railty” as a “woman”, this unceasing devotion to her neighbor and not to herself is shocking, and she dies a tragic heroine of the potential for goodness in the world that is corrupted (Shakespeare I.ii.146). Yet although she dies in physical weakness, though through death “Ophelia’s struggle comes to an end”, death marks the beginning of her true life—the moral legacy she has left behind (Chen 19). She lives by dying to herself. Is it any surprise that her name means “to help, aid, assist” (“Ophelia”)? What is the innate fascination audiences across the world hold with Hamlet were it not for the redemption that she and only she could produce? Truly without Ophelia’s love and sacrifice in death, the unparalleled heights of glory in Shakespeare’s Hamlet would simply lie “not to be” (Shakespeare III.i.56).

The water drown’d, the helpless grave I found,

And now I shall be buried. Fury, grief,

Corruption, too, doth linger and resound

Around my insane flesh—and yet—relief.

In earthly life I’d lived for one—a prince,

Whose frightful sadness only I could cure,

Yet when I went my senseless way to rinse,

Believed I not that man could be secure.

But soft!—what mystic difference do I see?

A full-grown man, avoiding not the skull,

Yet now quite still in joy so heavenly.

Could this my baptiz’d body, deathly dull,

So usher Christ’s own glory? Now I know

My lady purpose fill’d: Elysium’s show. (Merly)

Works Cited

Chen, Yi-Chi. Pregnant with Madness—Ophelia’s Struggle and Madness in Hamlet. Intergrams, 

benz.nchu.edu.tw/~intergrams/intergrams/112/112-cyc.pdf.

Merly, Sarah. “The Burial of Ophelia: A Poem.” Defy Augury, 21 Jan. 2019, defyaugury.com/ 2019/01/20/the-burial-of-ophelia-a-poem/.

“Ophelia.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com/browse/ophelia.

Romestant, Lilly E. Ophelia and the Feminine Construct. Oglethorpe Journal of Undergraduate Research, digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1059&context=ojur.

Ryken, Leland. Christian Guides to the Classics: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Crossway, 2014.

Shakespeare, William, et al. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Wiley, 2000.