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The Tragedy of Ophelia

The Tragedy of Ophelia

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Published by Tathagata Dutta

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Published by: Tathagata Dutta on Apr 02, 2012
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“Ophelia’s suffering evokes pity but does not meet the requirements of tragedy.” Discuss
Literary criticisms, from the early to the more contemporary, have condemned Ophelia’s Fate as
“ 
an element, not of deep tragedy, but of pathetic beauty, which makes analysis of her character seemalmost desecration
[Bradley]. Thus Romantic critics felt that the less said about Ophelia the better. Mrs.Jameson asks,
“What shall be said of her? for eloquence is mute before her!"
It is for these reasons thatthe character of Ophelia has hardly received any critical notice that has been accorded Hamlet, Gertrudeor Claudius, Polonius, Horatio or even Laertes. Her role in the play, her madness, has been circumscribedin relation to the death of her father. To reduce her to a “
 poor wispy Ophelia
” is to questionShakespeare’s art itself. The “
 flower too soon faded 
” is a tenderhearted, delicate-minded young girl, wellreared in proper obedience to her father, but at the same time experiencing what is apparently her firstintroduction to the bittersweet delights of love. Thus, the development of her character within the playmust be seen in context with her relationship with her father, Polonius and her suitor, Hamlet.Aristotle’s defines tragedy to be the imitation of an action that is admirable, complete in itself and possesses magnitude, in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of suchemotion. The character of Ophelia evokes pity and sympathy of the audience but certainly not fear. Neither does the character possess any magnitude. Throughout the play she does not act but allows theother characters to act upon her. Ophelia makes her first appearance in the text in company with her  brother, Laertes as he prepares to go abroad. He thinks of himself as a worldly-wise young manexplaining the chief pitfall that a green girl is likely to encounter in the life at court. He warns her thatHamlet is merely playing with her affections and that she must not consider his attentions as more than"
a violet in the youth of primy nature . . . the perfume and suppliance of a minute
". And he continues by saying that as the body becomes of age, the mind and soul which service the temple of the body alsogrows and cause youth to be attracted toward the opposite sex. Laertes cautions her to realize that her own feelings are somewhat in this category, since
"
the chariest maid is prodigal enough
"
and whenopportunity comes her way "
 youth to itself rebels
". Of course Laertes' advice is shallow; he seemingly
 
 judges Hamlet to be a man like himself. And Ophelia is perceptively aware of his shallowness as shereminds him in sisterly fashion to heed his own warnings; then Laertes suddenly remembers that he is ina hurry to depart. But through this speech Laertes may well have aroused what he sought to allay, byfocusing Ophelia's thoughts on the subject of love, already kindled by her own inchoate desires.Polonius contributes to Ophelia's absorption in matters of love as he indicates how the senses of youth are easily inflamed. She must not take the heat of Hamlet's desire as true love. Polonius thendelivers the blow that has blighted the lives of many girls as he tells his daughter that she must break off with Hamlet and never again talk with him. A further shock to Ophelia, one full of dramatic irony, occursoffstage when Hamlet bursts into her boudoir. Having been warned by her brother and her father of thesexual frailties of youth, she finds some support for their remarks in the actions of Hamlet in her closet.She fears that Hamlet is mad for love, and if so he is mad for the love that she has been forbidden to givehim then she is the cause of Hamlet's madness. We need not pause to consider the real significance of Hamlet's actions here. It suffices that Hamlet's behavior gives her every reason to believe her father rightin his diagnosis of the cause of Hamlet's madness. It is a species of irony that the proscription given byPolonius seems to bring about Hamlet's pretended madness but actually contributes to Ophelia's realmadness. When Ophelia reports Hamlet's conduct, Polonius sees that Hamlet suffers from "
the veryecstasy of love
", but never suspects that in following his orders Ophelia is about to succumb to the sameecstasy,
"
whose violent property fordoes itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings
". Poloniusis quick to tell his daughter that when she "
did repel his letters and denied his access
" to her she causedHamlet to run mad; but since he is a self-absorbed busybody who regards his daughter as a tool, he givesno thought to the effect that all this will have on Ophelia. Throughout the play, indeed, the appearance of Hamlet's pretended madness is contrasted with the reality of Ophelia’s madness.Thus Ophelia is not only Hamlet’s victim but in her limited way she faces the same difficulties,which causes him to victimize her. She, too, lives in a world of hypocritical seeming, erected into theself-serving morality of Polonius’ and Laertes admonitions.Commentators also wonder whether or not Hamlet really loved Ophelia. But the point here is thatwhether he did or not, Ophelia thought he did. In his letter to her he wrote: "
That I love thee best, 0 most best, believe it.
 
 ... Thine evermore
". When in the famous ‘nunnery’ scene Hamlet says, "
 I did love you
 
once
", Ophelia replies, "
 Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so
". And when Hamlet retires from thescene; Ophelia speaks of herself as being "
of ladies most deject and wretched 
". Dr. Johnson declares of Hamlet - “
 He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness
”. But Hamletdoes not reject Ophelia but her love. The frailties he will later denounce in his mother he foresees in her.He directs at her a diatribe against face painting and cuckolding and all the sins traditional to woman. Yetthe first sin that he refers are his own “
 Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered 
”. With theexample of his mother who made “
marriage vows as false as dicers’ vow
” Hamlet fears that Ophelia will prove false. Just as Othello’s heroic vision of love is, after his disillusionment, replaced with a bitter certainty of universal lustfulness, Hamlet also recoils at what love and marriage lead to.When we next hear of Ophelia, it is to learn of her madness. The Gentleman prepares us for her entrance by describing her actions for the Queen. According to him Ophelia talks much of her father andsays there are deceptions in the world. Her first words upon entering are, "
Where is the beauteousmajesty of Denmark?"
Surely she is not talking of her father here, since the words fit neither what weknow of Polonius nor what a girl would say of a father who fails to understand her. Nor is there anyreason why Gertrude should be the subject of her question. Hamlet, then, is the "
beauteous majesty
"; it isupon Hamlet that her mind in its madness dwells. And the first of the song-snatches she sings is about"
true love
"-
“How should I your true love knowFrom another one?By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon.” 
Surely it cannot be Polonius.
The
King has already made his entrance; he now greets Ophelia: "
 How do you, pretty lady?
" She responds to the greeting in the conventional fashion, scarcely noticing him. Shethen
recites
sixteen lines of immodest verse on sexual love, the effect of which underlines strongly thechief cause of her madness.When Ophelia re-enters later in the scene, her brother is on stage; as he sees her madness hespeaks of her in extravagant terms of sorrow, concluding somewhat enigmatically that human nature isdelicate in matters of love, and when it is so “
it sends some previous instance of itself after the thing it loves
". Immediately following the words of Laertes, Ophelia sings more snatches of songs. The first

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