Austen Squarepants 3/11/07

Ophelia’s Death – Suicide?
The Tragedy of Hamlet is considered to be one of the greatest plays of all time, written by William Shakespeare. One of the subplots of the play is Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, the daughter of one of the King’s top advisors. Their relationship is a little rocky as the play progresses. Hamlet is actually away from Denmark when Ophelia dies. Ophelia’s father had recently been killed by Hamlet in a terrible accident, and she has now gone mad, singing nonsense songs and giving people flowers that she has picked from the garden. The cause of Ophelia’s death has been debated over the years. Did she commit suicide because she was mad, or was her death an accident? Although Ophelia was not entirely sane, details of how she drowned show that her death was an accident, if not a fortuitous one. Ophelia’s whole world is shattered after her father dies, because of her previous conflicting loyalties to her father (who had never approved of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia) and Hamlet now having killed him. After her father’s murder she talks a lot of death, and her madness is apparent when she sings in a completely crazed way: He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone White his shroud as the mountain snow– Landed all with sweet flowers; Which bewept to the ground did not go With true-love showers - Act 4, Scene 5, line 37

Here Ophelia is mourning her father’s death. She’s put in a horrible situation – what do you do when your boyfriend kills your father? One would think that the conflicting emotions and irrational behavior preceding her death would suggest that she committed suicide. Ophelia’s father had been killed by Hamlet; anyone put in that situation would likely have thoughts of suicide. Ophelia’s actions in the scenes leading up to her death suggest it, but in truth it was caused by a terrible accident. If Ophelia’s intentions were to kill herself, she would likely either poison or stab herself, as they are both quick and easy; drowning is not usually the preferred method of suicide – it is long and painful. Looking closely at quotes from the text describing Ophelia’s death, it can be proved that Ophelia did not initially kill herself: QUEEN: There is a willow grows askant the brook… There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke, When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, As one incapable of her own distress… - Act 4, Scene 7, line 190 It says that “an envious sliver broke” which means a branch broke, which was the cause of Ophelia falling into the brook. Therefore, Ophelia did not jump. If Ophelia had for some odd reason decided to kill herself by jumping into the brook, she wouldn’t have brought the branch down with her. Although Ophelia’s death initially seems to be suicide, reading the text closely shows us that it was not. It is likely that suicide may have crossed Ophelia’s mind, because of the state that she was in, and that given the chance she may have decided to

kill herself later on. For the way that she did die, her death appears to have been an accident. The description of Ophelia’s death holds more information about her actions as she drowned. Still, that does not mean that she did not want it. The phrase “Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up” conveys a very powerful image of Ophelia, spread out and drowning. The pain and grief that she was in was no doubt something she would like to be rid of, and perhaps once the tree branch had broken, and she had fallen into the water she decided that what she had not had the courage to do before had just been done for her. She probably gave up to the currents of the water, and decided to let herself die.