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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.

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