Reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be a confounding endeavor and trying to decipher what symbolism lies behind the individual characters can lead to many sleepless nights. Ophelia, although not the star of the play, plays the largest symbol. From the onset of the play she is shown to be the most loyal and quite frankly the most endearing character. After being manipulated and emotional bullied by her former lover Hamlet and her father Polonius, she goes utterly insane to the point of committing suicide walking straight into a lake.
It’s a confusing chain of events, especially when the reader is trying to decipher if Hamlet is truly crazy or if his shenanigans are just one huge charade. Based on Ophelia’s character, Shakespeare intends for her to be a symbol of the strength and potential power of loyalty and faithfulness as well as the pain that can come from those same relationships being manipulated.
Loyalty and Faithfulness: The pain Ophelia experiences and the subsequent insanity shows the potential faithfulness and loyalty have when left intact and are allowed to flourish. When Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia effectively loses ties with both of them because, of course, her father is dead and Hamlet is the one who killed him. Ophelia now has no one left to trust which is expressed through her blatantly symbolic flowers as she mourns the loss of faithfulness. To the king she gives the Fennel, a flower that will wilt quickly, to imply his foolish shortsightedness in regards to his adultery and kinslaying. To the Queen she gives the rue, calling her an an adulteress to her face. But faithfulness is dead. No one deserves that flower. She exuded faithfulness to all and no one reciprocated. Her disillusionment is shattered by the realization that no one really cares for her. The violet she throws away is the faithfulness that died with her father. She is hit with the frank reality that everyone is only acting in their own self-interest. Ophelia calls everyone out with the flower that represents the shade of their souls. Utterly destroyed by the betrayal, manipulation, and finalized by her father’s death, Ophelia “decides” to end her life.
Pain and Selfishness of Manipulation: Ophelia, the loyal daughter, sister, and lover, had no political game, but everyone around her did. By Polonius’ manipulation of Ophelia and the damage it causes her, Shakespeare shows the selfish motives of manipulation and the perverse damage it causes when used against a faithful friend. Polonius, in an attempt to impress King Claudius by exposing Hamlet’s instability, plays with his daughter’s relationship which inadvertently damages Ophelia too. She spurns Hamlet’s advances, something she wouldn’t have done otherwise, drawing the battle lines. Polonius has two desires within the play: to look good in King Claudius’ eyes and to eliminate the threat posed by Hamlet to the King. Ophelia, his daughter, is of little concern to Polonius unless she can help him achieve these goals. By his calculation, Ophelia will be a good tool to use so Polonius uses her to her fullest extent. No matter the cost to Ophelia’s emotional health, as long as it is for his betterment, it is worth the sacrifice to Polonius. Prioritizing political games over their relationship fills both Hamlet and Ophelia with pain on a deep level and is Shakespeare’s attempt to show the pain of trying to untie the knot of loyalty. After Hamlet’s embarrassing scene of unrequited love, Hamlet begins to embarrass and hurt Ophelia in return for personal gain. Ophelia is caught in the crossfire when Hamlet humiliates her in front of the entire court with a string of bawdy jokes to prove that he is indeed crazy: “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?…I meant my head on your lap…Do you think I meant country matters?”. Hamlet starts acting crazy around her in order to project his nutty vibe, making sure that Polonius and King Claudius will hear of it later. She is left “affrighted” and is emotionally confused and distraught. Hamlet is intent on baffling his enemies and doesn’t consider Ophelia.
Although the play is named after Hamlet, Ophelia’s love and loyalty is the what we should model ourselves after and is the type of person we should be concerned for.