Character Meme: Ophelia
Strap yourselves in kids, this is hella long.
How I feel about this character
WHAT A GREAT AND TOTALLY UNAPPRECIATED CHARACTER HOLY SHIT.
LIKE JUST HOLY SHIT.
A lot of my feelings are going to go in the ~unpopular opinions~ section because I have this theory I have adopted about Ophelia that I cannot be disuaded from.
But she’s - you gotta feel sorry for this girl. She’s what? 16? 18? And she’s found herself in the center of all this court intrigue. She’s in love with the prince, so she doesn’t really want to go and ruin that, but at the same time she’s loyal to her father and her king. She has an emotional connection with almost all the major players, but she has absolutely zero agency.
The Kozintsev ffilm version has a great way of representing it, and I wish I could find a clip, the whole film used to be on youtube damn it. Throughout the film, Ophelia’s clothes grow increasingly harsh and binding (higher collars, more corsets and layers and shit, etc.) When Ophelia learns that her father has died, instead of wearing what she does in most adaptations - some sort of white nightgown-esque thing - she’s in this absurdly complicated and restricting dress. The petticoat or whatever you call that looks like a steel cage. It’s chilling.
AND, SPEAKING AS SOMEONE WHO HAS WATCHED THE KEY OPHELIA SCENES IN LITERALLY EVER EXISTING FILM VERSION, I really don’t like how weak and willowy and infantile a lot of actresses play Ophelia. I feel like she’s got more weight to her than that.
All the people I ship romantically with this character
Ophelia/Hamlet, I guess, but mostly if they’re tragic lesbians. Then it really becomes a ship I can get behind.
Also sometimes Ophelia/Gertrude a little don’t judge me ok.
My non-romantic OTP for this character
I really like the relationship she has with Laertes, though we only witness it very briefly. Poor kiddies, they seem like a great brother/sister duo.
My unpopular opinion about this character
I DONT THINK SHE WENT MAD.
OKAY SO HERE’S WHY.
Like previously mentioned, Ophelia has zero agency in the play. She’s the daughter of an advisor, who’s now died. She doesn’t get to say jack shit.
But she’s been hanging around court, and around Hamlet in particular, to, I think, piece together exactly what’s going on. That Claudius killed Old Hamlet to get at the throne and Gertrude, that Hamlet pretended to go mad (jilting her in the process) in order to plot his revenge and, as a consequence, ended up killing her father.
With that in mind, let’s look at some shit in Ophelia’s “mad scene” (Act 4, scene 5). If you’ve read the play, this is when she goes around singing “snatches of old lauds” and throwing flowers at bitches. But what flowers, exactly?
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,/
love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thought. ..
There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue/
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it /
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with/
a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all /when my father died: they say he made a good end - /
Okay, breaking that shit down. In the language of flowers, rosemary, like the lady says, is for remembrance. Pansies don’t have a lot of truck in flower language, so we’ll go with them meaning “thoughts” like she says.
Now, fennel equals flattery and deceit. Rue is for regret. Daisies mean innocence, loyal love, purity, and faith. And violets mean faithfulness.
So what’s she saying to her brother here? I parse it like this: “Hey Laertes, remember who killed our father. Remember that, and use your regret at your ability to prevent it to make a difference in this situation. And who’re you going to trust about who’s responsible - those deceitful fucks over there, or your innocent and loyal sister? Be loyal to me, and to our father.”
And I had a lot more information about this, and a much more sophisticated mapping out of the whole thing, but that gives you the gist. Ophelia’s showing her hand. She’s saying, the jig is up, all three of you (Gertrude, Laertes, and Claudius.)
It’s my personal opinion that she pulls a Hamlet, puts on an “antic disposition,” and uses a language that would be appropriate for a lady of her standing to use and that anyone raised in the court would know to communicate to Laertes that he has to take revenge on Hamlet for her. This is how she obtains some sort of agency, by having her brother carry out what actions she can’t.
BUT THATS A PRETTY FUCKING CRACKY THEORY JFC.
One thing I wish would happen / had happened with this character in canon.
This one, unlike the Hamlet one, I can answer pretty easily - I wish we had actually seen the scene in which she dies. Because, if you read the actual text, it’s pretty fuzzy as to how exactly she died. Which is to say, not the cause of death, but why she fell into the river and drowned.
Here’s Gertrude’s monologue on the matter:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering 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 tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
See, here, it’s not really explicitly clear that it’s suicide, though it’s certainly a possibility, and a pretty likely one. But, this isn’t something Gertrude saw, this is a second or third or even fourth hand account relayed to Gertrude that she’s repeating. We do not witness her death.
I mean, for the purposes of the play, we shouldn’t, but I’d still like to know what actually happened.