Hamlet & Ophelia: Character Analysis

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Hamlet: Character Analysis

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the namesake of the play is the prince of the kingdom of Denmark whose former ruler, Hamlet’s father, has been murdered and the throne usurped by his uncle Claudius. While he exists as a character that is torn between opposite poles of emotional and psychological well-being, namely that of the need to avenge his father’s murder and regain the throne for himself, he is simultaneously plagued by the evil acts he must commit in order to actualize his goals. Throughout the play, Hamlet develops into an irrational man steeped in his own madness and marked by his obsession with his own mortality. 

From the beginning of the play, Hamlet is presented as a classic tragic figure, painted as a man who is deeply philosophical and brooding. Moreover, Hamlet is portrayed as wearing the “trappings and suits of woe”, symbolic of the young prince’s internal struggles regarding his situation in life (I.ii.84-6). This deeply internal view of Hamlet is reinforced by his form of dress, in which he is initially seen as wearing only the color black. Thus, from the very start of the play and beginning from Hamlet’s introduction, we can see that the Prince is a character that is strongly concerned with his own coming death and an “acute of consciousness of personal and universal mortality” (Hillman, 201). Following the death of his father, Hamlet is thrust into a world that he already views as inherently meaningless and without a true purpose, thereby causing Hamlet to consider suicide at many points in the play, and molding the Prince towards believing the idea that only in death will he find true refuge. These are some of the melancholic elements of Shakespeare.

Hamlet, however, is not totally concerned with the internal. He holds an admirable view of his late father, calling him “so excellent a king” that he was a “Hyperion to a satyr” with regards to the king’s relationship with Gertrude, who is Hamlet’s mother and the king’s wife (I.ii.141-45). While Hamlet suffers from complete isolation from his fellow man, he is not necessarily without options in this regard. The Prince “feels nether friendly towards Claudius [and] at the moment feels no great affection toward his fellow Danes” (Evans, 96). This, however, is both a result of Hamlet’s inherent refusal to allow an emotional connection that can be deemed “normal” by society to influence his actions, and instead Hamlet chooses to couch his own emotional inadequacy in the form of external sources. Without an outlet of emotional catharsis, Hamlet becomes deeply involved in his own internal madness, leading to a situation in which Hamlet is consumed his own demons and eventually falls into madness.

Moreover, Hamlet is representative of a character that is more than just internally-orientated. Instead, he is a “preeminently reflective character” which develops as a response to “take control through reason of his extreme emotional states” (Duffy and Pearce, 26). Instead of merely being a character that is driven by his own selfish desires, Hamlet is instead rationalized by his own justifications—his is not a character commanded by madness, but rather rational in the sense that he is fully cognizant of the situation in which he has been placed. For Hamlet, “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends”, and man must act in accordance with what fate has planned for him (V.ii.4-11). Regardless of the choices he makes, Hamlet is, in the end, a tragic character is brought down due to his own flaws—he waits too long to kill Claudius and loses his sense of reason. Driven by his passion, Hamlet falls victim to his own personal rage and dies following his successful killing of Claudius. 

Hamlet, then, is a character that is representative of two overarching themes. On one hand, Hamlet is driven by a cold sense of reason and deeply philosophical understanding of the justifications behind the avenging of his father. On the other, the Prince is torn apart by his personal demons regarding the need for revenge, which eventually leads to his downfall. In the end, Hamlet is restored as a princely and noble character that has achieved his goals and died in full acceptance of the human condition and his destiny. 

Ophelia: Character Analysis

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the character of Ophelia represents a marked contrast with existing characters. Whereas Hamlet is a deeply troubled and torn individual, Ophelia is instead a less of an internally tortured soul and more of a character that helps contrast the growing instability of Hamlet with a more stable, lovable woman. Though eventually driven mad by the death of her father Polonius at the hands of Hamlet in his mad quest for revenge, Ophelia later shown to have died tragically after climbing a tree over a river and drowning when the branch she was on snapped. Thus, Ophelia is seen as more of a tragic character in which she eventually meets her death through no fault of  her own--instead, she is an innocent victim of Hamlet’s obsessive need to avenge the death of his father.

Ophelia is a unique character in Hamlet in the sense that she represents an individual that is wholly unique in her position as a highly sexualized character. She “stands poised at the intersection of madness and sexuality”, thereby creating a character that stands both for and against the tragic madness of the play’s protagonist. (Hunt, 14). At the same time, she is not developed as a mad character until late in the play, with her descent into tragic insanity during Act IV. Instead, she is portrayed as a timid and fragile woman, while simultaneously reflecting the feminine side of a comparable level of suffering when contrasted against Prince Hamlet. Her innocence and nativity are exposed drastically when she tells Hamlet that “I was the more deceived” with regards to how she and Hamlet shared a strong mutual love before his obsession over the death of his father (III.iii.120-122). Though initially a character portrayed as completely innocent and deeply in love with the young Prince, Ophelia’s fall is intrinsically linked to Hamlet’s own descent into madness and the way in which Ophelia is adversely affected by the corruption of the play’s namesake. 

There is perhaps no better reference to the tragic nature of Ophelia’s character than is found in the third act of the play. Here, Ophelia “deplores her own pitiable state” following the change “in Hamlet’s language from ‘the honey of […] music vows’ to ‘sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh’” (Taylor, 5). The change in Ophelia’s character, then, is driven by the change in attitude caused by the death of Hamlet’s father and the subsequent descent into madness that characterizes Hamlet. As time progresses, Ophelia falls from the grace of a character who has suffered, as a result of her innocence, greatly at the hands of Hamlet’s actions. Following the death of her father, Polonius, Ophelia completely breaks as a “rational and innocent character” and presents a counterpoint to Hamlet’s similar transformation (Bialo, 296) Unable to cope with the situation in which she is placed, Ophelia is forced by circumstance to fall into insanity. Ophelia’s suffering, moreover, is exacerbated by the ways in which the character is driven by the guilt of surrounding characters—her songs in Act 4, scene 5, for example, are representative of the ways in which she feels the world as a collective entity has done her an injustice. By the time of her death, Ophelia is a character that fully represents the negative impact Hamlet’s fall has caused, and she is symbolic of the tragic character who, through no fault or flaw of her own, is driven to insanity and death. Ophelia, then, is a tragic consequence of the world’s evil nature as personified by Hamlet, and unlike the main character, is not redeemed. Instead, her redemption as a character is found in the very unique way in which she is portrayed as a victim of the world’s corruption.

Works Cited

Evans, Robert C. "Friendship in Hamlet." Comparative Drama 33.1 (1999): 88. Academic Search Complete. 

Hillman, Richard. "Hamlet and Death: A Recasting of The Play Within the Player." Essays In Literature 13.2 (1986): 201-218. Humanities International Complete. 

Pearce, Brian, And Kevin Duffy. "Hamlet: Rational and Emotional Units of Meaning In Four Soliloquies." Shakespeare In Southern Africa 22 (2010): 21-28. Academic Search Complete. 

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. Large print ed. Leicester: Charnwood, 1991. 

Bialo, Caralyn. "Popular Performance, The Broadside Ballad, And Ophelia's Madness." Sel: Studies in English Literature (Johns Hopkins) 53.2 (2013): 293-309. Academic Search Complete. 

Hunt, Cameron. "Jephthah's Daughter's Daughter: Ophelia." Anq 22.4 (2009): 13-16. Academic Search Complete. 

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: Prince of Denmark. Large print ed. Leicester: Charnwood, 1991. 

Taylor, Mark. "Shakespeare's HAMLET." Explicator 65.1 (2006): 4-7. Academic Search Complete.