In Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet, it is possible for the audience or reader to come to view Ophelia as an innocent victim trapped in the most tragic circumstances. She was an obedient and loving daughter to her father Polonius. Ophelia obeyed him, when he ordered her to stop seeing Hamlet, her love, and even when she was asked to betray her love, acting as a decoy to allow the King and Polonius to discover the source of Hamlet's grief. Her naive nature is evident in this love that she has for Hamlet, even though he promised to marry her, took her virginity, mistreated her, and finally left her.
Her young age and motherless upbringing left Ophelia completely unprepared for a crisis like the death of her father and the insanity of Hamlet. However, it is possible to interpret Ophelia's eventual insanity as a result of her guilt and involvement in her own sexual rebellion. In the 1996 movie version of Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Ophelia, played by Kate Winslet, is not portrayed as the entirely innocent girl one expects. During the course of the movie, the viewer can watch Ophelia evolve from the young innocent girl to a sexual woman, and then, finally, a woman stricken with grief and insanity. The most poignant example of this metamorphosis appears in Act IV, Scene V of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It takes place long after Ophelia is set up by the King and Polonius to act as a pawn in their attempt to discover the reason for Hamlet's insanity.
Also prior to Act IV, Scene V, Hamlet gives the famous "Get thee to a nunnery" speech, leaving a frightened Ophelia. This scene is also the first time we see Ophelia after the accidental murder of her father by Hamlet. This scene begins with Horatio and some gentlemen convincing Gertrude, the Queen to speak with Ophelia, who has gone mad. Ophelia enters and speaks of love, betrayal, and her father's death through song, verse and finally prose. She exits, just before her brother, Laertes, arrives. There is a great deal of commotion because the commoners are outside demanding Laertes be made king.
Laertes storms in to confront Claudius, the King, and accuse him of murdering Polonius. Laertes is cut off by the entrance of the mad Ophelia. She speaks somewhat nonsensically about herbs and flowers. She mentions rosemary, pansies, fennel, rue, and a daisy.
Ophelia informs Laertes that all the violets withered at the time of her father's death. This only angers Laertes more, and the scene ends with the King promising to prove his innocence to Laertes. Shakespeare's word choice for Ophelia in this scene helps the viewer to perceive her madness. Ophelia has suddenly become an outspoken and honest critic as opposed to the shy daughter of Polonius. She is no longer restrained by the conventions of normal speech and social constraints. She requests that the Queen "mark" her words which are surprisingly filled with great beauty and insight.
However, Gertrude does not heed her warning, perceiving Ophelia as mad beyond all comprehension. Upon entering, Ophelia immediately begins speaking of her inability to distinguish between true love and lust in regard to Hamlet. She sings, "How should I your true love now from another one By his cockle hat and staff, And his saddle sho on." Her song immediately changes the subject matter to the death of her father. She sings of the burial plot and headstone and then describes the burial shroud like the color of "the mountain snow." Ophelia speaks some gibberish about the owl and the baker's daughter, yet reverts back to some very sexual content.
She describes Hamlet using her and taking her virginity. She says, "Then up he rose and donned his clothes And d upped the chamber door, Let in the maid, that out a maid Never departed more." Then, even more explicitly, Ophelia sings, "Young men will do't if they come to't, By Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, "Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed." This blatant reference to the phallus allows the viewer to perceive her sexual experience and explicit verbal skills. This song lets everyone know that Hamlet had promised to marry her before sleeping with her. Opheila thanks the King and Queen for their "council", and exits with the tender phrase, "Good night, ladies, goodnight. Sweet Ladies, good night, good night." A few minutes later, Ophelia re-enters the scene speaking mostly of her father's death.
Ophelia describes Polonius' transport to his grave by saying, "They bore him barefaced on the bier; Hey nonny, nonny, hey nonny; And on his grave rains many a tear, -Fare you well my dove!" Ophelia then describes flowers that are representative of different aspects of the play. Rosemary and pansies are given to Laertes. They symbolize the remembrance of and thoughts about their father. The other imaginary flowers are given to King Claudius, and Queen Gertrude. Fennel represents flattery, columbines are for cuckoldry, rue for sorrow, and daisy for dissembling. Finally she says, "I would give you violets, but they withered all when my father died." In this touching line, violets symbolize faithfulness.
After the death of Polonius, ophelia felt she no long had anyone to be faithful to. She continues singing, "For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy." This is a reference to her only remaining love and joy, Hamlet. Ophelia then exits after a few more lines in regard to the death of her father and the fact that he will never return. Kenneth Branagh's interpretation of Hamlet allowed actress Kate Winslet to explore this scene in a powerful and sexual way. Her insanity is evident from the moment Ophelia appears on screen wearing a modern strait jacket and helmet. Ophelia's face is tear streaked and puffy.
Her voice begins somewhat capricious yet Ophelia begins to breathe heavily and fight the strait jacket. Ophelia speaks almost angrily at the Queen and King raising her voice frequently. She appears in a near violent fit when Claudius says "Conceit upon her father." Winslet's Ophelia screams "Pray let's have no words of this." In a split second, her tone changes back to a happy whimsical song about Valentine's day and then Hamlet's use of her for sex. Winslet dances about with her arms outstretched. She had a huge smile on her face and seemed very content about what happened. After this song, one's impression of Ophelia quickly changes due to Winslet's superb acting and Branagh's expert directing.
Ophelia runs up to King Claudius and presses her body against his while she says, "By Gis and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do't if they come to't, By Cock, they are to blame." When Winslet's Ophelia says "Cock," she forcefully and sexually thrusts her pelvic region into the King's. Ophelia then falls to the floor and thrusts her hips up and down in a sexual manner as she says, "Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed." and "So would I 'a' done by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed." Branagh made an interesting decision during the direction of these lines. We also see a flash back of Hamlet and Ophelia having passionate sex in a bed. It is obvious Ophelia is conscious of her decision, and enjoying the choice she made in this scene. This changes the viewer's opinion of her from an innocent girl, to an active participant in her own destruction.
The use of this flashback is very effective in Branagh's movie, but would be very difficult to implement on stage. The graphic thrusting of her hips through her insanity only adds to this, turning Ophelia into a very sexual being. Ophelia briefly becomes somber as she speaks of her father's death. She sounds bitter and angry for a moment while thanking for the "good counsel," and then, finally, she is playful as she says "Good night, ladies...
." Ophelia then runs away from the King and Horatio to avoid being confined again. When Ophelia re-enters, she is almost child-like. Her strait jacket is off and her hair is now down. Ophelia wears a large night gown that is falling off her shoulder's. She giggles, smiles and plays with her hands while she happily speaks. There is a new innocence about her but it does not purge the viewer's mind of the former sexual memory of her.
As she gives the flowers, she demonstrates them with her hands, even acting out a daisy. She calmly speaks and somberly sings of her father's death. Winslet's facial expressions allow the viewer to see how sad Ophelia is about the subject of her father's tragic death. Finally, Ophelia exits into a padded room to stare at the wall, alone. The new interpretation of Ophelia provided by Kate Winslet's performance allows the viewer to perceive her in a new light. The flowers she gives actually come to almost symbolize her deflowered maidenhead.
She is deflowering herself in a sense, because she can not give anymore of herself to anyone. This lack of purity and innocence eventually leads Ophelia to commit suicide. She fell into remorse because, she had lost her virginity by her own actions, her love, and her father. She could not live with these feelings of regret and guilt.
Thus, she committed suicide to end the pain and grief, brought on by her own actions. Ophelia is not an innocent victim. Her sexual desires involved her in the life of Hamlet and lead her down a road, not to a nunnery, but to her eventual demise.