Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince who’s father, the late king whom he loved passionately, has recently been murdered. Hamlet’s mourning is unnaturally deep as he suspects the murderer to be his fathers brother, now king, Claudius, who has also just married Hamlets mother, Gertrude. Hamlet seeks to avenge his fathers murder and is constantly seeking to find out the truth behind the suspicious death. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in early 17th century, with the first print being dated back to 1603, he incorporated ideas from other sources such as Saxo Grammaticus and the history of Denmark.
Various themes run throughout the play, the most significant being revenge, as well as death, insanity and suicide. Shakespeare borrows ideas for Hamlet from the story of Saxo Grammaticus, which was written in early 12th century, the outline of both plots are almost one and the same. The protagonist in Saxo Grammaticus is Amleth, also a Danish prince, who again seeks to avenge his fathers murder, it can be said that Hamlet is a contemporary version of this same character. However in Hamlet, Shakespeare goes to great lengths to achieve in-depth characterisation for each protagonist.
All the characters are developed and have their own place in the play whereas in Saxo, the characters have small roles to play and have little dramatic purpose, it can be said that they are merely used as devices to help build the bigger picture. All the characters in hamlet have a dramatic purpose. Ophelia’s being the title character’s love interest and being the victim of his revenge. By giving Hamlet a contemporary setting, Shakespeare was able to depict the views and morals of his own society and incorporate them in the play.
Shakespeare was writing for a modern audience so it made sense giving the play a contemporary setting, as would be easier for them to relate to the themes that run throughout the play. By using Ophelia in one of the sub-plots of the play, although she also plays a major role in the main plot, Shakespeare depicts how women were viewed at that particular time. We see that she is the title characters love interest and also the victim of his revenge and that this leads to her eventual insanity.
The only other female character we encounter in the play is Gertude, Hamlet’s mother, who has married her departed husbands brother only two months after his death. Both these characters are weak and show us that women at that time were seen to be of little importance and were defiantly inferior to men, this is further proven by the fact that the only two women in the play die before the end. Shakespeare depicts both characters as being weak, Ophelia for being unable to handle the rejection of the man she loves, Hamlet, which leads to her insanity and eventual suicide.
Gertude is portrayed as being weak as she marries only two months after her husband’s death, which shows that she couldn’t survive without a man. Her sexual lust also drove her to remarry, which was also seen as a weakness at that time. Ophelia’s character has always been interpreted in two contrasting lights, one as being an innocent and sexually unknowing and the other as being a reckless but sexually knowledgeable/experienced young woman. Two critics, Rebecca West and Mary Salter, have completely contrasting views of Ophelia.
West claims that it would be extremely nai?? ve to suggest that Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet was of an innocent nature. She claims that this interpretation would only suffice in a society that frowns upon sex, something that this society has left behind. She also adds that this interpretation’s credibility would have been dismissed if it hadn’t it been for pre-raphaelite picture by John Millias. She says “Ophelia is not a young chaste woman. This is shown by her tolerance of Hamlet’s conversation….
” Ophelia is not as inexperienced as she portrays herself to be, she is extremely perceptive and only appears to be obedient to her father she knows that it would be beneficial to her if she were to do so. Her strong character is evident when she challenges Laertes’ own chastity when he tells her to be careful with Hamlet. Salter on the other hand describes Ophelia as “the innocent pawn who is sacrificed during the course of the larger drama which is taking place around her”.
This is a bold assertion as it claims that Ophelia is merely a device used by Shakespeare to help build the bigger picture, similar to the beautiful young women presented in Saxo Grammaticus. Here she is portrayed as being extremely passive as she apparently agrees with all her brother and father have to say to her and is obedient to their wishes. She is sexually inexperienced and innocent when it comes to that subject, as her relationship with Hamlet is of respectable nature and her chastity is never in question.
From when we first see her in Act 1, Scene 3, Ophelia is a kind; affectionate and loyal to her family she is respectful towards both her father and elder brother and shows much love towards them. Leartes asks her to keep in touch with him once he has left for Paris, she replies by saying ‘do you doubt that? ‘ This shows her love for her brother, as she has no doubt in her mind that she will stay in touch with him. In act 1 scene 3, both Laertes and Polonius advise Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, as the love he declares for her is not true and being obedient she replies by saying “I shall th’effect keep watchman to my heart”.
Polonius warns her of the intentions of Hamlet not being dignified and that instead of carrying on her liaison with him she should take on the role of dignified young woman. Polonius then advises her against any form of relationship with Hamlet due to his disreputable motives. However she does try to convince Polonius that Hamlet’s love for her is more than a mere act of lust but of true love, she says the love they share is honourable and is nothing to be frowned upon, “my lord, he hath importuned me with love in honourable fashion.
” After this comment she fails to defend her relationship with Hamlet and appears to become subservient to her fathers orders and eventually replies to him ” I shall obey my lord. ” This interpretation of Ophelia supports Mary Salter’s view of Ophelia’s passive nature and that her relationship is of an innocent and honourable fashion, a relationship not of a sexual nature but one of the bond of love. To counter this interpretation of Ophelia we see the contrasting view that she is sexually aware.
Rebecca west interprets Ophelia as being sexually active and not as passive as she may portray herself to be. When reading Act 1, Scene 3, we see this when she retaliates to Laertes assertions about her relationship with Hamlet by saying, “Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven, While, Himself the primrose path of dalliance. ” This show shows that she is not as submissive as some critics may suggest, as she clearly defies that assertion by questioning her brother’s own integrity.
It also shows her strength of character, as it would take some valour to question her elder brother. The metaphor she uses and the comfort with which she uses it also suggests her sexual knowledge, which supports the idea that her relationship with Hamlet is of a sexual nature. It would be cynical to believe Ophelia was an innocent and chaste young woman, these interpretations take all that Ophelia says and does in Hamlet at face value and fail to realise the deeper meanings of what is being said by Shakespeare.
The actress Francis Barber played Ophelia in a stage version of the play in 1984. Barber initially “had a fairly traditional view of Ophelia” but to make the character her “own”, she searched for a “hidden” trait within the text that would distinguish her portrayal from any previous actress’s. However Barber pursuit to find that “hidden characteristic” was soon neglected and instead she chose to portray her as acutely intelligent and highly perceptive”. Barber’s Ophelia disregards her father’s counsel and comes across as more argumentative than Mary Salter would suggest.
Barbers portrayal was an alternative to previous depictions of the character, in that she was not sexually active nor was she nai?? ve and passive. In recent productions of hamlet, notably Brannagh’s film, Ophelia is portrayed as a complete contrast to the pre-Raphaelic image. Brannagh’s interpretation throws out any notion of Ophelia being a virginal young lady, as we see erotic flashbacks of her and Hamlet, during her conversation Laertes and Polonius.
She is portrayed as being a victim of the patriarchal society she lives in, her sexuality is suppressed and she also suffers psychologically, as we see when she loses sanity. Ophelia is also given more of a role in recent productions such as in the Ethan Hawke, Mel Gibson and Brannagh productions. As women now play a more pivotal role in society, it has become easier giving them larger more significant portrayals, as would not have been the case in the Shakespearean era.
Directors can now afford a more in depth characterisation of Ophelia instead of just using her as a device to build the bigger picture. Each portrayal of Ophelia closely relates to the view of women in society at that particular time. These depiction stretch from the 17th century to present day and during that time period there have been many differing views of Ophelia’s character traits. Productions before the 20th century depict Ophelia as being the passive, nai?? ve and sexually inexperienced woman that the sir John Millias’ pre Raphealite image represents.
Elaine Showalter supports the view that women were seen as being innocent and having little status in society and were merely objects for male lust, she says that this is why Ophelia was portrayed in this light during that period. The change in portrayal happened post feminist movement, after which woman were seen to be of equal standing with men in society. Showalter states that the fact that attitudes towards woman have changed has allowed for an intelligent and sexually knowledgeable Ophelia to be portrayed. The most notable example being Kate Winslet’s portrayal in the Brannagh production.