Shakespeare’s greatness and pre-eminence as a dramatist is universally recognized. It is said that “he was not of an age but of all times”. Shakespeare’s characters reveal themselves by what they say and do on the stage. They tell us more by their speeches then by their actions.
Hamlet, the play and the man, seem to be presented as a puzzle. Dower Wilson regards this puzzle as greater even the puzzle of Hamlet’s procrastination in taking his revenge. There are many things in Hamlet which are capable of a large number of interpretations and Hamlet-Ophelia relationship is one of them. In fact, Hamlet is a play which imitates reality so closely, that the play retains the mystery of life and hints at its mysterious depth.
Hamlet loves Ophelia truly and sincerely. He probably fell in love with her when he was staying at Ellsinore before his father’s death. In his love letter he addressed her in the most idealized form. He writes:
Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
Ophelia too tells Polonius that Hamlet had importuned her with love in honorable fashion and ‘had given countenance to his speech with almost all the vows of heaven’. Dowden has rightly observed:
Laertes’ sister Ophelia is loved by Lord Hamlet.
Ophelia never declares her love in so many words, yet we know Ophelia’s heart is entirely given to Hamlet for she has sucked the honey of love musicked vows and that his loss of reason has made her of ladies most deject and wretched. Mrs. Jameson describing her character in her book “Characteristics of women” has observed:
The love of Ophelia which she never once confesses is like a secret which we have stolen from her and which ought to die upon our hearts as upon her own.
While both loved each other truly and sincerely then what is the cause of failure of their love? To a certain extent circumstances play an important role. Hamlet’s father dies suddenly and Hamlet returns to Denmark to mourn his father’s death. While he is still a mourner, his mother marries his uncle and it hurts him. Ghost’s revelation of truth makes him disgusted. Now he is no longer interested in man or woman. A clue to his change can be seen in the first soliloquy:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew.
This shows that Hamlet is now unhappy with the world.
Ophelia is another woman who does not have moral firmness. At this juncture when Hamlet needs moral strengths Ophelia’s brother and father warn her of the danger in her amorous contact with Hamlet. They accuse Hamlet roundly of weakness of character and tell that he might betray her. Polonius gives positive orders to repulse Hamlet’s advances. He not only stops her from meeting Hamlet but also advise her to return his letters. Polonius and Laertes are worldly minded men and Hamlet is out of favor with fortune and it is fatal to have any relation with him. Ophelia carries out these orders and Hamlet receives another shock. He goes into Ophelia’s closet and tries to find out id she is also as faithless and unreliable as his mother. He feels betrayed and is hurt.
In the nunnery scene, Ophelia begins by accusing him of infidelity. He asks her if she is honest. Hamlet and Ophelia live on two different lands and there is no communication and understating between them. Ophelia does not understand him and thinks that he is mad and helps her father and Claudius in the hope that Hamlet would regain his reason. Hamlet never shares his secret with Ophelia despite loving her and this he again admits in the last act.
I loved Ophelia, 40000 brothers,
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum.
But for the fulfillment of love and marriage it is now tragically too late.
Ophelia is a meek and frail person. She is too tender to cope with the volcanic world of Hamlet. She is caught in the vortex of circumstances which Hamlet is unable to control. She loses mental balance and dies. Had the circumstances been different she might have been the bride of Hamlet as Gertrude says:
I hop’d that shouldst been my Hamlet’s wife.
But in the tragic world of Hamlet there are many casualties caused by the corruption of evil and Ophelia is one of them. Life has its own way of destroying things and we can only feel sorry for them