Efflorescence of the Rose of May
A critical response essay to Linda Welshimer Wagner’s article, “Ophelia: Shakespeare’s Pathetic Plot Device”
In Linda Welshimer Wagner’s article, “Ophelia: Shakespeare’s Pathetic Plot Device,” Wagner argues that Ophelia assumes a much “greater importance to the audience of Hamlet” (Wagner 94) than to any of its characters through “providing a convenient hinge for several of Hamlets analytical scenes… [and through] providing… emotional impact for the audience” (Wagner 94) as was expected of an Elizabethan tragedy. While it is evident that Ophelia exists to serve other characters, she plays a larger role than just helping Shakespeare “[arouse] pity in the play” (Wagner 96). Specifically, Ophelia’s madness reveals the female struggle of living in a male dominated society.
Ophelia is portrayed as an “extremely sympathetic character from the start” (Wagner 96). Wagner describes her as being “pictured as the epitome of unsophistication and purity” (Wagner 94). Ophelia’s first lines are a response to Laertes telling her to stay in contact with him. The majority of Ophelia’s lines until she becomes mad are simply responses to what other characters have said to her. This further solidifies Wagner’s claim that Ophelia reacts “to her situation rather than to her personality” (Wagner 94). Laertes and later Polonius go on to tell Ophelia about how she should be cautious of Hamlet’s advances. Polonius says, “Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl, / Unsifted in such perilous circumstance” (I. III. 110–111). Ophelia replies with “I do not know, my lord, what I should think” (I. III. 113). This establishes Ophelia as a docile, sweet girl who is “intellectually not remarkable” (Wagner 95). Polonius then tells her to “Think yourself a baby” (I. III. 114) and proceeds to tell her what to think. It appears that Ophelia just listens to whatever Polonius tells her to do and follows. This strengthens Ophelia’s position as a very typical Elizabethan period woman, which Hamlet characterizes with “primitive emotions” (Wagner 95).
Interestingly, in Ophelia’s first scene where she talks to Laertes and Polonius, none of them react to what she says. Her lines are said and then the other characters carry on talking with their own agenda. This indicates that Ophelia’s voice is not heard not only because she doesn’t speak what’s on her mind, but also because people don’t listen to what she has to say.
Ophelia is also “used by Hamlet, Polonius, and Shakespeare himself” (Wagner 94). Hamlet uses her to express rage at his mother and to feign madness. Claudius uses her to spy on Hamlet. Polonius uses his own daughter to gain favor with the King. This is especially important as Ophelia listens to everything Polonius tells her to do. Despite the fact that it appeared that Ophelia truly loved Hamlet, she goes against Hamlet’s characterizations of women as embodiments of “wantonness, lack of honor” and rejects Hamlet’s love as Polonius tells her to do. In return, Polonius refers to himself as Jephthah, a judge who sacrificed his own daughter for God’s help. Hamlet asks Polonius, “Am I not i’ th’ right, old Jephthah?” (II. II. 434) to which Polonius replies, “If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have/ a daughter that I love passing well” (II. II. 435–436). This shows how the one person who controlled Ophelia was willing to sacrifice her and thought her as expendable.
Since Ophelia was used for the sole purpose of others gaining their own desires through her, it is not a huge surprise that she goes mad when her father dies and Hamlet no longer wants her. Polonius’ death impacts Ophelia twofold. First, there is no longer anyone to tell her what to do and therefore she must control her own fate. This frees her from his manipulation; however, it also deprives her of his counsel and advice that she so heavily relied on. This causes her fall from the perfect, docile daughter to the gibberish-spouting madwoman. Ophelia is no longer caged as the silent daughter whose words go on ignored or unnoticed. After Polonius’s death, Ophelia is free to say whatever is on her mind and she does. For the first time, Ophelia has lines that are not in response to what another character has to say. It appears that she is singing about the loss of Hamlet’s affection and the sudden, shocking death of her father. The former reflect her thoughts of carnal desire that Hamlet talked about of all women, which was repressed by Polonius. The latter, which others describe as her speaking “much of her father” shows Ophelia’s thoughts about Polonius’s vague death and lack of proper burial, which is repressed by Claudius and the royal family. Both of these are very important to Ophelia, but she has no other way of expressing her feelings other than through her mad ballads.
Despite her singing being mad and nonsensical, others remark “And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts… Indeed would make one think there might be thought” (IV. V. 7–12). Laertes even cries “Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge,/ It could not move thus… This nothing’s more than matter” (IV. V. 170–172). It is clear that Ophelia’s speech does indeed have meaning than is merited. Perhaps this is so because gibberish is the only way for Ophelia to voice her thoughts.
In Ophelia’s last scene, she hands out flowers to the various characters. She says:
here’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you,
and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays.
O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I
would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father
died. (IV. V. 204–209).
She gives fennel and columbines to Gertrude. These are flowers that represent adultery. She gives rue to Claudius, which represents repentance. This seems to indicate that she knows what has been going on in the royal family and that she has her own ideas about what happened between everyone. This breaks her out of the patriarchal authority, as is evident when she says “violets… wither’d all when my father died” (IV. V. 209) indicating that she no longer only thinks what her father tells her to think, in a very feminine way. By speaking her mind in terms of flowers and song, Ophelia is able to retain her feminine image while simultaneously embarking on the female struggle of making her voice heard. In her article, Wagner recognizes the fact that Ophelia “like the ‘Rose of May’ [is] symbolized by flowers throughout” (96). However, Wagner fails to indicate that Ophelia broke out of the patriarchal control using her femininity and flora visage.
Although her senseless speech indicates that she is removed from the logical structure society, others remark, “the unshaped use of it doth move/ The hearers to collection” (IV. V. 7–8). This indicates that what Ophelia had to say had a large emotional impact. Perhaps this is because logic is determined by the male dominated structure of society- a place where Ophelia must remain silent and think what she is told to think. Both the audience and the play are cast in a society where men create logic, thus Ophelia’s mad ramblings do not make any sense to us even if they “fill the heart with tenderness” (Wagner 94). The point that Ophelia is speaking with female logic seems to be emphasized when Gertrude is the one who interprets Ophelia’s death in act 4 scene 7.
Ophelia starts out the play as archetypical, “dutiful daughter sweetly counseled by Laertes, the child-like ‘Rose of May’” (Wagner 96). She acts and thinks according to exactly what Polonius tells her to do and is exploited by the other characters throughout the play. However, contrary to Wagner’s point that Ophelia exists in the play is a “condescension to the audience, who were expecting some romance and pathos” (Wagner 96), Ophelia’s madness personifies the female struggle to be heard. Ophelia subsequently becomes a much more complex character; forcefully freed from patriarchal authority, Ophelia must think according to her own thoughts and chose her own actions. In doing so, she departs the world of male dominated logic and speaks in terms of songs and flowers. In this manner, she retains her image of being Ophelia, “the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious” (Wagner 96), but lets her voice become heard.
Shakespeare, William, and Roma Gill. Hamlet. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wagner, Linda Welshimer. “Ophelia: Shakespeares Pathetic Plot Device.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1, 1963, p. 94., doi:10.2307/2868164.