Ophelia to Hamlet; a tale of indecision to madness

“When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide; 
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up: 
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes; 
As one incapable of her own distress, 
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, 
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.” – Hamlet, Act IV, scene vii

In this speech from Hamlet, Gertrude is speaking about Ophelia, who has just been discovered tragically drowned. Ophelia must be one of the most misunderstood characters of all time. She must choose between obedience to her father and her love for Hamlet and goes mad in the end after Hamlet scorns her.  Fräulein Else is a very similar character. In her story, Else has to choose between saving her father and saving her virtue. When her mother asks Else to get money from Herr von Dorsday to save her father, Else believes that her father is the one who put her mother up to it, because Else knows how manipulative her father can be. This is extremely similar to Ophelia’s situation where Ophelia’s father asks her specifically not to see the man she loves. Ophelia and Else are both conflicted between being obedient to their fathers and doing what they themselves want. Both girls are caught in a time period where it is absolutely necessary to obey their fathers’ every command at the risk of losing their place in society.

Neither Ophelia nor Else has any control over her own body. Ophelia’s brother, father, and Hamlet all tell her what to do; Else’s father asks her to give her body away, and Herr von Dorsday demands it. Ophelia is ordered around by everyone and so is Else. Else’s aunt doesn’t want Else to marry Paul and must obey her. Ophelia and Else are both characters who are not taken seriously by others. Paul says “Let her be, madam. She’s in one of her moods today.” (p. 191)

Ophelia is defined by her sexuality. In Act 1 of Hamlet, Laertes warns Ophelia of the dangers of premarital sex for women. He tells her that she should fear intimacy with Hamlet. Society has taught Else to fear intimacy with men. She’s ashamed of the thoughts she has about her own body, yet she still has them: “I’m lying naked on the marble” (p. 192).

Who could blame either Ophelia or Else for going mad at the end of the drama? Both young girls are faced with incomprehensible decisions that seem impossible to resolve. Ophelia seems to have a specific point where she could no longer deal with the stress of the situation, whereas Else’s decision to commit suicide is more gradual; in this way she is more like Hamlet than Ophelia. Else is so caught up in indecision and all the options of the situation that she doesn’t know what to do and goes insane from the decision. Similarly, Hamlet doesn’t know whether to avenge his father, spare his mother’s husband, see his uncle punished, or to simply kill himself. They are both put in stressful situations where their father’s honor is at stake, and indecision is their inevitable tragic flaw.

Hamlet and Else are both insane by the end of the drama. But are they really insane? Hamlet seems to pretend to be crazy to try to gain the upper hand. Else uses insanity to avoid making a decision. She cannot choose which path to take so she makes a new one. She decides to show herself to everyone. In this way she does not decide between two choices but creates a third choice, a choice that might be considered insane.

Else and Hamlet also feel the same about love. Else claims that she is a sensual person but doesn’t think that she’ll ever be in love. “I’m not in love. Not with anyone. And I’ve never been in love” (p. 194). Hamlet at first claims that he loves Ophelia “Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.” (scene ii). He then later relinquishes his feelings and tells Ophelia to get to a nunnery. It is only at her graveside that he truly admits his feelings.

Else and Hamlet also both contemplate suicide. They see suicide as a peaceful option of the decision they have to make. Hamlet considers suicide during his famous “To be or not to be” speech. He could kill his uncle or kill himself. Else contemplates suicide after realizing she would be unhappy with any decision she could make. Both Hamlet and Else are characters who have too much asked of them and cannot face the world of conflict and decision.

 

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet, Act II, scene ii

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