Often, our ability to pursue actions is tainted by the perceptions of others. Instead of relying on ourselves as the source of certainty we require to pursue said actions; our belief is molded to concede to others’ perceptions of the circumstance as more valid and true. Usually in such instances, individuals have been forced to conform to upholding others’ contentment, and it necessitates them abandoning the pursuit of their own desires. They are unable to dispute this force due to societal expectations, and are left in an unfavourable position. In the case of Hamlet and Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they both must succumb to the pressures of what others believe to be right, doubting their own beliefs in the process, and eventually discern how to reconcile their desires with the desires of those around them. Initially tolerating their own accommodation, they then chase a prospective hope of attaining some form of personal contentment. This can be attempted through various ways; for some it comes as quiet acceptance, for others as loud despair—both ultimately residing in similar mindsets, yet distinct outcomes.
In order to accommodate to the unfavourable situation they have been forced into, individuals must first acknowledge that it is the only option—be certain that their fate is sealed, to later attempt to reconcile it with their own contentment. Shakespeare portrays this in the forlorn rejection of young Ophelia and Hamlet’s infringed, shattered love. Here, the initial trouble arises when Ophelia’s father, Polonius, urges her to reject her lover’s advances and return his gifts; to Polonius he seems dishonest and impure in his affection. Ophelia primarily defends Hamlet and denies her father’s accusations, regarding his “tenders” to be honourable. However, the controlling role of Polonius’s perceptions is reinforced in her eventual quiet, obedient acceptance as she states, “I shall obey, my lord” (I.iii.136). It is clear that no matter what she desires, her requisite to be respectful and yield to the demands of others, pointedly an older male figure, overshadows her
contentment. As Ophelia later returns Hamlet’s gifts under the watchful eye of her father, she realizes her circumstance to be valid as the only possibility; Hamlet angrily denies having loved her and demands she “get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.128). This makes her father’s perception the apparent truth to Ophelia, and in turn encourages her to further accept that Hamlet has no desire to love her, impelling her to a sense of lost perplexity as her former reality is challenged. In contrast, Hamlet is driven to perplexity as he increasingly supplements his self-loathing attitude, believing he does not deserve Ophelia, which explains his urgency in telling her to go to a convent. Furthermore, his external force comes in the form of the Ghost’s clear disappointment due to Hamlet’s inaction, which arguably caused his uncertain, depressed attitude in the first place. Ultimately, both are forced to split and acknowledge the inevitability of it as they concede to the understandings and desires of those around them.
Then, in the hopes of acquiring some form of contentment, both obsequious Ophelia and muddled Hamlet react to this separation differently. Ophelia has been coerced to uncertain confusion as she rummages for some semblance of contentment. After her separation with Hamlet, she faces another separation, this time due to the death of her father Polonius, which pushes her to the brink of sanity. Now desperate to find solace, she realizes madness to be a means through which she can depict her long-oppressed convictions and in turn elicit satisfaction. This was evident as she, acknowledged to be mad due to her incessant
singing and grief, allocates flowers to Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius. These flowers seem to be eerily representative of each character’s accurate nature, and reinforce the truth Ophelia discerns through her madness. Clearly, though those around her saw insanity, she was simply allowing herself the absolute freedom from convention she required to quench her frenzied thirst for solace. It is in this frenzy Ophelia discovers the ultimate inevitable truth—the defining certain method to attaining satisfaction: death. In her last few lines, she states “Go to thy deathbed / [Polonius] will never come again” (IV.v.164-65). Here, she recognizes the certainty that lies in death; it is a comfort that cannot be forced away by external pressures which suppress her into unease and grief. This desire in mind, Ophelia chooses not to pursue reconciling the adversity brought on by those around her with her own contentment, but goes after a clearer, definite source of contentment. Dissimilarly, Hamlet is seen hounding reconciliation between upholding the honour and certainty of his own character, and complying to the desires of others, to the very end of the play. Though Ophelia choses her death, it too impends Hamlet but is met with a vigorous need to first satisfy himself. He also embraces madness after the separation, but is unable to fathom the truth it brings. Instead, he uses it as a loud veneer to conceal the shouts of his internal desire for revenge and seeking solace. This, fuelled by the self-loathing due to his consistent procrastination, contributes to him finally taking a series of actions, rashly, he believes will negate his previously undeserving, faulty nature. Unfortunately, the first of which happens to be the murder of Ophelia’s father, Polonius, and drives him to cope with the demise of his desire to uphold the honour and certainty of his own character. It is clear to see that both Ophelia and Hamlet were unable to reconcile the externally-induced separation with their own contentment, and in failing to do so, faced progressive deterioration of their characters to the point of death.
Though not nearly as dramatic as Hamlet and Ophelia’s arduous separation, instances in my life have also proved to fortify the various way individuals react to forced circumstances. I can clearly recall my treasured routine in grade 6: come home from school, rush through my homework and supper, and call my best friend to see if she had done the same yet. If so, we’d arrange to
meet at the park half-way between our houses. Despite the repetitiveness of it, I would continue to feel the same non-diminishing excitement each day as I ran towards hours of talk and play. We would do this until the sun had set; in its place memories and eager anticipation for the next day ascending. Between the time we spent together at school and the time we spent at home, we forged a seemingly inseparable, eternal bond. However, against outside pressures, it was like dainty glass. Once, as I was hurrying through my meal, my parents told me to slow down. I was confused; they knew the reason behind my rush. To my utter shock, they demanded I was to no longer continue my friendship with my best friend; some unpleasant facts about their family’s values and demeanour had come to their attention. I was heartbroken. To go from spending most of the day with her to completely dismissing her existence? Impossible. The next few days at school I attempted to confront her about the things my parents had said, with the high hope she would deny them. Dejectedly, she did not, and slowly the facts started to become apparent. I learned she had not been a considerably trustworthy friend to me, and I was disheartened. At that point, I recognized that the only choice for me was to follow expectations. Like Ophelia, I started to feel uncertain about all the other truths I had believed in, and felt uncomfortable in my relationships for a while. Unlike Ophelia, however, I chose to attempt to reconcile my discomfort with the prospective friendships I would make going into middle school. Having something to look forward to, analogous to Hamlet’s intending revenge, gave me a reason to keep pursuing contentment, despite the external factors that had challenged that initially. Dissimilar to Hamlet’s ceasing one, my goal of creating everlasting, healthy friendships is continuous and allows me to flourish as an individual, whereas his led to his demise.
Through the characters’ conduct in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the idea that humans react distinctively when presented with forced circumstances is portrayed, especially through the compelled separation of Ophelia and Hamlet. When one wishes to pursue a course of action, they are often faced with external pressures that may oppress their desires and require them to act contrarily. Frequently, this is required due to societal expectations, in order to maintain the satisfaction of other’s. In such a case, the pursuit of one’s own satisfaction becomes inferior, certainty they once possessed challenged, and an unfavourable, troublesome circumstance is placed upon them. To somehow attain contentment once again, the individual is necessitated to reconcile this forced circumstance with what assuages their sense of self. Though the goal is the same here, the method through which one chooses to do so may differ, and therefore the outcome almost always is distinct. This distinction is what allows one to draw evidenced conclusions about the disposition of an individual’s character, and defines how their attempt to reconcile will thrive.