There are few things in life that people value more than protecting their honour and holding certainty over their past, present and future. However, one may soon come to realize that these ideals come in short commodity and it is difficult to maintain one without letting the other falter. One who is prideful and is bound by honour may feel uncertain towards his choices and one who is certain of themselves and his path in life might sacrifice his pride in order to do so. This is a conflict that Shakespeare explores in one of his most famous tragedies, Hamlet, in the character of Ophelia, an individual trapped between upholding her honour or discovering certainty, a choice that inevitably drives her to a breaking point. Though the beginning of the play sees her remain obedient to the men in her life, she begins to question the choices she makes and schemes she agrees to, driving her uncertainty until that uncertainty drives her mad, leading to her losing her honour and in exchange, regaining those feelings of certainty. Through Ophelia’s journey in the play, it is made clear that when an obedient individual attempts to maintain her honour by following the word of others, she will find herself uncertain of her choices and how to deal with the consequences and feelings of hopelessness. Once these figures that she has been obeying for so long disappear, she will no longer be able to cope with her growing uncertainty and lose her honour and instead restore certainty through madness and eventually death.
Initially, Ophelia is seen as the ideal woman as she remains obedient to her father, Polonius, and brother, Laertes, who act as major influences in her life, despite her growing anxiety in deciding who she should agree with. In Act 1 scene 3, we see Ophelia’s obedience towards her father and appreciation of her brother’s efforts as he warns her of Hamlet’s dangerous love and to ignore any signs of affection he may send her way. She of course agrees to her brother’s warnings, stating, “Tis in my memory lock’d, And you yourself shall keep the key of it,” (I.iii.85-86) demonstrating how she respects Laertes’ wishes and promises to remain wary, comparing her compliance to Laertes advice to that of a lock with only one person holding the key to remove what is kept inside. Though she did agree to consider Laertes’ advice, she acts much more hesitantly when her father, Polonius, outright bans any sort of romantic relationship between her and Hamlet. Though she agrees to his demands as well, it takes much convincing on the part of Polonius to set Hamlet out of her sights. Though she may have agreed, this only acts to strengthen Ophelia’s feelings of uncertainty as her feelings for Hamlet have not changed. Due to her naturally obedient nature and her desire to maintain her honour, she is faced with a growing uncertainty of who to trust and whether her decision will keep up her desire for upholding that honour.
When Ophelia decides to lie to Hamlet in order to please Polonius to maintain her honour in her father’s eyes, Hamlet’s outrageous reaction only adds to her slowly building anxiety and uncertainty towards her choice and questions as to whether she should continue to uphold her honour. After Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, Ophelia enters, as ordered by her father to return the tokens of affection Hamlet gave her in order to discover whether it is love that ails Hamlet. Hamlet’s reactions are those of sarcastic statements and cruel comments towards Ophelia, with one of the most famous lines, “Get thee to a nunnery,” (III.i.121); a line that is repeated multiple times during their conversation. This line holds significance as it represents the internal struggle that Ophelia is facing, as a nunnery is both used as a holy place where nuns go to demonstrate their allegiance to God and a place where promiscuous woman are sent. As Hamlet is yelling profanities and insults at Ophelia, she is questioning whether she made the right choice in agreeing to help her father and is uncertain towards her future with Hamlet, as it is apparent that he believes her to be nothing but a worthless whore. In her efforts to uphold honour, she is left uncertain towards her choice and has her honour and virtue attacked by convictions of immoral actions and unkept promises. Ophelia acknowledges her choice and uncertainty she feels towards that decision in the line, “I of, ladies most deject and wretched, That suck’d the honey of his music vows.” (III.i.156-157) It is in this line where we start to see a shift in her character towards a desire for certainty and redemption, as she is unable to understand how Hamlet was so quick to turn around on his affection towards her. With sudden and unprecedented experience under her belt, she does not know how she will be able to cope with this rejection and uncertainty left in the dwindling remnants of their relationship.
With the disappearance of all three important men in her life, Ophelia’s life loses all direction and any remnant of certainty has been lost. In order to cope with this loss, she loses her honour, and from that regains some semblance of the certainty she lost. In order to deal with the leaving of Hamlet and Laertes along with the death of her father, Ophelia reaches a point where her uncertainty breaks her mentally, driving her mad and losing her honour whereby she gains some certainty in her own actions and confessions instead. This certainty is established in the flowers she gives to the King, Queen and Laertes all holding significance to these characters and their actions in the play: fennels and columbine symbolizing adultery and guilt for Gertrude, rues and daisies symbolizing innocence and sorrow for Ophelia herself or Laertes due to the loss of his father and finally, violets that she claims “all withered after my father died,” symbolizing faith. Due to the symbolic meaning of the flowers, especially those regarding Gertrude demonstrate how Ophelia knows to some extent Gertrude’s actions as well, representing how she is gaining some certainty into what is happening in the castle. Along with these flowers, there is further evidence of her certainty being established through what appears to be her mad ramblings. It is here that implications of a physical relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia are realized through one of Ophelia’s songs. “Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, And dupp’d the chamber-door; Let in the maid, that out a maid; Never departed more.” (IV.v.52-54) Though she had been very offended by Hamlet’s accusations of sexual relations and telling her to “get thee to a nunnery” due to her desire to uphold her honour in front of her father, she ultimately throws that honour away here as she seemingly admits to having given up her chastity as “Let in the maid, that out a maid” alludes to how she was let into a sexual relationship with Hamlet that robbed her of her purity and honour, that honour being her virginity and innocent nature. Her certainty is now placed in the actions she has taken in the past, despite how dishonourable those actions had been. She no longer views maintaining the illusion of her chastity in her madness as the necessity she previously believed it to be, instead favouring a restoration of the certainty that she has been unable to find.
Though her madness seems random and unorthodox, it is in this broken state of mind where Ophelia comes across the ultimate certainty in life she has desired, the certainty of death. Throughout Ophelia’s mad ramblings amidst act 4 scene 5, Ophelia makes constant allusions to death, making use of vocabulary that describes certainty such as, “Go to thy death-bed, He will never come again.” (IV.v.190-191) In this line, Ophelia both mentions death and the certainty that those who have died will never escape that fate again. Throughout all the uncertainty she has had to deal with, her discovery of the one certainty in life then becomes her obsession and focus. This idea is supported further in act 4 scene 7 where the news of Ophelia’s death is brought to light by Gertrude. However, her description of the her lifeless body holds a very passive tone throughout. “When down the weedy trophies and herself, Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like a while they bare her up: Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, As one incapable of her distress.” (IV.vii.176-180) The description by Gertrude almost radiates peace and contentment with death, supported by Ophelia’s journey to obtain that ultimate certainty. Although her death does represent her desire for certainty, it also demonstrates her complete discard of her honour. In Hamlet’s first soliloquy, he mourns over the fact that suicide is labelled as a sin in the line, “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed, His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (I.ii.159-160) labelling it as the ultimate dishonourable action. This is also emphasized through the comparison between Gertrude’s description and Hamlet’s previous assertion about how the world is “an unweeded garden That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature.” It is here where Hamlet’s description of a garden filled with weeds being despicable and vile, drawing parallels with Ophelia’s death and her “weedy trophies” helping to reinforce her unhonourable and vile death. Due to her content nature in death and constant allusions to death previously, Ophelia’s death can be labelled as a suicide, the ultimate withdrawal of honour. Despite her honour holding influence over her previous decisions to keep good standings with those she deemed important, her quest for certainty has changed her values to a point where her loss of honour no longer frightens her, instead finding solace in the ultimate certainty. Death.
As the story progresses through Ophelia’s obedience to her growing anxiety which leads to her madness and her death, it is evident in this text that when an uncertain individual bends her objectives towards those that she sees as important figures in her life in order to uphold her illusions of honour, she will begin to grow uncertain of the righteousness of her choices. Ultimately, she will lose her honourable caricature and fall into a state of madness in return, a state which helps her restore that certainty she has lost, and pushes her to give into the only certainty that she is now able to see. Through Ophelia’s tragic story, Shakespeare warns of the ever-present battle between upholding honour and chasing certainty; in order to uphold one, the other cannot be as tangible. That desire to chase both will only lead to one giving into the extremes and taking action in ways that are irreversible.