Why Ophelia has to die


The abidingly powerful revenge drama trope of a female character going mad with grief and putting an end to herself does not begin with Hamlet, but has a precursor in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587). Here, it is not the victim’s daughter who goes insane but his mother Isabella; but otherwise there are unmistakable contextual parallels with Ophelia’s madness and death in the concluding scenes of Hamlet Act 4. Isabella, who around the play’s mid-point ‘runs lunatic’ waiting for justice against the murderers of her son, appears on stage obsessively detailing the herbs and medicines which, she claims, may cure the body’s ills but cannot remedy her emotional anguish [1]. Subsequently, in a later scene 4.2. (the penultimate of the play), she metes out revenge on the ‘arbour’ where her son was hung by his assassins – ‘Down with these branches and these loathsome boughs’; curses the tree and then her own womb; and finally stabs herself in the breast, leaving to die offstage. These scenes suggest a theatrical genesis for Ophelia’s distribution of flowers in Hamlet 4.5 and the subsequent report of her death in 4.7, after she falls from a willow tree into the brook.

To some extent, then, we could say that Ophelia’s fate is determined by theatrical convention. Part of the toll of suffering exacted in this specifically English form of revenge drama will be the madness and (arguable) suicide of the lead female figure. But the terms of Ophelia’s suffering are much less clear-cut than those of Isabella’s. Whereas in Kyd’s play the heroine talks with sufficient lucidity even in her madness to indicate that it is her son Horatio who is her sole focus, in Ophelia’s case there is evidently more than one figure on whom her words and thoughts dwell obsessively. Moreover, it is not through soliloquy but song that the burden of her pronouncements are made; and these, coupled with shorter prose utterances, are directed with obscure but unsettling import at the bystanders rather than simply apostrophizing people as in Isabella’s case. The result is a much more complex depiction of disintegration, using a mix of forms and idioms to estrange Ophelia’s speech from rationality, and carrying a sense of over-determination of content which extends into Gertrude’s report of her off-stage death. Like Ophelia’s unnamed hearers described at 2754, we are led to infer ‘Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily’ from her words (2758).

These are significant departures from the way Isabella’s scenes are handled, and they suggest that Ophelia’s madness and death arise out of the logic of the play as much as from their indebtedness to a particular theatrical convention. Indeed, this post will be arguing that her suffering and destruction are necessitated on a number of levels, and that far from representing the culmination of a tragic sub-plot they provide the major climactic moment of the play. The sudden theatrical onset of her insanity, the lack of any forewarning or evident arc of deterioration, suggest the shaping of a disaster that is more than simply psychological in character (a case study, as is sometimes argued, of a vulnerable mental constitution disintegrating in the face of disappointed love and patriarchal manipulation). Rather, as will be suggested here, Ophelia’s madness draws together a host of themes and narrative lines in the play and subordinates them to the central problem of the existential fate of the soul.


I have argued in another post that from its rejuvenation at the close of 3.2. Hamlet’s soul enjoyed only the briefest of respites before it became burdened once more; this time not with the onset of sexual terrors but from the guilt caused by Polonius’ death. As a result, Hamlet was once again obliged to adopt the antic disposition – a course which, these pages have consistently maintained, relieves emotional trauma only at a profoundly self-destructive cost. Although outside forces in the form of Fortune and Providence intervened at the play’s mid-point to reverse the secondary effects of this course on the progress of Hamlet’s revenge, they are not to do so again. Instead, the final and inevitable consequence of Hamlet’s resumption of his antic strategy is now illustrated in symbolic fashion with the madness and death of Ophelia. As with earlier scenes such as 3.1 and 3.2., it is necessary to recognise Ophelia’s dramatic-symbolic function as Hamlet’s soul along with her capacity as a character in her own right, for in what follows both fates are represented.

Hamlet’s soul carries the guilt of Polonius’ death. Hence if the argument for symbolic identity is to be consistent we can expect Ophelia also to be expressing remorse in her derangement. The very first thing we hear about her, even before she appears on stage, is that she ‘speaks much of her father’ and that – perhaps as a consequence, perhaps not – perceives ‘tricks i’th’ world’ and ‘Spurns enviously at straws’ (2749-51). This focus on her father will be remarked upon several times by other characters in this scene (usually Claudius), seemingly suggesting a degree of dramatic insistence on this point. When the Queen reluctantly agrees to grant Ophelia an audience, she follows this with a long aside (arguably her only soliloquy), in which she intimates an apparent, uncomfortable connection with Ophelia’s mood, whereby a ‘lesser’ instance of trouble presages the onset of a greater one:

To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss (2762-3)

Gertrude traces this frame of mind back to her own sense of guilt, but rationalises this feeling in terms of a general moral reflection:

So full of artless jealousy is guilt

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt (2764-5)

Depending on how one reads the word ‘spills’ here, in the modern sense or the more traditional one of ‘destroys’, this refers to the capacity of guilt to precipitate the worst outcome either through self-betrayal or by anticipating the full suffering it may incur. In either case, the generalised form of Gertrude’s reflection (in Q2 the whole speech is actually enclosed in quotation marks) directs its sentiment outwards, towards a guilt which is not exclusive to herself. This, then, is the backdrop against which Ophelia will issue her own expressions of guilt about her father’s death.


Ophelia’s first act is to seek out the Queen, a woman who was herself inadvertently responsible for the death of her first husband, and to commiserate with her by singing a song which is half love-ballad, half-lamentation (2767 ff.). The opening stanza of this song concerns a ‘true love’, but includes the unexpected concession that he must be correctly identified from other possible candidates:

How should I your true love know from another one,

By his cockle hat and staff, and his sandal shoon. (2769-70)

This is then followed by two stanzas which, again in an unexpected departure, mourn his death: ‘He is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone’, etc.; ‘White his shroud as the mountain snow’, etc. A note of self-reproach is then apparently struck with the last lines of the third stanza, which claim that the departed lover ‘bewept to the grave did not go/With true-love showers’ (2781-2). In the seemingly disjointed prose utterances which follow, two further narratives encompassing proverbial grounds for guilt seem to be fused together in Ophelia’s startling claim that ‘They say the owl was a baker’s daughter’: the folk tale of Christ’s transformation into a beast of the baker’s girl who refused him bread, and the association of daughters of this trade with, as one editor puts it, ‘ill-repute’. When Ophelia resumes her singing it is on a different subject and adopting a different tone entirely: a young man’s seduction and betrayal of a maid on St. Valentine’s day (2790-2803). Then she returns to her theme of lamentation in her closing utterances (2805-10), bewailing the fact that her beloved now rests ‘i’th’ cold ground’, and whom by calling for her coach she now indicates her desire to join. Both during the scene and after her exit the King, acting in a semi-choric role, reinforces the view that her words betray a ‘Conceit upon her father’ (2787), and that her grief ‘springs/All from her father’s death’ (2813-14).

Since it is Polonius alone who has died, the simplest conclusion to reach is that these lamentations are solely for him; and since these lamentations are explicitly connected in the first song with a lost lover we are likewise led to conclude that in her disordered imagination it is in this capacity that Ophelia has come to conceive of her father. The origin of this appalling delusion is therefore suggested by the content of the Valentine song, which we can readily surmise refers exclusively to Hamlet just as the first song referred exclusively to her father. For this song concerns the abandonment of a young woman after she has given herself to a lover who subsequently proves false, the very theme of her father’s warning to her in 1.3. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia during the third act appears to bear out this warning; and when this is followed by her father’s death shortly afterwards, Ophelia, in the confusion of grief, links the two unrelated incidents. A distorted form of romantic narrative develops in her mind whereby her father is imagined to have died forlorn since she offered her love not to him, but to the unfaithful Hamlet. The real-world logic of such a narrative is irrelevant: it is of a kind that could only emerge under the condition of madness, assembled from the warnings, threats and terrifying behaviours of all those to whom Ophelia has been subjected. If we bear in mind how Polonius’ theme throughout the play has been one of ‘neglected love’ (his own interpretation of Hamlet’s ‘distemper’), we can see how Ophelia has produced the egregious variation on this theme with the role of forsaken ‘true love’ she now creates for him. Her own role, similarly misconceived, is that of an unfaithful daughter who is thus responsible for her father’s death.


So, far from being half-coherent ramblings in which grief for the loss of her father and for the loss of her lover hazily overlap as affective states, there is a terrible clarity to Ophelia’s imaginings which reassigns those roles according to true love and betrayer. These idées fixe are elaborated on in her next appearance. Laertes has by now joined the company of King and Queen, taking over the semi-choric function which aligns Ophelia’s plaintive utterances exclusively with grief for her father (2912-13; 2921-2). The pattern of her first appearance is repeated, with its alternation between a lament for an elderly man as her departed lover – ‘His beard was as white as snow’, ‘Fare you well my dove’ (2945; 2920) – and bitter allusions to the youthful seducer who has come between them: ‘It is the false steward who stole his master’s daughter’ (2924-5). This time, however, Ophelia accompanies her songs with little gifts of flowers, in a sequence which has become one of the most iconic in the play (2927ff.). Its possible origins in a scene from The Spanish Tragedy has already been noted above. There is also a sense that it involves the ‘mimicry of the funeral her father was denied’ [2]. More significantly, however, the flowers and herbs are given away to the onlookers in a series of gestures which have been interpreted as including a ritualised self-deflowering on Ophelia’s part [3]. If this is the case then such gestures partly confirm Ophelia’s retention of her virginity to the end; but it also begs the question as to who this de-flowering is in lieu of?


Not all the flowers referred to by Ophelia have a sexual symbolism, although they are all one way or another concerned with love, and may also carry a secondary meaning for the characters to whom they are given [4]. As the context makes clear, however, those gifts that do have a sexual connotation take Polonius, not Hamlet, as their object. The first recipient is Laertes, whom it seems Ophelia to fail to recognise as her brother, re-casting him instead in Hamlet’s ‘false steward’ role. In this capacity, Ophelia offers him rosemary ‘for remembrance’ and pansies ‘for thoughts’ – mementoes suitable for one who has proved false in forgetting his vows of love. To the King, she gives fennel and columbines, aptly symbolizing the flattery of Gertrude by which he was able to cuckold King Hamlet. Rue is given both to the Queen and to herself, befitting two women responsible for their true love’s deaths, the ‘difference’ between them being that the Queen has remarried. Finally, Ophelia returns to her imaginary false lover, giving him a daisy for the semblance of love which he offered, but unable to provide him with the violets that belong to her true love and therefore ‘withered all’ when her father died. Often glossed as flowers symbolic of faithful love, this sense is darkened by recollection of the ‘violet in the youth of primy nature’ which Laertes referred to when warning Ophelia of Hamlet’s sexual intentions (1.3.). Its use here, in a context which has already identified the dead man as her ‘true lover’, is the most emphatic statement Ophelia makes that – in her own distorted conception – her virginity belonged to her father.


Ophelia’s subsequent assertion that Polonius ‘made a good end’ (2937) shows how far she is ignorant of the true circumstances of his death. As many commentators point out, her father died suddenly and brutally, without any opportunity to make his peace or take the last sacrament (appropriately enough, given that he was unwittingly deputizing for Claudius when he was slain). That the truth has been carefully withheld from her is evident from her reliance on fabricated report – that others ‘say’ he made a good end. But her words may also express a narcissistic fantasy: that her father, as a forlorn lover, made an end of himself. Although this reading is not required by the text such a belief would be in keeping with the way her madness rearranges all facts to suit a specific monomania: in this case, the guilt and consequent remorse for her father’s death. It is worth emphasising that Ophelia’s sorrow and grief remain inextricable from her sense of culpability throughout this scene, not least in the fact that the only flower she allots herself is rue, the herb of regret and repentance, which she shares with the Queen. If suicide is the fantasy of her father’s end, then it is appropriate that in her last song of lamentation Ophelia expresses the necessity of following his death with that of her own – ‘No, no he is dead/Go to thy deathbed’ (2943) – and that the last we hear from her is her wish for God’s mercy ‘of all Christian souls’ (2949).

What the above has argued for, then, is the sustained symbolic identity of Ophelia’s sufferings with the state of Hamlet’s soul, predicated on an affective correspondence between the guilt that soul bears for Polonius’ death and the delusion of responsibility which Ophelia now expresses. But the connection is more deeply layered and more nuanced than just this. Her torments also reify key aspects of Hamlet’s psychological state over the course of the play. In her subscription to an incest-fantasy concerning her father, for example, she realises what for Hamlet had likewise been a delusion, albeit one which had constituted the very worst of his terrors. By the same token, her genuine madness realises in far grimmer fashion the pseudo-madness which Hamlet has pursued as a strategy. The most terrible irony of all, however, lies in the Queen’s account of Ophelia’s drowning soon afterwards – ‘There is a willow grows askant the brook’ (3158-75 ff.) – for in the manner of her death by water is completed the play’s symbolic death of the soul. To appreciate this we need to refer back to a comment made by the King, when he remarks that Ophelia’s madness has rendered her

Divided from herself and her fair judgment

Without the which we are pictures or mere beasts (2822-3)

The gist of the construction is that a person’s reason is tantamount to their humanity. But the King’s use of the figure of division, with its placing of selfhood and judgment on the one side and a kind of residue of the person on the other, is telling for the way it evokes contemporary faculty psychology. The irrational Ophelia is equated either with a ‘picture’, which Arden 2 glosses as a ‘soulless outward form’, or – revising this analogy – with a beast. Pictures are self-evidently lacking souls; but the same cannot be said for animals, which had a complicated status as ensouled beings in the early modern period, mainly due to a tradition going back to Aristotle which identified a hierarchy of mental and spiritual powers among organic beings. In this tradition animals did have souls, sharing many of their ‘lower’ faculties with humans; but these were inferior to human souls in lacking reason. More importantly to Christian thought, reason was not merely the highest of the soul’s powers but was also, as a ‘godlike’ property, the guarantor of the soul’s immortality. Whether or not Claudius is aware of the implication, then, his statement about Ophelia’s ‘judgment’ suggests that her soul’s estrangement from the rational faculty – the disintegration of nous within psyche – robs it of that function which ensures it immortality, hence making it mortal like a beast’s.


Consequently, when Ophelia dies her soul’s fate must be that of a non-rational creature’s. The physical death she endures by drowning symbolises the dissolution of the soul in one of the elements, in this case water. Although this idea of the soul’s return to its elemental properties was associated with pagan pre-Socratic philosophy, it would have been readily available to an Elizabethan audience via the sentiments expressed by Doctor Faustus, as he awaits eternal damnation [5]:

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?

Or why is this immortal that thou hast?

Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true,

This soul should fly from me and I be chang’d

Unto some brutish beast.

All beasts are happy, for when they die

Their souls are soon dissolved in elements… [6]

The presence of such an unorthodox idea of the soul’s ultimate perishability is partly rationalised by the play’s eclectic use of spiritual and philosophical theories. The key point, however, is that the demise of Ophelia’s soul on death serves to emphasise an event which we know to be occurring offstage, the extinction of Hamlet’s own soul. Ophelia’s death has been made to stand for this in and of itself; but the tragic effect of this outcome is redoubled by knowledge of the fate of her own soul. The cause of her death, too, is appropriate to this moment of the soul’s destruction; for just as Hamlet’s ‘crafty madness’ has been responsible for his tragedy so is Ophelia’s proper madness to blame for hers, rendering her ‘incapable of her own distress’ in the water (3170).  All in all, her drowning represents the play’s moment of supreme disaster, in which its themes of madness, incest and the soul’s annihilation converge on, and are realised in, this single incident.


[1] Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy, ed. by J.R. Mulryne, New Mermaids, 2nd ed. (London: A&C Black, 1989), 3.8.1-5. ISABELLA: So that, you say, this herb will purge the eye/And this the head?/Ah, but none of them will purge the heart, etc.

[2] Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare: Hamlet (London: B.T. Batsford, 1963), pp.146-7.

[3] Elaine Showalter, ‘Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism’, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, New Casebooks, ed.by Martin Coyle (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1992), pp.113-131 (p.117).

[4] A very comprehensive and accessible analysis can be found in Harold Jenkins’ Arden 2 Hamlet Longer Note on this sequence, pp.536-42. The interpretation given above, however, departs from it in some details, particularly in terms of the recipients of the flowers. As the editors of Arden 3 Hamlet point out, ‘Apart from Laertes, the particular recipients of the flowers are not specified in any of the three texts’, p.387; and the lengthy critical history shown under the Commentary link on these lines in Enfolded Hamlet shows that there has been significant disagreement from an early stage. A secondary dramatic application of their meanings, quite apart from Ophelia’s own, is exemplified in the giving of rosemary, the herb of remembrance, to Laertes, who thus fits it to his own duty to revenge his father.

[5] See, for example, the rather obscure remarks of Heraclitus to the effect that ‘water is death for souls’ in Early Greek Philosophy, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p.121. For a recent discussion see Paul S. MacDonald, History of the Concept of Mind: Speculations about Soul, Mind and Spirit from Homer to Hume (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp.28-9.

[6] Dr. Faustus 5.2.182-8, in Christopher Marlowe The Complete Plays, ed. J.B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Pengiun, 1969).