Was Ophelia’s Fate Her Own?
The play Hamlet by William Shakespeare is riddled with death all throughout it. While the main storyline focuses on the main character, Hamlet, there are other instances in the plot that should be highlighted. One of these important aspects to analyze is the death of Hamlet’s former girlfriend, Ophelia. Ophelia’s death is revealed by Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, to Laertes and King Claudius. While one may not question Gertrude’s account of what happened to Ophelia, there are several aspects of the story that raise an important question-how was Gertrude so detailed and informed of exactly how Ophelia looked and died. How did Gertrude know details that could only be known by someone who was there when Ophelia died? Did Gertrude murder Ophelia and get away with it no questions asked due to her position in society and assumed aura of innocent feminimity?
To begin, it is essential to point out the evidence that makes Gertrude be suspicious in the terms of Ophelia’s death. When Gertrude tells of Ophelia’s death, she is very detailed, using phrases such as: “Therewith fantastic garlands she did make of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,” and, “Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,” (IV.vii). These details are so explicit about the exact flowers she was gathering and the way she looked when she fell and was drowning in the brook. How could Gertrude have known exactly of these details in her recount of Ophelia’s so called ‘accident’. It is also important to add that Gertrude’s added details explaining that Ophelia did not make any effort to save herself from drowning, making the death in those circumstances a suicide. This fact is highlighted in ‘Gertrude/Ophelia:Feminist Intermediality, Ekphrasis, and Tenderness in Hamlet’ written by Sujta Iengar: “The postmodern hyper-realistic style, with vivid colors and granular detail on, for example, the petals of an iris, elongates and twists the women’s bodies, the clothing of the drowned girl, and the shapes of greenery in a way that makes it hard for us to know whether we are seeing Gertrude (or a ladies’-maid) discovering Ophelia’s corpse, or Ophelia herself in both past and present, both contemplating suicide and achieving it,” (Iyengar,13). The exact details of Ophelia’s death make Gertrude seem very suspicious to the eye of any reader or audience member who really looks into the eerie truth of Gertrude’s tale.
Gertrude’s nature does not offer much to support her possibly of being innocent when it comes to the circumstances of Ophelia’s death either. Gertrude’s personality is highlighted in Wendy Rogers’s essay, ‘Female Norms and the Patriarchal Power Structure in Shakespeare's Hamlet’, as well: “She is antithetical to the traditional standard of femininity,” (Rogers, 1). This essay makes a point of stating Gertrude’s responsibilities due to her strong non-traditional personality for a woman back in that period of time. She marries the brother of her former husband which is an occurrence that makes many frown upon her character. She does not seem to have strong morals against ideas that are commonly shared to be good or bad, so it leaves the valid question of whether she would commit murder. As far as she knows during the play, Ophelia plays a large part in Hamlet’s madness. Is it wrong to say her motherly love and instinct to protect him could have caused a rage enough for her to get rid of what she deemed to be hurting her son? It’s likely that many of her morals , including that of death, are clouded by her own unconventional views.
One final factor that contributes to overlooking her suspicious recount of events involving Ophelia’s death is that a character of Laertes’s social status would never be able to accuse a Queen of such a punishable act. As seen by King Claudius’s actions, it is easy to see that those of power can easily carry out their wishes, whether their intentions are for better or worse. Laertese would have to cast any suspicions he may have to the side in order to protect his life from being threatened.
The question of whether or not Ophelia truly committed suicide or if her death was aided by the Gertrude’s hand is one to be speculated. There will never be a definite answer, but there is a strong case to be made in the support of Gertrude’s seeming connection to Ophelia’s death. Whether it is overlooked due to the idea of Gertrude’s assumed docile femininity (in which she does not portray), or her social status, it is important to look into the details of the play in order to truly see the bigger picture of Ophelia’s tragic passing.