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Was Ophelia's Fate Her Own? (ESSAY)

by Rin321

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.

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80 Reviews

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Sun Feb 23, 2020 6:38 pm
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Em16 wrote a review...

Hey! Nice job with this essay. I’ve read Hamlet before, but it did not ever occur to me that Gertrude might have been responsible for Ophelia’s death. Reading your essay made me rethink a lot of things. You have a lot of clear arguments and connections that make it seem like a possibility that Ophelia’s death was not an accident.You also did a nice job embedding and supporting quotes.
However, I didn’t really see a thesis statement in your first paragraph. You brought up the main idea of the essay, but there wasn’t a true thesis statement with a claim and reasoning. A thesis statement is super important- it outlines everything you’ll be talking about in the essay. For example, in your thesis statement, you might say Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death, her social status and her moral character prove that she killed Ophelia.
I was also a little confused by your second quote in paragraph 2, the one from “Gertude/Ophelia: Feminist Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Tenderness in Hamlet”. It’s a lovely quote, and very profound, but I don’t see how it supports the idea that Gertrude killed Ophelia. I think if you added a little more explanation and analysis after the quote, it would be clearer to the reader.
I would also suggest adding some quotes to your fourth paragraph. You make a good point, but I think adding some text support would make it even stronger and clearer to the reader. As it is, they can doubt whether Gertrude’s social status really would protect her. She’s the queen, so she can probably get away with a lot of things, but murder is on a whole different level. Where in the play does it suggest a queen is powerful enough to be above such accusations?
There is a lot of uncertainty in Hamlet, and you did a good job encapsulating that idea. Nothing is ever as it seems. But even if it’s unclear, you made a good argument for the fact that Gertrude killed Ophelia.

Rin321 says...

Thank you so much, you made many good points!

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80 Reviews

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Sun Feb 23, 2020 6:05 pm
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MeherazulAzim16 wrote a review...

Hi Rin!

(I should mention that I've only listened to parts of Hamlet's first act on YouTube. So the review will mainly focus on the content of your essay.)

First of all, the essay managed to grip my attention throughout. Loved that.

Was Ophelia's fate her own? — I might be misreading the title, but how can it not be? How she reached her end, either way, does not seem to affect her fate. There is no clue to an alternate scenario where Gertrude banished her instead and told everyone the tale of how Ophelia chose death. In all plausible versions of the story, death is her fate.

Understanding that the question begged by the title is if she was responsible for her own fate, or if it was all Gertrude's doing, one could argue that it's still Ophelia's own actions that led to Gertrude's hypothetical reaction.

One of my thoughts as I read the essay was this: maybe Shakespeare got a little meta here. It's really him speaking through Gertrude and illustrating Ophelia's last moments.

Assuming Gertrude was present there, as Ophelia drowned herself, the question could be raised: why didn't she do anything to help? Can she not swim? Was it an adverse swamp (I wish I knew more)? If she consciously chose to watch Ophelia die (assuming the water was clear — I say that because it seems she didn't have any reason to go out of her way to save her — and Gertrude knew to swim), that's just as evil as surgically getting rid of her.

So, a primary argument to be had regarding Ophelia's fate was whether Gertrude was in the scene and if she made any effort to avert the death. I don't believe Hamlet has any clue as to that.

There's also the possibility that she heard of the news from a spy (I also don't know if spies actually played a part in the play) or someone else, and went on to exaggerate the specifics of the event. Why would she do that?

Another thing — it's in my opinion the most important point. Gertrude apparently tries to 'play the death off' as an accident. One detail of her illustration leads us to believe that Ophelia chose death in her last moments. Laertes and King Claudius may have been too overwhelmed at the news or simply too afraid of Gertrude's authority to point out how Gertrude contradicted herself. One could argue that it seems hard to believe that Ophelia wouldn't make any effort to stay afloat and it's possible that vines or something of the sort made it hard for her to make that effort — importantly, I don't know what state of mind the character was in at the moment.

But it's too specific a detail and it does not make sense why Gertrude would contradict herself like that. If the whole illustration was made up and she wasn't really present at the scene — and honestly, even if she was — doesn't it make more sense for her to stick with the accident narrative and state that Ophelia struggled? Unless as she was telling Laertes and Claudius of the event — made up and/or, exaggerated — she saw an opportunity to cause an irreparable damage to Ophelia's dignity/legacy — assuming in Hamlet's setting suicide is stigmatized and so on.

That's my two cents on the question raised. I don't know if it helps either argument. But I did love your talking points. Keep on writing and happy review day!



Rin321 says...

thank you!

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