Ophelia Critical Essays

I pictured Ophelia to myself as the motherless child of an elderly Polonius. His young wife had first given him a son, Laertes, and had died a few years later, after giving birth to the poor little Ophelia. The son takes much after his father, and, his student-life over, seeks his pleasures in the gayer life of France; fond of his little sister in a patronizing way, in their rare meetings, but neither understanding nor caring to understand her nature.

The baby Ophelia was left, as I fancy, to the kindly but thoroughly unsympathetic tending of country-folk, who knew little of "inland nurture." Think of her, - sweet, fond, sensitive, tender-hearted, the offspring of a delicate dead mother tended only by roughly-mannered and uncultured natures! One can see the sweet child, with no playmates of her kind, wandering by the streams, plucking flowers, making wreathes and coronals, learning the names of all the wild flowers in glade and dingle, having many favourites, listening with eager ears when amused or lulled to sleep at night by the country songs, whose words (in true country fashion, not too refined) come back again vividly to her memory, with the fitting melodies, as such things strangely but surely do, only when her wits have flown...

When we first see her, we may fairly suppose that she has been only a few months at court. It has taken off none of the bloom of her beautiful nature. That remains pure and fresh and simple as she brought it from her country home. One change has taken place, and this a great one. Her heart has been touched, and has found its ideal in the one man about the court who was likely to reach it, both from his rare and attractive qualities, and a certain loneliness in his position not very unlike her own. How could she help feeling flattered - drawn towards this romantic, desolate Hamlet, the observed of all observers, whose "music vows" have been early whispered in her ears? On the other hand, what sweet repose it must have been to the tired, moody scholar, soldier, prince, dissatisfied with the world and all its ways, to open his heart to her, and to hear the shy yet eloquent talk which he would woo from her - to watch the look, manner, and movements of this graceful child of nature ...  - Helena Faucit Martin, Shakespeare's Female Characters, Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1888. p.7-9.

Ophelia is a paradox. She is marginalized, victimized, and even brutally mocked in Hamlet, yet she is one of the most quoted female figures of Shakespeare. Her victimization and above all, her poignantly symbolic and yet picturesquely framed suicidal death have given rise to certain movements and trends in art. Her corpse has been eroticized, with her pictures demonstrating a transcendental sensuality. Ophelia has been transformed in revisioning literature; yet the revisionings of Ophelia cannot be construed as mere responses to the text of Hamlet which creates a tendentious ambience for her characterization; the play provides meagre insight into her psyche and represents her not only as a meek but as an unsavoury character. This paper argues that these revisionings of Hamlet constitute a response to the image of Ophelia as femme fragile that has taken form throughout the centuries. The present article explores the voice, mind, and agency of Ophelia as depicted in three 21st century novels which have transformed Hamlet. Attempts are also made to demonstrate that modern revisionings of Ophelia are not an exclusive reaction to the text of Shakespeare which was written more than four hundred years ago; the transformations of Ophelia have to be construed as responses to a range of historical and artistic accounts of Ophelia.

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