There are many possible interpretations of Ophelia’s behavior after her father’s death. One dubious explanation is that she was acting. At first glance, it seems that this is highly unlikely. However, upon further inspection of the text, it is possible to find many hints that point to this.
The first issue that becomes apparent are the many parallels between Hamlet and Ophelia. Both their fathers are murdered by someone who is close to them (an uncle and a boyfriend/lover). Both have moments of self-pity – “Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (lines 129-130 , Hamlet); “O, woe is me…” (line 152, Ophelia).
After King Hamlet’s death, Young Hamlet contemplates suicide and death in general. We know this due to the lengthy soliloquies which are presented to us. We do not know whether Ophelia had thoughts such as this as well because we do not hear her speak of it (or very much in general). What we do know is that Ophelia drowns, bringing up the question of whether it was an “accident,” or suicide. At this point we are introduced to a character that is meant to be comic relief – the gravedigger, or Clown. We may look at him as being simply the “to be continued” in a moment of tension. However, he might serve a greater purpose than realized. He analyzes Ophelia’s death, and comes up with the conclusion that whether she merely drowned, or killed herself, her death could not have been an accidental one unless “she drowned herself in her own defense” (line 5, First Clown). Though this is supposed to be comical, his words are wise.
Having established that, we now come to the topic of Hamlet and Ophelia’s “madness.” There are many similarities between the way the two act. Hamlet announces in lines 338-9: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” He also says things which make him appear mad, yet make sense to the reader. For example, when Polonius asks him if Hamlet knows who he is, Hamlet promptly replies that Polonius is a fishmonger. Hamlet even proceeds to tell a rhyme: “O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!… One fair daughter and no more, the which he loved passing well”(lines 359,362-3). Yet we have no doubt that he is perfectly sane.
Despite all this, Ophelia appears utterly insane when she begins to sing songs. However, her songs tell of what is troubling her, and what is on her mind. One is about death; the other speaks of a man who “let in a maid, that out a maid never departed more” (lines 54-5). When Hamlet calls Polonius a fishmonger, we take him to be sane and making fun of Polonius. Yet when Ophelia gives out flowers that symbolize the flaws of each person present, she is thought to be crazy.
This differing view of each is caused by the fact that Shakespeare constantly throws out characters at us to show us that Hamlet is sane. Enter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. One of the first tasks of these two childhood “friends” of Hamlet is to show that he is lucid and able to turn his “madness” on and off at will. We have many opportunities to see that Hamlet is clearly very sane. Another example is Hamlet’s recital of a long speech that he heard once before. The assumption that Ophelia truly does go crazy is brought on partially because we do not have characters such as this to show us if she is lucid or not. If taken out of context, Hamlet’s words make no sense and sound like the babbling of someone who has lost his mind. Ophelia’s words are taken out of context. We cannot just assume that what we see is all there is to the story.
In addition, Ophelia is not as weak as she appears. She does have a mind of her own, and is perfectly capable of reasoning and thinking. This is seen when her brother, Laertes, is giving her “advice” about Hamlet. Her answer is sharp: “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do, show me the steep and thorny way to heaven; whiles… himself the primrose path of dalliance treads, and recks not his own rede” (lines 47-51).
Ophelia’s character does not seem to be very important. She is not analyzed and thought of as often or as deeply as many of the other characters in the play. However, there is more depth to her than it appears on the surface. It is almost unfair that we readily assume that Ophelia is crazy, when there are so many points in the play that could prove this otherwise. The question remains: If Hamlet is capable of acting crazy, why isn’t Ophelia? Hopefully this will bring some points to the surface which are worth considering.