The Death of Ophelia
The character of Ophelia in Hamlet enters the play as a content, though naïve, young woman. However, Hamlet’s apparent rejection of her love and her father’s subsequent murder drive all reason from her head. She reverts to a simple-minded state, entering a world of madness. Because she is incapable of rational thought, Ophelia’s death is an accident rather than a suicide.
A primary indicator of the accidental nature of Ophelia’s death is that it does not conform to traditional tragic suicide. Suicides in Shakespeare’s plays are usually dramatic scenes in which the character(s) go out in a brief blaze of glory, often uttering a dying declamation. Such is the case in Romeo and Juliet, in which each character professes their undying love for the other before committing suicide. In Hamlet, though Hamlet stops his friend from carrying out the act, Horatio bravely prepares to follow his friend into death with the resolute line, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane. Here’s yet some liquor left” (V, ii, 315-316). On the other hand, the description of Ophelia drowning is serene and almost poetic, a gentle transition into death. Ophelia blissfully sings hymns as she makes her way to the water, emphasizing her innocence and purity. She gives no indication of forethought to her actions. In the manner of her death, Shakespeare sets her apart from the others.
Suicide is the conscious act of ending one’s own life. If Ophelia is mad and unaware of her actions, then she cannot willingly plunge to her death. In her childlike state of mind, she climbs the tree in order to adorn it with flower wreaths. She ventures onto a weak limb hanging over the water, which breaks beneath her weight. Ophelia falls rather than jumps into the water, as evidenced by the queen’s words, “There on the pendant boughs, her coronet weeds clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke” (IV, vii, 172-173). Once in the water, she does not resist or struggle against sinking because she lacks the ability to recognize danger. Although this could be interpreted as passive acceptance of her impending demise, she sings as she disappears beneath the surface. She has no sense of doom or peril; indeed, the queen describes her as “one incapable of her own distress” (IV, vii, 178).
Only two people in the play directly state their belief that Ophelia killed herself: the clowns in the graveyard. One of these is the sexton, who asks, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she willfully seeks her own salvation” (V, i, 1-2)? However, clowns are not intellectual characters. They symbolize the commoners in society, typical examples of simple men who readily pick up rumors and hearsay. The sexton states his belief that she has taken her own life by saying “…the more pity that great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even Christen” (V, i, 22-24). He thinks the nobility abuse their privileged stature, as if unbound to obey the same religious laws as other Christians. The priest also alludes to this statement when he says “Her death was doubtful, but that great command o’ersways the order” (V, i, 198-199), implying that the truth about her death was covered up by royal order. Despite a decree from the coroner that it was accidental, the priest and sexton automatically assume the worst and believe Ophelia does not have the right to a proper burial because the circumstances surrounding her death are ambiguous. However, their opinions carry little weight in light of their prejudice towards the nobility. In other words, no credible characters rule her death a suicide.
Ophelia’s death was an unfortunate accident. She was at best dimly aware that she was drowning – ironically a solution to her problems – but she did not in conscious thought commit suicide. Ophelia was simply too deeply entrenched in a fantasy realm to have meant any harm to herself.