Gertrude and Ophelia are the only two leading ladies in Hamlet and have been seen as similar characters from outside impressions. Both are followers and easily led by the men they love. Also, they are both confused and not in control of their surroundings. However, perhaps Ophelia’s much younger age makes her more innocent and naive than Gertrude and is hence more a victim here than anyone else. Unlike Gertrude, who performed a social boo-boo by marrying her brother-in-law, Ophelia is completely free from any conscious or subconscious wrongdoing in the play.
Ophelia’s character cannot be more aptly summed up than William Hazlitt’s description:
“Ophelia is a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon. Oh rose of May, oh flower too soon faded! Her love, her madness, her death, are described with the truest touches of tenderness and pathos. It is a character which nobody but Shakespeare could have drawn in the way that he has done, and to the conception of which there is not even the smallest approach, except in some of the old romantic ballads” (http://www.bga.com/melissab/ophelia_charshakplay.html).
Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, chief advisor to the Claudius and the sister of Laertes. Ophelia is generally agreed to be somewhere between the ages of sisteen and nineteen and most others agree that she is an older teenager.
Hamlet, has been courting her and there has been much debate of whether Hamlet and Ophelia were ever in love. While few doubt Ophelia’s affections for the prince, Hamlet’s love for her is questionable because of his later behavior. However, this could also work as proof of his love for her: Hamlet becomes upset at his belief that the lady he loves is actually spying on him. Hence, he becomes outraged and starts to associate Ophelia with Gertrude, with whom he had already condemned when the Queen married his uncle no long after his father’s death.
Ophelia’s personality and emotions very much suit those of her age: young, impressionistic and hapless. With these in mind, one can deduce why Ophelia went mad, which led to her watery funeral. In a nutshell, being young and in love with the prince, Ophelia was told her father to drop the whole relationship, which she did because of her closeness to her family. However, Hamlet he came to her, held her by the wrists and stared at her face, before stomping out, leaving Ophelia a sobbing, confused mess. Polonius declared Hamlet mad and at this point told his daughter to get back with Hamlet, so as to know what is going on. Convinced that her love had made Hamlet mad, Ophelia tried speaking to her loved one again. Unfortunately, Ophelia was rejected coldly by Hamlet, who screams:
“get thee to a nunnery!”
This could mean as a warning against men, or the ruder connotation for a whorehouse. Ophelia’s helplessness was further exemplified during the playing of the Murder of Gonzago where she was teased recklessly by Hamlet, who said things like:
“That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs” (3.2.121-122),
“It would cost you a groaning to take off mine edge” (3.2.255-256).
These are both rude and insensitive sexual innuendoes but Ophelia simply took them because she is a girl and cannot possibly rebuke a Prince. Later, she learnt that her father Polonius, died at the hands of Hamlet, her beloved. Hence, Ophelia lost her senses. Being the young girl that she was, this was all she could take.
Appropriately, Gertrude is the one who talks about Ophelia’s death since they are the only two leading ladies in the play. In the Queen’s longest lines near the end of Act 4, Gertrude shows how eloquence in lines which seems to sum up both hers and Ophelia’s lives. There is the possibility that Shakespeare believed women are able to empathize with one another as members of the same sex, hence penning this section in.
Primarily, while the Queen is describing her version of Ophelia’s death to the latter’s brother, Laertes, in Act 4, Ophelia’s death is framed as an accident, when Gertrude says:
“Clamb’ring to hang, an envious silver broke, when down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook” (4.7.173-175).
The Queen is stating how Ophelia drowned when the branch the latter was on broke and Ophelia fell into the waters.
An accident merely gives evidence to the fact that women in Hamlet are passive and puppets being influenced by male doings. Even when Gertrude labels Ophelia’s passing as an accident, mere gravediggers right in the next scene refute it, insisting instead that Ophelia committed suicide:
“Argal, she drowned herself wittingly” (5.1.12-13).
The status of women is thus pushed further into obscurity, when simple ‘Clown’ gravediggers are able to contradict the Queen’s version of how things went.
Also, the two ladies seem to lead parallel existences. The description Gertrude gives of Ophelia’s death seems to ironically mirror their lives. Here, the Queen tells of how Ophelia fell in the water and for a while, even sang without knowledge of her imminent danger:
“And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up, which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, as one incapable of her own distress” (4.7.179).
Furthermore, Gertrude describes Ophelia as:
“a creature native and indued unto that element” (4.7.179),
The way Ophelia died can be paralleled in the last section of Gertrude’s verses as well. There, the Queen described how Ophelia’s clothes were finally soaked and became to heavy for the wearer to float, hence drowning Ophelia:
“Till her garments, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death” (4.7.181-183).
In reality, that can be translated to how Ophelia was driven to madness first, then death, without really knowing why. She never found out why Hamlet acted the way he did.
Both the women in Hamlet are inactive in life, death and relationships. Is this fair, when we do not see their side of the story? In Gertrude’s case, there could have been many reasons for accepting Claudius. He could have appeared to Gertrude as such a perfect person she found him irresistible. Alternatively, he could have been a lady-magnet. The point is, Gertrude is simply going to go with the flow of the story, adding spice and impetus to the plot.
In a kingdom whereby the two most powerful men are involved in creating their personal conspiracies, the women have no chance of survival, especially since their role in society is that of a puppet. The Queen and Ophelia are both only props to Shakespeare’s chauvinistic world of Hamlet. However, Ophelia can be seen as the true victim in this play. She died because she loved and was too pure and innocent to fend for herself. As a result, Ophelia could be seen as dying for her virtues while the other characters, Gertrude included, perished as a result of their faults.