Ophelia’s Madness or Wisdom?

One of the most interesting occurrences in this play to me is Ophelia’s decent into madness and her sudden death afterward.   In her madness Ophelia seems to gain great wisdom and insight to the characters within the play and the sins that sit upon many of them. A particularly interesting moment that points to Ophelia’s new found wisdom and her lack of restraint in sharing these revelations, albeit subtly, is when she is granted audience with Gertrude and is later joined by the King as well. When Claudius asks how she is doing Ophelia replies, “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord we know what we are, but not what we may be…” (4.5.40-42). In this Ophelia seems to be alluding to the fact that while everyone can see outwardly appearances many cannot see the true character within a person. Ophelia seems to be referencing Claudius’ truly despicable nature on the inside which he hides quite well with appearances and manipulating language.

It’s when Laertes returns, however, that we truly see Ophelia’s wisdom. She appears shortly after Laertes gains audience with Gertrude and Claudius. She hands each character different flowers, “There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it her-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died” (4.5.177-180). Flowers are known for carrying significant symbolism and these symbols are decoded for us within the footnotes of the text. According to the Norton Shakespeare Columbine was associated with ingratitude and marital infidelity and these flowers are given to Gertrude. Rue represents repentance and daisies while are commonly associated with faithfulness are also noted to represent dissembling seduction (Greenblatt 1734). In that short moment Ophelia has successfully called out both Gertrude and Claudius on their greatest sins, but does so in such a clever and subtle way that neither seem to notice, but the audience is let in on the secret.

Some of her final lines seem to be a prophecy of her own, as well. While the song is quite obviously about her father they could also foreshadow Ophelia’s upcoming death, “And will a not come again, and will a not come again? No, no he is dead, Go to thy death-bed, He never will come again” (4.5.185-190). Seeing as Ophelia drowns she will never come again and makes her death-bed in the water in which she drowns. 

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One thought on “Ophelia’s Madness or Wisdom?

  1. hmowen16

    I liked your deeper reading of Ophelia in this act. I was wondering if her madness or insanity was a disguise just as Hamlets was. In many of Shakespeare’s plays that we have read so far we see characters disguising themselves, their speech and their actions and I took Ophelia’s actions as just that. The points you raise about the flowers she gives out and their meanings only help to make me think that she has not truly gone mad, but is completely in control and aware of what she is doing. If she was not considered insane or mad she would not have been able to speak to the King and Queen in this way and would not have been able to get out her feelings.

    Reply

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