The Volte-Face of Madness

In a sick world of murder, incest, and revenge there is a very fragile and a very explosive game of madness being played. Hamlet is a very fragile game of madness because the players are a constant mystery; The mystery of deciphering whether or not the madness is real or if the madness is an act. Hamlet is an explosive game because the line of madness is so fragile, the slightest touch can erupt into the greatest action.

The most brilliant player with the saddest strategy, the apprentice who turned into a master is the sweet and lovely… Ophelia.

No, not Hamlet.

Hamlet creates the game of madness and invents the precedent that there are no rules! But it is Ophelia who conquers the creator. Throughout the entire play the audience feels how obedient and patient Ophelia is. Ophelia tells her father, Polonius, what Hamlet has been saying to her and she obeys her father when he tells her to stop being available to Hamlet (1.3. 112-136). Ophelia patiently sits and watches The Mousetrap as Hamlet attacks her with lewd comments (3.2. 100-142). Her obedience is clear and her patience is proven.

Whether Hamlet’s madness is a mix of some truthful struggling and some display of acting insane (for the purpose of a guise or the purpose of hiding behind an excuse to lighten the responsibility he must face for the planned revenge on King Claudius), Ophelia is still affected by the volatile words and actions Hamlet spews forth. After Hamlet and Ophelia’s interaction in the hall in act three scene one, Ophelia speaks to the audience of the woe she feels for what is happening with Hamlet; “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, / That sucked the honey of his music vows, / Now see that noble and most sovereign reason / Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh…” (3.1. 156-159). Ophelia struggles with Hamlet’s madness because she feels how awful it is to be both the holder and receiver of such madness; how wasted Hamlet’s youth is and how deeply she has been affected by his sweet words to his harsh words. She sympathizes for him and for herself.

During act four the other characters in the play widen their empathy for madness from Hamlet to Ophelia. Queen Gertrude originally refuses to talk to Ophelia until the gentlemen and Horatio convince the Queen it would be a wiser decision because Ophelia is mad. Horatio says; “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5. 14-16). Laertes feels rage for how changed his sister is swears to King Claudius that he will take out his revenge on Hamlet. The characters give examples of the ways in which Ophelia is mad. Ophelia shows her changed state from a sweetness to a sick twisted sweetness by drowning in the symbol of innocent garlands of flowers.

Ophelia transforms from obedient and patient to completely mad. The state of her madness can be analyzed in thousands of different ways, but the fact that she is mad cannot be disputed. her transformation into madness produces a juicier question; How is her madness affecting Hamlet? In return to Hamlet’s catharsis of emotions unto her and in reversal of constantly being the receiver of insanity, Ophelia gives the play volte-face of madness.

Whether Ophelia is written to be conscious of what her actions are doing or is completely unaware of how far her actions are going — Shakespeare has Ophelia playing Hamlet’s game of madness. She is far better and far more convincing at the game of madness than Hamlet was ever capable of. The characters feel more empathy for her state of being — and even the master of madness himself breaks down. Hamlet’s madness becomes vulnerable when he jumps into Ophelia’s grave after Laertes because he shares how much he loved Ophelia and to what extent; “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1 247-249).

Hamlet creates the game of madness and infects every character in the play with the wake of his words and actions. Ophelia is the only character who plays his own game back and masters it. She is the only character able to break Hamlet, get into his head, and give the audience a glimpse of how he really feels.


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