First appearance: Hamlet (ca 1600)
Creator: William Shakespeare
Age: Old enough to marry
Ophelia is a character in the play Hamlet, and apart from Hamlet probably the most well-known character in the cast. She is the daughter of the adjunct Polonius and also the sister of Laertes. She is also the love interest of prince Hamlet himself. But it comes at a great cost.
Early on Ophelia is warned that it might not be such a good idea to fall in love with Hamlet, he will inherit the throne of Denmark and is not free to marry whoever he likes. Ophelia might run around in the royal castle as freely as any, but she is hardly noble enough to be a royal bride. The exact nature of her relationship with the prince is hard to discern. The original play does not give any clear evidence of whether they have actually had a sexual relationship or not and it is left to the viewers interpretations. The relationship is very rocky, much due to Hamlet and his bouts of madness (real or acted – they are clearly discomforting for Ophelia who don’t know what to make of it).
At one moment he tells her to go to a nunnery (a play on words since it does not only mean a convent, but is also slang for brothel) and Ophelia has plenty of opportunity to wonder over the sanity of the man she loves. But things will get worse – when her father is killed by Hamlet himself. She then completely looses it and sings songs about women being used and abandoned by their lovers and hands out flowers to the other characters.
The next time Ophelia is mentioned in the play is when queen Gertrude speaks of Ophelia’s death. The girl was said to have climbed up in a willow-tree and when the branch broke she fell into a brook and drowned there – not having the mental capacity to save herself. But the exact circumstances of her death are a bit mysterious. If she had died that way it would have been an accident but at her funeral she is not given the proper ceremony, a clear indication that she had committed suicide.
Ophelia is a popular figure in art, especially among the pre-Raphaelites, especially the scene of her drowning. Who played the role back in the time of Shakespeare’s own time is not known – but it was in all probability a boy since they generally played the roles of women back then, it was never women who played the roles of women in any case. The play has also been filmed several times and among others the role has been played by Jean Simmons and Helena Bonham-Carter.