Painting 'Ophelia' by John Evertt Millas

Ophelia was the daughter of Polonious, the sister to Laertes and Hamlet's love intrest. After her father was murdered by Hamlet it appeared that she had gone mad, and had gone into a deep depression.

During the time the play was written the majority of the population was Catholic. In the Catholic religion insanity was not talked about often, it was believed that if someone went insane it was because of some demonic presence within the individual. Insanity was also seen as weak and therefore not talked about or treated in this time period so Ophelia went without notice or treatment for her illness, which caused her to become worse.

"Gertrude: One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow. Your sister's drown'd, Laertes.

Laertes: Drown'd! O, where?

Gertrude: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream. There with fantastic garlands did she come Of
crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds Clamb'ring to
hang, an envious sliver broke, When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death." (4.7.127)

Was Ophelias death an accident or was it suicide? The manner of her death is never directly stated by anyone in the play, but the most popular theory based on Ophelias mental state is that it was suicide. ​Gertrude explains to King Claudius and Laertes that Ophelia had been climbing a tree, fell into a river and drowned. If it was an accident, Ophelia did not struggle in the water which could imply that she did not care if she lived or died, the Queen says "Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, As one incapable of her own distress" (4.7.127).

Suicide was unlawful in Catholicism as it is one of the mortal sins, God was seen as the master of every individuals life and by taking your life you are not preserving the honour that God has given to you and as a result you will go to hell. To die by suicide you are willingly disobeying God. The term 'committing suicide' was previously used in society because to die by suicide was a crime, it was believed that God would determine when it was time for a person to pass it is not the individuals decision. It is believed that Gertrude and the King knew it was a suicide but portrayed it as an accident. They did this because since suicide is a sin the individual would not be granted a proper burial and they would not be buried with their families or anyone of the Catholic church. Gertrude and Claudius did not want this for Ophelia because of her high status in their society.

"First Clown: Is she to be buried in Christian burial when she wilfully seeks her own salvation?

Second Clown: I tell thee she is; therefore make her grave straight.
The crowner hath sate on her, and finds it Christian burial.

First Clown: How can that be, unless she drown'd herself in her own

Second Clown: Why, 'tis found so.

First Clown: It must be se offendendo; it cannot be else. For here lies
the point: if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act; and an act hath three branches-it is to act, to do, and to perform; argal, she drown'd herself wittingly." (5.1.129)

In the text above, the two clowns are digging Ophelia's grave while arguing whether or not her death was a sucide. These men believe that the royals are abusing their power by burying Ophelia's body in the cemetary since she has commit suicide.

Ophelia does get a proper Catholic burial but her body is disrespected by Laeretes and Hamlet. As she is laying in her grave both of them jump in and argue who loved her more, while clutching her dead body. Which is seen as not allowing her body to rest in peace. It is a very shocking scene in Hamlet and shows the love that the characters had for her that they did not nessisarily show when she was alive. Ophelia's death is significant in Hamlet because her death and the fact that she was driven to madness show the impact of the other characters actions.


Gill, Roma, OBE, ed. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

Vander Heeren, Achille. "Suicide." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 6 Nov. 2012

​ Bennett, Alice. "Anticipated Returns: Purgatory, Exchange And Narrative After Life." Oxford Literary Review 31.1 (2009): 33-48. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

Everett Millias, Sir John. Opheila. 1852. Oil on Canvas. N.p.