Ophelia is one of the two female characters in William Shakespeare’s’ play Hamlet. She is portrayed as a young noblewoman of Denmark, and potential wife of Prince Hamlet. She is also the daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes.
The death of Ophelia is questioned due to different accounts regarding the circumstances of her death. Her death could be either interpreted as an accident or suicide. In this article, we’ll answer to the question ‘how does Ophelia die in Hamlet’ by looking at these varying accounts and analyzing the circumstances regarding her death.
How Does Ophelia Die in Hamlet
Ophelia’s death is first announced in the play by Queen Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) in Act IV, scene vii. This death announcement is considered to be one of the most poetic death announcements in literature. According to Gertrude, Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree, and then a branch had broken and dropped her into the water, where she drowned.
“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
Clambering 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 a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
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,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
Although this is described as an accident, phrases such as “incapable of her own distress” implies that she made no effort to save herself. It is also possible that Gertrude is giving this poetic and peaceful description of death only to alleviate the grief of Ophelia’s brother. Gertrude’s description is also questionable since no one witnessed the actual drowning.
However, the priest’s word in Act V, scene I implies that Ophelia has committed suicide. He is reluctant to give Ophelia a proper Christian burial since he thinks that it would insult the dead. This implies that she has taken her own life.
“Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet. For charitable prayers
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her.
Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.”
Thus, there are two views on Ophelia’s death. According to Gertrude’s account, it seems to be an accident, but it also implies that Ophelia made no attempt to save herself from drowning. In the next scene, the priest who performs the funeral ritual implies that she may have taken her own life. However, the mystery surrounding Ophelia’s death makes this incident more poetic and tragic.
“Millais – Ophelia (detail)” By John Everett Millais – (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia