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While gender has
not been the focus of class discussions, Ophelia’s madness and suicide soon
thereafter is rife with subtext that can both subverts or reinforce traditional
gender dynamics depending on the reading.

Ophelia’s madness
is directly tied to her youth and female identity. Because she is a woman in the
16th century, Ophelia is never allowed to form her
own real feelings or opinions. She represses all aspects of her own personality
to be Polonius’ obedient daughter. Once Polonius dies, Ophelia becomes simultaneously
free from his manipulation but also completely alone. She speaks in truisms
from Act IV onwards, alternating between songs lamenting her father’s death and
phrases like “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. . . God be at your
table!” (IV.5.42-44). Without his guidance, she becomes an unnatural caricature
of her father; forced to confront the cruel world all by herself, she is driven
to the only voice she knows: that of Polonius. Echoing Polonius’ misinterpretations
in Act 2, everyone attempts to “aim at what Ophelia’s trying to say” but they
“botch the words up fit to their own thoughts” (IV.5.9-10); though she takes on
his voice, it only furthers her alienation. While no one bats an eye at
Polonius speaking this way in the earlier acts, once spoken through the voice
of Ophelia, it can no longer be understood.

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However, while her
voice may be misunderstood by her fellow characters, a 21st century audience
can see a modern woman in Ophelia. Her madness reveals truths that the reserved
members of the play do not wish to hear. She makes sense of her negative
emotions through her ‘mad’ ballads: she claims that “young men will do’t if
they come to’t, / By Cock, they are to blame” (IV.5.59-60); originally a naïve girl
who ‘did not know what to think’ (I.4.103), ‘mad’ Ophelia directly charges men with
the sexual exploitation of young girls. She also uses her madness to explore
the helplessness she feels about her tragic fate: “Lord, we know

what we are, but know not what we
may be” (IV.5.42). While her language is broken and chaotic, her madness is
what allows us to understand her emotions for the first time in the play. Ophelia’s
madness empowers her to force her audience, both the court and the play’s
readers, to listen to her voice, as well as her anguish, heartache, and despair.

Additionally, we’re
introduced to suicide in coalition with Ophelia in Act 3, when Hamlet tells
Ophelia, “the dread of something after death. . . makes us rather bear those
ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? . . . it makes cowards
of us all” (III.1.78-83). While fear of the unknown paralyzes our prince,
Ophelia is able to overcome man’s biggest fear of all – death. Hamlet becomes
the coward and Ophelia the hero. The only action she takes that is truly of her
own volition is to free herself from her ‘ills’, in this case the societal
pressures put upon her. Her madness gives her the courage to speak her mind and
jump into the unknown for the first and last time. 

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