Ophelia, alone on stage, grieves the loss of Hamlet’s mind and her own misfortune. Her famous monologue, a regular fixture in acting classes and drama school auditions the world over, is short but packs one hell of a punch. Contemporary portrayals of Ophelia lean into the complexity of her motives and feelings; they allow us to find deeper meaning in the words that speak to her strength of character and resolve. In this article, we’re going to break down the text so you can utilise all the richness it has to offer.
Updated 24th January, 2024.
Prior to this moment, Ophelia is taken aside by King Claudius and her father, Polonius. They order Ophelia to stop seeing Hamlet—referencing his erratic behaviour. King Claudius and Polonius then hide nearby to watch Hamlet’s reaction to being dumped. What follows is one of the most explosive scenes of the play.
Ophelia follows her instructions, but Hamlet suspects that he is being watched and all hell breaks loose. In what is essentially a public break-up scene, Hamlet dramatically and aggressively shames Ophelia by ordering her to: “get thee to a nunnery”. Ophelia is left alone to come to terms with what has just occurred.
Learn more about Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Original Text and Language Breakdown
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! /
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, /
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, /
The glass of fashion and the mould of form, /
Th’ observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down! /
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, / (F)
That suck’d the honey of his music vows, /
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason (F)
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh, /
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. / O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see. /
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
When working on this monologue, keep in mind the following three language features. These may help you unlock some interesting ideas for your own performance:
#1 Vowel Sounds
This monologue begins with an ‘O’. The use of this sound is very prominent in the monologue, and repeated many times. An ‘O’ can be an expression of grief and loss. In language, emotion lies in the vowel sounds, whilst sense and clarity is more often found in the consonants. “O woe is me” clearly demonstrates this repetition and the result is haunting. It tells us that the text demands of the actor a deep emotional connection and expression. The ‘O’ sound comes from deep in the body and is a very vulnerable place to explore. Lean into that. Invest in the vowels to find the emotion of the language.
#2 Feminine Endings
Pay attention to ‘feminine’ endings of lines: meaning the line ends with an extra, unstressed syllable that ‘softens’ the sound of the verse. The first line with a feminine ending stood out to me: “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,”. A feminine ending can sometimes be an indication of where Shakespeare is asking the actor to focus their energy: by adding an extra beat to the meter, Shakespeare can let the actor know that the idea, and moment, is of great emotion or importance. If you pronounce the “ed” at the end of “wretched”, placing emphasis on this word, it not only finishes the line and thought strongly but completes the feminine ending, indicating exactly how Ophelia is feeling.
#3 Steady Meter
Thirdly, and lastly, I noticed that while this is certainly a deeply emotional monologue, Shakespeare wrote it with a very steady meter. Ophelia doesn’t break out of iambic pentameter. She is still so clear and intelligent in her thought process; it is quite remarkable. I suppose the clue here is telling the actor that, despite the presence of deep emotion, do not allow that emotion to override the clarity of the story. Ophelia is in grief, certainly, but she is still able to articulate exactly how she’s feeling and what she has witnessed. Whats more, she is facing extreme grief and distress with strength and resolve. Sadly, this also helps contrast her later descent into madness.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
As always, make your first step to identify and research any words you do not know. Pay particular attention to words you think you might understand in the context—Shakespeare’s expert use of language can often infuse words or phrases with double or hidden meanings (see: Ecstasy, below).
O’erthrown: Overthrown, as in forcibly removed from power—by madness, or perhaps his sorrow.
Courtier: One who attends court, a prominent member of society.
Deject: Depressed, dispirited.
Wretched: Miserable, unhappy, grieved.
Blown: Blooming, in other words; Hamlet is in the prime of his life.
Ecstasy: Madness, insanity.
A modern translation of Shakespeare’s words can go a long way in helping you decipher meaning and truth. While it’s a helpful exercise to develop your own modernised version, word by word, we’ve provided our own below:
Oh, what an incredible mind which has been overcome by madness!
The perceptiveness of a courtier, courage of a soldier, and wisdom of a scholar,
The hope and rose and of Denmark,
The mirror on whose image people mould themselves on,
The most looked up to of all those looked up to, fallen so, so far.
And me, of all women, is the most depressed and grief-stricken,
Who drank the sweet words of his poetic vows,
Now see that this brilliant and most logical mind,
Once like beautiful music is now playing chaotically and harsh,
His epitome of a perfect young man in bloom,
Destroyed by insanity. Oh, god pity me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see.
Notes On Performance
In this monologue, your greatest asset is the restraint you can bring to these words. Ophelia chooses her words carefully—as shown in that steady meter that drives the piece forward—and right off the page, there is almost something formal, impersonal about the images she conjures. It’s almost a eulogy delivered at some state funeral, rather than the lamentation of her relationship lost.
And yet… this pesky ‘O’ that opens the monologue tells us that there is, indeed, a strong emotional undercurrent to her words. Ophelia is barely keeping it together: navigating the very public nature of the break-up with any small dignity she can muster. This is where restraint will serve you well: let her feel, let her process, let her mourn. But keep it together, as it seems as though grace and strength is all she has left.
More on the ‘public’ nature of this scene: let yourself be inspired and informed by the given circumstances of the piece. Where is she? How does she feel having this conversation out in the open, despite its intimacy? There’s also merit to considering whether or not Ophelia knows that she’s being watched by her father and the King. That adds extra layers of humiliation on top of everything else.
What a character. What a monologue.
Shakespeare didn’t write an inferior role for Hamlet’s female counterpart. From the language alone you can decipher how incredibly intelligent she is. In terms of dialogue, Ophelia is one of the few characters, perhaps the only one, that can match Hamlet in wit and smarts. She keeps pace with Hamlet’s language throughout the entire ‘nunnery scene’ until Hamlet, when he runs out of argument, resorts to inferences that she is a whore, dismissing her and all women in an incredibly demeaning and humiliating way.
Ophelia is a much overlooked character because she doesn’t have the same amount of lines and scenes as some of the other ‘larger’ characters. We would argue, however, that she plays a crucial role that is integral to the story and, ultimately, the tragedy of the play. She may die half way through, but her presence is felt throughout and serves as an important motivator for the protagonist.
At the centre of the story of Hamlet and Ophelia, are two people who are, or were once, deeply in love. Ophelia is a true victim in this tragedy. Her father is murdered by the man she loves—the same man that she was forced to break up with—and her brother will also eventually be killed… Despite all this, the role of the actor is not to play the victim! Remember that even after the ‘nunnery scene’, her first thought is Hamlet; “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”. She truly loves him and grieves the loss of him and his once great mind. Her strength is in her loyalty to both her father and to Hamlet, and for that she loses all. Her drowning was not an accident, but her final choice: the only perceived escape from the tragedies of circumstance that surround her.
More Hamlet Monologues