Ophelia, left alone on stage, grieves the loss of Hamlet’s mind and her own misfortune.
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 Cladius and Polonius then hide nearby to watch Hamlet’s reaction to being broken up with. What follows is one of the most explosive scenes of the play.
Ophelia follows the instructions of her father and the king, 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: “get thee to a nunnery”. He’s essentially telling her to ‘get yourself to a brothel’ before leaving her.
Ophelia is left alone to come to terms with what has just occurred.
Learn more about Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Language and Thought Breakdown
Three language features stuck out to me on my first reading of this monologue.
First was the 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.
Secondly, 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 lets 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.
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.
Let’s break down the piece into thoughts and beat changes to see what else is revealed about the character.
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
[FULL TEXT]: Ophelia: O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!…
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. /
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.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Courtier: One who attends court.
Deject: Depressed, dispirited.
Wretched: Miserable, unhappy, grieved.
Blown: Blooming, in other words; Hamlet is in the prime of his life.
Ecstasy: Madness, insanity.
What a character. What a monologue.
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. I would argue, however, that she plays a significant and crucial role integral to the story and, ultimately, the tragedy of the play. She may die half way through, but her presence is felt for the entire play.
Shakespeare didn’t write an inferior role for Hamlet’s female counterpart. From the language alone you can decipher how incredibly intelligent Ophelia 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.
At the centre of the story of Hamlet and Ophelia, is a woman and her incredibly troubled boyfriend 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 loved 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. I would argue that her drowning was not an accident, but her final choice; a choice born out of loss.
More Hamlet Monologues