Ophelia, her very name is firmly rooted within the realm of Greek tragedy and as the Early Modern literature scholar Cherrell Guilfoyle wittily notes, “in one of the fragments of Euripidean tragedy, there is the saying ‘Woman brings to man the greatest possible succor and the greatest possible harm.’
In this way, from the very beginning of Hamlet, Ophelia is portrayed in a way that she was meant to be a helpmate to the men in her life. Thus, Ophelia’s degradation, descent into madness, and eventual suicide are all incredibly clear signs that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”.
And this is where I am completely at odds with the given narrative about Ophelia
Ophelia didn’t just go crazy because her ex-boyfriend killed her father.
Ophelia went mad because her entire narrative arc in Hamlet is defined by patriarchal control and being treated like a child despite being an adult. Her first scene is one in which both her brother and father warn her not to be involved with a man she loves, but the way they do it is so telling.
Laertes, brother of Ophelia offers a compelling reason for her to be careful: no matter how true his love or how good his intentions, Hamlet is a prince, and his actions can’t always be his own. If he marries he has to marry for political gains, and Ophelia is the daughter of a court advisor with no title. So Ophelia could never be more than a mistress to him, dearly and truly loved but living in social and moral/religious disgrace, reflecting poorly on herself and on her father and brother. And sure, if Hamlet were king, she’d be well taken care of even if she weren’t married, but there’s still the aforementioned problem of honor. And besides, there’s the bigger problem of Hamlet not being king. If he so chose, Claudius could have Ophelia sent away, or imprisoned, or anything else that Hamlet would have no legal power to stop. So it’s better not to get entangled with Hamlet.
Laertes’ position is one that denies Ophelia happiness, but it’s also one that recognizes she’s an adult woman and one that is based on practical truths. It’s a position that grants Ophelia time and agency to end things with Hamlet gradually and in a way that lets both of them process the situation. Well, although, there’s a certain degree of talking down he does to her, it strikes me more like the way an older sibling will speak from experience when telling their younger sibling not to do something stupid. Moreover, their conversation is also one where Ophelia has a chance to respond to him in kind and remind him not to be a hypocrite because Laertes isn’t exactly old either.
But then along comes Polonius, proud and concerned father of Laertes and Ophelia to trample all over that. He speaks all over her, gives her no chance to respond, and treats her like a stupid child, comparing her to a bird caught in a trap. Unlike Laertes, he insists that Hamlet must have wicked intent and be seducing her—thereby assuming that Ophelia isn’t adult enough to have romantic or sexual agency. He’s essentially the kind of dad who threatens to do violence to his adult daughter’s boyfriends (well, not exactly, but definitely the same mindset). He refuses to believe Ophelia when she says that Hamlet has been genuine and gentlemanly to her, not trusting that she’s wise enough to recognize when someone is “only after one thing” versus when it’s actual love.
He then goes on to order her to return his letters, to order her to cut off from him completely and immediately (with no chance to process) and to then read some of Hamlet’s words to her to the king and queen, violating their privacy and turning something lovely into a reason for shame. Polonius says Ophelia gives him the “doubt” that the letter was out of filial duty, but given his busybody character and how he forced an answer out of her earlier, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that he forced her to give it to him. Polonius then proceeds to conspire with Claudius, the quintessential antagonist to use Ophelia as a tool against Hamlet, putting her in a position to be deeply wounded.
I know a lot of interpretations of the “get thee to a nunnery” scene which is quite a memorable scene in the play reveals the misogynistic ideals of Hamlet where he tells Ophelia to become a nun, swearing off men and marriage as women who give birth are breeders of “sinners” as all men are sinners. You could interpret the scene as Ophelia completely believing that Hamlet is actually scorning and being cruel to her, and frankly, I’m not sure that that scene can’t be played straight on his end either. Maybe Hamlet sees that this is Polonius’ meddling, but maybe he thinks Ophelia is going along with it. In short, though, her father’s actions have put Ophelia in a position to be verbally abused by someone who she believes loved her.
However, later in the scenes you could make out a flirtatious conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia but that’s all in the tone—you could make it flirty, but you could also make it Ophelia being distant out of obligation to obey her father, while Hamlet’s goading her with sexual jokes. So it’s him once again being loathsome at best, cruel at worst.
And the final straw comes when he kills Polonius. Polonius’ death wasn’t the sole cause of Ophelia going mad, but it was the final straw. Sure, her father was a controlling meddlesome imbecile, but whether we read him as actually abusive or not, Ophelia probably still loved him as her father, complicated love or not. And now she’s an orphan, and it’s all because of the actions of the man she loved.
Like, Hamlet’s actions are understandable from his own perspective. But Ophelia doesn’t know about the ghost, doesn’t know about the murder, knows nothing. All she sees is the severe mental deterioration of her boyfriend coupled with the heartbreaking knowledge that her brother and father are right about the relationship not being viable. So she can’t be with him and can’t even stand by him to support him. And then she becomes a pawn in a political game she doesn’t even really understand, her every action directed by powerful men, which results in said boyfriend lashing out at her. And then her boyfriend kills her father for no reason she can understand other than him maybe being insane.
Consequently, you can see why Ophelia would be a little out of her mind by the time she dies.