How Does Ophelia Die?

Ophelia climbs a willow tree next to the stream, carrying some garlands made of flowers. The tree’s branch breaks, so she falls into the water. Since she’s gone mad shortly before because of grief, she makes no attempts to save herself and eventually drowns.


Ophelia is a character appearing in the play Hamlet written by William Shakespeare. She’s a noblewoman and a love interest of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ophelia also loves Hamlet, but she becomes a pawn in the manipulative actions of her father Polonius and the new King of Denmark (who’s also Hamlet’s stepfather), directed against Hamlet.

Since the new King of Denmark is concerned with Hamlet’s weird behavior, he uses all means to get to the source of his apparent madness. So when Polonius comes to the King and tells him that the true reason is Hamlet’s love for Ophelia, and, moreover, shows him Prince’s love letter, they decide to plot against Hamlet. Thus, they incite Ophelia to talk to Hamlet and make him confess to her.

When Ophelia meets Hamlet and tries talking to him, he soon realizes that they are being spied upon and that Ophelia came because her father had told her to do so. He becomes very abrupt with her and leaves her heartbroken because of his roughness.

Later, when Hamlet is talking to his mother, Queen Gertrude, Polonius is eavesdropping on their conversation. Hamlet notices him behind the curtain and accidentally kills Ophelia’s father, mistaking him for the new King. The fact that Hamlet killed her father makes Ophelia go mad.

In the seventh Scene of the fourth Act, the Queen tells Laertes (Ophelia’s brother) that his sister is dead. She reports that Ophelia went to the brook and climbed the willow tree aslant it, holding some flower wreaths. The tree’s branch broke, and she fell into the water. Since Ophelia was insane and full of grief, she didn’t even try to save herself, so her clothes became wet and heavy, and she drowned.

There is no direct evidence in the text that Ophelia killed herself deliberately, so this issue is debatable. Though the cleric at the graveyard at Ophelia’s funeral insists that she committed suicide. Laertes becomes furious with his words and then jumps into the grave, mourning his sister and begging to be buried with her. In his turn, Hamlet reacts to Ophelia’s death by revealing his deep love for her with the famous words: “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum.” (Act 5, Scene 1).

Due to the numerous studies, several symbolic meanings have been ascribed to Ophelia’s death, one of which refers us to the myth about Narcissus. When Ophelia was falling into the water, she most likely saw her reflection. So, when she united with her reflection in the water, it signified that two separate and controversial parts of her personality also united. The sane, easily manipulated half and the one which was insane but had her own voice merged. Death was the inevitable destination of her life filled with struggle, madness, and transformation, thus it can be considered as the final step in her transformation cycle – unification and release.

This symbolic character has been reflected in various pieces of art, such as movies, songs, and paintings. One of the most famous paintings is “Ophelia” by Sir John Everett Millais, in which the final release of her struggle is clearly shown.

Painting “Ophelia” by Sir John Everett Millais.
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