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Why Are We So Convinced Ophelia Killed Herself?

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

by Kylie Hollenstein

The first episode of the Netflix smash-hit Wednesday chronicles the journey of Wednesday of the Addams Family franchise, as she gets expelled from her “normie” school and is sent to one for “outcasts.” When hearing of her room assignment in Ophelia Hall, Wednesday Addams says pointedly, “Refresh my memory. Ophelia’s the one who kills herself after being driven mad by her family, correct?”

Jenna Ortega and Christina Ricci of the show Wednesday wear black lacy dresses in front of a blue background with a black gate
Jenna Ortega and Christina Ricci at the premier of Netflix's "Wednesday." Charles Gallay (2022) Getty Images

While Wednesday is greeted with an enthusiastic confirmation from her mother, Morticia, her question isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Is Ophelia the one who kills herself after being driven mad by her family? Pop culture seems to think so. An episode of The Simpsons, “Tales from the Public Domain,” features Lisa Simpson portraying the doomed heroine by crying out, “Nobody out-crazies Ophelia!,” doing a jig, and jumping into a body of water. While clearly a joke, the punchline is clear: Ophelia is the crazy girl who killed herself. But why is this assumption so natural in pop culture? In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Ophelia’s death is open to interpretation, yet time and time again suicide is portrayed as the forgone conclusion for her mysterious end.

What Happened in the Text?

No character in Hamlet seemed to truly understand Ophelia, least of all herself. In the play, men close to her control her life. They determine who she is and what she is to do, but, ironically, they can’t agree on what she is truly like. Hamlet, her love interest, calls her a corrupting force, while her brother and father see her as a virginal beacon of morality and a tool to test Hamlet. She embodies the maiden archetype, and her actions seem to be pure of heart. But after Hamlet murders her father, Ophelia is driven into a madness that only ends after she drowns in a river under strange circumstances.

Ophelia’s death is shrouded in mystery because she dies offstage. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is left to rush in and alert Ophelia’s brother of her death. Gertrude describes Ophelia climbing a tree while attempting to hang a garland of flowers, falling into the water below, and being pulled down by the weight of her dress:

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,

And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,

Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element. But long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death. (4.7.170-179)

Later, palace gravediggers gossip about Ophelia’s death. They believe it was a suicide but have little evidence as to why. Their reasoning is that because she went to the water, as opposed to the water coming to her, it was a suicide. This wasn’t good enough for the coroner, who ruled the death an accident. At the same time, the gravediggers remain critical of the determination being a result of Ophelia’s status. Was her death ruled accidental because her family was well-connected and didn’t want the shame of suicide and not having a Christian burial?

Was Ophelia “Mad”?

Madness,” a term the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “mental illness or impairment, especially of a severe kind,” is how Shakespeare’s characters continuously describe Ophelia. But is she just grieving the death of her father and the possible end of her relationship with Hamlet? As Ophelia is supposedly in the thick of her madness in Act 4, Scene 5, she makes a point to hand out flowers to any character she passes. Each flower holds deep symbolism for how she views the recipient.

A young white woman sits an the edge of a piece of land overlooking a body of water. She sits directly in front of a tree, but instead of leaning against it, sits up perfectly straight. The young woman's feet dangle just over the water with the skirt of her modest white dress partially submerged
"Ophelia" by Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895) Courtesy of Touchstone Rochdale

Ophelia gives pansies symbolizing faithfulness to her beloved brother, mentions that violets, which represent the same thing, died when her father did, and she gives rue to herself for regret. While this act in the play is described as one of madness, Ophelia seems clear of mind. By giving columbine, representative of adultery, to the King and Queen, she is able to subtly attack those she resented for her father’s death without facing repercussions. This leads to the theory that Ophelia killed herself in an effort to reclaim her agency. Within her limited societal control, her stunt with the flowers shows she contains the wherewithal to rebel in one of the few ways she can. Throughout the text, Ophelia is continuously manipulated by the men around her, and in almost every scene she’s in, Ophelia is informed either what she is or what she is to do. Whether she intentionally drowned is ambiguous, but the fact that her dress, a symbol of her femininity and status, pulled her further into the water is just as impactful as whether she fell or jumped, suicidal or not.

Historical Context

As someone who struggles with depression, I find a work’s portrayal of mental distress tends to usually be its most striking aspect. As a history major, I crave context for how the world I’ve just been transported into came to be. Hamlet is no different. By scouring historical journals for answers, I learned that Shakespeare died never hearing the word “suicide.” First coined in the 1650s, “suicide” was a more neutral alternative phrasing than the previously popular “self murder.” A deeply moralized act, killing oneself went against the Christian doctrine and was subject to harsh condemnation. So, in a historical context, does it make sense for Shakespeare to have Ophelia commit this criminalized act? He’s done it before. Romeo and Juliet’s dramatic end immediately comes to mind. Anthony, Cleopatra, Goneril, and Othello are only a few of the several characters Shakespeare leads toward self-inflicted demise. Even so, would this give audience members the impression of Ophelia he wants them to have? By having Ophelia kill herself, she would lose her status as a figure of morality. No longer would she maintain the maiden archetype and, as a result, might lose the sympathy of the audience.

Furthermore, drownings in Tudor England were unfortunately common. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, drowning caused almost half of all accidental deaths. Ophelia’s dress and likely inability to swim wouldn’t have worked in her favor. In fact, women typically faced real danger when it came to the water. Historians Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski write that “one in nine (work-related deaths), with victims overwhelmingly female, involved fetching water from open sources.” Tudor audiences likely would’ve been able to compare Ophelia’s death to someone they knew who died tragically due to water. In this context, it’s more likely that, at the time, her death would’ve been interpreted as a tragic accident rather than an intentional act.

A young white wan lays in a body of water, partially submerged. She is surrounded by flowers and greenery as she rests on her back, her eyes open and staring blankly towards the sky
"Ophelia" by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Courtesy of Tate Britain

Subjectivity in Depictions

Ultimately, due to the productive ambiguity of the text, a production can portray any interpretation of Ophelia’s death. As argued by Emma McGrory, the lack of stage directions can result in Ophelia being depicted “either as the pinnacle of innocence or as a figure of cunning sin.” Despite what the text may explicitly say, on-stage depictions can give a whole new life to lines. Audience members can leave different productions of the same play witnessing a completely different story. While there may not be concrete evidence Ophelia committed suicide, artistic interpretations may lead the general public to believe this to be the case. Critics of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2008 production argue Ophelia seemed self-conscious in her madness. A viewer may leave the theater believing Ophelia’s madness was just an act that she could never fully commit to. In the 1996 film Hamlet, Kate Winslet portrays a tragic Ophelia in a straitjacket, yelling and clawing at phantoms that never appear. Just as Shakespeare maintains ambiguity within the text, the door is left open for each production to use physical cues to sway the viewer towards a certain perspective. While a script may remain the same, new centuries bring new interpretations. Just as Ophelia was a tool within the play to perform her father’s bidding, she’s a valuable tool to the director to communicate their message to the audience.

The Broader Meaning of References

Wednesday and The Simpsons have a common thread beyond the declaration that Ophelia deliberately killed herself: her death is a punchline writers use to simplify their plots. In The Simpsons, the reference to Hamlet and death takes less time by having Lisa’s portrayal of Ophelia jump out of a window and into the moat below. The shot never leaves the room in which all of the characters preside; Lisa yells her final line and simply dives into the waters conveniently out of frame. One of Hamlet’s most iconic scenes took place off-stage, and in The Simpsons it is able to be referenced without lasting more than a couple of seconds. An interpretation referencing an accidental death would’ve required precious time spent establishing Lisa’s feelings and the death itself.

An image is contained within a half-circle with a surrounding white rectangle. Within the half-circle, a young white woman is holding reeds while perched on a curved tree. As she sits, gazing at the flowers in her left hand, the tree overlooks a body of water with flowers and algae clinging to the surface. The woman seems troubled yet pensive as she wears a long sleeveless dress with a crown of reeds.
"Ophelia" by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915) Courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery

Interpreting Ophelia’s death as an accidental drowning would have taken the teeth out of Wednesday Addams’s remark. If Wednesday were to create a comparison between herself and the doomed Ophelia—an assertion that Ophelia’s death, her most famous undertaking, was accidental—Wednesday would also be portraying herself as passive in her story. Ophelia’s most dramatic event, her death, would be something that happened to her, not something she chose. Character-wise, in Wednesday, this doesn’t make sense. Wednesday tries to prove her agency and misery to her parents, and comparing herself to a victim of unfortunate events counteracts everything she’s arguing.

Fundamentally, the belief that Ophelia committed suicide could be prevalent simply because it results in an easily digestible narrative. Far more people have heard Ophelia mentioned than have read or seen Hamlet. Writers water down references to accommodate the story in which they’re placed, a technique Shakespeare utilizes in his own work. Hamlet overflows with allusions to Greek and Roman legends; characters and events are compared to those endured by ancient gods and goddesses. As Gertrude is compared to the tragic Niobe in 1.2.149, Shakespeare is participating in the same phenomenon of referencing that he would later fall victim to. By making quick points of comparison, we lose nuance in the referenced work. Yet, thanks to these depictions, cultural memories of said works persevere. Without these references, how will modern audiences remember these works even exist, let alone breathe new life into them?


This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.

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