In Ophelia's first speaking appearance in the play, we see her with her brother, Laertes, who is leaving for France. Laertes warns her that Hamlet, the heir to the throne of Denmark, does not have the freedom to marry whomever he wants. Ophelia's father, Polonius, enters while Laertes is leaving, and also admonishes Ophelia against pursuing Hamlet, who he fears is not earnest about her.
In Ophelia's next appearance, she tells Polonius that Hamlet rushed into her room with his clothing askew, and with a "hellish" expression on his face, and only stared at her and nodded three times, without speaking to her. Based on what Ophelia tells him, about Hamlet acting in such a "mad" way, Polonius concludes that he was wrong to forbid Ophelia to see Hamlet, and that Hamlet must be mad beause of lovesickness for Ophelia. Polonius immediately decides to go to Claudius (the new King of Denmark, and also Hamlet's uncle and stepfather) about the situation. Polonius later suggests to Claudius that they can hide behind an arras to overhear Hamlet speaking to Ophelia, when Hamlet thinks the conversation is private. Since Polonius is now sure Hamlet is lovesick for Ophelia, he thinks Hamlet will express love for Ophelia. Claudius agrees to try the eavesdropping plan later.
The plan leads to what is commonly called the 'Nunnery Scene'. Polonius instructs Ophelia to stand in the lobby of the castle, while he and Claudius hide behind. Hamlet enters the room, in a different world from the others, and recites his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy. Hamlet approaches Ophelia and talks to her. He tells her "get thee to a nunnery." Hamlet becomes angry, realizes he's gone too far, and says "I say we will have no more marriages", and exits. Ophelia is left bewildered and heartbroken, sure that Hamlet is insane. After Hamlet storms out, Ophelia makes her "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown" soliloquy.
The next time Ophelia appears is at the 'Mousetrap Play' which Hamlet has arranged to try to prove that Claudius killed King Hamlet. Hamlet sits with Ophelia and makes sexually suggestive remarks, also saying that woman's love is brief.
Later that night, after the play, Hamlet kills Polonius  during a private meeting between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. At Ophelia's next appearance, after her father's death, she has gone mad, due to what the other characters interpret as grief for her father. She talks in riddles and rhymes, sings some "mad" and bawdy songs about death and a maiden losing her virginity. After bidding everyone a "good night", she exits.
The final time Ophelia appears in the play is after Laertes comes to the castle to challenge Claudius over the death of his father, Polonius. Ophelia sings more songs and hands out flowers, citing their symbolic meanings although interpretations of the meanings differ. The only herb that Shakespeare gives Ophelia herself is rue; "... there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o'Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference". Rue is well known for its symbolic meaning of regret, but the herb is also highly poisonous and has powerful abortive properties. While the concept that Ophelia may be pregnant through Hamlet seems unlikely, given the social stigma of a prince and a noblewoman having sex, there are a variety of other poisonous herbs that Shakespeare could have given Ophelia to suggest perhaps a plan of suicide. If rue is taken in a correct measure, it forces the body to abort the fetus by simulating an illness that will not allow the body to support a growing offspring. This would suggest that Shakespeare chose this herb specifically to suggest that Ophelia may suspect she is pregnant. Then she blesses everyone and exits for the last time.
In Act 4 Scene 7, Queen Gertrude, in her monologue (There is a willow grows aslant the brook), reports that Ophelia had climbed into a willow tree, and then a branch broke and dropped Ophelia into the brook, where she drowned. Gertrude says that Ophelia appeared "incapable of her own distress". Gertrude's announcement of Ophelia's death has been praised as one of the most poetic death announcements in literature.
We later see a sexton at the graveyard insisting Ophelia must have killed herself, however, although the sexton attempts to argue the point logically and legally (as Ophelia was already insane and probably unable to control her actions), he never says how he would know it as a fact. The cleric who presides at Ophelia's funeral later asserts that she should have been buried in unsanctified ground as a suicide, but he doesn't say how he knows facts about it, either. Laertes is outraged by what the cleric says, and replies that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven when the cleric "liest howling" in hell. The remarks by the sexton and the cleric have naturally led to a great deal of discussion and debate over whether Ophelia committed suicide or not.
At Ophelia's funeral, Queen Gertrude sprinkles flowers on Ophelia's grave ("sweets to the sweet,") and says she wished Ophelia could have been Hamlet's wife. Laertes then jumps into Ophelia's grave excavation, asking for the burial to wait until he has held her in his arms one last time and proclaims how much he loved her. Hamlet, nearby, then challenges Laertes and claims that he loved Ophelia more than "forty thousand" brothers could. After her funeral scene, Ophelia is no longer mentioned.
While it is known that Richard Burbage played Hamlet in Shakespeare's time, there is no evidence of who played Ophelia; since there were no professional actresses on the public stage in Elizabethan England, we may be certain that she was played by a boy.
The early modern stage in England had an established set of emblematic conventions for the representation of female madness: disheveled hair worn down, dressed in white, bedecked with wild flowers, Ophelia's state of mind would have been immediately 'readable' to her first audiences. "Colour was a major source of stage symbolism", Andrew Gurr explains, so the contrast between Hamlet's "nighted colour" (1.2.68) and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.78) and Ophelia's "virginal and vacant white" would have conveyed specific and gendered associations. Her action of offering wild flowers to the court suggests, Showalter argues, a symbolic deflowering, while even the manner of her 'doubtful death', by drowning, carries associations with the feminine (Laertes refers to his tears on hearing the news as "the woman").
Gender structured, too, the early modern understanding of the distinction between Hamlet's madness and Ophelia's: melancholy was understood as a male disease of the intellect, while Ophelia would have been understood as suffering from erotomania, a malady conceived in biological and emotional terms. This discourse of female madness influenced Ophelia's representation on stage from the 1660s, when the appearance of actresses in the English theatres first began to introduce "new meanings and subversive tensions" into the role: "the most celebrated of the actresses who played Ophelia were those whom rumor credited with disappointments in love." Showalter relates a theatrical anecdote that vividly captures this sense of overlap between a performer's identity and the role she plays:
The greatest triumph was reserved for Susan Mountfort, a former actress at Lincoln's Inn Fields who had gone mad after her lover's betrayal. One night in 1720 she escaped from her keeper, rushed to the theater, and just as the Ophelia of the evening was to enter for her mad scene, "sprang forward in her place ... with wild eyes and wavering motion." As a contemporary reported, "she was in truth Ophelia herself, to the amazement of the performers as well as of the audience—nature having made this last effort, her vital powers failed her and she died soon after."
During the 18th century, the conventions of Augustan drama encouraged far less intense, more sentimentalized and decorous depictions of Ophelia's madness and sexuality. From Mrs Lessingham in 1772 to Mary Bolton, playing opposite John Kemble in 1813, the familiar iconography of the role replaced its passionate embodiment. Sarah Siddons played Ophelia's madness with "stately and classical dignity" in 1785.
Many great actresses have played Ophelia on stage over the years. In the 19th century she was portrayed by Helen Faucit, Dora Jordan, Frances Abington, and Peg Woffington, who won her first real fame by playing the role.
Ophelia has been portrayed in movies since the days of early silent films. Dorothy Foster played Ophelia opposite Charles Raymond's Hamlet in 1912. Jean Simmons played Ophelia opposite Lawrence Olivier's Oscar-winning Hamlet performance in 1948; Simmons was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but didn't win. More recently, Ophelia has been portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter (1990), Kate Winslet (1996), Julia Stiles (2000) and Hailey Howden (2008). Themes associated with Ophelia have led to movies such as Ophelia Learns to Swim (2000), and Dying Like Ophelia (2002).
Species: O. assimilis - O. bicornis - O. borealis - O. celtica - O. denticulata - O. limacina - O. magna - O. neglecta - O. profunda - O. pulchella - O. rathkei - O. roscoffensis
Ophelia Savigny, 1818