Rather than being concerned about the precautions of forcing his hand in his daughter’s love affairs, Polonius is just thinking of the future and who he can marry his only daughter off to. He has no care for her own desires and is instead of using her as a ploy in a plan to make himself better off by marrying her off into a more respected family.
Thus when Hamlet murders her father mistakenly in a fit of rage, Ophelia enters a double realm of guilt, believing herself to be to blame for both Hamlet’s madness, which is becoming more and more real, and her father’s untimely death. As a result, she becomes mad. Although at one level this decline into madness sets Ophelia up indisputably as a victim figure, on a deeper level perhaps her madness itself can be seen as Ophelia’s active rejection of patriarchal restraint.
Charney Maurice suggests in “Shakespeare on Love and Lust” that madwomen were “more strongly defined than madmen,” and women’s madness was “interpreted as something specifically feminine,” through depictions of madness dramatists were able to give women a chance to express their selfhood by making a “forceful assertion of their being.” This form for self-expression goes against patriarchal conventions that once prevented such forms of expression. I will touch on female madness again; this is not the only time a woman’s madness can be seen as an act of defiance towards the patriarchy.
Ophelia’s unyielding guilt is an unfair burden she should not have to carry. The tragic events that followed her during Hamlet were unwarranted. Ophelia is the victim of the dominant men in her life. She was left suffering, heavy with grief until her dying day, pushed to the edge with madness for having done nothing but acted as she was told to do, and adhered to those who meant the most to her; her father, he brother, and the man she loved. Polonius was the one who demanded she leave Hamlet, and Ophelia, the ever obedient daughter to her father, did as she was told because, in the society she lived, that was all she could do. Finally, madness overcomes and she makes the decision to kill herself.
So, if madness is seen as the ultimate test of femininity, does this mean Ophelia’s final act was an act of resistance to the patriarchal mindset that drove her mad? Maurice might argue that is the case when looking at the characteristics of Ophelia, I believe her suicide was more of an escape than an act of rebellion. While I don’t see Ophelia’s madness as a form of powerful expression, I do believe other females written by Shakespeare use “madness,” or the actions that define madness, to garner the attention and respect from their peers of both lesser and higher standings.