In short, the Ophelia Complex could be defined as feeling like nothing. A person suffering from this complex has no sense of self, importance, or soul. They feel that they simply do not matter; to themselves or to any other living creature. Shakespeare gives us a very astute study of this complex with his portrayal of Ophelia in the tragedy Hamlet.
When she is first introduced to us in the play, her brother is advising her to not trust her instincts and to be afraid. He advises that her “best safety is in fear” (I, ii, 42). Then her father, Polonius, enters, harping at her and telling her that “you do not understand yourself” (I, ii, 97). All of Polonius’ harangues leave her utterly confused as she says “I do not know, my lord, what I should think”.(I ii 103).To which her father responds, “I will teach you, think yourself a baby” (I, ii, 104.)
In this opening scene, we are witnessing the debasement of Ophelia. She is advised not to think, not to trust her own instincts, to live in fear, and to consider herself a helpless baby. No one is encouraging her to develop critical thinking, to listen to her inner voices, or establish an inner strength. Her connection to her basic self, i. e. her instincts and emotional reality are expressly shut down. In fact, she is told her best friend is fear, erasing any ability to develop trust in herself. Her father does not advise her, as he does her brother, “This above all: to thine own self be true” (I, ii, 78). She isn’t allowed an own self to be true to.
As evidenced by the play, she has been raised to be a good, obedient girl. She is not encouraged to think or feel for herself, or to develop any sense of her own importance. Her main value is in being pretty. Throughout the play, she is called beautified Ophelia, pretty Ophelia, fair Ophelia, pretty lady, sweet lady, sweet maid. Her brother speaks of her “ fair and unpolluted flesh” (V, i, 239). And even her death is made to look pretty. The queen, a witness to her death, refers to her drowning in the brook as “her melodious lay” (V, i, 182). Sadly for Ophelia, pretty was not a strong enough foundation upon which to build a healthy sense of self.
Her connection to a living reality was tenuous. She had her father who manipulated her every move and used her for her value as bait as he changed his opinions and realities, depending on the changing political climate. Her brother who seemed to care, but generally just told her what to do, and Hamlet who may have loved her but suddenly turned against her in a most vicious manner. Her mother or other friends are never mentioned. The result of these relationships is that she was never seen by anyone, she had no value for who she was, only for what she could do for them. She was useful for a moment but expendable. Even her madness was pushed aside as inconsequential: in Act IV, scene v Laertes storms in on the King, attacking him and seeking revenge for his father’s murder. During the scene, Ophelia enters singing and passing around flowers. Her actions are otherworldly and cause Laertes to observe that she is “A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted” (line 179). After her exit, the King dismissively says, yes this is sad, but revenging your father’s death is much more important. Laertes agrees with him.
Tina Packer (2015) makes the astute observation that Queen Gertrude also colludes in disempowering Ophelia. Packer contends that the queen could very well have saved Ophelia. “she [Gertrude] follows Ophelia out of the castle and watches her drown. Clearly, she could have saved her (she’s close enough that she can see the hoar leaves’ reflection in the stream) but she doesn’t” (p.193). Packer contends that the queen wanted Ophelia to die because she was a danger to her and the king; she had seen too much and knew too much. However, as no one in the play ever listened to Ophelia I respectfully disagree. She could have witnessed the king killing old Hamlet, but no one would give her testimony any credence. I feel Gertrude witnessed Ophelia’s death without trying to save her because of indifference. Ophelia simply did not matter.
Then, sadly, even Ophelia’s death is erased of any importance as it becomes an inconvenience. After Gertrude tells Laertes about the drowning the king becomes enraged. The king had just gotten Laertes on his side against Hamlet and now he fears that all of his work will be undone. “How much I had to do to calm his rage! / Now fear I this will give it start again” (IV, vii, 192-193). There is no grieving for Ophelia, no sense of loss with her death, only anger that she died at a very inconvenient time. Yes, Laertes and Gertrude say nice things about her at her funeral, but everyone seems to be more concerned with how loudly they can emote than any depth of feeling for Ophelia. Hamlet is the worst offender. He physically attacks Laertes and claims that his love was worth “forty thousand brothers” (V, i, 269). Hamlet could grandstand at her funeral, but while she lived, treated Ophelia with mean-spirited treachery.
In this environment Ophelia was not able to grow a healthy ego or sense of self, so she developed a fantasy reality. The fantasy felt much safer than any reality that she actually lived, was certainly kinder, but the fantasy was not enough to sustain life. In her case, the fantasy transitioned into madness and contributed to her death.