"And I of Ladies Most Deject and Wretched:" Diagnosing Shakespeare's Ophelia with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By Ellen T. Goodson
2010, Vol. 2 No. 07 | pg. 1/1

If William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is “the most famous play in English literature,” his Ophelia is arguably the field’s most tragic female figure (Meyer 1588). Torn from her lover and bereft of her father, the young woman falls into grief-stricken madness that ends, in many literary and theatrical interpretations, in suicide. Critics and directors have characterized her as an innocent child, a passive daughter, compassion-inducing soul, and an undeserving victim. Yet her clichéd portrayal as “helpless, crazy wretch” gains a humanizing dimension when seen through the lens of modern psychological research: Ophelia is not insane, but traumatized. Ignoring scientific evidence that accounts for her madness dismisses her, and to a greater extent women, as not worth saving.

In the context of studies on anxiety and distress, Ophelia begins the play as a typical adolescent girl growing up in an environment that would predispose her to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her father’s murder and the events around it do not drive her insane, but shock an easily shaken system. Notes the king:

First her father slain:
Next your son gone; and he most violent author
Of his own just remove…. Poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts. (Shakespeare 1659)

In the wake of Polonius’s death, her behavior, illustrated by her speech and characters’ descriptions of her conduct, satisfies the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM)’s criteria for detecting PTSD. Because of this condition’s unique origin outside the mind, her diagnosis demonstrates that she in not irreversibly, wildly crazy but within the reach of others’ help. Instead of being an irrational madwoman, a symbol of suffering virtue, Ophelia becomes fully human, a multi-faceted teenager of conflicting emotions who understandably cracks under severe stress and trauma.

In the growing spectrum of mental disorders, PTSD is both new in age—the name gained popularity in the 1970s, though the medical field did not acknowledge the term until 1980—and novel in concept (“When Trauma Tips You Over”). While other psychosomatic illnesses may originate inside someone’s mind, PTSD requires a sufficiently shocking event to traumatize its sufferers. According to Professor Cathy Caruth of Emory University, the disorder distinctively develops “the truth of the traumatic experience … It is not a pathology of falsehood or displacement of meaning, but of history itself” (5). Victims of trauma process this shock in their own ways; therefore, some people escape the ailment while others may develop chronic PTSD. Dr. Chris Brewin, professor of clinical psychology at University College London, noted that research has not yet revealed a biological way to test for PTSD, so “diagnoses are based on constellations of signs that the observer can see…and symptoms that the patient can report” (23). Risk factors before, during, and after an ordeal affect one’s chances of feeling emotional damage. Although some of these factors lie out of sufferers’ control, PTSD consistently shows “a mental and physical response that…has nothing to do with any personal weakness or vulnerability” (Brewin 1). Thus, Ophelia’s reaction to her father’s death is not due to a biological flaw, but set up by the preexisting high-risk conditions in which she lives.

At the top of the play, Ophelia reads as a standard teenage girl, not the personality-less maiden that centuries’ of literary criticism describe. She talks back to her brother, exchanges love letters with a boy, and argues with her father. However, details of her life and background, both far and recent past, exhibit numerous factors associated with a high possibility for developing PTSD after a trauma. Some causes are genetic: women are most at risk than men (Brewin 50). Others originate in “having experienced previous trauma… or other childhood adversity” (50). Her mother is notably missing from the play and has likely passed away. The mortality rates for women during Shakespeare’s life were high; childbirth, household accidents, and illness preyed on wives, mothers, and daughters. Not one character mentions a maternal figure, giving an audience the impression that Polonius’s family avoids speaking about her as anyone might after losing a loved one. Since Ophelia is only a teenager, her mother’s death could only have happened recently or in her childhood. As research reveals, such an early experience “of separation and loss [seems] to push the subject toward developing avoidant behavior…and an increased feeling of insecurity” (Miller 148). More specifically, studies have shown that there is “a significant relationship between death of the mother and panic disorder” (146). Ophelia’s lack of a maternal relationship predisposes her to suffering later.

As in many single parent households, the remaining spouse must assume both partners’ responsibilities. Polonius, whose demanding job under the king requires constant attention, took over his daughter’s upbringing and security. The father of a teenage girl, he seems not to understand the transformation his “green girl” is undergoing (1603). Ernest Jones, a student of Freud’s ideas and methods, said that because she is midway through developing, “Ophelia should be unmistakably sensual… she is very aware of her body” (qtd. in Showalter 235). Her father, however, sees only the child he wants to see. Instead of encouraging her growth, he insists that she “think [herself] a baby,” a stage of her life that he remembers and can handle (Shakespeare 1604). She tries to defend her love of Hamlet before her father’s disapproving eye:

My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honorable fashion…
And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven. (1604)

Habituated to protecting his daughter from men, Polonius commands she reject her lover, to which she dutifully responds, “I shall obey, me lord” (1604). She might be growing up, but in her paternally run house, her father has the last say.

Polonius’s overprotective nature does more than ignore the important transition his daughter is facing; his controlling attitude bears negative consequences, as seen in her reaction to his violent and mysterious death. One series of psychological tests explains that “patients suffering from anxiety neurosis scored both their parents as significantly less caring and more overprotective than matched normal controls did” (Miller 148). By denying his daughter’s maturation, Polonius appears to exert control without offering her love. Whatever his good intentions, Ophelia’s father acts in a manner that sets her up to fall before the pressure of PTSD.

These factors—being female, having experienced a previous childhood trouble, living with an overprotective father—precondition her to PTSD after her father’s murder. However, another risk arises during the trauma: Ophelia finds herself with no one to help her cope. This dearth of support is not a result of her failure to make friends. Ophelia’s brother’s departure during Act I, Scene III reveals their affectionate relationship. In their first bit of dialogue, Laertes urges his sister to write while he is abroad, “And, sister, as the winds give benefit / and convoy is assistant, do not sleep / but let me hear from you,” to which she quickly replies, “Do you doubt that?” (Shakespeare 1601). Ophelia finishes his line of iambic pentameter much like loving siblings may complete one another’s sentences. After Laertes verbosely cautions his sister against Hamlet’s advances, she turns his own advice on him to behave well in France. Though the younger, obedient sister, Ophelia demonstrates that she can think clearly and speak wittily, perhaps with a tinge of amusement in her voice:

But, good my brother
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heave,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede. (1602)

Her close relationship with Laertes, though positive while he is nearby, becomes a risk for PTSD when the two are separated.

Ophelia’s relationships with brother, father, and later her lover suffer from their absences. Laertes leaves his sister to attend university in France; he will not see her again until after their father’s murder. Unlike his son, Polonius is not physically absent, but mentally. He shares only two scenes alone with his daughter, but spends seven doing business for King Claudius. Though Ophelia is present in two of these moments, she serves as a pawn in the hands of the two men, charged with drawing Hamlet out of his “madness” enough to find its cause. Hamlet’s discovery of her complicity in Claudius’ plans provokes him to reject her: “get thee to a nunnery, go; farewell” (Shakespeare 1633). His violent abandonment knocks another gaping hole in Ophelia’s supportive network. Whenever she needs help, the combined absences of Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet, especially added to her need of a mother figure, leave her with nobody to trust.

Ophelia’s lack of people to comfort her during the trauma further primes her for the disorder. As research has revealed, “social support,” or the lack thereof, during severe shocks “affects the level of symptoms” of PTSD (Brewin 37). By “helping to reduce the negative impact of life stress,” a strong network of caring individuals can buffer a victim from the full strain of a traumatic experience (Miller 123). In Act IV, Ophelia finds she cannot turn to mother, brother, or lover and reaches out to the queen for comfort and answers surrounding her father’s death. “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” she asks, throwing court formality aside, and sings, “He is dead and gone, lady” (Shakespeare 1658-59). Her access to social support is so limited that she turns to a stranger for help.

With these various risks already heightening her susceptibility to PTSD, the suspicious details clouding her father’s murder easily push her into the illness. The DSM-IV Diagnostic Criteria for PTSD provides a checklist of symptoms that may be used to detect the disorder in Ophelia. First, a person must have been “confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others” (Brewin 7). Drawing on a chart ranking the “elements of a traumatic experience,” Ophelia has been exposed to a gamut of shocks, from the lowest stressor, “an awareness of destruction of loss,” to the more upsetting “absence of control” of “actions during event” (Van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth 147).

Besides meeting the stressor, the victim must also demonstrate a reaction of “intense fear, helplessness, or horror” (Brewin 7). After Polonius’s death, Ophelia “hems and beats her heart” and “spurns enviously at straws,” kicking powerlessly at pebbles in her path (Shakespeare 1657). Try as she might, she fails to gain audience with the queen until Horatio intervenes. In children, responses to stressors often manifest themselves as “disorganized or agitated behavior” (Brewin 7). Leaving youth for adolescence, Ophelia exhibits a distracted manner as she confronts Claudius and Gertrude. . Furthermore, her choice of song instead of speech to communicate with the royals shows that she believes her own words will help her find out the details of her father’s slaughter. Vulnerable, she feels cut loose and helpless in the hierarchical world of court life and secrets.

The second criterion demands that the victim persistently re-experience the trauma somehow. If Ophelia has “recurrent distressing dreams of the event” or experiences “dissociative flashback episodes,” the audience cannot see them (Brewin 7). However, she does demonstrate “intense psychological distress” when faced with “internal or external cues” that represent a feature of the trauma (7). She speaks passionately, but clearly in her call for Gertrude—“Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?”—but when face to face with the queen, she cannot voice whatever she had hoped to say without relying on song (Shakespeare 1658). Something in meeting the lady triggers a response that momentarily renders the girl speechless. Perhaps in this pause, her mind connects the queen with the horror of her father’s death.

Re-experiencing Polonius’s murder, Ophelia likely has “recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event, including images, thought, or perceptions” (Brewin 7). A gentleman of the court observes, “She speaks much of her father” (Shakespeare 1657). She vocalizes the memories as they come. Her perceptions of the event, that Gertrude must somehow know about the murder and that because Claudius is a man, he must be attacked for the failings of all men, must bother her enough to force a meeting with the royals.

Thirdly, a person must determinedly avoid or become numb to “stimuli associated with the trauma” (Brewin 7). One gentleman admits that “her winks, and nods, and gestures” look like she is trying to communicate, but that he cannot decipher her “half sense” (Shakespeare 1657). The girl feels “detachment or estrangement” from other courtiers and the royals, unable to share her grief and confusion with anyone (Brewin 7). Ophelia is experiencing a “restricted range of affect,” in which she cannot express herself as she normally would (7). Like many PTSD victims, she suffers from dissociation, “any kind of temporary breakdown…of the relatively continuous interrelated process of perceiving the world,…remembering the past, or having a single identity that links [the] past to [the] future” (52). Lacking understanding, Laertes howls, “Is’t possible a young maid’s wits / should be as mortal as an old man’s life?” when this look of madness is simply “a defensive response that protects a helpless person from overwhelming stress” (Shakespeare 1661, Brewin 53). Likewise, her “markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities,” such as maintaining the formalities of court life, is an equally natural a response to PTSD (Brewin 7). By numbing out the reminders that hurt, Ophelia feels safer in her unstable circumstances.

Victims of this disorder also experience an “increased arousal” or agitation (8). Ophelia’s “irritability or outbursts of anger” toward Claudius look crazy to the king, but follow PTSD’s pattern. After confronting him with a bawdy tune about sex before marriage, he scornfully asks, “How long hath she been thus?” (Shakespeare 1659). Realizing she has overstepped her boundaries, the young woman collects herself and carefully wishes the pair well (1659). Her anger comes in spurts, followed by measures to heal any damage done to her already rocky social support. Her “exaggerated startle response,” seen in the quick beat changes during her exchanges with the king and queen in Act IV, Scene V, push her to jump from pleading songs and sarcastic allusions of popular fables to biting ditties and a calm exit (Brewin 8). In most productions, her distraught singing and speech, which “would make one think there might be thought / though nothing sure,” have played as the pitiable ravings of indeterminate nature (Shakespeare 1658). Based on psychological criterion, this erratic agitation reads strongly as PTSD.

The DSM requires the symptoms of potential PTSD last for over a month so that the many people who suffer from daily stressors or shocks are not misdiagnosed with the condition. Shakespeare does not specify how much time has elapsed between Polonius’s death and Ophelia’s passionate reaction. However, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern have enough time to interrogate Hamlet thoroughly about the murder. The prince and his companions depart for England and meet with Fortinbras. Letters announcing Polonius’s death leave the castle and reach Laertes in France, from which he has “in secret come” (Shakespeare 1659). Such movement around Europe requires a fair amount of time, probably a matter of weeks. The gentleman does not say for how long she has been “importunate, indeed distract” (1657). Ophelia could have exhibited this altered behavior for the required period.

Finally, the change in conduct must wreak “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (Brewin 8). The young woman’s reaction to her father’s murder has transformed more than her eloquence to an “unshaped use” of speech (Shakespeare 1558). She has become a liability the king and queen cannot afford. Horatio argues that Gertrude must see the girl “for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” and spread gossip and interest into the castle’s internal affairs (1658). Once the center of several men’s lives, whether for love or political advancement, Ophelia is now a social pariah considered “divided from herself and her fair judgment” (1659). She dies not long later, a tragedy that, if suicide, proves she could not function in the most necessary “area”: maintenance of the will to live.

Ophelia’s diagnosis with PTSD humanizes a character that audiences have pitied for centuries, but with whom they could not empathize. Unlike many psychological ailments, this disorder does not connote “insanity,” to which many viewers cannot relate. Between 70 and 80 percent of people experience severely jarring ordeals that passing months have soothed (Brewin 8). Instead of being stark mad, this young woman simply suffers from “a failure of time to heal all wounds” (Van der Kolk, McFarlance, and Weisaeth 8). Since PTSD may affect anyone, Ophelia loses the label of “madwoman” to audiences, and becomes approachable, lively, endearing. Audience members may place themselves in her shoes more fully and see through her eyes more clearly. Her descent into traumatized depression is more, not less, heartbreaking because viewers know and love her. Shakespeare’s classic play literally takes on a new life in this modern interpretation for modern spectators.

Moreover, women audience members may find this understanding of Ophelia as liberating for themselves as for her. The deaths of Hamlet’s only female characters, combined with the absence of a mother figure, have hereto indicated that women are all disposable. Whether innocent or guilty, crazy or conniving, women do not deserve to be rescued, even from preventable tragedy. Ophelia’s treatable diagnosis, however, demands attention and care more than hopeless delirium does, demonstrating that she as a woman has a right to aid and comfort. Since her illness partially derives from needing a mother, she proves that women are essential to maintaining mental and physical health. By identifying Ophelia’s madness as PTSD, women read as more than fragile, unnecessary pawns of men. Like Ophelia, they become fallible yet lovable humans: sometimes shaken by trauma, but always worth saving.


Brewin, Chris R. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Malady or Myth? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. “Introductions.” Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008

Miller, Thomas, ed. Clinical Disorders and Stressful Life Events. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 1589 – 1686.

Showalter, Elaine. “A Feminist Perspective.” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Ed. Susanne Wofford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994.

Van der Kolk, Bessel, Alexander McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, eds. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. New York: The Guilford Press, 1996.

“When Trauma Tips You Over: PTSD Part One.” All In the Mind. Prod. James Carleton. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 9 Oct. 2004.

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