Inspired by National Stress Awareness Day, we’re examining whether Hamlet’s Ophelia experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Traditionally, labeled a “madwoman” (a rather vague term in consideration of the great & increasing amount of modern mental health knowledge), Ophelia becomes more accessible through this diagnosis. The audience no longer just pities her. They empathize with an understanding of her condition’s risk factors, causes, and symptoms.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that we will not officially diagnose Ophelia. Rather, we will consider its possibility by comparing her behaviors & circumstances with those experiencing PTSD.
Ophelia’s Risk Factors / Causes
Mother = Death
PTSD can originate from “having experienced previous trauma…or other childhood adversity." 1
An educational guess says Ophelia’s mother has passed away, as mortality rates for women then were high & she is never mentioned. Research finds “a significant relationship between death of the mother and panic disorder." 4
Furthermore, Ophelia’s age during her mom’s passing is important because such an early experience “of separation and loss [seems] to push the subject toward developing avoidant behavior…and an increased feeling of insecurity." 4 Since Ophelia is a teenager, her mother must have died within the first two decades of her life; she was young.
Father = Less Caring? Overprotective.
Ophelia’s father, Polonius, was left in charge of her upbringing following his wife’s death. Instead of aiding her transition into womanhood, Polonius insists she “think [herself] a baby." 5 This includes his refusal to let her be with Hamlet despite Ophelia’s convincing argument:
“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.” 5
Dutiful, of-age Ophelia follows her father’s wishes.
Psychological research found “patients suffering from anxiety neurosis scored both their parents as significantly less caring and more overprotective than matched normal controls did." 4 Thus, despite Polonius’ affection for his daughter, his overprotective nature that continues through her young adulthood could be one of the causes of her later “madness”.
Research suggests the quality of a social support network “affects the level of [PTSD] symptoms… helping to reduce the negative impact of life stress” 1
Polonius does not often seem to be there for his daughter, as touched upon previously. Curiously, he has two scenes alone with Ophelia, while he shares seven with 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.” So... not a ton of fun father-daughter time.
Her dear Hamlet rejects her when he discovers her complicity in Claudius’ agenda: “get thee to a nunnery, go; farewell.” *
*Note: There are other interpretations of Hamlet’s intentions in this section of the play: rejection, care, etc.
After Polonius’ death, Ophelia finds herself lacking a strong accessible support network. She has an excellent relationship with her brother and could thus go to him, but he has unfortunately already left to study in France. This separation becomes a risk factor for PTSD.
Fun Insight: Were Ophelia and Laertes (her brother) really close? It appears so! Take his departure for France in Act I Scene III as an example. Laertes tells her to write to him: “And, sister, as the winds give benefit / and convoy is assistant, do not sleep / but let me hear from you.” Ophelia replies, “Do you doubt that?” She finishes his iambic pentameter like best friends may finish each other’s sentences. He then warns her about Hamlet, as a caring brother would. Eager to offer advice too, Ophelia instructs Laertes to behave himself while away.
In Act IV, Ophelia seeks consolation and answers about her father’s death: “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” Leaving court formality, she sings, “He is dead and gone, lady." 5 The queen is a stranger - not a parent, lover, or best friend/sibling (or therapist). She decides she has no other option except to consult her majesty.
For PTSD, 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." 1 Her father’s cloudy death certainly counts.
Disorganized or Agitated Behavior
The victim must show a reaction of “intense fear, helplessness, or horror." 1
Following her father’s passing, Ophelia “hems and beats her heart” and “spurns enviously at straws,” kicking powerlessly at pebbles in her path. 5 In children, responses to stressors often manifest themselves as “disorganized or agitated behavior." 1
People with PTSD re-experience their trauma, such as through “recurrent and intrusive recollections of the event, including images, thought, or perceptions." 1
The audience cannot witness any dreams or thoughts Ophelia might experience. We know for sure though that she frequently remembers him, as one character notes, “She speaks much of her father.”
Plus, one can observe her “intense psychological distress” when she is faced with “internal or external cues" - a characteristic of trauma. 1 When Ophelia calls for Gertrude, she appears fine. But when she comes face to face with the queen, she relies on song to help her get through. Perhaps something during the meeting reminds Ophelia of Polonius, rendering her temporarily speechless while her thoughts revolve around her father’s horrid death.
Avoid or Numb Stimuli
Typically, someone with PTSD avoids or becomes numb to stimuli associated with the trauma. 1
One character in the play describes "her winks, and nods, and gestures" as likely attempts for communication, though he cannot decipher her "half sense." 5 Ophelia feels "detachment or estrangement", unable to discuss her grief and confusion with others. 1
Like many PTSD sufferers, she experiences dissociation, which Yale University Press calls "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."
Ophelia's apparent madness is "a defensive response that protects a helpless person from overwhelming stress." 5 Ignorant of the correct psychology behind her expressions, Laertes bluntly comments, "Is’t possible a young maid’s wits / should be as mortal as an old man’s life?"1
"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. 1 By numbing out the reminders that hurt, Ophelia feels safer in her unstable circumstances.” 2
Those with PTSD tend to experience “increased arousal” or agitation.
“Her anger comes in spurts, followed by measures to heal any damage done to her already rocky social support. Her ‘exaggerated startle[d] 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." 2
Length of Symptoms
For an official diagnosis, PTSD symptoms must last longer than a month.
Although the times in Hamlet are not specified, Claudius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern spend much time interrogating Hamlet about his participation in 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.' 5 Such movement around Europe requires a fair amount of time, probably a matter of weeks.” 2
We do not know how long Ophelia was “importunate, indeed distract." 5 In other words, she could have endured PTSD symptoms this entire period.
Distress or Impairment in Functioning
Conduct alteration must exhibit “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning." 1
Her father’s murder results in her “unshaped use” of speech. 5 More significantly, the king and queen view her as a liability. Indeed, Horatio insists Gertrude should witness Ophelia’s transformation “for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds”, spreading both true and false insider information. 5 Ophelia is “divided from herself and her fair judgment." 5 “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.” 2
In conclusion, it is very possible Ophelia endured PTSD. This diagnosis humanizes the “madwoman”, countering the fragility of women often stereotyped in female characters.
Do you think Ophelia had PTSD? (See the charts below.)
Are there other characters in Shakespeare (or otherwise) that you think could have experienced PTSD?
1. Brewin, Chris R. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Malady or Myth? New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
2. Goodson, Ellen. "And I of Ladies Most Deject and Wretched:" Diagnosing Shakespeare's Ophelia with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
3. Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008
4. Miller, Thomas, ed. Clinical Disorders and Stressful Life Events. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1997.
5. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52, oil on canvas, 762 x 111.8 cm (Tate Britain, London)