The Fall

Ophelia’s death is fascinatingly symbolic from a multitude of different angles, including Biblical allusions, archetypes, and the lens of both feminism and psychoanalysis. However, the most prominent of these aspects in determining whether her death was accident or suicide is the allusion. While arguments can be made that her death was an accident enacted by her madness and deteriorated mental state, the poignant symbolism of falling from a tree solidifies that her untimely end was not accident, but suicide, even if the fall itself was, as is likely, initially unintentional.

Trees in literature have a universal connotation of representing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the book of Genesis. This archetype creates immediate connections to the Forbidden Fruit, original sin, and the Fall of mankind, regardless of the allusion’s context. Ophelia’s fall from a tree dynamically parallels this story. Throughout the play, Ophelia has next to no autonomy as far as her lifestyle, decisions, and behavior. She must do her father’s bidding, even if that is betraying Hamlet. She must do the king’s bidding, she must uphold her image, she must behave properly, she must, she must, she must. And none of her actions are really ever her own. Until she goes mad. She has been so systemically oppressed that madness is her only outlet for autonomy, as madness gives her “license to tell the truth” and do as she wishes. However, just as in Adam and Eve’s story, there is a high price to pay for this freedom. In the Bible, the tree is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; in Hamlet, it is the knowledge of choice, quite similar to the Biblical tree. Biblically, the Fall is humanity’s loss of perfection and descent into sin. In Hamlet, Ophelia’s fall is her descent into autonomy and escape from oppression, which seems rather opposite to the Biblical parallel. However, when examined, they are quite alike. Both Eve and Ophelia were seeking autonomy. The Serpent told Eve the forbidden fruit would give her discernment between right and wrong, and, with it, the ability to choose. At the risk of death, Eve accepted the fruit. Ophelia felt that madness gave her the freedom she sought to make her own choices. But a taste of this freedom came at a high cost. In the end, she chose to die. Suicide seemed, to her, to be her only true method to bring about her autonomy. Both Eve and Ophelia sought autonomy, the ability to choose their destinies really, and both paid a fatal price. I would argue that one of the few major differences between Genesis and the allusion is that Adam and Eve deserved to pay the price because of their sin and disobedience to God, but Ophelia didn’t deserve to die. Those I suppose the argument could be made that, in the era and standards of Elizabethan society, Ophelia had committed sin by daring to oppose societal pressures and expectations, an act for which she would deserve to die.

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