The madness of Ophelia has been a topic of fascination for critics and directors alike. The fascination for directors was about creativity. Madness can be quite theatrical. A young woman gone mad, speaking in vague sentences, obsessed with flowers. It's visual and dramatic. Madness can indeed be quite theatrical.
Critics discussed everything from the role of this sub-plot in the play, the psychology of the character, the symbolism of the flowers, the social criticism in the graveyard scenes. Madness, at least as depicted in drama, fascinates us.
Would we still find her so fascinating if she were never mad at all?
In Act 4, Scene 5, Laertes says of Ophelia words:"This nothing's more than matter."
This phrase reminds me of a similar phrase said of another character who seemed to be mad. In Act 2, Scene 2, Polonius says of Hamlet:"Though this be madness, there is method in't." The second half of this is the origin for "there is method in his madness." Of course, in that scene, we, the audience, know that Hamlet is faking it. Are there any similarities between Hamlet's story and Ophelia's story that may suggest that she might have been doing the same thing?
Hamlet faked his madness so he could investigate his father's death. Ophelia's father was killed by Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 4, in humiliating circumstances. We, the audience have seen that. However, within the context of the story, it is unlikely that it would be common knowledge that the "mad" prince killed the King's adviser in a fit of rage. In fact, when Laertes returns, he knows of his father's death, but it is the King who tells him that Hamlet was the killer. Thus, we can safely assume that the circumstances of Polonius's death would not have been common knowledge.
Both Hamlet and Ophelia had a father who dies a suspicious death (as far as they knew). Both acted mad afterwards. Different characters said of both that their words mean more than they appear to mean.
It would not be unreasonable to conclude that Ophelia was never mad at all. She did the same thing Hamlet did. Pretended to be mad, allowing her to say things she otherwise couldn't. Picking up bits of conversation, when people might let their guard down around her. At some moment she may have asked herself the same question Hamlet did – to be or not be? – and while Hamlet chose to go one way, she chose the other. One can only speculate as for her reasons – she may have found out what really happened. It may be the difference between a rational and emotional decision, conforming to the perception of the period that women in plays must be emotional, while only men could be rational. It is a ripe field for discussion and speculation.
One could see Laertes picking up the looking-glass plot where she left it off, playing out the rest of it, the revenge.
The Tragedy of Ophelia is an unwritten story, yet to be explored.