Hamlet's insanity is philosophical, the result of brooding upon his father's death and learning the truth about it. Ophelia's insanity is often portrayed as the result of being a woman, a person for whom emotion trumps reason, who cannot be held accountable for her actions as a result of her gender. Although this is true as Showalter explains it, modern readers can still create a new picture of Ophelia, as an intelligent woman who defies society's expectations by thinking for herself, even as others manipulate her for their own gain.
Ophelia's first appearance in the play is at her brother Laertes's side; the time and place of her life requires that, if Ophelia is to be a good girl, she will always be governed by trusted men. Her brother engages in the family pastime of giving unwanted advice in long, lofty monologues. He says straight off, "For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor, Hold it a fashion and a toy in bloodnot permanent, sweet, not lasting" (I. iii. 5-8). Laertes anticipates Hamlet's betrayal of his sister, and Ophelia seems to understand what he is saying. But we can assign a degree of independence to Ophelia in his conversation; she accepts his warning lightly and then turns it around, suggesting that Laertes is giving good advice, which he himself needs to follow. When her father, Polonius, quizzes her on the same subject, she is slightly more forthcoming, but she also argues in Hamlet's favor, calling his wooing of her "honorable" (I. iii. 110) and "holy" (I. iii. 114). At the end of the scene, Polonius tells her to avoid Hamlet, and she promises to do so. Modern readers are left to wonder the men's motivations. Do they care for Ophelia, or is she a commodity whose worth could be compromised They do not trust her to make the right decision on her own, but force her into dangerous situations for their own reasons.
When next we see Ophelia, she is reporting to her father on Hamlet's frightening behavior. Although she has tried to avoid him, he bursts in on her private quarters and acts crazy, grabbing her arm staring at her in a scary way. Ophelia is still behaving essentially according to expectation, coming to her father for help. She tells him she has acted "as you did command" (II. i. 108), and even Polonius believes it may be his advice that has provokes such a response. Not long after that, everyone starts to worry about Hamlet's bizarre behavior. The king, with Polonius, decides to set up a situation in which the two men can observe the young people together and determine whether Ophelia is the reason for Hamlet's madness, and in this scene, Shakespeare plants the beginnings of Ophelia's madness in Hamlet's lies and contradictions. Here her mind turns to melancholy. She sees herself "of all ladies most deject and wretched" (III. i. 158), but not before she laments the poison that infects Hamlet. Meanwhile, her father and the king disagree on the effect of their pawn sacrifice, not considering the extent to which they have really sacrificed her. Without this external manipulation, Ophelia might have been safer.
Again, in Ophelia's next scene, she is forced to contend with Hamlet's changing madness, as he flirts outrageously with her in front of both of their families and actually