Ophelia always struck me as the innocent destroyed by a corrupt world. Shakespeare seemed particularly concerned with how evil destroys innocents (Little MacDuff killed by the criminals, Mercutio killed by Tybalt, Othello and Desdemona destroyed by Iago). He must have seen in his day the slaughter of innocents must have been frequent occurrence (as it is, shockingly, in our enlightened age too) His plays raise a huge problem of how innocence is to survive in a world fueled by brutal cynicism and underhanded skulduggery. How, after all, are any of us to seek revenge for wrongs done us and yet "taint not our minds". A diabolic problem requiring some Maxwell's demon for its solution.
...we learn the most about her through her relationship with Hamlet.
But through Shake's mastery she isn't just Hamlet's foil, either. We can say that she's just the "straight man" in order to see more about Hamlet. What kind of girl would a man like Hamlet love? What kind of woman would have so strong a friendship with her brother? What kind of woman would be able to stand up to Hamlet's ravings as she does? What kind of woman would have a love for her daddy despite his buffoonery? She is both intriguing and amazing, but also pathetic and pitiable. Not the feminist strong dykewoman so loved by modern women professors but a sweet, beautiful young girl as yet untouched by the cruelty of the world. One could ask whether she is at fault for what happens to her. Why doesn't she see the intrigues of the court? Why does she think so highly of her dad? Why does she love a young man who cannot give himself to anyone b/c of his own responsibilities and self-preservation? Look at that whole "Get thee to a nunnery" exchange. Why does Hamlet warn her off as vehemently as he does? What has he seen in her that he so desperately wants to shield? If "nunnery" is another word for whorehouse (which it seems to have had that double-entendre for Elizabethan audiences; like "sugar shack" for us) is Hamlet suggesting that what she needs is immersion in experience in order to survive the terrors of the world? Is his message more than just a warning to flee the court to a place of security? Is it ironical in that "nunnery" is also a religious group cloistered from the world and safe in the pursuit of holiness? I think yes to all those questions.
...taking off his mask for her alone...Hamlet's unending restlessness seems to be a bit calmed in her presence.
True, though Shakespeare does the fascinating trick of implying that this release of the tension of the mask with Ophelia has occurred but can no longer occur in the context of the play. "I loved you... you were wrong, I loved you not!" Hamlet suggests that yes, he did love her and did lead her to believe that the love was sincere; but that was in the carefree days of youth, before college, before his father was murdered, before he had to don this facade in order to survive. Because of the necessity placed upon him to live in Denmark under a shadow he cannot any longer allow her to think that he loved her or allow her to persist in loving him. therefore, "I loved you not." There's an interesting linguistic play on time in this exchange with Ophelia which we see also in the scene with Polonius and later in Hamlet's pre-duel speech.
With Ophelia it is "I did love you once (in the past)" (perfect tense) yet "I loved you not (b/c I did not know then what I know no about you)" but then "get thee to a nunnery" (b/c I love you too much to see you destroyed in the future). All this, of course in a tragic scene immediately following the debate to kill himself. Hamlet first greets Ophelia in this scene with joy "Soft you now, the fair Ophelia - nymph in thy orisons be all my sins remembered. How does my lord? I thank thee well." Hamlet moves from debating with himself to recognizing Ophelia and having a moment of joy. He puts back on a mask of jollity calling her "nymph" and joking that she is divine. Then she tries to return the "remembrances" as she has been instructed by her foolish father. This shocking change in character could not have gone unnoticed by Hamlet. What, she has doted on him without ceasing and suddenly wants to return his mementos to him? So Hamlet dons an even more concealing mask and denies that the mementos are his. Yet he is obviously stunned with her sudden duplicity; "Ha ha are you (honest) for real?" and then he's off playing the madman. Yet he is well aware that daddy (father; God) is listening. Most of his show with Ophelia is a power play against Polonius and the King (whom he undoubtedly suspects), yet a deadly one in which Hamlet is forced by circumstance to use the girl he loves as a tool to strike back at P&K while still retaining his mask of madness. Unfortunately, it is a mask which Claudius sees through "Love? His affections do not that way tend. Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness. There's something in his soul o'er which his melancholy sits on brood, and I do doubt the hatch and disclose will be some danger..."
With Polonius we see "what do you read my lord? words (in the past), words (in the present), words (in the future)" and when asked "what is the matter, my lord?" Hamlet intentionally miscontrues the meaning to be a conflict "Between who?" Yet his response is pregnant of the problem which he faces; Hamlet no longer sees the meaning which words convey. Words have become empty tools to be bandied about and used as scutcheons. Was this b/c of the vows betrayed by his mother? B/c of the skepticism of college? B/c of the insight into what a piece of work is man? Or D all of the above? One way or the other, when he finally explains what he's about he makes this most cryptic and confusing statement "...for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward." Though his statement seems merely madness, "yet there is method in it." Polonius (who is old) could grow young (as old as Hamlet) if he could go back in time; but also, Polonius (who is a fool) could grow wise (like Hamlet) if he could go back in time (and do it right)