Although Gertrude says the branch broke and swept Ophelia down the river, the church denies her a full Christian burial on the grounds that she killed herself.
Prevailing wisdom is that one of two things is at work here: Either an inconsistency in Shakespeare's writing, which is not uncommon — his other works are fraught with them, though Hamlet far less than most. Or Shakespeare decided to up the ante on Hamlet's guilt. Gertrude could have not known the whole truth when she reported to Laertes and Claudius. She might have been trying to spare Laertes or to diffuse another tantrum on his part. The placement of the priest's admonition supports the suicide pretty solidly. So why did Ophelia do it?
Is Ophelia driven mad by her love for Hamlet, or is she the victim of a society that has created impossible expectations for its women? Had she the license to think for herself, Ophelia might have reasoned through her dilemma, but, caught as she is between her father's and brother's restrictive instructions and Hamlet's crushing demands, trapped as she is in a choice-less existence, Ophelia has no alternative but to throw herself into the river to drown.
From the start, Ophelia must define herself by male judgments that may be entirely miscalculated. Laertes warns her in her first scene on-stage that Hamlet is merely trifling with her, that she is not of high enough station to warrant his true affection.
For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward not permanent, sweet not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,
Laertes goes on to tell Ophelia that while Hamlet might "love you now," he "is subject to his birth." Hamlet may not, "as unvalued persons do" choose his own mate. Hamlet is subject to the desires of his state, and he will necessarily break her heart. Should Ophelia relinquish her virginity to Hamlet, she would undoubtedly be shamed. A brother's expectation is that his sister is chaste, that she has no worth of her own except in her sex.
Polonius asks Ophelia what her relationship with Hamlet is, whether the young man has made advances to her. She answers that Hamlet has told her he loves her and that she believes him. Polonius calls her a "green girl," accusing her of being too naive to judge Hamlet's sincerity. Ophelia pleads with her father, "I do not know, my lord, what I should think." Her father instructs her not to think, to remain a virgin lest she shame her father.
Polonius has just told his son, "To thine own self be true." Yet he has negated any possibility that Ophelia might own her own self, that she might have a will apart from her men. The father offers no such choices to his daughter.
Women of Ophelia's time were trained to be chattel to their men. They were taught needlecraft, righteousness of character, servitude. But they were not encouraged to write or read or reason. The assumption that both Laertes and Polonius make is that Ophelia is a virgin, that she is theirs to sell to a husband for the bride wealth she can garner.
Hamlet, on the other hand, accuses her of faithlessness, of whoring. He tells her to get her to a nunnery, a statement that implies that she is no better than a whore. When he meets her in the corridor and asks her where her father is, he knows she cannot answer. He knows Old Polonius is standing nearby, but she cannot reveal his whereabouts. Ophelia answers feebly, "At home, my lord," and her answer throws Hamlet into a frenzy because she has answered dishonestly. He has set her up. She has no other choice but to say that her father is at home; she is forced to lie and thereby to incur Hamlet's disapproval.
In her essay "The Warrant of Womanhood, Shakespeare and Feminist Criticism," Ann Thompson points out that male characters in Shakespeare have a limited perception of the female characters. Shakespeare, says Thompson, is sympathetic to women in this area; the playwright goes so far as to let his audience know that he intended for the male character to misunderstand the female, that the male character is often dead wrong about the female. The men completely misread their women, and the consequences are often tragic.
Such is Ophelia's case. Her men are wrong about her. They make assumptions and then they make demands based on those assumptions, but there is no way Ophelia can meet the demands because the underlying assumptions are flawed.
While she lives in the same patriarchal society that demands that she subjugate herself to her father and her brother until she is married, Ophelia has fallen in love with Prince Hamlet. There is strong evidence that she has even had sexual relations with him. Restricted by the dominating societal mores, Ophelia has engaged in a willful act that would ruin her family should it come to light. When her father dies at the hand of her lover, Ophelia is left guilty and alone.
Ophelia's mother is dead and, unlike so many Shakespearean heroines, Ophelia has no female alliances that might save her from the blindness of her male wardens. She is not clever enough to rationalize her behavior or to teach her men the lesson they would be forced to learn were they in a comedy. Her life is worthless because she has violated her code of ethics. She must die.
Men dominate Ophelia's world. But they are men who want too much and who represent too many contradictions. She cannot comply with their wills, and she cannot assert her own. She cannot live because her Selfhood does not exist.