The Tragedy of Ophelia

Given that Hamlet is quite clearly of exceptional intelligence, and has an unsurpassed mastery of language, why is it that the love letters he sends Ophelia are so crap? This is a question that has long bothered me. When Polonius presents to Claudius and Gertude the private love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia – concept such as privacy or intimacy mean little to so unfeeling a wretch – we get stuff like this:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Is it at all credible that the character whom Shakespeare had endowed with something of his own intelligence and mastery of language would come out with guff as embarrassing as this? Shakespeare could have given Hamlet the kind of soaring love poetry that we see in Romeo and Juliet; or the more measured but equally potent expressions of love we see in so many other plays. But no – he seems almost to go out of his way to make Hamlet’s love letters as trite as they are clumsy.

That these lines are Hamlet’s there cannot be any question: Polonius may be foolish with other things, but he didn’t get to be the King’s most trusted right hand man without being a shrewd politician and intriguer, and he would certainly have been able to distinguish Hamlet’s handwriting from forgeries. No, Hamlet wrote these all right, and, unless we are to believe that Shakespeare had slipped up on so obvious a point, it is up to us to figure out why.

One point to notice, I think, is that, in the rest of the play, Hamlet is much given to mockery; and that when he mocks, he easily adopts the patterns of speech of those whom he is mocking. Here, for instance, he is mocking Osric:

… Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.

Here he is mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no?

Here he is mocking Laertes’ overdone rhetoric (and pointing out his own mockery in the last line):

Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

Of course, we don’t have the instructions Shakespeare gave to his actors: we have only his texts, and even these require learned critical scrutiny. But since a number of Hamlet’s lines are quite clearly spoken in the spirit of mockery, and with ironic imitation of certain types of speech, we may, I think, justly wonder which other of Hamlet’s lines are similarly intended. My own feeling is that there is much more mockery in Hamlet’s part than is usually reckoned. Take, for instance, this rhapsody of words Hamlet directs at his mother in the big court scene in the first act:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

All too often this passage is delivered straight, but it seems to me that he is here mocking insincere expressions of grief. When delivered straight, it becomes very difficult to make much sense of that trite rhyming couplet at the end; but if this passage is indeed mockery, that couplet fits perfectly.

There are, I think, a few other passages, even some revered ones, that would benefit from being delivered in a mocking tone. For Hamlet is a master of parody and of pastiche, and he employs them liberally.

Given this is the case, is it at all possible that his letters to Ophelia were similarly written in a spirit of mockery? Not that he was mocking Ophelia: not only is there no reason for him to mock her when he was wooing her, such mockery would indicate a cruel and heartless brute; and whatever else Hamlet may have been, he wasn’t that. No – he may have adopted this mocking tone in his letters because Ophelia was in on the joke. Once again, I do realise this is conjecture on my part, but let’s hold with that conjecture for now and see if it leads us anywhere sensible. For imagining that Hamlet wrote those awful lines in all seriousness really takes us nowhere sensible at all.

Polonius, of course, does not sense any irony in these letters, but the subtleties of Hamlet’s mind are entirely lost upon him anyway: we wouldn’t expect Polonius to take these letters at anything other than face value. Gertrude, who, despite not being perhaps the most intelligent of characters, knows her son well enough to be suspicious: “Came this from Hamlet to her?” she asks – not because she does not think Hamlet cannot love Ophelia, but because she knows this is not Hamlet’s style at all. But if, indeed, Ophelia was in on the joke, if Ophelia could laugh at the worn-out conceit of lovers’ “groans” – of lovers pining away helplessly with pangs of dispriz’d love – then the picture we usually have of Ophelia as the docile and obedient and somewhat pallid young lady disappears, and is replaced by someone who is quick-witted, and intelligent; indeed, she becomes the kind of person whom one can imagine Hamlet being attracted to.

For Ophelia (like Hamlet himself, for that matter) is in the wrong play. In a comedy, she could have been a Rosaline, or a Rosalind, or a Beatrice, or a Viola: Shakespeare’s comedies are full of bright-witted and intelligent and immensely attractive young ladies. Even the very young Juliet has wit and wisdom beyond her tender years. And the men fall for them: Berowne falls for Rosaline, Orlando for Rosalind, Romeo for Juliet. Even Benedick, despite his apparent enmity with Beatrice in the earlier acts, is clearly besotted with her: his discovery of his love for her is not the realisation of something that is new, but an uncovering of what already is, but had been hidden.

Observe, for instance, Ophelia’s reply to her brother, who tries to put on a “big brother” act and give her moral instruction:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

This is a young woman who understands full well her brother’s sanctimony, his hypocrisy; she knows full well what he gets up to when he is seemingly “studying” at university. Her instinctive understanding, and her turning the tables on him in so shrewd and so articulate a manner, are worthy of Rosalind.

And Hamlet had, I think, been attracted to Ophelia for these very qualities. In a comedy, this would have worked out fine, but they are here in a very different play: here, Ophelia’s natural wit and intelligence are crushed by the overbearing nature of the power her father exerts upon her. She is utterly isolated, and has not even a Nurse to turn to. When she is distressed – as she is by Hamlet’s inexplicable behaviour – she has no-one to turn to except her father; and neither does she have any option but to obey her father’s instructions, even if it means handing over to him the personal love letters she has received. For all her natural intelligence, she is nonetheless a woman in a very patriarchal environment; and she is very young, and utterly dependent. Her spirit, though brilliant, is also fragile, and it is easily crushed.

It is in the third scene of the play, immediately after the big court scene (in which we had first seen Hamlet), that we see Ophelia for the first time. In too many productions of this play, the tension drops here, and it is largely a matter of “wake me up when the ghost appears”. But it shouldn’t be like that. We see Ophelia as intelligent and quick-witted, as she responds aptly, though not unkindly, to her brother, who has, rather patronisingly, been giving her moral instruction. But then her father enters, and he, in turn, gives moral instruction to his son. And the son takes it all. One suspects it is merely a matter of form on both sides, and that it is neither intended seriously on one side, nor taken seriously on the other. (The next time we see Polonius, he is setting spies on his own son: he certainly does not expect his moral instructions to be observed, and appears to have very few moral scruples himself.) And then he turns to his daughter, and she is in no position to reply to her father as she had to her brother. Both Polonius and Laertes judge Hamlet by their own somewhat debased standards: he merely wants his bit of fun with her, they think, and nothing more. Ophelia is sure she knows Hamlet better, but she is powerless: her last helpless words in this scene are “I shall obey, my lord”. And here, Ophelia’s tragedy, no less in magnitude than Hamlet’s, is set in motion – the crushing an intelligent, quick-spirited woman.

The two meet in III,i – the so-called “nunnery” scene. It has long seemed to me a key scene in the drama, although I don’t think I understood why. I am still not sure I entirely understand this scene – there is far too much happening here – but it still seems to me a key scene in the drama, and deserves close inspection.

Here, Ophelia has been instructed by her father to return to Hamlet all his gifts. And furthermore, she is to be the “bait”: she is given the morally dubious task of provoking Hamlet, so that her father and the King may, from their hiding place, observe how he reacts. Indeed, she finds herself in a situation similar to that of Hamlet himself: both have been enjoined by their respective fathers to do what does not come to them naturally – to do what they cannot.

She has been instructed to “read on this book”. If this is intended to camouflage her, as it were – to make her presence seem innocuous – it must be because Ophelia reading on a book is not a conspicuous sight: one can but conclude that she is often seen with a book. Hamlet enters, and delivers his famous soliloquy without at first noticing her. But it would be surprising indeed were she not to hear him; and what she hears is hardly cheerful stuff. Hamlet ponders why we choose to live when living is merely a series of the most intolerable vicissitudes, and concludes that we carry on living merely because we are to cowardly to face the alternative. And only when he has delivered himself of this that he notices her, reading on her book, and immediately adopts the familiar tone of mocking parody:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

If my conjecture is right, Ophelia is accustomed to this sort of banter, and, uneasy as she is in the task allotted her, takes up gratefully a similarly bantering tone:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

“My lord”, “Your honour” … is this the way a wooed woman addresses her wooer? Even if he is a prince? Their wooing had not, after all, been merely in its early stages: she had already, by her own admission, “suck’d the honey of his music vows”.

“Good my lord”, “my lord”, “my honoured lord”, “your lordship” … by my count, there are eight instances of “my lord” (or variations thereof) in the very few lines that Ophelia has at this point, and it seems to me plausible that she is continuing the tone of banter that they were both accustomed to, and which, in this scene, Hamlet himself had introduced. Take, for instance, Ophelia’s next lines:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver

“Longed long” seems to me a rather contrived piece of poetic artifice, like someone who is not naturally a poet trying to speak poetically. Unless, of course, we take this also as a piece of parodic mockery. She even throws in a trite little rhyming couplet:

Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

We may remember that when Hamlet had mocked Gertrude, he too had thrown in a trite little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

But Hamlet’s reaction is not very appreciative. (One would hardly expect it to be given that she is returning his gifts.) He laughs – it could be a sardonic laugh – and then proposes a paradox. Once again, this was an aspect of courtly wit – we had seen Hamlet exchange paradoxes earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but this particular paradox has a rather nasty edge to it. The paradox is that beauty is more powerful than honesty; and this is because beauty has the power to transform honest people into being dishonest, but honesty does not have the comparable power to transform beautiful people into being ugly. A pretty enough paradox, but a bit too close to the bone given what Ophelia is doing (i.e. using her own beauty to entrap Hamlet); and the way Hamlet explains this paradox, bringing into it the imagery of prostitution, is particularly nasty:

… the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness

Ophelia understands the insult. She is using her beauty to trap him, and she is no better than a prostitute. She now drops the bantering tone – it is no longer appropriate – and the rest of her lines are merely brief replies, as short and as to the point as possible, to Hamlet’s questions. Her entire world is now on the point of collapsing.

And then, on top of it all, she is forced into a lie. “Where’s your father?” Hamlet asks, all of a sudden. “At home, my lord,” she replies, and this time, there is no bantering quality to “my lord”. It is a bare-faced lie, she knows it; and Hamlet knows she knows it. And this lie seems to confirm to Hamlet everything he had suspected. Previously, Hamlet had ranted at himself (“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”), but now, he turns his fury upon her. Nothing Ophelia says from here onwards is addressed to Hamlet: he is now not someone who may be spoken with. But this is not the person she has known, and all she wants is for the Hamlet she had previously known to be restored to her:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

O heavenly powers, restore him!

But Hamlet is past restoring now. Polonius had thought Hamlet mad because – well, because he had been acting a bit funny. But with Ophelia, it is different: this is not the Hamlet she once had known.

When Hamlet leaves, Ophelia is given some of the most heartbreaking lines in all dramatic literature. However, since, in most productions I have seen, the focus of the preceding scene had been primarily on Hamlet, with Ophelia playing effectively the “straight man”, these lines often fall a bit flat. Really, they shouldn’t:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

And this time, there is no hint of parody here in that final rhyming couplet.

Hamlet and Ophelia meet again, for one last time, in the next scene, and this time they are in full gaze of all the court. And I find this scene excruciating: it is among the most distasteful and cruel scenes in all literature. Previously, Hamlet had accused Ophelia of behaving like a prostitute; here, he publicly – and quite deliberately, with pre-meditation – treats her as one. Polonius sees his daughter’s public humiliation, and does nothing. In this, at least, he is not being a hypocrite: he is merely following the advice he had given his son. He acts like an unfeeling bastard, and that’s because he is an unfeeling bastard: to his own self he is indeed true.

But what can one say of Hamlet’s behaviour? How could he have sunk so low from what he once had been? That is his tragedy.

The next time we see Ophelia, her mind has collapsed. It shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps no-one had ever really loved Ophelia. Laertes protests in very exaggerated terms that he had, but one suspects that he was neither sufficiently intelligent nor sufficiently sensitive to appreciate her worth. Hamlet had truly loved her once – and indeed, he had made her believe so – but even when he finds she is dead, he seems more concerned with mocking Laertes than grieving for her. The only person who had, perhaps, really loved her, was Gertrude, herself another tragic character. She may not herself be the most intelligent or perceptive of characters, but it is she who delivers that rightly famous and very beautiful passage describing Ophelia being dragged down to her death in the waters while singing. And her brief and simple lines at Ophelia’s funeral I find almost unbearably moving:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

In another play, a comedy perhaps, she could indeed have been Hamlet’s wife, and it could have been a marriage of true minds. But here, the sweet spirit of hers, as intelligent and as bright as Rosalind’s or Viola’s, is crushed: it has no chance. This does not often register in productions: because she appears in only a few scenes, she often emerges no more than merely peripheral; and, although we see her fall, we do not really feel the full impact of her tragedy because we see little of the height that she falls from. But Shakespeare has, I think, given her enough. Hamlet Prince of Denmark does not present Hamlet’s tragedy alone.

Meanwhile, when Hamlet was not writing letters to Ophelia with their deliberately pisspoor verses, what else was he doing? My guess is he was writing: Hamlet needed to write things down (“meet it is I set it down”). And, given his passion for theatre, I’d guess further that he was writing a play. I’d guess he was writing Troilus and Cressida, that brutally cynical and dyspeptic play in which one of the two titular characters, Troilus, finds himself shocked that other humans do not possess the sense of honour that he does, and comes to hate them all. But Hamlet, in whose guise I like to think Shakespeare was writing this play, gives us Cressida as well, and she is presented as someone who realises – to her own shock – that Troilus loves not so much herself as a person, but Love and Honour as abstract ideals.

Troilus and Cressida was probably written soon after Hamlet, and there is no record of this brilliant but curious play ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. I suppose we can make of that what we will.



15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nosnivel on February 19, 2018 at 5:08 pm

    One suggested essay topic when I was in high school was “Ophelia: A martyr, a tart, or a dunce?” I think you cracked the riddle here, and your Ophelia will be the one in my mind’s eye from now on. But initially I thought you were going in a different direction. I thought you were going to say that Polonius wrote the letters. Is that also a possibility?


    • I’m still chuckling at the suggested title of the essay!
      I hadn’t considered the possibility of Polonius himself writing those letters, but it doesn’t really seem to me very likely. Why should he? If Shakespeare had intended Polonius to be disloyal to Claudius, it would have been easy enough to have let us know that directly: a simple aside would have done!


      • Posted by nosnivel on February 20, 2018 at 12:55 pm

        Although it hadn’t occurred to me before I read the beginning of your essay, Polonius could forge the letters in order to position himself as the man with the solution (and with the daughter who has leverage over Hamlet).

  2. Posted by Janet on February 19, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    I also see the nunnery scene as key to interpreting the play. I believe there are certain pivot points throughout the play that determine which Hamlet is going to be played, this is one.

    The way I see the scene is: Shakespeare gets Ophelia out there with her book and her old man behind the curtain as background for Hamlet’s agony. I don’t think Ophelia overheard anything because Hamlet isn’t roaming the halls talking to himself–rather, his murmurs go out to the audience. Ophelia can observe no more than his sadness, but the audience knows how much he would like to just die. Then he spots sweet little Ophelia, a tender girly confidante who ought to brighten his mood and soothe his sorrows and remind him that life has many perks worth living for. But no. She’s breaking up with him. Oh, man. At first, it seems to Hamlet like crappy timing, awfully hard on him, and after all, he loved the cruel female viper, why is she being so mean to him…Oh. Why indeed is she so unnatural? Because of course the walls have ears. He believes his uncle king is a murderer; he suspects (at the very least blames) his dear mother. The court is no safe place for him–he cannot know who else is in the conspiracy, but he does now recognize the palace is a trap. Ophelia is the daughter of his uncle’s closest adviser–she’s a spy, dagnabbit, she’s spying on him. He does not see that she has no choice; in fact, (unfairly perhaps) he figures she might side with him, even with her father listening in, if she were true and honest. He is cruel because he believes she has betrayed him, and like any paranoid, he seems a bit crazy.

    Ophelia’s horror at Hamlet’s sudden madness is certainly more astute than her father’s poor theory. Ophelia must have expected Hamlet to protest, maybe get a little mad, maybe whimper–she could see she was hitting him at a bad time. But she could not have anticipated his flying off like he did, because she had no idea he was being haunted by a murdered father or that she could appear to be doing a service for the murderer. She might have taken his cruelty toward her as “showing who he really was, the jerk,” but instead she perceives a breaking of his mind–he is not himself.

    You are right about Ophelia’s intense isolation. It seems everybody in Denmark has secrets and no one is altogether trusting of anyone else. Then Gertrude says something surprising at Ophelia’s grave. Claudius and Polonius seem to have been kept in the dark about Hamlet and Ophelia, yet Gertrude knew about their romance and, contrary to Polonius’ assertion that Hamlet was out of Ophelia’s league and that the prince would make a state marriage, Gertrude was all for Ophelia and wanted her for a daughter-in-law. Did she never tell Claudius about her own plans for Hamlet? Hmm. Very curious.

    In any case, back to the nunnery. It seems to me that the “nunnery” is of a piece with Hamlet’s darkening worldview–the insult is more than an insult; it is also a kind of despairing cautionary prophecy, that is, that Ophelia, as she lives in the same claustrophobic murder house, is as doomed as he is and will end a whore, like his mother, and whether you read the nunnery as a convent or a brothel or a state of mind, it is all the same for Ophelia. She cannot escape except by following him into madness (hers un-pretended) and suicide (hers un-meditated). As Ophelia fiddles with her book, she absorbs Hamlet’s soliloquy by osmosis. He toys with the madness and death that are inflicted on her, almost like he’s his own voodoo doll and she the victim.

    I don’t think Hamlet can see his double, the mockery of his own tragedy played out in a gruesome parody in Ophelia, but I think the audience is intended too.


    • Posted by nosnivel on February 20, 2018 at 12:25 am

      I always wondered whether Gertrude was sincere about hoping Ophelia would marry Hamlet, or if she was grandstanding.


      • Yes, I think Gertrude is very sincere. Hamlet is very much out of favour when she speaks this line, and for her even to mention Hamlet at this time, in that context, was tactless: it certainly sets Laertes off. There is no reason for Gertrude to say this did she not mean it: this, it seems to me, is straight from the heart.

    • Hello Janet,
      I don’t think I have in all these years read the play without seeing the character of Hamlet in a fresh light. He is so incredibly complex! And it seems to me that there is nothing we can say or think about Hamlet that he hasn’t thought about himself. Not only is he tremendously intelligent and perceptive – he sees right through everyone around him – he is always thinking, brooding. And yet, he is a mystery even to himself. He constantly keeps questioning why he behaves in the manner that he does, and cannot come to an answer. Under the circumstances, I find it very difficult to make any definitive statement about Hamlet: everything I say about him is contingent … till the next reading!

      His relationship with Ophelia does seem particularly fraught. I think I agree with most of what you say: it is all plausible. But the one point I think I’d make is that Hamlet is aware of the position Ophelia is in. He would be most imperceptive not to be, and whatever else he is, he isn’t imperceptive. And this leads to a problem: why is he cruel to her when he knows how helpless a situation she is in? He hates her for joining with the forces ranged against him; he realises this hatred is unfair, as she has little choice in the matter, but probably hates her all the more for it anyway; and yet, he possibly still loves her. It is a curious psychology, but not, perhaps, uncommon. “Where I have most injured I can least forgive,” says Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. In Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat we get this:

      [Tsar Nicholas] had done much harm to the Poles and to explain this it was necessary to believe all Poles were scoundrels.

      I think Hamlet too finds himself in this position: the more unjust he is to Ophelia, the more he realises he is being unjust, the more the injustice he heaps on her. It’s almost as if he cannot help himself.

      I am a bit doubtful too about the use of “nunnery” meaning “brothel”. In both the Arden editions, this subsidiary meaning of “nunnery” is downplayed. Harold Jenkins goes so far as to say that to “insist on [the slang meaning] at the expense of the literal meaning, itself so poignant in the context, seems perverse.”.For, at a literal level, it makes perfect sense: in his soliloquy, Hamlet had wondered why we go on living when life is so hateful, and had concluded that we do so because we are too cowardly to consider the alternative. But if we are doomed to go on living, that at least we may ensure that we do not reproduce, that we do not inflict the curse of existence on a new generation. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”Hamlet asks Ophelia in genuine incomprehension. Going to a nunnery, being chaste, seems the most reasonable thing Ophelia can do. Hamlet then goes on to accuse his own self of all sorts of flaws and sins: it would be best for Ophelia to bring no more Hamlets into this earth – “What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth?” If we take “nunnery” in its literal sense here, the whole speech becomes as anguished cry from the heart. If we take its slang meaning, it is merely a nasty piece of abuse, with little to link it to the intense self-accusation that follows immediately.

      Sorry – I have to run for the train now, but I’ll get back to you on this later!


      • Another aspect I find very puzzling is why Hamlet should say to Ophelia at this point that she will not escape calumny. What has calumny to do with this? This sort of thing is very typical of Hamlet: his mind is racing along at such a speed, that it makes connections that are not always obvious to the rest of us. “Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.” Why does he say this? And does the very fact that he does say this not indicate that he knows her to be chaste and pure, and that suggestions to the contrary (including his own) are calumny? In short, does this not indicate that he knows he is being unjust to her?

        I honestly don’t know, Hamlet’s mind works at so dizzying a pace that it is very difficult to keep pace with it. Far too much happens in this scene, I think, for any single performance to do full justice to it.

  3. Posted by Janet on February 20, 2018 at 8:18 pm

    And that’s why I think this play is just the best thing ever. It’s made of so many little wheels, if you turn one at any point in the play, everything else falls neatly into a new place.

    I must confess to a bit of sacrilege; I think the play is riddled with errors. It’s a long play. I think, as WS worked away at it, he kept getting juicy ideas that would today be called continuity errors. But he was so deliberate about his business, I take it entirely on faith that if he let a troubling bit stand, he wanted it to go on standing. Gertrude, for example, is a riddle. She is one cold fish in that first scene. With Hamlet, you just have to keep asking yourself: did she, or didn’t she? When she is asked to see Ophelia, she’s annoyed and tries to get out of it. We kind of get the sense that Ophelia is just one of the palace rug rats who wants to have one of those whiny, uncomfortable confrontations that sons’ ex-girlfriends always want to have about the murders of their fathers. Gertrude is distressed by Ophelia’s madness, but hardly prostrated with grief by it. We still don’t get the sense that Ophelia is anything special to Gertrude. Then, weirdly, Gertrude reports in with a minute description of Ophelia’s drowning. Why Gertrude? Why not Horatio or a random watchman? It’s really the part for a chorus. It doesn’t make sense for it to be Gertrude, and yet it must be Gertrude, buy why?

    And then the funeral. To me it feels like there is a palpable chill between Claudius and Gertrude. As you say, Gertrude has no reason to say what she says–Hamlet is Mudd in Claudius’ book and Ophelia is being reluctantly, distastefully buried without rites. There’s no one to hear, really, except Claudius and Laertes, and shouldn’t they be surprised?

    The simple explanation is that Shakespeare came up with the fab bit by the graveside, and what a scene! and he either forgot or didn’t care about the earlier groundwork. After all, take it as written, and you just have to stop and think: What is Gertrude thinking now? After the closet scene, her son in exile, the play within a play? Does she know, or doesn’t she, that her husband is a murderer? Is her husband plotting against her son? And has she been complicit, even his dupe? Is she beginning to feel icky? If so, the last act makes a lot of sense.

    On the other hand, you can turn a cog and make Gertrude Claudius’ willing accomplice and her graveside lament a manipulative drop of poison in Laertes’ ear. But I don’t like that play.

    Taking it back to Ophelia, on the surface, we aren’t given much reason to believe that she is an intimate of the family. Why doesn’t Hamlet go and spend time with his girlfriend when he’s feeling like such a heap of too solid flesh instead of hanging out with Horatio? Everybody says he’s just toying with her. And then he’s just so mean to her, taking out his Oedipal rage on her. And yet we can’t help feeling that Ophelia was deeply embedded in the heart of the court. She must be, as her death is what sends the play crashing on toward its conclusion. And Shakespeare places her there, not by anything that Hamlet says, but through Gertrude. Their romance takes on a far more serious cast when filtered backwards through Gertrude’s observations on Ophelia.

    As to Hamlet’s persistent cruelty in the face of what he must know is her impossible situation–well, he murders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern! Shakespeare is very careful not to make those schlemiels villains, and even Horatio appears taken aback by Hamlet’s ruthlessness. Are they murdered for their treachery or their mendacity? If Hamlet is as clever as you think, he should have seen how Claudius was using his old playmates. What he sees is only their willingness to kowtow to his hated uncle and participate in a plot to get him out of the way. If they had really been his friends, they would have answered honestly when he first asked them, Were you not sent for? Instead, they hedge and lie and become Claudius’ tools. As does Ophelia, though her position is more complicated. If she had really loved him, would she have consented to being her father’s bait? Why didn’t she refuse–chosen to be a faithful lover instead of an obedient daughter? Why didn’t she send a note–My Dad says we have to break up. I don’t want to, but what can I do? Let’s go find a well-intentioned idiot friar and elope. Also, what is going on? Why is everyone acting so strangely? Is it because your mom married your uncle and people are afraid to say how gross that is? Oops, sorry, about your mom, I mean. But. Ew! Doesn’t it make you mad?

    Would have solved everything.

    Hamlet may see that his sweet Ophelia is in a pinch, but he doesn’t excuse her, anymore than he excuses himself for being incapable of cutting down Claudius like the proper son of a warrior king. His world has become full of shadows, and everyone but Horatio lies and lies and lies–through words or deeds. Hamlet’s real madness may be just that–the reality of court intrigue. But if he cannot trust Ophelia (and she has demonstrated that he can’t), he will show her just how much her mendacity has hurt him by hurting her back. Boys do that.


    • Hello Janet,
      There are indeed, as you outline, a great many questions relating to the psychologies and behaviour of the characters which involve us in endless debate. Each actor playing these roles bring their own insights into it: seeing different interpretations is like seeing different plays. My own views have changed over the years, and on many points, from reading to reading.

      What’s fascinating is that these should matter. Hamlet, Gertrude, Ophelia et al are all fictional characters, after all. And yet, we go on interpreting and re-interpreting them, and we feel it matters! And I really am not sure why…


  4. Your posting dazzles me and sends back to the play for another reading. I have long been struck by the amount of spying, duplicity, and posturing in the play; so I wonder about the level of Ophelia’s sincerity at any point in the play (i.e., I wonder why or when we should believe her or the authenticity of her letters). In any case, you have become the catalyst for my return to Shakespeare and blogging. Thank you!


    • Thank you very much for your kind comments. These Shakespeare plays I have been reading and re-reading for several decades now, and they are permanent fixtures in my mind these days. Sometimes, I just need to get some of my thoughts out on to paper … or on to the computer screen, at any rate … and it really is as good a reason as any for having a blog! 🙂


  5. Thank you for an exquisite analysis. You have changed my own interpretation of Ophelia’s character. For a long time I thought that she was just another member of the confederacy of dunces collected by Claudius. Could it be that the quotation from the letters is Hamlet trying to feel Ophelia out? Or perhaps he knows that Polonius is likely to examine everything that comes to his children? Of course he say that he had been given the letter by Ophelia, but he’s a spy and perhaps Hamlet already knows this well.

    Your blog is delightfully instructive. Now I am tripping over my words lest I sound with mocking or stupid!


    • Hello, and thank you very much for your comments.

      I must admit that this is one of those posts where I am trying out some new ideas. I am not insisting on them: my ideas about Shakespeare plays have changed so frequently in the past, that it becomes impossible to think of any interpretation as final and definitive. But Ophelia has always worried me. Her fate is clearly tragic, but rarely, if ever, have I felt the full force of her tragedy, either in performance, or in reading.

      And this is because, I think, she is presented as docile, passive, pallid, lacking in personality.

      And is it at all likely that prince Hamlet could have been attracted to so dull a character?
      Now Hamlet, it seems to me, is a close relation of such characters as Berowne, Benedick, Mercutio, Prince Hal – young men who are witty, intelligent, quick-thinking, eloquent, and tremendously articulate. But these characters (except Mercutio) generally inhabit a comic world. Hamlet is, in a sense, it seemed to me, essentially a character who would have been very much at home in a comic environment, but finds himself instead in a deeply tragic world. What if, I wondered, Ophelia too is from this comic world? If there is a line linking Hamlet to the likes of Berowne and Benedick, could there be a similar line linking Ophelia to Rosaline, Rosalind, Beatrice?

      It just seemed worth trying out. What if, I wondered, Ophelia and Hamlet had courted each other with wit and with banter? What if Hamlet’s letters are part of the joke?

      I don’t know. I still don’t know whether this idea is sustainable. But I thought it worthwhile giving it a try, as the general view of Ophelia as docile and passive fails to satisfy!

      All the best, Himadri


      • I think it’s very persuasive. My husband and I (when we were young and just starting out and not yet married) used to make fun of romantic conventions. We see Henry Tilney in Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” doing some of that in a comic vein. Ophelia is singularly alone (I mean without close companionship–especially that of a female friend) in ways that Rosalind, Portia, and Beatrice are not). In other tragedies Desdemona, Cleopatra, Hermione have friends with whom to speak–and they are all older than Ophelia. Juliet has her confidantes; Cordelia has a good husband and Kent. Is there any other main character so isolated in Shakespeare? I don’t know of one at the moment.

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