Thoughts on Ophelia


Ophelia, John William Waterhouse

Besides my Nouvelle Vague French class, I’m in a seminar called “Complexity in Works of Art: Ulysses and Hamlet,” in which we read (you guessed it) Hamlet and Ulysses and attempt to understand them. Which is no easy feat as this is a class essentially about works which resist their reader doing just that. Yay. (I’m kidding, I really like it. The professor is an old English gentleman without being English (but with all the tweed) and reading Hamlet and Ulysses and getting to really sink my teeth into them is fantastic. If only I liked the other kids in my class. Oh well. Can’t have everything.)

So anyway. Between grueling crew practices (I am voluntarily waking up at 6:30 AM every morning in college what is wrong with me) and classes and various comp meetings and punch events and the several million papers I’m juggling at once and finding time to watch films for my Nouvelle Vague class and to do normal homework and eat and socialize (ha), I’m also tearing into Ulysses. Out of order. Because that’s how my professor rolls.

But before we make our way to Ulysses, let’s talk about our dear friend Hamlet. I think this is the third time I’ve read Hamlet all the way through (though to be fair, “all the way through” is generous here; I may have skimmed a little in the interests of time), but I won’t even pretend to understand it. It’s wonderful and continues to be so and really just gets more so.

Okay, I’m going to stop now. I’m really just doing this as a break from reading the Royal Frankish Annals. Which are cool. But I can only take so much “And the date changed to” at a time.

But have this. It’s pretty word vomity. It’s about Ophelia and it hops around a bunch and skims things and pokes things and I had absolutely no fun writing it at 4 in the morning or whatever it was when I did it but I ended up liking it and so did my prof. So you know, cool.

Not only is Ophelia the emotional center of the play, but she is something of an emotional sponge. In Ophelia’s first scenes, her speech is purely reactive—she answers questions and soaks up advice; she does nothing without having been prompted, she speaks only when spoken to. As a result, it is hard to distinguish who exactly Ophelia is. She is so defined by others—her father and brother particularly—that it is near impossible to uncover what constitutes her self. Growing up without a mother—or any sort of female role model—and forced by her father to inhabit a role meant for a son which she and her feminine ways blatantly do not fit, she has lost any sense of self, or never even really had the opportunity to develop a self. She has never had an opportunity to define herself by her own means, express herself without first being filtered through another person.

So when suddenly her father is murdered while her brother is away, she is at a loss with regards to her self. In the absence of all those whom she has defined herself by her whole life, she suddenly becomes nothing. Polonius’ death means that Ophelia is free—but also that she is alone. She must think for herself, make her own choices. She needs a self, a voice. And she has no idea how to create one, save through madness—madness, which stemming from her loss of Hamlet and exacerbated by her father’s murder, is her first real self expression. Her language in her madness, broken up as it is by fragments of love songs and metaphors of flowers, grows chaotic, leaving her earlier tightly worded replies in the dust. And scarcely two scenes following her mad ramblings, her laments for Hamlet and mournings for her father, she is dead. Her suicide is her first autonomous choice. What exactly this means about her suicide, I’m not sure. Is her death a courageous last ditch effort at defining herself and forging an identity or is it in keeping with the rest of her madness and perhaps simply a necessity as she cannot exist without people by which to define herself?

Indeed—even her death is not really her own because of the way it is reported (not even second, but third hand). Not even her death escapes interpretation and is filtered first through whatever eyewitness who was at hand and reported to Gertrude and then through Gertrude. Even her death is not a statement of her own to make, but instead still a thing moulded and interpreted by other characters—like everything else about her—before it is handed down to the audience.

Gertrude’s reporting of Ophelia’s death is interesting too because it mirrors the poetry of Ophelia’s speeches of madness. Gertrude obviously feels something for the girl and is the only one to truly mourn her death. Laertes himself, upon hearing the news, simply says “Drowned? O, where?” (IV.7.189), showing absolutely no feeling for his dead sister. I suppose this could be passed off as Shakespeare simply setting Gertrude up to give her beautiful description of where and how Ophelia died, but it can’t be denied that Laertes doesn’t seem to care much. Indeed, even her own funeral is not really about her, does not serve to honor her memory; instead it is the catalyst for a fight between Laertes and Hamlet as they try to one up each other about who loved her best (Hamlet saying he loved her more than 40,000 brothers)—a fight which is the beginning of the end in terms of the structure of the play.

There is also the matter of Hamlet’s pretended madness versus the reality of Ophelia’s madness to consider. Hamlet’s madness is intellectual while Ophelia’s is emotional, erotic. His is existential, hers thoroughly earthly and practical and physical. And thus she does not have the problem he does in dealing with it. He is forever caught in the balance, on the point of action, trapped in his own mind, overthinking all. He thinks and expresses himself all too well and easily, but he cannot manage to move himself. Ophelia on the other hand, cannot express herself in words and must instead use her body to make herself understood. Whereas Hamlet is thoroughly a creature of the mind, Ophelia is purely physical. One of Ophelia’s major purposes in the play is as a foil for Hamlet: she lives the madness which he only plays at, she carries out the suicide he merely theorizes. Ophelia thinks that she directly caused Hamlet’s madness in listening to her father and rebuffing him—the scene in her closet and the nunnery scene reinforce that. It doesn’t matter if he really loved her—only that she thought he did. “You made me believe so,” (III.1.126) she says unassumingly in response to his claim that he loved her once. Hamlet’s comment about a woman’s love being brief during the play, though the audience knows it to be directed at Gertrude, Ophelia most certainly would have taken to be a dig at herself as well. She blames herself entirely for his madness, knowing nothing of the ghost or anything else rotten in the state of Denmark. All of this has affected Ophelia far more than she’s let on, as unskilled in self expression as she is. Her father, together with Hamlet, is driving her towards her madness: an inevitable madness born of her inability to express herself creatively as a result of having been stifled her entire life.

When my professor says my name he says it the exact same way and in the same voice my grampa does.


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