Tag Archives: hamlet

Ophelia, misread

Ophelia’s fate in Hamlet, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, bothers me. A whole lot. So I’ve read and reread the play, and watched it and re-watched it. My conclusion: a whole lot of really smart people have missed some important aspects in her characterization.

I can’t say I understand her any better than anybody else. But I don’t understand her any worse, either. I notice things. I ask questions.

For a long time, scholars saw her as a virtuous woman cruelly wronged and driven to madness. That’s certainly the version we got in high school, where all the lewd comments and innuendo stay hidden. But that was just an interpretation based on our cultural prudishness. Modern interpretations and performances make the innuendo quite clear, from the very beginning, when Laertes points out that Hamlet has offered her “private audiences,” to the end, when she uses folk songs to reveal to the king and queen that she lost her virginity to Hamlet. And if that’s not enough, she responds teasingly to Hamlet’s lewd banter when they watch the play. (Why she does that after he’s already scorned him, I don’t understand.)

With that new understanding of Ophelia comes a second vision: a poor maiden tricked by Hamlet into losing her virginity, who then descends into a sad madness and commits suicide.

But there’s something else going on as well. You know how Hamlet’s madness is always in question? At times, he uses it to conceal treasonous speech. The other characters make this clear when they say things like, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” He also uses it politically, to undermine the king’s authority as part of a revenge plot.

Ophelia does the same thing. She’s one of the four characters out for revenge against a murdered father: young Fortinbras, whose father was killed by Hamlet’s; Hamlet, whose father was killed by his uncle; Laertes, whose father was killed by Hamlet; and Ophelia, whose father was also killed by Hamlet and his reputation sullied by the king and queen. Her revenge is more circumscribed, because as a woman she could hardly take a rapier and slay anybody. Here’s how she does it: 

1) By using her madness to spread rumors against the king and queen. In Act 4, Scene 5, line 5, a gentleman tells the queen, “She speaks much of her father, says she hears / There’s tricks i’ the’ world, and hems, and beats her heart, / Spurns enviously at straws, speaks things in doubt . . .” Horatio follows up by warning that she might strew “dangerous conjectures in ill-bred minds.”

2) By threatening to set Laertes on the king and queen. In Act 4, Scene 5, line 75, she warns, “My brother will know of it.” And then he shows up — not alone, but backed by an army of commoners who are so fed up with the royalty that they want to install him as king. Dangerous things, words.

3) By using songs about her dead father to spur Laertes to revenge. (Act 4, Scene 5, line 190.)

4) By using flowers to accuse Hamlet, the king, and the queen. Here’s an interesting interpretation, based on the meanings her flowers had in Elizabethan times: “Ophelia’s Flowers and Their Symbolic Meaning” by Katarina Eriksson. “Rue” was used for abortions, so when Ophelia says (to the queen?) “O, you must wear your rue with a difference,” she is implying that the queen’s rue was for adultery, and hers for pregnancy. The columbine she gave out was a symbol for male adultery and foolishness, so she’s insulting the king too — in front of witnesses.

Is Ophelia’s madness partly feigned, like Hamlet’s? I think so.

That’s a third vision of Ophelia: a wronged woman who takes what little power she does have in a patriarchal society and wields it with a vengeance. 

If she has some measure of political cunning later in the play, what about earlier? Maybe so. It’s clear that she understands the ways of the world when, after Laertes lectures her about the dangers of hanging out with Hamlet, she tells him not to be hypocritical the way some pastors are, lecturing her while himself treading the “primrose path of dalliance.”

But perhaps there’s a little more to it. In Act 3, Scene 1, the king orders Ophelia to speak with Hamlet while he and Polonius spy on their conversation. Hamlet is very cruel to her. He asserts that all woman are unfaithful and therefore she is, too — or will be. It’s impossible to know what he’s really thinking. At some point in their conversation, he figures out that he’s being spied on and that Ophelia is being used as a pawn. So he could be faking it, or he could be angry because of the queen, or he could be angry because he believes that Ophelia, like everybody else in Elsinore, is lying for personal gain.

Is she? It’s impossible to say. But let’s think about her financial situation for a minute. As a noblewoman, she is supposed to marry somebody, who will then support her. Hamlet, at first, seems like a possible catch — although, as Laertes points out to her, Hamlet will be expected to make a political marriage instead. But then he goes mad. And he has ruined her reputation. (Polonius heard about the “private audiences” by way of rumor.) If there’s any chance she can get Hamlet back, she’ll probably take it.

And, as it turns out, there is a sort of change. The king and queen would have forbidden the marriage if Hamlet had towed the line and supported their marriage. But in his madness, he’s spreading all kinds of rumors. Who knows what else he’ll do? The king has already tried to bribe Hamlet’s affections by explaining that he is still in line for the throne. (Act 1, Scene 2, line 113.) If he could just get Hamlet married off, he’d have to behave himself. Unless Ophelia is a fool, she’d know all that when she obeys the king’s orders to be a political pawn.

So there is, possibly, a fourth vision of Ophelia: as a Jane Austen hopeful, who understands her financial situation and takes steps to improve it through marriage.

Which of these visions of Ophelia is the true one? Who knows. You’d really have to be an Elizabethan, watching the play, to understand all the political intrigues and innuendo — and even then, her character might be ambiguous. Maybe it isn’t possible to do anything other than misread Ophelia. 

Still, I have to say, I like some of the readings more than others. I like the readings where Ophelia has power. And the ones where she connives politically, instead of being a passive victim destroyed by her own sexuality. Maybe, after time and reflection, I’ll decide that these possible readings redeem the play for me.

In the meantime, off to something more fun. Measure for Measure, here I come.

Scrambled Hamlet

Oh, Shakespeare, Shakespeare,
With a play so fine, 
Wherefore dids’t thou make of Hamlet
Such a misogyne?


In plain speech: Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play, but the misogyny rankles. It’s true that Hamlet’s scornful judgement falls on men and women alike, and it’s true that Shakespeare is quite clear on the sexual double standard between men and women, but at the same time, there’s way too much “Frailty, they name is woman.” I wish the play did more to redeem both Ophelia and the queen.

In any case, the play can perhaps be improved (or utterly destroyed) by a bit of reshuffling. With no further ado . . .

Ophelia’s conversation with Hamlet

(In which Hamlet sensibly takes accountability for his own actions.)


My lord, I have rememberances of yours

That I have longed long to redeliver.

I pray you now receive them.

Take these again, for to the noble mind

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

Take them, my lord.


I did love you once.


Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.


You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.

Hamlet’s conversation with the king and queen

(In which Hamlet decides to stay out of the whole affair, or maybe leaves Elsinore plotting a coup.)


For your intent in going back to school in Wittenberg

It is most retrograde to our desire,

And we beseech you, bend you to remain

Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye

Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.


Denmark’s a prison.


Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.

I pray thee, stay not with us. Go to Wittenberg.


I shall in all my best obey you, madam.

Opehlia’s conversation with the king and queen

(In which the king and queen hold Hamlet accountable for his behavior toward Ophelia.)


By Gis and by Saint Charity,

Alack and fie for shame,

Young men will do ‘t, if they come to ‘t;

By Cock, they are to blame.

Quoth she “Before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.”

He answers:

“So would I ‘a done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed.”


Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?


He hath, my lady, of late made many tenders

Of his affection to me.


‘Tis most true,

And he beseeched me to entreat your Majesties

To hear and see the matter.


And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish

That your good beauties be the happy cause

Of Hamlet’s wildness,

and will bring him to his wonted way again.


Madam, I wish it may.

Laertes’ conversation with Ophelia

(In which Ophelia dodges the whole affair in a clever role reversal, leaving the rest of Elsinore to its fate.)


My necessaries are embarked. Farewell.

And, brother, as the winds give benefit

And convey is assistant, do not sleep,

But let me hear from you.


Do you doubt that?


For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favor,

Hold it a 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,

No more.


No more but so?


Think it no more.


Hamlet, a universal story???

I’m still digesting the “Inclusive Reviewing” trio of articles that ran on Strange Horizons on March 24th. Once again, they are:

In the third, Samuel R. Delany mentioned a text I’d never read before, Shakespeare in the Bush. Delany wrote:

I would hope here, however, all of us have read anthropologist Laura Bohanan’s essay “Shakespeare in the Bush,” which is her account of several West African tribal elders critiquing—and correcting—her account of Hamlet over a rainy summer. It’s widely available on the Internet and very funny. It’s insight grows out of our ethnocentric cultural relativism that lets most readers see what we become as soon as we attempt to interpret works from any other culture—even works from different parts of our own. Regularly I have used it as a teaching text, and my graduate students who are unfamiliar with it up till then often take it on for use in their own classes.

In this text, an anthropologist begins with the ethnocentric assumption that the story of Hamlet would be universal, and that despite minor cultural differences, she could tell it and have its essence understood. Here’s where she started:

I protested that human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over; at least the general plot and motivation of the greater tragedies would always be clear—everywhere—although some details of custom might have to be explained and difficulties of translation might produce other slight changes. To end an argument we could not conclude, my friend gave me a copy of Hamlet to study in the African bush: it would, he hoped, lift my mind above its primitive surroundings, and possibly I might, by prolonged meditation, achieve the grace of correct interpretation.

The rest of the story proves her to be massively wrong — and hilariously so.

But I was amused by the very first assumption: that the plot and motivation of great tragedies like Hamlet are clear even to us.

Hamlet is completely mystifying!!!

First, it isn’t possible to say definitively whether Hamlet was insane, or simply a brilliant actor.

Second, so much of the language is inaccessible to us today that we miss key aspects of the play, such as its considerable lewdness.

Third, the world we live in now is nothing like Shakespeare’s England. Politics, money, and love all have different rules. We might think we know what those rules are, but all we’re really doing is taking our current morals and ethics and applying them to a past that used different ones.

I love Hamlet (despite Ophelia’s sucky fate). It’s my favorite Shakespeare play, even more so than his fabulous comedies. It’s partly because I watched the Mel Gibson version in 1990, and Mel Gibson was hot. It’s also partly because insanity fascinates me. It’s also because every time I watch it, the story is different.

The Mel Gibson version was especially exciting at the time, because it reinterpreted the character. So imagine my delight when the Royal Shakespeare Company came out with a version of Hamlet in 2009 starring the guy who played the Doctor in Doctor Who. David Tennant is hot. I was expecting stage magic. I was expecting it to be as fun as Mel Gibson was to my twenty-year-old self, because obviously, from my recollection, Mel Gibson must have played the definitive Hamlet.

Stage magic I got, but this Hamlet was a different guy. Not at all romantic. The story was a different story altogether. There are only twenty years between Mel Gibson and David Tennant, but our society has changed considerably, and so has Hamlet. All the pompous earnestness is out, and all the sexuality is in. For instance, the fair Ophelia (Mariah Gail) holds up a pack of condoms as she complains to Laertes about the unfairness of the sexual double standard.

As for Hamlet’s righteous anger at his mother for marrying his uncle? It goes from justified to creepy in the flash of an eye. Here are two short youtube videos, showing Mel Gibson and David Tennant, respectively.

“A Bloody Deed,” with Mel Gibson.

“A Bloody Deed,” with David Tennant. TRIGGER WARNING.

Hamlet is not a universal story. But it is, perhaps, a mirror — an opening for us to view our own ethnocentric assumptions.