I have spent some time in the last weeks rereading Hamlet, and that brings me around to contemplating Ophelia again. To me, she is one of the most captivating characters in English literature. Why? Because she is caught in the mechanizations that are not of her own creation. Because she is a lost soul who can find no other way to fight back in her world but to sink into madness. Because, in the end, Hamlet loves her, and the result is tragedy of the deepest kind.
I love literary critic Elaine Showalter’s essay, “Representing Ophelia: Woman, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism,” if only because she gets it right when she writes about Ophelia that she brings forward “the issues in an ongoing theoretical debate about the cultural links between femininity, female sexuality, insanity, and representation.” Ophelia suffers in the play, caught in the pedantic spying of her father, Polonius, the treacherous actions of Claudius, the savvy escapism of Gertrude, and Hamlet’s focus on revenge for his father’s murder. Meanwhile, here she is, simply in love, and thinking that love is all that is necessary to live a rich life. Instead, she gets pushed away by Hamlet, who publicly tells her she is a whore and to “get thee to a nunnery.”
Showalter tells us that “She appears in only five of the play’s twenty scenes; the pre-play course of her love story with Hamlet is known only by a few ambiguous flashbacks. Her tragedy is subordinated in the play; unlike Hamlet, she does not struggle with moral choices or alternatives.” I would posit her scenes are by far the most harrowing. Upon the dissolution of their relationship, Ophelia longs to give Hamlet some “remembrances” that he gave her once, and he coldly refuses them with the line, “I never gave you aught.” Their back and forth leads Hamlet to rage: “Get thee to a nunn’ry, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”
He is as much as calling her a whore, and this from a prince. It is a harsh slap in the face for Ophelia, crushing her. There are many theories about their relationship—how far it went, what should have been the future, and what promises were made. Kenneth Branagh, in his film of the play (1996), makes it clear in brief flashbacks that Ophelia and Hamlet were intimate, which means that his public rejection of her would be tantamount to saying she was not a virgin or was damaged goods. In any case, when Hamlet rejects her and then kills her father, she descends into real madness played against the feigned craziness of her former lover.
We later see Ophelia when she “enters, distracted,” into a room with the queen after her father’s murder. She is out of her head, singing and parading around. When questioned, she says, “Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, you promis’d me to wed.’” Later, she encounters her brother, Laertes, returned to Denmark upon hearing of his father’s killing. He cannot believe his eyes when Ophelia enters handing out symbolic flowers to each person in the room. She has no way to fight back against society; she cannot dispute Hamlet’s rejection of her, and she cannot avenge her father’s death, so she must resort to symbolic acts like handing flowers to characters that represent their personalities and actions: fennel for flattery; columbines for ingratitude; rue for sorrow and repentance.
And then she is gone, and the much better manipulator, Gertrude, gets in the final epitaph: “There is a willow grows askaunt the brook, that shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream, therewith fantastic garlands did she make of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples…When down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, which time she chaunted snatches of old lauds, as one incapable of her own distress…Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.”
Like a crippled mermaid, she goes down singing, wreathed in flowers to a watery tomb. Sad, indeed, but Hamlet learns from her death. He comes to understand the impermanence of life, the fragility of existence, and that he must seize the day and his own destiny. He comes upon the grave diggers preparing Ophelia’s tomb after her death now labeled a suicide, and he has an epiphany. He tells his best friend Horatio: “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander…Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beerbarrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away. O that that earth which kept the world in awe should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!” In the end, we turn to dust and our essence returns to the earth, as Adam was formed from the same earth in Genesis.
Upon the conclusion of the scene in the cemetery, Hamlet leaps forth to declare himself, and says “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum.” Better late than never, Hamlet.
So it is in the dead of winter, I am thinking of Ophelia. Is she a victim of love, a casualty of life and the innocent belief that things will work out in the end? Life is, as Darwin told us, a matter of survival of the fittest. Gertrude knows how to play the game, the role a woman should embrace, wrong as it is. Ophelia, who takes the world as she finds it, goes down to a watery death.
I believe we are all a little like Ophelia. We dream of a better world, and trust that all we have to do to get there is to love. Often, we are crushed when we cannot reach high enough, or travel far enough to find this better world, if the better world ever existed in the first place. Deep into winter, we wait for the spring, hoping that this year will be our year, that love will be enough, and that faced with the fathoms of water beneath our fragile lives, that we will float on just a little longer until someone, anyone, will reach out and save us.