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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part I)
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0104.  Monday, 12 February 1996.

(1)     From:   Steve Sohmer <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 04:52:30 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(2)     From:   Michael Yogev <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 12:17:53 +0200 (WET)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(3)     From:   Florence Amit <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 12:52:37 +0200
        Subj:   Ophelia's innocence

(4)     From:   Charles Costello <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 11:56:36 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Characters--real, fictive or what

(5)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 12:01:28 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(6)     From:   Harry Hill <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 13:06:01 +0000 (HELP)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(7)     From:   Michael Saenger <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 13:45:53 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Real and Fictive

(8)     From:   Janis Lull <
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        Date:   Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 11:19:29 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Sohmer <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 04:52:30 -0500
Subject: 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

>I fail to understand the need to treat Ophelia as a real person. Whether she
>is pregnant or not is about as irrelevant as whether Gertrude and Claudius
>had a clandestine affair before the death of Old Hamlet,or whether Lady Macbeth
>had any children (and how many).

I want to say, with respect to this writer and others who share this view, that
no one who fails to ponder the sexual dimension of the Hamlet/Ophelia
relationship, or the history of Lady Macbeth's children, can hope to understand
these plays. One might as well say, "There's no need to speculate why Horatio
recognizes the armor Old Hamlet had on the day he overcame Old Fortinbras." Or,
"There's no need to speculate whether Brutus is Julius Caesar's bastard." Or,
"There's a sunset at Philippi at 3 o'clock because Shakespeare forgot." Or,
"Shakespeare didn't know that King James the VI could trace his heritage not
only along the male line to Banquo, but along the female line to the murdered
Duncan."

We know from the text of Hamlet that Gertrude and Claudius have a clandestine
affair before the death of Old Hamlet. The Ghost declares their coupling not
only "incestuous" but "adulterous." While it was possible to commit incest with
a brother's wife after his death (H8 did--ask Cranmer), it was not possible to
commit adultery with her after his death.  Gertrude and Old Hamlet also had
sexual relations prior to their marriage, but that takes too long to tell.

All the best,
Steve Sohmer

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Yogev <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 12:17:53 +0200 (WET)
Subject: 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

To Hardy Cook I would just like to add my own ambivalence on the way one reads
as opposed to the way one might actually see an Ophelia.  John Drakakis voiced
a proper textual sense of the absurdity of asking some of the questions that
are being bounced about on this topic, for it really is rather ridiculous to
speculate about Ophelia's pregnancy or where they might have achieved another
sort of 'consummation devoutly to be wished.'  On the other hand, we do tend to
imagine the character of the pages as a figure on the stage, and here I think
the questions being asked can be performed in subtler ways than the questioners
suggest. Certainly we need not agree with Polonius's characterization of his
daughter as "a green girl" (1.3.101), for after all, he is hardly the best
judge of anyone's character and his wise saws are ironically undercut by the
action of the play itself.  On the other hand, Ophelia herself has just called
out Laertes, in what I see as a potentially wry and ironicly "modest" fashion,
on the issue of the double standard of sexual conduct for troubling to show her
"the steep and thorny way to heaven" while himself possibly treading "the
primrose path of dalliance" (1.3.48,50).  So my sense is that the novelistic
questions being asked are unanswerable and essentially pointless, whereas the
performative options the text itself offers might lead us to such questions as
reviewers.  The play's the thing, after all.

Michael Yogev
University of Haifa

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Florence Amit <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 12:52:37 +0200
Subject:        Ophelia's innocence

If there are others that have developed the theme of a Messianic (including
Luthern) Hamlet as I have for many years now, they will agree that the idea of
sexual looseness is not allowable in consideration of the hero's agony of
concuspiscence, which is today modernized by irreligiously calling it an
Oedipus complex. Oedpius Complex or concuspiscence the strain of revulsion is
profound and no pre-martial sex is consistent with it. Hamlet is a religious
young man whose (opening) undersanding of his personal 'election' incapacitates
him from performing a deed of national and devine justice because it means that
he must take a life. Then would he, with many doctrins waging war in his poor
head, perform a much more simply dealt with sinful act?

Also from Ophelia's stand point it is impossible. Polonius has treated her like
an imbecile incapable of discretion and Ophelia is obedient, as we know, not to
his point of view, but to his parental authority. Then Hamlet, who in every
other way despises Polonius apes him in regard to Ophelia's virtue, so that the
poor girl, under extreme shock and duress, alone and in madness, echoes these
male fantasies in song. Indeed a case can be made for her being spiritually
possessed by Hamlet, who has cursed her. He completes the bewitching process
with a  "mitching mallecho incantation" (that recalls the name given to certain
Genevan Protestants, the Mamelouks). The very clothing that he has laid his
head upon in this his pyrrhonistic state, drag her down under water to her
death. It is the customary way by which a witch is tested. Also if to be wed is
to be deflowered, Hamlet testifies to her virginity by sending her to wed with
a fool, Yorick, in a nunnery where none live "be thou as chaste as ice , as
pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny". (Nor does she, by our fellow
shaksperians here). Later, during the mouse trap scene, Ophelia refuses to have
Hamlet "lie in [her] lap" where-upon he says "That's a fair thought to lie
between MAID's legs." A detail, but one that would not have been said  had they
been lovers. The innocence of Ophelia is necessary from the point of view of a
Luthern transfiguration and allegory. Ophelia, considered here to be an
obedient laity with the voice of Erasmus will eventually see the death of an
outworn scholasticism by Luther to that laity's confusion and transformation.

                                                 Florence Amit

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Costello <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 11:56:36 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Characters--real, fictive or what

I can conceive of a drama about chairs, with no human beings represented at
all.  I can also conceive of applying psychological theory to such a play.

Charles Costello,
University of Toronto

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 12:01:28 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

John Drakakis writes:

>The assumption is that when Ophelia speaks what is a disturbing series of
>verses, that it is the autonomous consciousness Ophelia who is speaking, and
>that she is referring to her own private history.  I see no reason to believe
>that she is.

I hope none of us believes that Ophelia is an "autonomous consciousness." But
the actor who plays the role of Ophelia represents "Ophelia" AS IF (good 16th
and 17th century stage direction) -- I say, AS IF she were an autonomous
consciousness.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 13:06:01 +0000 (HELP)
Subject: 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?


If I may confuse this relatively fruitless enquiry further. . . there are many
kinds of actors, but I suppose they could be said to divide mainly into the two
categories of those of create their performances by "research" into the
histories and extratextual lives of their roles and those who "stick to the
text".  It might equally well be said that these are, broadly, the two main
types of readers and critics.

Without drawing the obvious conclusions from the analogy, I can say that as an
actor I find *combinations* of the two extremes stimulating and effective.
[Those two words need their *verbal* forms in the reading of them to taste my
preferred acting method, by the way.] When I played Claudius, for example, I
used no "subtext" at all and therefore disappointed those spectators who had
created in their imaginations a villain rather than the polished and pleasant
exterior that the man's villainy so cleverly and subtly creates; however, I
pleased another kinf of spectator. During rehearsals I laboriously avoided any
hints in my heart that I had done the murder, however much the Strasberg-
trained director enrouaged me to "dig into my depths". I did this because I was
playing a man who is a brilliant liar whose career in the span of the drama is
the presentation of lies.

John Drakakis' point is easily missed by those whose concept of art is so
influenced by the mirror-image syndrome that they are unable to accept that
these plays deal with human-ness rather than humans. There are still folks, we
might remind ourselves, who send money, food and advice to the characters in
soap operas.

Listen, Hamlet and Ophelia did not fiddle around before the play, nor between
the scenes and Acts. How could they possibly have???? They are FICTIONS!!!!!

        Harry Hill
        Montreal

(7)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Saenger <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 13:45:53 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Real and Fictive

Hardy raises an interesting point regarding acting choices and the reality of
characters.  This is certainly a point which makes a chasm between academics
and actors/non-academics.  Academics, formalist or not, generally want to hear
nothing about Shakespeare the man, much less about Ophelia the woman.  One
point is certainly in their favor; actors in Shakespeare's time, and for some
200 years afterward, worked on a much faster pace than those today.  There was
really only time to memorize lines, practice swordfights, and perform.  Any
"secrets" or "true selves" could only be implied in passing.  The tricky thing
is that Shakespeare does imply things.  Especially in Hamlet he gestures
toward, and perhaps even creates, the modern sense of character.  Ophelia does
imply that she has had sexual intercourse with Hamlet.  Hamlet's vicious wit on
"country matters" certainly makes us suspect he knows what he is talking about,
and a nunnery is a logical place for a unmarried non-virgin to go.  This is a
shadow cast by the play, a shadow that was originally intended to pass
fleetingly as the tragedy picks up force.  It is some indication of the power
of this play that even its shadows seem to take on life and spur debates which
are, however understandable, futile.

Michael Saenger

(8)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Janis Lull <
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Date:           Sunday, 11 Feb 1996 11:19:29 -0800
Subject: 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

In reply to Hardy Cook's question about whether it's okay to find differences
in character between, for example, Q1 Gertrude and Q2 Gertrude, of course it's
okay.  It is true that in any version of *Hamlet*, Gertrude is not a real
person.  After Samuel Johnson, I can hardly believe anyone is still arguing
about that.  "Imitations produce pain or pleasure," wrote Johnson, "not because
they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind . .
.We are agitated in reading the history of *Henry* the Fifth, yet no man takes
his book for the field of Agencourt" (*Preface to Shakespeare*).  In our
"shin-kicking post-structuralist" times (is it shins we're kicking?), we seem
to be developing an odd neo-neoclassical prohibition against speaking of
literature as if it were in any way about character, or, in some cases, about
anything at all.  The analysis of character as we understand it and want to
understand it in daily life is one of the functions of literature.  John Searle
has said about the phenomenon of consciousness that it will not do just to say,
"there's no such thing, so we don't have to talk about it."  We know there's
such a thing as consciousness, and our knowledge is part of the data that any
theory of mind must explain.  The same might be said of character.  We know
there are such things as persons and personalities, and we used to think
literature might help explain that knowledge.  Nobody should be forced to seek
their explanations of human character in literature--not even high-school
students.  But nobody should be prevented, either.
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.