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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 114. Wednesday, 14 February 1996.

(1)     From:   W. Russell Mayes, <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 10:15:50 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re:  Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)

(2)     From:   Scott Shepherd <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 13:15:57 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(3)     From:   Scott Shepherd <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 13:54:59 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0104  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

(4)     From:   Robert Appelbaum <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 10:53:47 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Character

(5)     From:   Gerda Grice <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 15:25:35 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations

(6)     From:   Scott Shepherd <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 16:05:13 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

(7)     From:   Michael Saenger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 23:45:20 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

(8)     From:   Naomi Liebler <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 00:18:00 EST
        Subj:   RE: SHK 7.0108  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

(9)     From:   Steve Urkowitz <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 07:26:59 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHAKSPER Digest - 9 Feb 1996 to 10 Feb 1996

(10)    From:   Yu Jin Ko <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 12:10:17 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Hamlet & Ophelia...


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. Russell Mayes, <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 10:15:50 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Re:  Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)

I don't disagree with Janis Lull's point, but I take it as a place of departure
to respond to Hardy's interesting post.  The problem he describes, and the
problem many people are now arguing about, can (and in my feelings should) be
historicized.  So, when Janis Lull writes:

>   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*).

I want to point out that Johnson can hardly claim to be the first to make this
insight.  Heywood makes almost exactly the same point in his _Apology for
Actors_.  The problem is Stubbes and others argue that "Imitations" _are_ taken
for realities.  In other words, to some people in Shakespeare's London it would
make a great deal of difference whether Hamlet and Ophelia had slept together,
while other people would exclaim "She's just a character!"  I don't see that it
will help us to know which of these is "the truth;" both are legitimate
responses.  As several others have pointed out--and as Hardy's post originally
indicated--all of us do both at one point or another.

W. Russell Mayes Jr.
University of North Carolina at Asheville

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Scott Shepherd <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 13:15:57 -0500
Subject:        Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

I have to agree with Terry Hawkes and his colleagues. Even a moderately close
reading will reveal that Hamlet has text not only with Ophelia but just about
everyone else in the play.

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Scott Shepherd <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 13:54:59 -0500
Subject: 7.0104  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0104  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

>Gertrude and Old Hamlet also had
>sexual relations prior to their marriage, but that takes too long to tell.

Aw, c'mon, Steve, tell it, we've got time.

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robert Appelbaum <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 10:53:47 -0800 (PST)
Subject:        Character

I found that Surajit Bose's response was quite compelling, although I'm not
sure that I agree that the "final word" on this ought to be granted to an
aphorism.  If I may weigh in on this topic, I would like to refer readers to an
article I never finished and which I never submitted anywhere, but which was
_apparently_ in character for me to have written (and never to have completed),
and which my imaginary biographer, writing my "life," will one day probably
want to situate in relation to the "story" of my "life," if he can find
evidence of its existence on my hard-drive.  It is an article on the idea of
character.  In it I distinguish between the dramatis persona as something
signified and the dramatis persona as a signifier.  The former belongs to that
imaginary "possible world" represented in the text; the latter belongs to the
conditions of that possible world.  The borders between the the two are
certainly permeable, but, to be brief (although it is not in my character to be
brief), it is the former, the persona as a signified, that debates over sexual
relations belong to, and apparently a lot of classromm discussion; it is the
latter, the persona as a signifier, that an actor has to be primarily concerned
with, and that most sophisticated criticism is devoted to as well.

Although I am mainly of the textual relations school, I would like to add that
part of the feature of the persona as a textual signifier is that this
signifier is understood to have the nature of what Barthes called a "precious
remainder."  In other words, signifers like "Ophelia" are more than the sum of
their (textual) parts; they signify as subjects who have pasts and possible
futures, not all of which are necessarily disclosed in the texts to which they
seem to belong, and they signify as subjects with identities over time, from
textual locus to textual locus, even if those "identities" are not necessarily
deep, psychologistic, or philosophically coherent.  It would have been possible
to write another play about Ophelia (before her suicide), just as it was
possible to write another play about Falstaff; and that's because they are
signfiers with precious remainders as well as signified characters in the
prison of their original text's mimetic "world."

And by the way, I think it is absolutely wrong to believe that undergraduates
are only capable of being taught about the mimetic world where characters live,
copulate, and die, as if the mimetic world were actually a part of "nature";
they are perfectly capable of being encouraged to examine how characters are
constructed out of discursive conventions and codes.  And one doesn't need to
bring in a volume of Lacan's Seminars in order to encourage them to do this.
As soon as one asks them (as we all do, I imagine) to think about how one might
stage a particular scene, or perform a piece of dialogue, one is already moving
away from the "natural life" of the characters, and into something like
characterological performance. And there are other methods.  I've shown
students a film of R&J (Zefferelli's) in juxtaposition with the film version of
West Side Story. As soon as one asks why Zefferelli's characters are so
different from the ones we imagine when reading the script, or why WSS's Maria
is so different from Juliet, even though all these "characters"  are in many
respects identical, _the same_, one begins to see not only the uncertain
fluidities involved in the construction of a dramatis persona but also how
social conventions and historical circumstances (which both R&J and WSS alike
mock and reduplicate) delimit the possibilities involved in having a "life,"
and even those structures in keeping with which a person or a persona might
copulate and die.

Robert Appelbaum

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gerda Grice <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 15:25:35 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations

Weren't Ophelia's funeral rites "maimed" because she was suspected of having
committed suicide rather than because she was suspected of having been
unchaste?

Gerda Grice

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(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Scott Shepherd <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 16:05:13 -0500
Subject:        Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

Sorry if it makes nonsense of Ophelia's function in the rest of the play, but
the song she sings in her mental derangement makes the facts clear--not only
that she and Hamlet had sex, but that they did it in his bed, and that he
seduced her with a pledge of marriage:

        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

Another informative song lyric lets us know that Polonius was a Jew. Hamlet
calls him a "judge of Israel." This helps explain the controversy over
Ophelia's Christian burial. It's surprising that commentators have been so
silent about this.

(7)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Saenger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 23:45:20 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

Heather Stephenson gave a thoughtful response to my comments on Hamlet, Ophelia
and real characters.  I think her use of the word "choice" is very important,
because however frustrating it may be for some, Shakespeare's work thrives from
the exercise of choice.  I am concerned about this gap between the stage and
the university, and it seems it is only getting wider.  One big thorn in this
troubled relationship is Stanislavsky, and his effect on virtually all modern
thinking on the theater.  If it has gotten to the point that an academic can be
blind to Ophelia's hints, we need some kind of a marriage counselor.   I have
seen two conference attempts to mediate this and both were horrendous failures;
it was as if different languages were spoken.  Perhaps we should stop looking
for stable selves in the past when post-structuralist theory has proven we
cannot find them now.  Gender theory has proved that we are role-players, as
Jacques says, and that we do not exist outside our text, so why should Ophelia?
 But our lives, like Hamlet, keep on implying selves in faint shadows, and
however sophisticated we are in the academe, we live by another set of truths.
This, alas, is the gap between the academics and the performers/non-academics.
The former have a language of knowing and the latter have a language of doing.
Shakespeare was a knowing doer.

I personally was inspired into Shakespeare studies through performing plays,
and in performance I saw structures that were constantly changing, webs that
were always shifting and only partly under my control; the plays seemed to have
an oddly magical ability to respond to us, to come to life, so to speak.  One
thing I have found about original performance conditions is that they
absolutely accomodated choice.  Actors were changed, scripts revised, plays
cut, topical allusions were inserted, not to mention the fact that they were
built with a self-consciously unstable language.  So these were, from the
start, living, flexible things, which is part of why they survive so well. They
were initially built to withstand instability, in fact to use it, not like an
edifice, but rather like an old bi-wing plane built to handle air from any
side.  Such fine bi-wing planes, in fact, that they continue to fly in accents
then undreamt of, in countries then undiscovered.

Michael Saenger
University of Toronto

(8)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Naomi Liebler <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 00:18:00 EST
Subject: 7.0108  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters
Comment:        RE: SHK 7.0108  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

Richard Bovard writes: "We seem to have three levels of response here.  At one
level, in the classroom, the question seems important.  Undergraduate students
who are just learning to read, interpret, and criticize "Hamlet" frequently ask
this question.  Fine distinctions between "character" and "person" may not
stimulate such students."

Ah, but it does. My students are hit hard and often with exactly that
distinction. The conflation of representation and ":real people," I number
among several "Cherished Assumptions" that they have inherited and that have
done nothing for them but keep them adrift in a sea of confusing
"interpretations" that persist in making them feel stupid and alienated from
the study of SHakespeare or indeed of any drama.

Unsurprisingly, when they are able to let go of those "Cherished Assumptions,"
and begin to see these "characters" as representations, an amazing number of my
students become quite smart--that is, they begin to see the possibility for
themselves of actually comprehending this shibboleth "Shakespeare." Stimulated
they certainly are--and I find myself having to assign numbers to keep the
class participation orderly. No bad thing. Try it.

Representationally,
Naomi Liebler

(9)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Urkowitz <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 07:26:59 EST
Subject:        Re: SHAKSPER Digest - 9 Feb 1996 to 10 Feb 1996

exfoliating ophelias . . . .

Though I have trouble connecting the e-mail John Drakakis with the physically
exigent reification experienced at various SAA conferences, I have equal
trouble fusing into a single entity "Ophelia" the diverse critters I've seen on
stages and in movies and in the 1603, 1605, and 1623 texts of that play.

Hardy Cook suggests different Queens appear in these versions.  Yup.  And there
seem to be different scripted instructions for constructing stage realizations
of Ophelia too.  F'rinstance, check out who is onstage during the songs she
sings: In Q1 she sings the mourning song to the King, the sexy song to Brother
Laeertes.  In Q2 and F, the King hears the Valentine's Day ballad, Laertes gets
t he dirge.  The players surrounding the singer have different responses too.

So maybe we have deliciously different possibilities.  As your local Ophelia to
try out both versions with a troupe.  Ask her to consider the manifold sexual
couplings, triplings, or guilty solitaires possible in a hermetically sealed
castle where one brother poisons another to gain possession of a sexually
stirring imaginative construct.

Hey, folks.  PLAY these scripts.
                                Again, after silence,
                                                     Urquartowitz

(10)---------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Yu Jin Ko <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 12:10:17 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Hamlet & Ophelia...

It seems to me that there are distinct issues which are being conflated in the
recent discussion on what I believe is a very important topic.  First, I think
we should make a distinction between whether a play raises a certain question
and whether it can answer it.  Those who suggest that the question of Ophelia's
chastity is irrelevant tend to work rather circularly: what's unanswerable is
so because of its general irrelevance. This is a version of the anti-Bradleyan
line that the question of why a character performs a peculiar act is irrelevant
because Shakespeare did not fashion characters whose psychologies could answer
such a question.  In _Hamlet_, however, though the answers are frustratingly
not offered, the question under discussion is certainly raised.  Consider that
the primary action of the central character for so long consists in resisting
attempts  by others to pluck out the heart of his mystery, in asserting, that
is, his inscrutability according to the available models of behavioral reading.
Consider also the play's preoccupation with forms of "acting" and other kinds
of representation.  Surely one can safely say that the play investigates the
problematic relationship between outward show and that within; after all, a
part of what fascinates us about Hamlet is the elusiveness of his character --
how outward shows only act as furtive hints to the "mystery" of his
subjectivity (if I am slipping into a quasi- essentialist reading, it's only
because the play demands that kind of reading, even if one is to conclude that,
as Terry Eagleton suggests, what exists in his heart's core is a kind of
nothing).  In asking whether Ophelia's bawdy songs hint at something we were
not able to perceive earlier, we're only extending to her character one
animating question in the play.  Indeed, in my view, the outward movement of
the question concerning identity to the "minor" characters and into the darker
shadows of the play (to use a metaphor) constitutes one major action of the
play. It is only to Hamlet-centered critics that extending the question of
identity to others in the play is heresy.  And here is the irony.  It is much
easier to keep Ophelia under the lid of some normative behavioral, or
theatrical model (obedient daughter whose frail mind snaps) than to rethink our
perception of her, to acknowledge that there might be areas that are unreadable
according to those models.  In dismissing her characterological complexity,
however, readers engage in a kind of laziness that in this play is associated
with a moral laxity particular to Hamlet: engrossed in his subjectivity, in his
conviction of his autonomous illegibility, he casually pins down others with
formulated phrases, thus denying subjectivity to others.  It is a short step
from Hamlet to the self-obsessed indulgences that blind a Childe Harolde to the
complex reality of others.  The true Mousetrap of _Hamlet_ is the prison of
Hamlet's mind -- the trap that readers who dismiss hints of illegible
complexity in others find themselves in.

Yu Jin Ko
Wellesley College
 

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