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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, Horatio, and Characters
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0119. Thursday, 15 February 1996.

(1)     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 14:48:03 EST
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

(2)     From:   Christine Jacobson <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 16:41:12 -0700 (MST)
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

(3)     From:   Al Cacicedo <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 23:49:59 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Horatio

(4)     From:   Sydney Kasten <
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        Date:   Thursday, 15 Feb 1996 14:38:58 +0200 (IST)
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet & Ophelia


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 96 14:48:03 EST
Subject:        Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

The question about whether Hamlet reached Ophelia's forfended place is
contextualized in stimulating ways by Kathy Eden's recent Poetic and Legal
Fiction in the Aristotelian Tradition_, which, as the title indicates,
reconstructs the ways in which philosphers, lawyers, critics, and poets from
Aristotle to Shakespeare saw and exploited and interchanged the juridical and
poetic uses of language. Among other things, the book reminds us that _Hamlet_
is full of trials: all the principal characters are tried, judged, sentenced,
punished.  Within the play, Hamlet tries the Ghost, Claudius, Gertrude,
Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Polonius starts to try
Laertes and Hamlet, tries Ophelia.  Claudius tries Fortinbras and Hamlet.
Laertes tries Hamlet.  From without, however, we spectators and readers are
invited to try, not only the characters (they are only fictions, after all,
dreams of passion), but also, in a more abstract way, ideas and institutions.
The family is on trial.  So is marriage. Patriarchy, and its political
expression monarchy.  The validity of sensory experience.  The truth of ghosts
and dreams.  Friendship. Early modern courtship practices, both political and
erotic.  Life. God.  And as we know from the the trial of O. J. Simpson, trials
are most interesting and memorable when the facts are, even at the end, in
dispute.  It would be much easier for us to reach a verdict on Hamlet's
culpability of the death of Ophelia--for the culpability of any man for the
sorrows of any maid--if we knew for sure if and if so how he had brought her to
open her chaste treasure to his importunity.  That we do not seems to me part
and parcel of the ambiguity that invests the process of almost all the trials
in and of the play.

Juridically,
David Evett

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Christine Jacobson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 16:41:12 -0700 (MST)
Subject:        Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

I feel compelled to jump into this discussion, if I may, even though I am a
novice and a very new member to "Shaksper".   Possibly if members could
consider a similar relationship between young lovers in modern film, "Splender
In The Grass", 1961, starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. It comes to mind
that this is a similar relationship situation.  The heroine, although intent on
keeping her virginity, attempts to commit suicide by drowning after being
betrayed by her lover.  Certain similarities between Shakespeare's Hamlet and
this l961 romance on celophane strike me.  If you agree, one could see how it
is possible to interpret their relationship as being uncomsumated, but driving
the characters, especially Ophelia, slightly mad, in any case.  I'm only
beginning to discern the many mirrors Shakespeare manages to hold up to us.

    Yours respectfully, Christine Jacobson.

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Al Cacicedo <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Feb 1996 23:49:59 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Horatio

A recent posting on the Ophelia/character/personhood issue reminds me of the
Supreme Court decision that gives all us good Americans a penumbra of privacy:
characters seem to have a penumbra of extratextual personhood.  Strict
constructionists of the Constitution cringe at the idea of penumbral rights;
strict textualists ditto about personhood.

All this is by way of wondering about Horatio, who strikes me as equally
penumbral in his presentation--not that I think he has had sex with Hamlet,
mind you, although Hamlet's wearing him in his heart's core *is* suggestive.
Are we seeing a social climber at work in Horatio, who in 1.1 hangs out with
soldiers, by 1.2 engages the prince in conversation, becoming Hamlet's heart's-
core buddy by 3.2, then (by a metamorphosis almost as wondrous as Ceasar's)
turns king's flunky as soon as Hamlet's off to England (so, anyway, I'm tempted
to read 4.5--although I grant that he may be protecting the newly pregnant
Ophelia instead of brown-nosing their majesties), and at the end is left to
recount and interpret everything.  What a rising up was there!

From Reading (unfortunately a town, not a textual activity)
Al Cacicedo
Albright College

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sydney Kasten <
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Date:           Thursday, 15 Feb 1996 14:38:58 +0200 (IST)
Subject:        Re: Hamlet & Ophelia

Last winter I experienced a production of Hamlet by the Peter Hall Company. The
director, in his talk to the Company, excerpted in the program notes, made
reference to *the big 20th century question - are they lovers or not?* and
answers: *Shakespeare hasn't told us. They have done what is necessary to make
their relationship what it is, and when Hamlet turns against her, and then she
loses her father, it is enough to make her go mad. When she does, everything
that has been repressed comes out and it's violently sexual.*  What Mr. Hall
doesn't comment on in the notes is the manner in which Ophelia appears in her
madness.  He has her dressed in a simple shift, the lower portion of which is
extensively stained with blood. My own impression at the time was that this was
menstrual blood to demonstrate the depth of her regression; that perhaps it was
the first menstrual period of an innocent child who had no maternal figure
available to comfort her, let alone instruct her. The present discussion raises
the possibility that we were seeing the results of a miscarriage or abortion,
but I can find no basis for that either in the performance I saw or in the
text.  Nevertheless, the question raised in this list has opened a Pandora's
box, strewing *dangerous conjectures* in this ill breeding mind. *Dangerous* to
whom?

Scene 5 of Act IV begins with the Queens assertion: *I will not speak with
her.*  A strange comment from one who has experienced motherhood regarding a
freshly orphaned adolescent girl whom she has probably known from birth, on
whom, in public, she dotes.  And what is the first remark of Ophelia to the
beautious majesty of Denmark? The song begins: *How should I YOUR true love
know from another one? By his cockle hat and staff and sandal shoon.* The
finger is clearly pointing at Gertrude's true love, the wearer of the crown,
the bearer of the scepter and the wearer of kingly boots.

Is the King capable of rape?  Well, he did kill his brother.  Of his wooing of
Gertrude we have no inkling; he does not have the charming villainy of Richard
the III. The unsuccesful attempt at prayer that saved his life has nothing of
the acceptance of self of Richard or of Iago, or of the defiance of Macbeth.
It smacks more of the contrition of a recidivist who puts himself on the rack
of conscience before going out and doing it again.  The villainy of Claudius
tends, I think, to be undervalued perhaps because of the intensity of ambiant
madness, perhaps because it is so controlled. In the short soliloquy after
Hamlet and his bodyguards have taken their leave of him, he reveals to us the
extent of the power he is conscious of radiating: Autonomous England will agree
to be the agent of murder because the scars of the Danish pillage have not yet
healed. Claudius is so sure of England's fear that he does not have to make the
threat explicit in the letter.  Moreover, he can allow a foreign army to march
through his realm with perfect confidence in the safety of his people and of
his throne. Like the Godfather in the Mafia saga he can speak softly because
everyone knows and respects the inexorable strength of his power.  How else can
we explain the sanctioning of his marriage to Gertrude?

In the generation after Henry VIII it is inconceivable that there existed an
educated person who was not acquainted with the complicated laws of levirate
marriage.  A whole tractate of the Talmud is devoted to the apparent
contradiction between two verses in the Bible: Leviticus 20:21 and Deuteronomy
25:5.  The former is an absolute injunction against marrying a brother's
(ex)wife and added emphasis in the verse is the basis of extending the
prohibition to include his widow.  The verse in Deuteronomy is a positive
injunction, just as serious, to marry a dead brother's widow n the event that
he died without issue.  This injunction is so serious that unless the the
surviving brother takes part in a humiliating ceremony the widow in order to
release her she is barred from marrying anyone else.  The marriage if it takes
place is not considered incest.  The children are legitimate.  Should the widow
marry someone else without having been released, she would be committing
adultery.  This was the basis of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine, the
childless widow of his older brother. (This set of laws is valid in Orthodox
Jewish communities to this day. However, since taking two wives is against the
law and the idea of marriage forced by circumstance is repugnant, these days
the surviving brother is expected to release the widow.)  The upshot of all
this is that Gertrude, by marrying Claudius was in effect declaring that her
son Hamlet was not her dead husband's issue.  Otherwise she is guilty of
incest.  In the world of wave mechanics she would be guilty of both sins until
observation determined which.

This Claudius, who could get Gertrude to do violence to her honour and his
nephew's legitimacy, who could get an ostensibly honest and pedantic retainer
to turn himself eagerly into an eavesdropper, and who could count on a foreign
king's complicity in murder - could he descend to the crime of rape?  Only if
the object of his desire did not fall into the general pattern of wilfully
complying with his unspoken direction.  Was Ophelia the object of his desire?
Is there a hint in the closing lines of Act IV scene 3: *till I know 'tis done,
Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne'er begun.* Or in another version more
explicitly: *--will ne'er begin.*   What joys depend on the elimiataion of
Hamlet?

Now we can understand Gertrude's unwillingness to see Ophelia.  The rape has
taken place and she is aware of it, or doesn't want to be.  And then there is
the Queen's report of the drowning of Ophelia.  In these beautiful words there
is just too much gratuitous detail to make them other than an eyewitness
report.  And although the essence of the message is that she died accidentally
(an envious sliver broke) and not as a suicide,thus allowing burial in hallowed
ground, a twentieth century detective with a suspicious mind would ask himself
who the last person was to see the deceased alive, and might take the
circumstantiality of the report as a hint of guilt. And consider the
breakthrough of unconscious preoccupations: *-his hoar leaves in the glassy
stream-*, *long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name*, the
*envious sliver*.  I am drawn to the conclusion that in the Queen's response -
*Drown'd, drown'd* - to Laertes' exclamation: *alas, then she is drown'd!* she
is changing the mood of the statement to * has been drowned*.  Indeed the
gravediggers in the next scene, while not giving credence to any accident
theory, expound at length on the transitive aspect of the verb *to drown*.

Now I can't say if any of the foregoing was in the production I saw other than
the bloody shift and the words.  Given the opportunity I might be tempted to
pay the price of a ticket to see if it was there in glance, movement or
intonation.  The author isn't around to to tell us if this was yet another
ambiguity that he knowingly threw into the broth - a more subtle, subliminal
bit of spice- a piece of his art, or, like the Ophelia-Hamlet bedding to the
framers of the question, a figment of my imagination.

My intial reaction to the questioners that sparked the Hamlet-Ophelia
discussion was quite negative, but the fact is that they have sparked what has
been for me a stimulating interchange, and for that I thank them.
 

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