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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0125.  Monday, 19 February 1996.

(1)     From:   Daniel M Larner <
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        Date:   Thursday, 15 Feb 1996 17:49:56 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0114 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character

(2)     From:   Florence Amit <
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        Date:   Friday, 16 Feb 1996 11:56:57 +0200
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet and Ophelia

(3)     From:   Surajit Bose <
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        Date:   Saturday, 17 Feb 1996 19:34:22 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0114 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character

From:           Daniel M Larner <
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Date:           Thursday, 15 Feb 1996 17:49:56 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 7.0114 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0114 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character

Yu Jin Ko strikes a resonant chord, I think, when he points out that _Hamlet_
is clearly concerned with the question of who or what the whole person is
underneath the veil of appearances.  The theoretical debate, which tries to
determine in the abstract whether or not we are dealing with real persons,
fragmental representations, or partial signifyers, utterly misses the point of
useable criticism and fails to inform us either about the playable essence of a
character, or about the characters role in a rich conception of the action.
Plays which enjoy long life on the stage generally impress us with the very
roundness, richness and complexity that is exhilarating, because it illuminates
and enriches the texture of our own lives.  That's also why tragedy isn't
depressing. It's remarkable how often (not always--but how often)
deconstructive and post-structuralist species of analysis, or critical
dispositions, leave plays in a fine pile of critical dust in front of us,
forgetting that the first responsibility of good criticism is preserve and
illuminate the whole.

Daniel Larner

From:           Florence Amit <
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Date:           Friday, 16 Feb 1996 11:56:57 +0200
Subject:        Re: Hamlet and Ophelia

Shirley Kagan writes,

>If I'm not mistaken, a nunnery has the double meaning of brothel, certainly a
>place where Ophelia might go having lost her virginity and being unwed. Also,
>Hamlet refers to "nothing" being a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs.
>Again, a pun, since "nothing" may refer to the female genetalia, thus making
>the little conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia one that could only be
>shared by lovers.  Finally, although the innocence of Ophelia may be necessary
>from a Lutheran point of view, Shakespeare was not writing Hamlet for a
>Lutheran audience.

(1) The many connotations for "nunnery" need or need not have been in Hamlet's
mind, although they are obviously in the mind of this well- read scholar. I do
not cancel out the possibility that Hamlet would be thinking brothel as well as
convent. The logic of his rhetoric is for convent. His state of mind is for
brothel, but the result of his curse, the action, signifies a nunnery where
none live.

(2) Obviously Ophelia is embarrassed over her precipitant refusal of Hamlet's
desire to lay his head in her lap and not his whole body. So she says "nothing"
as if to cancel out that bawdiness even though it was a denial. The quick
Hamlet takes up the image that she wants disregarded. Their continuing
discourse is proper for this reading and also Hamlet speaks of a "thought" with
a "maid".

(3) The audience, any audience, is important for an artist, to be sure, but if
he would always be consulting it, it would be disatrous to his creativity. One
only has to think of the vascillations that Dickens suffered. The Luthern, or
rather the messianic foundation that is present in "Hamlet" is like a
directional outline for a sculptur. When you view the completed object in mass
with its light and shade you do not need to know that the shape was inspired by
a particular bone. For my part I am grateful for the certainty I feel when I
ascertain the solidity of "Hamlet's" foundations even when I do not mention
them in criticism, which is usual.

Scott Shepherd writes,

>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.

(1) I do not think any judge even a play judge would credit the testimony of a
raving mad-woman. Does she sing from her own experiences; from her fantasies;
from some body else's fantasies; from ballads remembered?

(2) Yepthah, who Polonius is compared to, is the judge, in the Biblical book of
Judges that sacrifices his daughter for a vow. To understand from that that
Polonius is a Jew is to say that Hamlet is a Greek because he compares himself
to Hercules.

From:           Surajit Bose <
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Date:           Saturday, 17 Feb 1996 19:34:22 -0500
Subject: 7.0114 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0114 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character

In her closely-reasoned and beautifully balanced assessment of the debate
around the "Did Ham and Ophie do it?" question, Yu Jin Ko writes:

>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.

I don't think that anyone here believes this question is irrelevant; if we did,
we would not be participating in this debate.  I do believe, however, that the
question _is_ unanswerable; or at least, unanswerable until we figure out the
_terms_ of the question.  So many people have tried answering it in so many
different ways over the past couple weeks alone: yes, Hamlet did seduce
Ophelia, because her songs prove it; no, he did not, because Luther would never
sanction it; actually it was Claudius who raped Ophelia, and Hamlet is either
innocent or irrelevant (I'm not clear which), etc.  The last solution is
interesting, in that we now have not only a Hamlet jealous of Claudius (_pace_
Ernest Jones), but also a Gertrude jealous of Ophelia. Neat.

But the range and variety of the answers leads me to wonder about the question
itself; what counts as evidence that would allow one to support an answer to
that question?

Perhaps the evidence can be found in the words on the page? What else is there?
But several posts, including the ones from Hardy Cook and Steve Urkowitz, have
pointed out that those words aren't stable; Ophelia's songs don't mean one
thing and one thing alone, but take on different valences depending on who is
presented as the addressee.  And different versions of the text present us with
different addressees.

I would argue that even if we had only one text of _Hamlet_ (as is the case
with _Macbeth_, where F is the only source), the words would still be unstable.
What directors and critics exploit, in fact, is precisely the instability of
the words. The words present the potential for an infinite number of
realizations in performance and criticism.  If there were just one stable,
realizable interpretation possible of the words on the page, then both theater
folks and academic types would have gone out of biz long ago.

On the other hand, at least intuitively, we all know that every interpretation
is not as equally valid as every other interpretation. And the degree of
validity varies from context to context. Let me take an example. Suppose I say,
drawing upon Scott Shepherd's brilliant insight that  "Hamlet has text not only
with Ophelia but just about everyone else in the play," that all Hamlet's
problems were the result of homosexual molestation he suffered as a little boy
at the hands of Yorick.  If I wrote this up as an academic essay, _Shakespeare
Quarterly_ would never publish it and I'd never make tenure. A _performance_ of
the play that tried to show this would be risky, and I think rather hard to
pull off, but perhaps possible.  If I were to write a _novel_ about Hamlet that
included this version, however, it would clearly be valid.  Random House would
publish it, Mel Gibson would star in the movie of the novel (with Harvey Keitel
as Yorick, and a piano playing trashy new age air puddings in the background
during the seduction scene), and I'd make millions. Which last leads me to two
observations: one, I'm evidently in the wrong business here; and two, I think
Tom Stoppard had the whole thing figured out ages ago.

But seriously folks. What I'm trying to get at is: from this it follows that
the question we started out with needs clarification. We can no longer ask "Did
Ham and Ophie do it?" without asking about what the _question_ itself means.
Who's asking, and why? What are the stakes involved in the answer? Directors,
teachers, and novelists have different stakes. There can't be a universal
answer that satisfies all comers and is true for all time. Sad but true.
Michael Saenger's post points to this.

So, since I'm a teacher, historian, and critic (albeit a johnny-come-lately at
all three), not a novelist or a director, I see my job as trying to figure out
what the question itself means. More precisely, I want to know about the
conditions of possibility of the question. What allows us to _ask_ the
question, "Did Ham and Ophie do it," and to see the question as meaningful? The
answer has to be found in words on the page of the text(s) of _Hamlet_; I have
nothing _besides_ the words on the page--there is nothing outside the text,
except perhaps other words on other pages. Even if someone were to point out
that the question seems meaningful only to me, the question would still be
about the relationship I have to the words on the page of _Hamlet_. So I'm
driven to the kinds of inquiry I outlined in my first post on this topic: viz.,
stage conditions, printing conditions, the nature of subjectivity, and above
all the nature of language.

All these strike me as being crucially important questions.  I don't pretend to
have the answers, and I'm not suggesting that everybody should address these
questions.   I'm admitting that _given my stakes_, these are my questions.
Which brings me back to Yu Jin Ko.  She writes:

>Surely one can safely say that the play investigates the
>problematic relationship between outward show and that within

Absolutely. But as she herself points out, to say that the play poses a
question about the relationship between performance and subjectivity is not to
say that the question gets answered in the play.  And there's a crucial
difference, elided by Professor Ko, between the first  question, "Did Hamlet
and Ophelia do it?" and the second, "How come the actions and words of Hamlet
and/or Ophelia [outward show] allow us to wonder about their personalities and
private histories [that within]? Even to the point of being able to ask whether
they did it? I.e., how do words on the page, which is all that _Hamlet_ is,
work magic?"  The first question begs the second.  It responds to the magic of
the words, but doesn't examine how the magic trick is worked.

I'm at a loss to understand why Professor Ko should see the movement from the
first question to the second as a "self-obsessed indulgence":

>In dismissing [Ophelia's] 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.

Mirroring the slippage between the two questions I pointed out earlier, here
too there is a slippage in Professor Ko's argument between Hamlet's actions as
a dramatic character and his putative "subjectivity."  As far as I can tell,
nobody has dismissed Ophelia as irrelevant; nobody has suggested that Hamlet is
the only person to concentrate on; nobody has said that he is the only one with
"illegible complexity." Au contraire. What I am trying to decipher, using what
Stephanie Jed has called paleographic tools, is the illegibility that extends
from Hamlet to _Hamlet_.   Or, to switch metaphors: Yes, the play is a
mousetrap; let's see how it works, let's figure out the technology behind the
play's words, so we can imagine a way out of the trap.

Surajit A. Bose
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

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