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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: July ::
Re: Ophelia
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0734.  Thursday, 3 July 1997.

From:           Stuart Manger <
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Date:           Wednesday, 2 Jul 1997 18:18:01 +0100
Subject: 8.0732  Re: Hamlet's Madness
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0732  Re: Hamlet's Madness

>As for why Ophelia gets such rotten treatment from Hamlet, keep in mind
>that he knows she is there to spy on him, and she refuses to admit that
>she's working for Polonius and Claudius.  Moreover, in her speech to
>Hamlet she accuses him of dropping her, which is clearly a lie-she has
>refused him for well on two months.  Hamlet's rage is perfectly
>understandable, just as it is understandable when he corners his mother
>later on.  Ophelia has betrayed him in deepest trust, and refuses to be
>truthful with him.
>
>As Maximilian Schell pointed out, all she has to say in response to
>"where's your father?" is "behind the arras-I'll explain everything
>later", and the scene would turn out completely differently.

In a nice, reflective Hamlet posting, Andy White makes some pertinent
points, but may I reply to a few things about Ophelia?  Theatrical
practice usually has it that at the end of the 'Get thee to a nunnery'
speech, Hamlet THEN becomes aware of the surveillance, and not before.
In fact, before the letters are returned he is a model of gallantry,
politeness, and reserve, as indeed so is she. I accept that the return
of the letters is accompanied by 'so sweet breath' that Hamlet quite
correctly smells a rat, OR is deeply bewildered, then angered, then
driven as many young people are into affecting nonchalant or icy denial
when their deepest feelings are traduced, particularly by one they have
apparently committed themselves too - what Andy quite rightly calls, a
sense of deep betrayal, here overlaid by baffled incomprehension of her
motives. I mean, if she has been cooling for 'two months', then why
return the letters at THIS point? If skin has filmed over the ulcer a
little in the two months, then H is quite right to wonder if this is not
a deliberate ploy to humiliate, or hurt him quite gratuitously? I think
Ophelia's nervous retreat into rather stilted, if pretty, courtly
language at the start, is from one who knows that this is a deeply
distasteful office, and one she knows (from his earlier behaviour to
her) could produce scarily unpredictable effects. If she also knows that
her king and father are listening, that affairs of state are in
question, and if she also knows that she is the bait - the goat tethered
to the tree syndrome - then I think her jumpiness is entirely
understandable. She hardly manages to get a word in edgeways, and in
fact, she DOES signal to Hamlet that she is still in love: 'perfume',
'sweet breath', 'rich gifts' and the plea to him sub-textually not to be
'unkind' (in the 16th century sense - v. important caveat I suspect?) -
this language is coded, isn't it? As if to say: 'I return the letters,
but read my lips / heart?' I think it is also significant and tragic
that at this stage she is already describing relationships / love in
images of ephemerality, a passing scent that whispers away into the
breeze? The bewildering impermanence of things is already part of her
language print here - as we see in the bawdy mad songs , and the flower
ritual with Claudius and Gertrude? And, Andy, with respect, young
ladies, daughters of the Prime Minister / Chief of Police etc., did NOT
in those days disobey father / king in so spectacular fashion as to
actually tell him explicitly that she'd explain later! As I try to say
above, I think that she is already doing that in the kind of
sophisticated poetic language they have already exchanged what she
feels, and she hopes he will read things. Her bewildered distress stems
from H's apparent wild, tempestuous brushing of her aside, and a total
refusal by him to acknowledge any other bond between them than that of
breeding and villains crawling. No wonder she exclaims aloud how much of
him is 'o'erthrown'?

Stuart Manger
 

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