The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1854 Friday, 6 September 2002
Date: Thursday, 5 Sep 2002 16:32:31 -0400
Subject: Gertrude on Ophelia's Death
In the Shakespeare Newsletter for Winter 2001/2002, Thomas A. Pendleton
parenthetically calls Gertrude's detailed account of the drowning of
Ophelia "inexplicable" (112), and it is true that the lapidary character
of the speech (Norton 4.1.137-154) seems to invite the epithet. In
grammar school, however, Shakespeare would have learned that the
elaborate *descriptio loci*, of which this speech incorporates a fine
instance, had a specific forensic function, important in the legal
investigation of acts of violence, and meant to give judges and juries a
full understanding of the physical particulars of the event. The speech
precedes by only a few lines the discussion between the clowns of the
question whether Ophelia's death was a suicide or not, and hence of her
claim on burial in consecrated ground, taken up again later in the scene
in Hamlet's remarks on the "maimed rites," the priest's expression of
his own doubts, overruled by Claudius' "great command," and Laertes'
impassioned reply (5.1.1-27, 201-221). An Elizabethan audience would
have understood that it was being constituted, in effect, as the
coroner's jury in the case, and encouraged to make its own decision.
Indeed, without the speech it is the subsequent discussion that would be
inexplicable. We may well ask (as many critics have) why Shakespeare
chose to present Ophelia's death in these equivocal terms--but not why
he chose the initiate the issue with a full account of the event.
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