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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: May ::
What does Ophelia know . . .
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1123  Wednesday, 26 May 2004

[1]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 May 2004 14:36:53 +0100
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.1111 What does Ophelia know . . .

[2]     From:   Peter Bridgman <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 25 May 2004 22:03:02 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1111 What does Ophelia know . . .


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 May 2004 14:36:53 +0100
Subject: 15.1111 What does Ophelia know . . .
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.1111 What does Ophelia know . . .

What matters, I think, is not what Ophelia knows, but what others fear
she might know.   This is an extract from what I'm currently writing -
and I'd welcome comments:

A good deal of literary criticism over the years has been preoccupied
with identifying the 'source' of Ophelia's madness through the subjects
of the songs she sings, debating whether they speak of her father, or of
Hamlet. They surely refer in some way to both, and articulate Ophelia's
desperation at the death of one and desertion of the other. But
interpreting the songs solely as the impromptu expression of her
feelings and seeing them as only embodying her psychological state risks
obscuring the rather different ways in which her songs might be read by
the onstage audience. For just as the King is fearful of what Hamlet's
madness might portend, so Horatio fears that Ophelia 'may strew /
Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds'  (5.4.14-15), and the Queen
confesses that 'each toy seems prologue to some great amiss' (5.4.18).
Ophelia's first line: 'Where is the beauteous Majesty of Denmark?' is
resonantly ambiguous - it might refer, with unconscious irony, to the
Queen or to the King, or might be taken to recollect her earlier
description of Hamlet himself. Gertrude seems to think it is addressed
to her, and responds with the uneasy question 'How now Ophelia?'. We
might then readily imagine that opening of Ophelia's first song, 'How
should I my true love know / From another one' could be taken by a
nervous Gertrude to refer to her own dead first husband - an impression
which could be fortified by giving anxiety to her question 'Alas, sweet
lady, what imports this song?' (4.5.27). To others the referents might
be more obviously to Hamlet (true love, but not dead) or to Polonius
(dead, but not a true love).

As the song continues with the narrative of a burial, the King enters,
and Ophelia seems to make a pointed modification of expectation as she
sings:

White his shroud as the mountain snow
        Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did not go
        With true-love showers (4.5.36, 38-40).

The 'not' in the third line, as Jenkins remarks in his commentary,
'violates both the metre and the expected sense', and he conjectures
that 'the song thus reflects the actual shortcomings of her father's
burial . . .  but still more, since it concerns a 'true love', her
fantasies of Hamlet's death'. . But it is equally possible that to the
Queen and to the King who has just entered these 'maimed rites' might
apply to the lack of public ritual at the death of Hamlet's father. This
is, emphatically, not to suggest that Ophelia knows the truth of the
murder (though in theory she might have divined it herself from the
reaction to the 'Mousetrap), any more than her subsequent song of
seduction should be taken to indicate that she and Hamlet consummated
their love-relationship. It is, however, to recognise, with the
Gentleman, that the spectacle of madness invites interpretation, by the
audience in the theatre as well as that on stage, and that we, like
them, might see the words Ophelia utters and sings as referring, however
unconsciously, to more than her psychological state.

David Lindley

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Bridgman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 25 May 2004 22:03:02 +0100
Subject: 15.1111 What does Ophelia know . . .
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1111 What does Ophelia know . . .

Jack Heller writes...

 >With Gertrude as her audience, Ophelia seems to be singing about dead
 >King Hamlet: "How should I [Ophelia] your [Gertrude] true-love
 >[Claudius? dead King Hamlet?] know/ From another one [Claudius?]?" Is it
 >plausible that Ophelia is confronting Gertrude, whose first true-love
 >may indeed "bewept to the grave did not go/ With true-love showers"?

There is another reading of course....

Ophelia asks where the "beauteous majesty" of Denmark has gone.  As is
usual with WS, we should perhaps substitute England.  She then sings a
song about the death of a medieval pilgrim.  The cockle hat and staff
were worn by pilgrims travelling to the tomb of St James at Santiago de
Compostella in Spain.  The song thus identifies the pilgrim - her
"true-love" - with the outlawed Old Religion.  Unlike the "beauteous
majesty" of the tomb at Santiago (I've seen it, it's amazing), the
English pilgrim has a plain grave of "grass-green turf" and a stone.
"Bare ruined choirs" indeed.

Peter Bridgman

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