The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0317 Monday, 15 June 2009
From: Conrad Cook <
Date: Saturday, 13 Jun 2009 01:52:34 -0400
Subject: Hamlet and Ophelia, Typologically (was: What Ho, Horatio)
I'd like to take up this question, at the sufferance of our editor, both
because I think the topic is of likely interest to at least some list
members, and because I'd really like to get feedback on these thoughts.
Alan Pierpoint <
>Replying to Conrad Cook: Okay, I'm (mostly) convinced. One question:
>how does Shakespeare want his audience to view the "love" of Hamlet
>for Ophelia? As a pure, true love that would have flourished had not the
>events of the play interfered? As a "toy in blood"? As the infatuation
>of a spoiled, late-maturing prince who can't make up his mind about
>anything important? Is the audience expected to give much credit to
>Hamlet's hyperbolic protestations in V.i, or do we recognize that he is
>protesting too much? As many have observed, he has a lot to answer for
>and he knows it, whether or not his letters have helped cause Ophelia's
>death (a compounding of his guilt that I hadn't thought of before.)
There are many levels to that question. At the plainest level,
Shakespeare wants his audience to be both interested and puzzled: he
wants them to have questions that they can't verbalize. Hamlet is
pervasively structured to raise these kinds of questions: it begins with
the first line, where the wrong guard issues the challenge, "Who goes
Audience response to that kind of thing is, "Wait -- what? Did I miss
something?" Meanwhile, the play goes on; so we think: "Well, never
mind; I'm sure it'll make sense somehow." He leverages us into making a
lot of little suspensions of disbelief, training us to stop evaluating
the play critically and to just go with it.
At another level, there is something very specific going on with Hamlet
and Ophelia's relationship. It's a big topic to cover in this space, but --
The symbolic language of _Hamlet_ is not based on analogy, but on a kind
of religious allegory called typology. As you probably know, typology
was big in Shakespeare's time, and people would argue that this or that
politician was, really, such-and-such a Biblical *type*, and that
therefore the relevant Bible story applied to them, prophecy-wise, and
people should or should not support him. The way we use statistics to
make political arguments now.
The arguments that Christ was the Messiah come in fulfillment of Jewish
prophecy are typological: therefore to be Christian is to accept
typology it's theological bedrock. But typology as it was used in the
Bible was different than it was used in Shakespeare's time: for the
first Christians, typology was repetition and *reversal* of the type. By
one man, Adam, all mankind fell; so by one Man, Christ, all mankind is
saved. All the original typological arguments run like that -- things
are reversed, like a mirror.
Ophelia is the typolgical image of Divine Wisdom. Divine Wisdom, if you
read Proverbs, is a very brassy lady, who has come to tell mankind
what's what. Ophelia is too demure; she is obedient; she is perfectly
submissive. It's to the point where we want her to stand up for herself,
we want to hear what she has to say, and we want Hamlet, the
philosopher, the lover of Wisdom, and a kind of Christian Everyman, to
be the decent sort of guy who would take care of her. And we want this
without quite understanding that we want it, because it's presented in a
way that's difficult to lock onto.
But we don't get what we want: we get Hamlet being an abusive prick.
Ophelia, Divine Wisdom, loves Mankind, adores him, will do anything for
him and Mankind is very interested in using her.
It is an accusation against mankind for not being true to the values of
the, in the playwright's eyes, true religion, and it is rendered in the
magical language of that religion, typology. You can take apart the
whole play that way.
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