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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: June ::
Hamlet and Ophelia, Typologically
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0317  Monday, 15 June 2009

From:       Conrad Cook <
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 >
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 <
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 >wrote:

 >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 
there?"

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.

Conrad.

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