The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1133  Thursday, 27 May 2004

[1]     From:   John Reed <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Wednesday, 26 May 2004 21:10:43 -0700
        Subj:   What does Ophelia know...

[2]     From:   David Bishop <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 03:15:36 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1123 What does Ophelia know . . .

From:           John Reed <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 26 May 2004 21:10:43 -0700
Subject:        What does Ophelia know...

Ophelia, what's all this talk about Ophelia, my brothers and only true
friends?   I think I'm going to go out on a limb and say what I really
think.   Ophelia knows a lot, a hell of a lot.   Practically everybody
agrees at this point Ophelia is "mad," and it seems to me somewhere I
ran across the idea that in Elizabethan times there were several
varieties of madness recognized, among them being what we nowadays might
call psychological disturbance (something with a natural cause), and in
addition the demonic possession kind.  I thought I saw this in Religion
and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas, but I can't find it in there
now; maybe I was thinking of a similar distinction in the discussion of
witchcraft and maleficium.

Anyway, it seems to me Ophelia's madness is of the demonic possession
variety, possibly due to the same evil spirit that appeared to Hamlet as
the Ghost -- very like.  Whatever it is, it knows all about what
transpired between Claudius and Gertrude, if anything.  So when Ophelia
is talking here, it/she is revealing some of that incriminating
information.  For what purpose?  To rattle them, threaten their
security, and make them think they have to take certain "precautions" in
order to protect themselves (reminds me of Macbeth); in other words, to
do wrong in order to remain happy, powerful, and secure, as it were.  As
a matter of fact, not long after this scene Ophelia winds up dead: an
"accident" later given out as being a suicide.

When Ophelia refers to "the beauteous majesty of Denmark" she means the
righteous and Christian characteristics of the country as a whole, and
specifically the royal family.  So she's using some "Audience
Personification" -- she's presuming the audience is in accord with her
evil intentions.  The old evil narrator trick.  It reminds me of A
Clockwork Orange, when Alex, as he is sent to prison, says, "This is the
real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning, O my brothers
and only friends."  It also reminds me Richard III, where Richard is all
over the place with similar presumptions.

How about this:


Ophelia, with her hair down, is hurrying along, as if on an important
mission.  Ophelia is dressed all in white, neatly, but incompletely; it
is a nun's habit, lacking the outer garments.  She is followed by TWO
GENTLEWOMEN, who happen to be real nuns.  She arrives at:


The same one where Gertrude waits.  Ophelia waves very informally at
Gertrude, continues into the room without breaking stride, looks about,
comes around to the middle of the room, regards the scene thoughtfully,
and then looks out to the audience.  The two Gentlewomen also enter.
The Gentlewomen fear Ophelia exceedingly. The Narrator's voice is added
to Ophelia's in voice-over.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
                Where now is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?

This is obviously not a reference to Gertrude, who is confused by the
rhetorical question.

                How now, Ophelia?

Ophelia sings a little song, concerning Gertrude and her loves.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
How should I your true love know
 From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon --

                 Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
                Say you?  Nay, pray you mark.
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.

The grave of Old Hamlet

Ophelia and Gertrude look at each other a moment.  Then Gertrude looks
away.  Ophelia follows her gaze and suddenly sees something interesting.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
                O ho!

She moves over to where she pretends to see a man.  She sits down on it.
  Then she mimics Gertrude and moans.

                     (striking her)
                Nay, but Ophelia.

Ophelia stops rocking, giggles, then starts singing again.  She is still
on the floor.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
                Pray you mark.
                White his shroud as the mountain snow...


The funeral of Old Hamlet.  He is shrouded in white.


Enter Narrator, dressed as Reynaldo, with Claudius.

                Alas, look here, my lord.

                         OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
                     (sing; to Gertrude)
...Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did not go
With true-love showers.

Claudius moves near Ophelia, who is looking away, as if off into space.
  Claudius is feeling sorry for her.

                How do you, pretty lady?

Ophelia looks around, straight at Claudius's crotch.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
Well, God dild you!

She laughs, then looks up to Claudius's face.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR
They say the owl was a baker's daughter.  Lord, we know what we are, but
know not what we may be.
      (more softly)
God be at your table.

                     (to Gertrude)
                Conceit upon her father.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
Pray let's have no words of this, but when they ask you what it means,
say you this.
      (sing; to Claudius)

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

She points to the floor, where she was sitting, and then moves her arm
around so that it points right at Claudius.

                          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clo'es,
And dupp'd the chamber door,
      (points to Gertrude)
Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more.

Claudius and Gertrude look at each other, beginning to realize the song
is about them.  Ophelia sees this.

                Pretty Ophelia --

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
Indeed, without an oath, I'll make an end on't.

She gets up and strikes a pose.  Then she remembers something: she
fishes out a paper, glances at it, smacks it, and proceeds to read from it.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
      (sing; to Gertrude and Claudius)
By Jes' and by Saint Charity,
Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do't if they come to't,
By 'cock' they are to blame.

She turns the paper upside down.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
      (continuing; sing;
       taking Gertrude's part)
Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.'

She turns the paper upside down again.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
      (continuing; sing;
       taking Claudius's part)
'So would I a done, by yonder sun,
If thou hadst not come to my bed.'

Gertrude looks away in consternation.  Claudius is rattled.  Ophelia
lets the paper fly, and laughs.

                How long hath she been thus?

Ophelia approaches Gertrude, consoling her, but also running her fingers
over Gertrude's hair with a loving and experienced hand.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
      (quoting Claudius)
'I hope all will be well.  We must be patient.'

She kisses Gertrude on the cheek, with a certain energy of passion, then
moves to Claudius and consoles herself against him.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
      (continuing; quoting Gertrude)
'But I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him i'th'cold ground.'

Claudius starts, remembering the quotation; he looks over at Gertrude
accusingly.  Ophelia now changes tack, looking straight at Claudius,
bringing up the subject of Laertes.  This adds another level of

My brother shall know of it.

Ophelia suddenly moves off and pirouettes.  Then comes back to Claudius
and kneels down, addressing his crotch once again.

          OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
And so I thank you for your good counsel.

She stands up and smiles at him.  She affects Gertrude's bearing.

           OPHELIA + NARRATOR (V.O.)
      (continuing; aside)
Come, my coach.  Good night, ladies, good night.
      (to the Gentlewomen)
Sweet ladies, good night, good night.

Ophelia runs in a semi-circle, and then out of the room, laughing, and
flapping her arms as if they were wings.  The Gentlewomen cross
themselves.  Claudius picks up Ophelia's paper, and notices there is
nothing written on it.  He glares accusingly at Gertrude, who denies it
with a subtle shake of her head.

                     (to Horatio)
Follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you.

Horatio follows Ophelia, motioning to the two Gentlewomen.  They follow
Horatio, as does the Narrator.  Gertrude collapses to the floor and weeps.

From:           David Bishop <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 03:15:36 -0400
Subject: 15.1123 What does Ophelia know . . .
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1123 What does Ophelia know . . .

I agree with David Lindley that Ophelia's words refer to more than her
psychological state. This mad palimpsest of father and lover refers to
the rest of the play by suggesting, for one thing, a parallel between
Ophelia and Hamlet, as well as a difference: her father's doubtful (and
somehow treacherous) death drives her mad, while Hamlet's discovery of
his father's death by secret murder produces a feigned madness which
sometimes at least approaches the real thing. Ophelia goes beyond Hamlet
into full scale madness for a number of possible reasons. She is a
woman, and weaker than Hamlet. The audience would certainly understand
her frailty. She has lost her lover as well as her father, as Hamlet in
a sense lost his lover. Or maybe in three senses. 1) He was charged with
a task that demanded his single-minded commitment-leaving aside all
petty fond records etc.-and which if carried out was likely to cause his
death. 2) Ophelia apparently rejected him, refusing to communicate on
the orders of Polonius. 3) Hamlet, implicitly accused of dishonesty (of
being Valentine) by this refusal, though he may suspect the refusal
originated with Polonius, discovers that what he believed was true love
was indeed contaminated with lust. Where he once thought himself so pure
as to "know not seems" he now considers himself, though "indifferent
honest", an "arrant knave". The I who once loved truly is discovered to
be a contaminated I who did not truly love.

Ophelia's madness hinges on this revolving door that swings between the
poles of honesty and dishonesty. Killing her father and burying him "in
hugger-mugger", without obsequies like "true love showers" is one form
of dishonesty, which mixes crazily here with lust, or sexual dishonesty.
The hurried burial of Polonius does carry a hint of King Hamlet's
quick-though not ritual-free-burial, and the lack of "true love showers"
also suggests Hamlet's view of his mother's grief as insincere. But I
don't think Ophelia has, theoretically or otherwise, any suspicion about
the murder of Hamlet's father, or that either Gertrude or Claudius feels
any threat of exposure from her on that account. The guilt Gertrude
refers to is their guilt in burying Polonius and spiriting Hamlet away
to protect him: it's the Polonius coverup which is the immediate
problem. The murk surrounding Polonius's death is what may give rise to
dangerous conjectures, like Laertes' conjecture that the king killed his

The hints about faithlessness connected to King Hamlet are deeper,
whispers mainly to the audience, and to Gertrude. Ophelia refers to
Gertrude's supposed faithlessness, first of all in her first line,
"Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?" Hamlet told her beauty was
incompatible with honesty. Now "beauteous" is an insult, meaning
"dishonest". Later Ophelia reacts to being called pretty as if she's
being insulted. To call Gertrude dishonest refers to 1) her hasty
remarriage, 2) the generic dishonesty of woman-a link between Gertrude
and the beauteous (therefore supposedly dishonest) Ophelia: solidarity
in frailty, and 3) to the court's dishonest disposal of Polonius.

"How should I your [not my] true love know/From another one?" is a
question from someone who has just been asked if they've seen the true
love. This ambiguous question could mean 1) how should I know your true
lover from someone else? 2) how should I know your true lover from a
false lover? and 3) how should I know your true love from false love?
The surface meaning is 1, but both of the others resonate in Ophelia's
mad mind, where false and true cannot be disentangled. Similarly, the
lover who dies on a pilgrimage, far from home, may be buried with no
true love showers, as may someone buried in hugger-mugger, as may
someone buried with false love showers.

Ophelia's situation is certainly convincingly maddening. Her true love
was accused of being false, and she therefore, on orders, refused him,
but apparently his love was so true it drove him mad, and in his madness
he killed her father, who might have seemed the source of the accusation
and the barrier between Hamlet and Ophelia. In some way she knows this,
we must feel, and that makes Hamlet, as a potential lover, as good as
dead. Ophelia must feel that her obedient refusal (dishonesty?) makes
her at least partly responsible for Hamlet's madness. (It isn't quite
right to say he deserts her, since she interprets his rejection as
madness.) Now, not only could she not marry her father's killer-even if
he was mad and then seemed to be cured-but she knows her brother will
know of it and come for his revenge. Laertes and Ophelia divide between
them Hamlet's madness (in this case real) and his drive to revenge (in
this case unimpeded).

The old clich 

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