One way into Hamlet is through Ophelia’s madness. Before Claudius murdered Hamlet senior, Ophelia has a life narrative, cultural confidence, and an integrated self. She lives in a settled state that has seen off its enemies. Both the King and Queen are fond of her. Her father is an esteemed adviser to the King, and she has a protective if somewhat patronizing brother.
Ophelia is confident in her folk culture and Christianity. Although motherless, her female network includes the Queen. She is young, intelligent and beautiful and has the best years of her life ahead of her. Her boyfriend is the Prince of Denmark, a noble and preternaturally intelligent man, albeit prone to abstract musings. He is more a philosopher than a warrior prince, but may inherit the throne. Given Hamlet’s standing, Ophelia is likely to become a princess, perhaps a queen.
Hamlet and Ophelia begin the play with integrated selves and coherent life narratives connected to their cultures, institutions and personal relationships. Hamlet’s narrative is shattered by his father’s murder, mother’s infidelity, and the treachery of his boyhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Ophelia starts the play strong enough to challenge her brother’s sanctimonious and hypocritical advice. She ends up dead. What kills her are men imposing on her what they want her to be and refusing to allow her to compose her own identity. Her father Polonius manipulates her and uses her against Hamlet. He violates Ophelia by intercepting Hamlet’s love letters to her. She is required to return tokens of Hamlet’s love to him. Hamlet turns on Ophelia brutally.
As the play progresses, Ophelia sees through Claudius, loses trust in Danish institutions, her brother is abroad, and her former boyfriend has rejected her and killed her father. As Ophelia’s mental health deteriorates Gertrude, who might have been a motherly figure says: “I will not speak with her”.
Let Shakespeare speak for Shakespeare, through Ophelia in her “madness” scenes:
Enter QUEEN GERTRUDE, HORATIO, and a Gentleman
I will not speak with her.
This scene opens with a closure. In refusing to speak with Ophelia, Gertrude is complicit in the bullying Polonius, Laertes and Hamlet have subjected her to. Hamlet gives insights into bullying. A typical bullying strategy is to isolate the victim from his or her social connections: “I will not speak with her”.
She is importunate, indeed distract: Her mood will needs be pitied.
What would she have?
She speaks much of her father; says she hears There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart; Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt, That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move The hearers to collection; they aim at it, And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts; Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them, Indeed would make one think there might be thought, Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.
‘Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.
Ophelia’s madness is dangerous enough to unsettle ill-breeding minds – never trust the great unwashed!
Let her come in.
Gertrude only agrees to speak with Ophelia to avoid disorder. Then her mask slips…
To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss: So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.
Re-enter HORATIO, with OPHELIA
Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?
Is Ophelia confused, given that Gertrude is standing in front of her? Or is she challenging Gertrude, by pretending not to see her?
How now, Ophelia!
[Sings] 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?
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.
Nay, but, Ophelia,–
Pray you, mark.
White his shroud as the mountain snow,–
Enter KING CLAUDIUS
Alas, look here, my lord.
[Sings] Larded with sweet flowers Which bewept to the grave did not go With true-love showers.
How do you, pretty lady?
Claudius addresses her. Ophelia lines him up:
Well, God dild you! They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!
‘Dild’ in Elizabethan English means to requite, to give people what is coming to them, for better or worse. Ophelia is struggling for composure, grasping on to her Christian faith to restore her shattered self. Lacking full succour from this, she falls back on a cultural narrative, a folk tale of the owl and the baker’s daughter.
In this tale, a wandering Jesus asks for bread from a baker. The baker gives him bread, but his daughter demands payment. The daughter is turned into an owl. Ophelia then says to Claudius: “we know what we are but not what we might be”. She is saying, “be careful what you might be turned into, especially if you get what you deserve”.
Shakespeare may also be ahead of us, foreseeing unbounded human possibility. We know what we are. Shakespeare can see what we might be.
Conceit upon her father.
Pray you, let’s have no words of this; but when they ask you what it means, say you this:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine. Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes, And dupp’d the chamber-door; Let in the maid, that out a maid Never departed more.
Indeed, la, without an oath, I’ll make an end on’t:
By Gis 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. Quoth she, before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed.
How long hath she been thus?
I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i’ the cold ground. My brother shall know of it: and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.
In a later scene, after an angry Laertes has confronted Claudius, Ophelia reappears. It horrifies Laertes that a young maid’s wits could be as mortal as an old man’s life.
Ophelia gives herbs and flowers to those around her.
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.
A document in madness – thoughts and remembrance fitted.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you; and here’s some for me. We may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end.
In Shakespeare’s time herbs and flowers were cultural symbols. Rosemary signified remembrance and fidelity, and was used at weddings and funerals. Daisies symbolised innocence and forsaken love, such as Ophelia’s for Hamlet. Fennel stood for flattery and adultery, and columbine for ingratitude and unfaithfulness. Ophelia has no violets, signifying trust and loyalty to give to anyone. Hamlet has not been faithful to her, nor Gertrude to Hamlet senior, nor Claudius to anyone. There is no loyalty left in Denmark and the state itself is untrustworthy.
Ophelia keeps some rue for herself and hands some to Gertrude. Rue was a toxic herb the Elizabethan English thought had abortive and contraceptive properties. Does this suggest Ophelia is pregnant, given her suggestive song? Perhaps the rue she gives Gertrude is a contraceptive to stop her becoming pregnant to Claudius. Wear your rue with a difference!
Rue symbolizes repentance and sorrow, and is also a herb of grace. The wearers of rue when entering a church dipped it in holy water to seek God’s grace. Ophelia may be suggesting Gertrude wear rue to seek repentance, while Ophelia wears hers in grief over her father’s death. Rue therefore has secular and religious interpretations. Ophelia is struggling between worlds.
Hamlet is a play in which Catholicism, the Protestant reformation and secular worlds are contending. Of her father’s death, Ophelia says “they say he made a good end”. This has a deeper meaning for Catholics, connoting sacrament in preparation for death. The absence of this grace leads to the ghost’s sufferings in purgatory: readiness is all.
For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
Ophelia sings snatches of old songs she may have heard as a child. She seeks solace in reassuring childhood memories. “Bonny sweet Robin is all my joy” is a line from a Robin Hood ballad. Cultural memes, narratives and languages can help individuals feel they belong to something bigger and more enduring than their mortal selves.
Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, She turns to favour and to prettiness.
[Sings] And will he not come again? And will he not come again? No, no, he is dead: Go to thy death-bed: He never will come again. His beard was as white as snow, All flaxen was his poll: He is gone, he is gone, And we cast away moan: God ha’ mercy on his soul! And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi’ ye.
Ophelia’s cultural narrative and sense of self disintegrates. She is friendless in the world, while Hamlet stays connected to Horatio till the end.
Ophelia at her end has only enough volition to drown herself. Even at her funeral the bullying continues, with a priest castigating her for her suicide. Her brother and Hamlet fight at her graveside over who is most aggrieved by her death, rather than mourn for her.
In Hamlet the self is fluid, malleable, shaped by social interactions and by narratives. Healthy people have an integrated sense of self and of the narratives aligned with it that give continuity over time and transcend individuality. The sense of self is shaped by social relations and by ideas and memes passed on through people. Destroying these can destroy the self.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the play. The opening exchanges in Hamlet reflect shattered selves, not integrated people. The first words are “Who’s there…”? Francisco asks whether it is Bernardo, and the latter identifies himself in the third person: “He”. After a further exchange Bernardo asks “Say – what, is Horatio there”? Horatio replies: “a piece of him”. Later, Claudius refers to Gertrude as “our sometime sister, and now our queen” and Hamlet as “my cousin Hamlet, and my son”. Hamlet replies in an ambiguous aside: “A little more than kin and less than kind”.
Key characters in Hamlet describe themselves in the third person, as shattered people, partial people, pieces of people, or as something they are not.
Hamlet struggles with his sense of self and life narrative. He puts an antic disposition on and loses his sanity episodically. However, by play’s end he regains his composure. As he lies dying with sword in hand he affirms his identity. He asks Horatio to tell his story, so his narrative will outlive him.
Hardly an echo of Ophelia remains in the play.
It is we who must remember her.