Ophelia and Hamlet
|It is frequently argued that the women characters in Hamlet
are drawn in fainter lines than their male counterparts. Interpreters
of the work are therefore urged to sharpen their image through speculation.
They feel obliged to produce answers to the seemingly unresolved questions
that surround them: Was Gertrude having an affair with Claudius prior
to her husband's murder? Was she a collaborator (conspirator) in that
murder? Had Polonius commonly baited his traps with his own daughter?
How deeply involved were Hamlet and Ophelia?
Did Hamlet love Ophelia? Despite his protestations for and against ("I love thee not."..."I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love Make up my sum.") or possibly because of them, there was considerable speculation on both sides. Here are two examples of contradicting opinions from Victorian actresses writing at almost the same time.
Lillian Gish and John Gielgud, 1936
|I have even heard it denied that Hamlet did love Ophelia. The author
of the finest remarks I have yet seen on the play and the character
of Hamlet, leans to this opinion... I do think, with submission, that
the love of Hamlet for Ophelia is deep, is real, and is precisely the
kind of love which such a man as Hamlet would feel for such a woman
as Ophelia. - Anna Brownell Murphy Jameson, Shakespeare's
Heroines:Characteristics of Women (1889), AMS Press, New York, 1967.
I cannot, therefore, think that Hamlet comes out well in his relations with Ophelia. I do not forget what he says at her grave: But I weigh his actions against his words, and find them here of little worth. The very language of his letter to Ophelia, which Polonius reads to the king and queen, has not the true ring in it. It comes from the head, and not from the heart - it is a string of euphemisms, which almost justifies Laertes' warning to his sister, that the "trifling of Hamlet's favour" is but "the perfume and suppliance of a minute." Hamlet loves, I have always felt, only in a dreamy, imaginative way, with a love as deep, perhaps, as can be known by a nature fuller of thought and contemplation than of sympathy and passion. - Helena Faucit Martin, Shakespeare's Female Characters, Blackwood and Sons, Edinburgh, 1888. p.19.
Needless to say, directors have to make some choices. They range from explicit to ambiguous. On the explicit side, Kenneth Branaugh's 1997 film version of Hamlet includes cutaway shots of Hamlet and Ophelia making love. Tinted blue, these inserts hint at more than they reveal, hardly making the film a "blue" movie. Similarly, in Tony Richardson's 1969 production, Ophelia (Marianne Faithful) blurts out laughter at Laertes warning not to "lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open."
An interesting take on the relationship comes in Linda Bamber's Comic Women, Tragic Men. Ms. Bamber dismisses love as psychologically impossible for Hamlet.
Of all of Shakespeare's tragedies, Hamlet is the one in which the sex nausea is most pervasive. The other heroes all have to be brought by the action of the play to that low moment when their pain is translated into misogyny; Hamlet compares his mother to a beast in his very first scene
And from the first his encounters with Ophelia are spattered with hostility and disgust:
In the closet scene with Gertrude, Hamlet's loathing comes to its
Furthermore, there is no reconciliation with women at the end of the play... Hamlet does throw himself into Ophelia's grave, but clearly this is more an act of aggression against Laertes than of reconciliation with the dead Ophelia. - Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men, Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, 1982. p.71.
To sustain this viewpoint, Linda Bamber invents her own past for Hamlet.
|The sex nausea is here, as in the other tragedies, a corollary to the hero's psychological and spiritual suffering. It is isomorphic not with the play as a whole but only with the second phase of the tragic fable. It is present from the beginning because Hamlet actually begins in the middle of the second phase. The first phase has ended with the death of Hamlet's father, two months prior to time present. That death has ended the old world, comfortably centered on the masculine Self and based on an identity of interests between father and son. In the new world the presence of the Other destroys the hero's sense of centrality. Misogyny is a version of the anger the hero directs toward the Other for destroying his old, self-centered world. Hamlet, like other heroes, rages against women when he loses his place in the sun. - Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men, Stanford Univ. Press., Stanford, 1982. p.72.|
Ms. Bamber sees the women as a barometer of Hamlet's psychological
state. When Hamlet is at ease with his destiny, the women cease being monstrous
and lustful and become worthy and true.
According to Ms. Bamber, Hamlet's misogyny ceases at the point where he makes his voyage to England and arranges the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At this point, he overcomes his underlying doubt in his own manliness and emerges as "a man of action." "With this gesture of single-minded aggression against his enemies," she states, "Hamlet finally proves himself as a history hero." (p.84) Her theory is based on the notion that Hamlet transforms his sexual aggression against women who have withdrawn from him into the more appropriate channel of political aggression. With this change, the sexuality of the play moves from "violent and disgusted" to "clear and elegiac," and Ophelia emerges as "an icon of positive femininity." (p.72) "The sexuality of the final movement is natural first of all, in that Ophelia's femininity is defined by its association with natural things - with flowers that she gives away, hangs on the willow tree, and has thrown on her grave. Ophelia becomes a kind of inverse Perdita, a pathetic May Queen." (pp.72-3.)
In any case, the likelihood of a relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia seems to depend on two things that are beyond Ophelia's control, and possibly even the control of Hamlet. The first is Hamlet's psychological state. The second is the political exigencies of the drama. For Ophelia, this means that any willfulness she might bring to the relationship is overridden by her father's and brother's demands. The becomes bait in a trap (springes to catch woodcocks), and in the process is trapped herself.
It is often stated that Ophelia, with her willow tree and her flowers serves at a representative of the natural world within the artificial construct of the court at Elsinore. If this is the case, it is also true that she is no longer capable of what is most natural within this environment. Just as Gertrude is kept from the natural process of mourning, Ophelia's love is muted and repressed by forces that overwhelm her.