Ophelia–you’re breaking my heart

Ophelia’s death has attracted a great deal of morbid fascination over the centuries. Like a Renaissance Sylvia Plath, we’re somehow inexorably drawn to her descent into artistic madness and apparent suicide, and while our obsession is grotesque in its way, I also admit there’s a mystery there that is hard to deny. Ophelia’s death seems to hang exactly between Cleopatra’s and Juliet’s. Cleopatra’s death seems calculating, political even, a decision we can make sense of, while Juliet’s death is juvenile, pathos-laden. Ophelia’s is of a different character. It’s presented as an accident, but I think most readers assume it was suicide. Like Hamlet, she’s gone mad, but there’s method within her madness. And what does she die for? Love? Grief? Nothing?

It’s important to note that Ophelia’s death is reported on stage, not seen. Gertrude give a long, marvelous account, nearly 20 lines long (4.7), of Ophelia’s death. According to Gertrude, Ophelia has climbed out on to a tree, the bough broke, Ophelia tumbled into the water, floated for a while, sang some songs, and eventually got sucked under and drowned. The obvious question (which no one in the play bothers to ask) is why the queen or any of her retainers didn’t do anything. The story is presented as an eye-witness account, but there’s never even a “we tried to save her” moment in the description. A simple Google search will show all manner of images of the drowned Ophelia (including the famous Millais painting)—again, our indication of our obsession with the dead girl—but nary a one shows anyone on the bank trying to get to the body before its dead (and we know they’ve recovered the body since Hamlet and Laertes literally fight over it).

An obvious explanation is that this is a beautifully wrought cover story; Gertrude doesn’t want Laertes, or anyone else, to know his sister committed suicide (and perhaps she doesn’t want to admit it herself—one could say turning a blind eye is one of Gertrude’s character traits). Also, the idea Ophelia’s death was the result of madness erases any significance to what might have been going on with the song-and-flower episodes in 4.5—if her suicide was seen as a conscious act (like Cleopatra’s), someone might ask why Ophelia would come to such a decision (soon after her father, the lord chamberlain, was murdered and her boyfriend, the prince, was sent to his own death)—how rotten is the state?

It seems that the people outside the court have already decided that Ophelia’s death was a suicide. Early in the final Act, the Second Clown says “If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial,” to which the First Clown answers, “Why, there thou say’st: and the more pity that great folk should countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves, more than their even Christians” (5.1.20-24). The priest in her burial party makes a claim of royal interference with the ordinary rules:

Her obsequies have been as far enlarged

As we have warranty: her death was doubtful;

And, but that great command o’ersways the order

She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

Till the last trumpet; for charitable prayers,

Shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her:

Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants,

Her maiden strewments and the bring home

Of bell and burial. (5.1.197-205)

When Laertes questions him, he answers “No more be done; / We should profane the service of the dead / To sing a requiem and such rest to her / As to peace-parted souls” (5.1.206-09). Ophelia’s proximity to power allows her death to be whitewashed, but the common folk can see right through it.

Why would Ophelia kill herself? Where would she get such an idea? Hamlet famously considers the question of suicide—did she get the idea from him? In their only onstage scene together, coming on the heels of his “To be or not to be” speech, Ophelia has allowed herself to be used as bait so that the king and her father can spy on him; most productions make it clear that he learns the scene has been set up, and for both of them I think this represents a major betrayal of their relationship. More than anything, I think this is what breaks her. During the scene, Hamlet utters five variations of another famous line, “Get thee to a nunnery.” I was suddenly struck this year (after two centuries of reading this play) by the oddity of that much-repeated command; Hamlet is a student at the University of Wittenberg, which was to Renaissance Protestantism what the University of Alabama is to college football in the present. One of the first things Protestants got rid of were nunneries (in fact, Martin Luther’s wife was an ex-nun). During this incredibly emotional scene, which again occurs just as Hamlet is contemplating suicide himself, why would Hamlet tell the woman he loves to get to a nunnery?

What if Hamlet, instead of telling Ophelia to withdraw from court and enter religious life, is instead suggesting she kill herself? Remember, he’s angry and confused and betrayed. This hunch comes partly from my reading of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which begins with Theseus, the embodiment of law and order, being presented with a problem: uphold an abhorrent law. Here’s what I’ve written about that elsewhere (and I offer this not out of arrogance, but out of laziness—I don’t want to type it again):

I think we most clearly see Theseus’s discomfort in his offering of a third choice. The law states that either Hermia marries her father’s choice of husband or is executed by the state. Theseus throws out a third option: join a convent. During the Renaissance in places like Protestant England, this was seen as a kind of death–a young woman’s purpose was to get married and have children (and marriage with the promise of future children is the aim of New Comedy), but in becoming a nun, a woman turns her back on the world, on her purpose, and on life. To the Protestant mind, she is, for all practical purposes, the living dead.

Might Hamlet be telling Ophelia to die?

Consider, too, the emphatic connection between Ophelia and the long-dead and much-loved Yorick. The gravediggers (Clowns) are making room for Ophelia’s corpse in the plot that Yorick is buried in. Both are peripheral members of the royal court, and Hamlet speaks to and of each of them in similar terms. Hamlet tells Ophelia:

“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on ’t; it hath made me mad.” (3.1.137-43)

Explaining Yorick to Horatio in the graveyard scene, Hamlet says

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.” (5.1.160-69)

Yorick bore Hamlet “on his back a thousand times,” which may inform Hamlet’s use of the words amble and gambol, both terms to describe ways of moving, but also words specifically used to describe horses. Hamlet accuses Ophelia (and women in general) of using make-up to create an unnatural illusion, yet sends Yorick to “my lady’s chamber” for exactly those purposes. When we strip away the illusion, are we nothing but walking death? Hamlet condemns Ophelia’s behavior as “wantonness,” yet laments the loss of Yorick’s “flashes of merriment.” Hamlet, ever tangled in the distinction between the authentic and the performative, treats both characters in comparable ways. Perhaps disturbingly so, given that within less than half a play they’ll be sharing a grave.

Finally, the song-and-flowers episodes. It’s long been noticed that the flowers Ophelia distributes in 4.5 had established meanings. According to Lydia Grabau,

  • Rosemary and Pansies: Ophelia gives these flowers to Laertes, she even cites them as being for remembrance and thoughts.
  • Fennel and Columbine:To the King Claudius, Ophelia gives a brave message. Fennel is the symbol for flattery and columbine is considered the flower for “deceived lovers,” a symbol of male adultery and faithlessness.
  • Rue: Rue is the symbol for bitterness, thought to be the cause of most abortions in that day, and often connected with adultery. Ophelia gives this flower to the Queen Gertrude as well as keeping some for herself.
  • Daisy: Ophelia picks up and sets down the daisy without giving it to anyone. This is interesting because the daisy is the symbol of innocence and gentleness. Evidently Ophelia thought there was no place for innocence in the Danish court anymore.
  • Violets: Finally, Ophelia says that she would have brought violets but that they all withered when her father died. This is a fascinating note for Ophelia to leave on because violets are the symbol for faithfulness and fidelity. (https://hamletdramaturgy.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/ophelias-flowers/).

It’s elsewhere claimed that rue was considered not only an abortifacient, but also a contraceptive (“there’s rue for you: and here’s some for me: we may call it herbs of grace o’ Sundays: O, you must wear your rue with a difference” 4.5.174-76). Could Ophelia and Hamlet have been sexually active, perhaps even pregnant? Remember, the marriage rules were in flux during the period, and often a promise of marriage was a greenlight towards consummation; the ceremony could come later. The priest above seems to protest that Ophelia’s funeral flowers signify virginity (“Yet here she is allowed her virgin crants, / Her maiden strewments and the bring home / Of bell and burial.”). In addition, at least one of Ophelia’s songs addresses the topic of sexual relations:

Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,

And dupped the chamber-door;

Let in the maid, that out a maid

Never departed more.


Quoth she, before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.

He answers:

So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,

An thou hadst not come to my bed (4.2.50-64)

Finally, Ophelia is not stupid. She witnessed the play and the king’s reaction to it. There’s nothing subtle about “The Mousetrap.” I think what bothers me is we don’t tend to extend the courtesy to her that we do to Hamlet. We tend to take Hamlet as depressed but sane—who wouldn’t be depressed?—while we assume Ophelia as lost it completely. We also tend to follow Claudius’s suggestion that it was her father’s sudden death that pushed her over the edge, but she’s also lost her boyfriend (possibly lover and perhaps fiancé). She knows what Hamlet-going-to -England -for-his-own-protection means, and there just be more craft in her madness than what we’re led to believe.

Here’s how I’m reading it, at least right now: Ophelia and Hamlet are very close, there’s an assumption of marriage, if not an outright promise, and maybe sex (“he hath importuned me with love in honorable fashion…And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of heaven” 1.3.111-15). Not wishing to alienate her father, and worried about Hamlet, she goes along with the plan to use her as bait. He gets angry and tells her to get to a nunnery, by which he may mean “kill yourself.” She realizes what she has done and is heartbroken. She’s cold to him at the play but pays deference (he is a prince, after all). The plot of the play, the king’s reaction and the sudden end make it clear to her why her father and Claudius are spying on Hamlet and perhaps why her father is so against their union. Her father is murdered by Hamlet after the play, and Hamlet is sent to England “for his protection.” She has to assume Hamlet is as good as dead, and she will never see him again. She may or may not be pregnant with Hamlet’s child. If she is, she knows she’s an immediate threat to Claudius because her son (assuming it’s a boy) would be the rightful heir to the throne. She has bouts of depression and maybe even madness, but she’s cogent enough to leave clues to what’s going on. Her only way out that she can see is suicide. What her boyfriend said in anger begins to make sense.

Gertrude, who is also not stupid, suspects (“I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” 5.1.215). Gertrude creates the story of the accidental death for a couple different reasons. One, to avoid further scandal in the court, and two, to discredit Ophelia. If she’s crazy, she’s not responsible for her actions and her songs and flowers are meaningless. It makes no sense to delve any further into it. To further smooth things over, they insist that Ophelia be given a church burial. It may not be right according to the precepts of the faith, but it makes for good theatre.


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