Contemporary Ophelia

Rebuking the Broken-Winged Bird

In Hamlet’s final scene, the prince and Laertes finally meet not on, but in, the grave of Ophelia. It is, perhaps, the contagion of Denmark that has corrupted the two young men to the core, as they stand on top of Ophelia, vying as to who has loved her more. Ophelia is soon-to-be dust, drowned within, or poisoned by, the toxicity of a Denmark in which no one—not her father (dead), nor her brother (gone), nor her erstwhile lover (apparently “gone” in the head)—has been there to save her. In talking casually with three colleagues from different parts of the theater—actress Amy Kossew, designer Annie Smart, and scholar Simon Palfrey, all of whom are mentioned below—I decided to start what I hope will be a wider conversation, led by dramaturges, about ways to save Opehlia: not from her fate (it’s scripted), but from the indecently quick rejection, death, and burial that she’s conventionally been given.

Ophelia’s most common association is of a crushed creature or flower, i.e., some frail being who’s incapable of speaking for herself. Directors like Franco Zeffirelli, in his 1990 film version of Hamlet in which Helena Bonham Carter plays Ophelia, have often rearranged and cut her lines to accentuate this helplessness. But Ophelia does speak, quite a lot. Granted, some of her fragments don’t look too encouraging to a modern-day feminist: “Tis in my memory lock'd,/And you yourself shall keep the key of it.” (I.iii.85) “I do not know, my lord, what I should think.” (I.iii.104) “I shall obey, my lord.” (I.iii.135) “My lord, as I was sewing in my closet…” (II.i.78) [sewing in my closet… Oh, please!] I think nothing, my lord.” (III.ii.106)

a relief
Carved relief of Sarah Bernhardt as Ophelia, sculpted by Sarah Bernhardt, “Death of Ophelia” (1880). Photo 
by Sothebys. 

When we consider some of Ophelia’s speeches in context, however, (and the context of theatre is freighted by history and eternally shifting), the insights provoked can be exciting and innovative. I am not looking to recuperate Shakespeare—to cut or adjust lines that make his plays look more credible to modern-day sensibilities. Shakespeare was a magpie, pouncing on pieces of glass and holding them up to the light. Whether he was a proto-feminist, a misogynist, an anti-Semite, a racist, a closet Catholic—these are all questions worthy of address—but my concern here is to explore whether, when we “hold the mirror up to nature” today, we can move one character from the periphery to somewhere more central and intriguing.

I see Ophelia—and I hope to get some responses to this perception—as a fascinating underscore for Hamlet, revealing his humor and his pain; and, by contrast, showing up the mantle of self-entitlement that his character assumes.

I see Ophelia as a fascinating underscore for Hamlet, revealing his humor and his pain; and, by contrast, showing up his enormous self-entitlement.

Not a Baby Anymore
Ophelia can be seen as a product of her times, with a role, as female, to nurture and be nurtured. But there is no one to nurture her, only a father to reprimand her and a brother too far occupied with revenge to pay her any attention until she is found, floating, in the water. What might this mean in terms of contemporary dramaturgy? It’s long been accepted that to stage a feisty Ophelia—one who could potentially disobey Polonius and stick to Hamlet—would be to go against both the plot and the conventions of her times. In terms of paternal governance of unmarried daughters, Ophelia has to reject Hamlet’s advances. When she tries to get close to Hamlet (Trepidatiously? Insistently? With bewilderment? Hopefully? With sexual hunger? All textual choices for a dramaturg to consider)—reminding him of who he used to be—he jokingly responds to her as [count]ry. (“Did you think I meant country matters? …That’s a fair thought to lay between maid’s legs. [III.i.105, 107])

Painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed between 1851 and 1852. Photo 
by the Tate. 

Ophelia describes to her father what she thinks is going on between herself and Hamlet; and he demands that she give up the truth to him (I.iv.98), telling her that she speaks “like a green girl.” (I.iv.101) A long line of frail, pale Ophelias have accepted the rebuke, responding tremulously: ‘“I do not know, Lord, what I should think” (I.iv.104) in Zeffirelli–fashion. But Ophelia’s response can be delivered very differently. She may be taking a conventionally masculine prerogative, underscoring Hamlet, requiring, in other words, her own time to make up her mind. She is surely worthy of the consideration that Hamlet is given—although, as a female (and a mere noblewoman, not a princess) she is given none. Hamlet takes the whole play to “know” what he “should think.” Ophelia says as much about herself—and yet no other character does spend time speculating about what she could be thinking. She is remonstrated by her father: “I’ll teach you think yourself a baby.” (I.iv.105)

Thoughtful dramaturgy can open options for Ophelia so that she doesn’t have to think herself a green girl, a baby, and so that we, the audience, don’t have to accept her as such.

Jean Simmons as Ophelia in 1948 film version of Hamlet adapted, directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier. Photo by FamousFix.

Embodying Ophelia Differently
Actress Amy Kossew aptly calls Ophelia’s journey “the most unearned in the whole of Shakespeare.” How does Hamlet look if Ophelia is cast against established convention? If she is cast obese, even?  Or old? Hamlet might be her last chance. He’s thirty—she could be thirty as well (or forty, even; not too far removed in age from the mother Hamlet so obsesses over). Why, in other words, does Ophelia see Hamlet as her only choice? It might be that the depressed, damaged prince is indeed her one chance to escape a father who rattles on about the importance of her virginity (and imagine if he’s doing this to a thirty- or forty-year-old. As Kossew observes, in this he deserves to be killed by everyone behind the arras). For Ophelia’s progress in the play to be more than a straight shot from depression to suicide, there has to be something that gives her a journey—that makes her feel unlovable elsewhere. Surely there is more to Ophelia’s world than a bookish prince who’s spent the last number of years earning degrees in Wittenburg. Even Ophelia’s father tells her that being Hamlet’s wife is a pipe dream, and that she should put her focus elsewhere. So why doesn’t she? Whether diversifying Ophelia in terms of age, or weight, or skin imperfection (does she have acne?), dramaturgs have the opportunity to imagine her differently for a production—suggesting that the role not be the sole prerogative of young, beautiful ingénues. This—a small adjustment in casting—could provide a route for Ophelia to have a journey. Not old and desperate, perhaps, but but young and dangerous, suggests designer Annie Smart? As threatening to the equilibrium of Elsinore as is Hamlet, unable to be appeased by layers of lies, the sexual tones of her “mad speech” cutting like daggers into the enforced decorum of the refurbished family/monarch so recently imposed on Denmark.

Herbal Dramaturgy
In context for such possibilities, let’s revisit the rue. In her mad-scene with Laertes, Claudius, and Gertrude, Ophelia says, “There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you; and here's some for me.” (IV.v.176–177) Rue is a very bitter herb, thought in Shakespeare’s time to ward off unchaste spirits and evil thoughts. Although Gertrude is not the only character in this “rue” scene with Ophelia, editors routinely assume that Ophelia offers the rue to her, disagreeing only in terms of what it means to give it to her mother-in-law and to take it herself.

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.

In offering the rue to Gertrude, Ophelia would quite likely be associating it with matters of chastity, with Gertrude wearing hers differently from Ophelia. Because Gertrude is older? Because she’s unchaste? Or because they’re actually closer in age than either feels comfortable with (so Gertrude has to wear hers differently)? Or if Ophelia’s young and dangerous, has she already had sex with Hamlet (“never a virgin more”)? If so, she’d rue Hamlet’s self-centered rejection indeed, while the serially-married older woman remains legally chaste. An older Ophelia may also never have had sex, so that the “never a virgin more”— particularly if the virgin is past her use-by date—evokes a bitter rue indeed. Or, like Gertrude, she may be indistinguishable in Hamlet’s eyes from a whore (“frailty, thy name is woman” [I.ii.146]). Why not go ahead and eat the rue? But the “you” is not specific: Ophelia can even—as an agent of conscience that Claudius can’t escape wherever he turns—offer the rue to the king and not to Gertrude. Or to Laertes, who has much to regret. All fascinating possibilities for a dramaturg as s/he envisages the text for a differently-storied Ophelia, preparing these dense, thorny passages for new directorial considerations.

The Power of Memory
Then there’s also Ophelia’s line: “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, 
remember.” (IV.v.173–174) Remember. I think Ophelia offers an important key to memory. Memory is part of the here-and-now, and yet it’s separated by time. Memory may unlock Ophelia from the closet in which she’s supposed to sit and sew. In Hamlet, no one in power, or who seeks power, wants to remember. Claudius specifically tells Hamlet to forget—to for god’s sake put his father to rest and accept that people aren’t supposed to live forever. Hamlet insists on remembering, because in memory lies his version of truth. The ghost begs him to remember. Hamlet begs Horatio to remember to tell his story properly. But Ophelia also remembers. She remembers, perhaps, the safety of a childhood that’s recently been wrested away from her. Or she remembers a long-gone girlish self. She remembers a time when Hamlet was virtually engaged to her. She remembers a Hamlet whose noble mind was not o’erthrown. A Hamlet who was a role model for everyone, who was beautiful in mind and “mould of form.” (III.1.152) A Hamlet who had a noble and most sovereign reason. (III.i.156) “Oh, woe is me,” she says, “T 'have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” (III.i. 159–160) To have seen the past, in other words, and to see what I now see. Ophelia carries with her not just the personal memory of Hamlet as he was, but the institutional memory that has been sealed over by the king, the queen, her father, even by Hamlet’s two childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Whoever Ophelia is, it’s little wonder that she can’t survive: because in these memories—of greatness, of reason, of exquisite judgment—lies her own version of herself as well. She was a part of Elsinore’s history. Now she is Hamlet’s self-designated [count]ry.

For contemporary dramaturgs this has intriguing potential. Ophelia insists on naming a past that can be played upon. She doesn’t need to whimper her memories—she can call them out. She can beg—loudly—for their remembrance. She can use direct address, almost matter-of-fact, as Michelle Terry did in her Brechtian performance of her “mad scene” for the brilliant series Five Truths filmed in 2012 for the National Theater. Stanislavskian, she can suck on a cigarette and draw deep on her memories. She can be strident and resourceful, downhearted, reflective. The inadvertent witness whom no one wants to testify. But who, nonetheless, does remember.

The Great Larceny
There’s another important underscrore provided by Ophelia. She holds a mirror that’s different from the “glass”  the prince volunteers to set up for his mother. (III.iv.19) A living (and dying) mirror of what scholar Simon Palfrey has called “a dying life”:

We live a dying life, all living is dying, and the recognition only comes at certain moments when the adrenalin abates and false purposiveness lifts, and you see the horizon for the first time. The old are never Old, not really. In their minds, they have barely changed at all, they are still itchy and kindling, but then this sea change happens upon them—it isn't them, it is a passion that takes them and they must suffer, inside the great larceny. So Ophelia in a sense is [ages] nineteen and ninety.

So my question is this: in a contemporary performance of Hamlet, can Ophelia be rescued not from the water, but from pitying infantilization?

In the midst of this play’s concern with death—with princely speculation about what lies beyond it, with whether to kill or to commit suicide—it’s ultimately possible that Ophelia simply chooses (despite Gertrude’s insistence that she slipped) to embrace (with despair? Vigor? Humor, even?) what Hamlet never can embrace—the dying life. To resist the great larceny that one will live forever and that living has any lasting truth. To actually, actually do what Hamlet deliberates over for the full length of the play. Ophelia is, in this sense, her lover’s shadow—like him, she is wracked with betrayal, loss, doubt. But, credited with no space or mind or reasonable choice of her own, she is called by her father a baby and mocked and degraded by her lover’s wordplay. How she reacts to this treatment determines who she is, and how she moves toward death. We’ve been given centuries of speculation on Hamlet, truth and death. Let’s shove him off Ophelia’s grave for a moment, where he so loquaciously defends his honor and his love. The ghost is not the only creature who speaks from the dead in Hamlet. Ophelia can, as well.

So my question is this: in a contemporary performance of Hamlet, can Ophelia be rescued from pitying infantilization? The odds are against her—her father dies, her lover rejects her, her brother is unavailable, and she goes mad. The “why” she goes mad is the source of her journey and the source of useful dramaturgy. What does the world look like to Ophelia? I loved Liesl Tommy’s decision, in the 2012 California Shakespeare Theater production, to give Zainab Jah, playing Ophelia, her own raised, windowed place to crawl in, so that her madness was on full display as a cage created by others—a cage that she could, and would not, crawl out of. This offered Ophelia the potential to expose “the great larceny” (that there is, in the end, a meaning worth fighting for, that there is a truth that lives longer than we do) long before drowning. There is, we’re told by Hamlet, no good or bad but thinking makes it so—then why not cease to think? Perhaps Ophelia lets herself do what Hamlet only dreams about—cease to be. The gravediggers debate over whether or not she should be permitted a Christian burial—but in the end she doesn’t need Christianity, in life or in death—she may simply see that if death will come, it may as well be embraced (succumbed to?) now.

Zainab Jah as Ophelia and LeRoy McClain as Hamlet in California Shakespeare Theater's production of Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy; photo by Kevin Berne.

Why live any longer with the great larceny? In 2015 America, we, the audiences, can be thinking about Ophelia as far more than a peripheral relationship for a disaffected lover in a busy court. We can and should revisit her potential; wishing for her a lover worthy of her loyalty; but providing for her a mirror that is capable of multiple more interesting reflections than whimpering defeat; and understanding, in the end, that we are all potentially there, in front of that mirror, knowing who we think we are, “but not who we may be.”

All references to Hamlet taken from Stephen Greenblatt et al, the Norton Complete Works of Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 1997).

The length of this piece meant that I couldn't expand in a few places I'd have liked to, including mention of R. S. White at the University of Western Australia, correspondence with whom really helped to illuminate for me the image of the two young men in the grave and the dramaturgical significance of such, as well as enriching my understanding of the historical “roots” of rue. Also deeply enriching was the lively mind of Laura Hope, who took part in my conversation with Amy.

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Love this article! I think one of the really important issues you bring up here (though all are important!!) is that in 2015, we as theatre artists, and especially feminist theatre artists, must rethink things and shift focus on some of the story-telling mechanisms. That is the beauty of Shakespeare. There is always more to discover, and Ophelia is a fabulous placeTo start to bring some more thoughtfulness to the female characters.

Fascinating. Thanks for this thoughtful take on Ophelia. Much of what Ophelia is talking about in her madness is her father's death. The King says, of Polonius, "we have done but greenly in hugger-mugger to inter him; poor Ophelia is divided from her senses...." The space to grieve (his own father's death) is denied Hamlet too; he is told by Gertrude to take off his mourning clothes. When due grief is denied, what happens? This is one way that Ophelia mirrors Hamlet. I do think Hamlet finally understands and accepts mortality, and that's what frees him to act. That's the importance of the scene with Yorick's skull. This is the point where Hamlet realizes "to be or not to be" is a false choice. We are, and then we are not, and this is inevitable. The ripeness is all.

Pat, this is a beautiful post. Thak you for bringing up that line about being divided from her senses - it makes me think that we, as 'integrated' human beings, are simply keeping everything in check and not really being aware of the power of any one of them. It seems like a classic advocacy for the governance of reason - yet is reason just a mask that obscures 'the great fallacy'? If we take the mask of reason away, is there any point to anything?