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What happens to Ophelia?

(59 Posts)
ElephantsAndMiasmas Mon 12-Sep-11 14:39:30

Ok, slightly strange question maybe, but every time I see/read bits of Hamlet, it strikes me that Ophelia's role/story is always left to one side. She goes "mad" and that's that, apparently. Such gems as "Ophelia herself is not as important as her representation of the dual nature of women in the play." really get my goat. What actually happens to her?

Last time I saw it it seemed pretty obvious that Hamlet has either slept with her or raped her and got her pregnant, and then refused to marry her. Is there a consensus on this, or anything good I could read about her or other female characters in Shakespeare?

KRICRI Mon 12-Sep-11 14:44:23

He also killed her dad, which probably pissed her off a bit as well.

(goes to look for Cliff Notes on Hamlet.)

StewieGriffinsMom Mon 12-Sep-11 14:46:29

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

StewieGriffinsMom Mon 12-Sep-11 14:47:24

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 12-Sep-11 14:47:38

I don't think there is a consensus, and I've seen it played in very different ways (that she's mad, that he slept with her, that she's fantasized the whole thing hmm, even that she's pregnant and/or has miscarried).

Something one of my teachers said, which really stayed with me, is this: when she dies, it's offstage. It's actually Gertrude who comes and tells us about it. And if you look at the language, Gertrude is working really hard to insist that Ophelia didn't have any agency - that it was the stream that pulled her down and drowned her, not that she threw herself in or fell in. On the one hand, that would be a sort of charitable explanation, because if Gertrude told everyone Ophelia had committed suicide, she couldn't be buried in consecrated group and her soul couldn't be prayed for. But, OTOH, it does make Ophelia a scarily passive character. The other point is ... Gertrude describes the situation in a heck of a lot of details (including saying that the streambank that drowned her had flowers that look like penises on it! - Freud?!). How does Gertrude know? Was she watching? And if so ... why didn't she do something?

I have seen it played implying that Gertrude pushed her or held her down.

I'm trying to think what's good to read about Ophelia but I have to say, I think most of the really interesting stuff I did on that play was discussions or lectures, mostly but not always by women academics. I found some of teh published stuff quite dry and, as you say, quite misogynistic (that quotation about the 'dual nature' really pisses me off!).

I think she's quite interesting compared with Desdemona, too.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 12-Sep-11 14:49:41

SGM - there's also the bit where Hamlet settles down to watch the play with her. He asks to lie down with her and she says no, and he says she's misunderstood, he only meant he wanted to put his head in her lap, and did she think he meant 'cuntry wise'?

ElephantsAndMiasmas Mon 12-Sep-11 15:38:22

Anal Sex? There's a Friday Night section of Hamlet? hmm

I agree, Hamlet is a prick and far from being fascinating, could not really be duller in himself. It says a LOT about our culture that it is regarded as the ultimate masterpiece and he as the ultimate hero/antihero. You only need to look at "arty" films as well to see that the theme of a man struggling to grow up and find his path is THE story, and let the women around hiim come to what harms they may.

Reading back, the songs she chooses to sing are all about losing virginity and promises of marriage, and she chooses rue (which I presume is to do with regret) for herself.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 12-Sep-11 16:32:34

I think what is most annoying with Hamlet is its cultural icon status - makes it seem as if we can't challenge it or play with it, or accept that Hamlet might indeed be a bit of a prick! Or indeed that we don't have to assume he's the cleverest person in the play.

I do find it quite wanky and self-congratulatory the way some male academics/poets do this 'ahhh, Hamlet ... the play speaks to my soul' guff, as if screwing over your girlfriend were generally a side issue to Deep Philosophical Manliness. And the thing is, he does have a shedload of lines but I think the idea the play is about his existential crisis and all he does is utter profundities is bollocks. His dad dies, he comes home from university (a fat guy dressed in black), barges in on his mum's new relationship and wanders around with dirty socks, his stepfather tries to get him taken care of, he has a fight on a pirate ship and escapes, kills a load of people, and ends up dying fairly clumsily in the middle of a body pile-up.

I quite like Hamlet as a play and Hamlet as a character (in some versions ... I am sure it can be dull and crap if you play it badly). But I think it is a play that's hard to study without clearing through a huge pile of other people's interpretations.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 12-Sep-11 16:33:25

(I think it fails the Bechdel test, too, doesn't it? Ophelia and Gertrude only ever really talk about Hamlet.)

steamedtreaclesponge Mon 12-Sep-11 16:47:55

TBH I think all of Shakespeare probably fails the Bechdel test - I can't immediately think of any female conversations in his plays that aren't about men.

I always found Hamlet a bit annoying until I saw the version that David Tennant did a couple of years ago - he played it quite straight rather than mad which made the whole thing make a lot more sense to me. It really brought it home to me that he's essentially a normal person who's thrust into the middle of a completely bonkers situation. I think I'd be vacillating til the cows come home if the ghost of my father told me to start killing people. But that doesn't really excuse his being a prick to Ophelia. The poor girl has an awful, overbearing father and a sanctimonious meathead for a brother and then her boyfriend goes mad and buggers off. But somehow she never strikes me as a real person at all in the way that the other characters in the play do, and I've never seen any particularly good portrayals of her - mind you, I always have trouble with Shakespeare's 'mad' characters, they're always so verbose and prancey-wancey and covered in plants (why?) For me, she only really works if she's extremely young and just crumbles under the weight of everything that's happened.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 12-Sep-11 16:59:32

steamed - you're probably right if we're being strict. But Antony and Cleopatra isn't bad for conversations between Cleopatra, Charmian and Iras, and depending how you read it, Twelfth Night has masses of conversations between two women who're talking about each other - but one of them is cross-dressing as a man, so not sure if that counts!

There is a theory - which I can't immediately remember the source of, but it is both chilling and very plausible - that the reason Laertes and Polonius are so strange about Ophelia is that they've sexually abused her. sad

ElephantsAndMiasmas Mon 12-Sep-11 17:14:52

Don't Rosalind and Celia do at least a spot of chatting? And all those princesses in LLL?

OTheHugeRaveningWolef Mon 12-Sep-11 17:20:42

In her ramblings, Ophelia sings

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.

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.

That hints - though it's not certain - that Ophelia slept with Hamlet. It might also suggest that she feels he's rejecting her now because she's not 'pure' any more. That betrayal, combined with the fact that she witnessed the man who loved her, fucked her and then ditched her murder her father (behind the arras) as she watched, has driven her to distraction.

Or that's one theory at least.

steamedtreaclesponge Mon 12-Sep-11 17:35:58

Don't they mostly talk about the menz though? Their fathers and whatnot?

One of the things I like about Shakespeare is the way that things can be so differently interpreted. But a lot of Ophelia's 'mad' speeches are very sexual so that doesn't seem like a particularly way-out theory...

RunsWithScissors Mon 12-Sep-11 17:54:33

Haven't read it in ages, but I thought Portia in the merchant of Venice was a really clever sort. Didn't she figure out the "pound of flesh" being fair to take... But not a single drop of blood could be spilt?

Must find a copy now...

MooncupGoddess Mon 12-Sep-11 22:45:10

Am loving the iconoclastic 'Hamlet is a navel-gazing twat' talk. I do find him one of the less interesting aspects of the play ('is he mad? is he just pretending to be mad? or is he just very annoying?' - oh who cares).

In the recent National Theatre version Ophelia got done in by Claudius' henchmen (as she'd realised what he was up to) and Gertrude's over-flowery description is a cover-up. Elsewhere though I have seen Gertrude played as being really sympathetic to Ophelia, but too weak to stand up for her.

There is some good chat between Portia and Nerissa, but mostly about Portia's suitors I fear.

LRDTheFeministDragon Mon 12-Sep-11 22:54:29

Runs - I think usually it's assumed her relative who gives her the run down on legal talk tells her it, too (Belario). sad

'is he mad? is he just pretending to be mad? or is he just very annoying?' - grin Love it. I like the idea of Ophelia getting done in by Claudius' henchmen too - that'd make sense and it'd be nice to see neither of the women being the one who kills/kills herself. So how was Ophelia played in general in that production? Was she quite aware of things? I love the idea of a detective-y Ophelia knowing what was going on!

ElephantsAndMiasmas Tue 13-Sep-11 08:12:56

Thanks for all the ideas - although angry at Portia getting help from someone else with her legal case. I had never noticed that, somehow.

Love the idea of Detective Ophelia as well, she just can't be as wispy and nothingy as she is usually presented, not from the writer who brought us such solid female characters. I think another reason I think she must be pregnant is that she seems to need something from Hamlet, rather than being in love with him. She seems to think he's a bit of a pointless twat as well. I mean like you say LRD he turns up like some kind of late-in-life gap year goth, and acts like an utter bastard to everyone, yet she hangs around.

BelfastBloke Tue 13-Sep-11 08:42:56

Gertrude presents her death as accidental, caused by her mad state. And the coroner confirms that she is eligible for Christian burial.

But the Gravediggers assume that she committed suicide, and that if she "had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o' Christian burial."
The Priest says that "her death was doubtful" and does the bare minimum ceremony; he clearly resents the official line that she should have Christian burial.

LRDTheFeministDragon Tue 13-Sep-11 09:31:40

Well, her death's dubious in two ways - they're on the transition between Catholicism and the new religion. Views about suicide didn't, in fact, change significantly but views about purgatory did - do we think Hamlet's father is there, or in hell? Do we think Ophelia is damned for killing herself, or is there a possibility she could be redeemed? For Shakespeare, that new religion was Elizabeth's compromise C of E, and yet he sets the play in Germany so may have expected people to think about Lutheranism too. I forget all the details, but Stephen Greenblatt (I think?) has written about the theology of the play being very unsettled/unsettling. I don't like the idea that Ophelia's death is a sort of real-life trial of all Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' pontifications, but it could be.

Elephants - sometimes people edit out those lines as it's not much. And I don't think you'd ever want to play it that the eloquence isn't hers.

I think there's an extent to which Shakespeare re-writes versions of the same play (so Desdemona who is betrayed and dies is mirrored in Cymbeline by Imogen; Anne in Richard III has a version of the same lines between her and Richard, who's a bastard to her, that Romeo and Juliet get as 'genuine' romance). I don't know what you'd parallel against Ophelia but maybe bits of Hero/Beatrice? I assume Shakespeare was sort of tossing ideas back and forth over years and years writing things and when he felt he'd still got some open ends to a situation he'd revisit it. So if the play is horrible to Ophelia, it doesn't necessarily mean he was a misogynistic writer who wanted to teach women a lesson .... yet in the later cultural tradition we're always meant to see that play, and the tragedies, as more important and separate from everything else. Which is not I think how he wrote them at all.

Sorry ... I love Shakespeare, I am talking far too much on this thread. blush

BelfastBloke Tue 13-Sep-11 09:35:04

LRD, re Catholicism and the new religion:

Shakespeare made Hamlet a student at Wittenburg - THE Protestant University, where Martin Luther taught.

LRDTheFeministDragon Tue 13-Sep-11 09:43:14

True ... but then, he's also meant to make you think of Faustus in Marlowe, who is an iconoclast who loses his soul, but an iconoclast in a Catholic world.

<pontificates up own arse. voice hereafter will be muffled>

CalatalieSisters Tue 13-Sep-11 09:45:23

All of this is incredibly interesting, and I'm certainly going to read through the play again to try and get a bit more of a handle on what is going on with Ophelia, but I wouldn't want to denigrate Hamlet the play or the person in the course of that. Of course he is an exasperating and ineffectual person: he is a clever and emotionally paralysed undergraduate -- they are always a pain. But I don't think that detracts from the enormity and beauty of what he invokes. The pain of depression, where everything is seen through a fog in which all that is beautiful and good is leached of all its value, all of its potential for happiness.

LRDTheFeministDragon Tue 13-Sep-11 09:51:05

Is he? Is he clever or is he just rote-reciting what he's been learning (as philosophy undergrads will). As to emotionally paralysed .... obviously not that paralyzed, he kills several people, escapes from a pirate ship, and dies in the middle of a sword fight.

(I do like the play too, a lot, though. smile)

CalatalieSisters Tue 13-Sep-11 10:20:06

Perhaps not clever: I guess I forget the distinction between being clever and being an mouthpiece for Shakespeare's cleverness. His "madness" is so clever, though? the punning front that allows him to say all the unsayable things among the family secrets.. But our madness and dreams can be clever when we are stupid. Or perhaps especially when we are stupid: the more his vitality and creativity are supressed (prob by his very overbearing dead father, who probably made him feel ineffectual when alive too), the more they leak out in his insanity. I suppose that if you make that equation -- between supression and a consequent self-expression in insanity, then Ophelia's far greater supression leaves a florid insanity as the only recourse for her. So on Shakespeare's part her madness seems partly a sympathetic gesture at the awful constraints of her life.

But it is a cliche, and a disempowering one, when a woman's extreme suffering in a supressing environment is presented in terms of her madness. But then again perhaps in this play that cliche is softened because a man also is presented rendered mad by constraining family dynamics.

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