Friday, December 26, 2008

HAMLET: The Death of Ophelia

Modernity has thoroughly institutionalized Hamlet ; we've lost our sense, if we ever had it, of its essential strangeness. A friend of mine asked me an innocent question the other day that snapped me to attention. It was a question about the Queen's--Gertrude's--description of Ophelia's death:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them;
There on the pendent bows her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, a while they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her won distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

If Ophelia has enough to time to sing songs before she drowns, said my friend, and someone (the queen presumably) is there to hear them, then there should be time enough for that someone to pull her out of that brook. Most brooks aren't deep enough to drown in and the spot where Ophelia falls, under a willow tree, is close to shore. Something doesn't make sense.

Maybe the only thing that Gertrude knows is that Ophelia drowned and is trying to explain how it happened? In other words, she's making it up?

These questions have been asked before but no one seems to have made much of them.

How did Shakespeare get himself into this little tangle of contradictions? Think about the dramatic problem he was trying to solve.

The tragedy is getting ready for its final bloody conclusion in which nothing is concluded, but it needs a proper place and occasion where the chief personages can be assembled for one last confrontation before the final cock-fight. Hamlet has to have a time and place where the jokes inspired by the death of Polonius can be suitably polished and delivered. He needs a cemetary, some grave diggers, and a body. Polonius is already dead and buried; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are also out of the way. That leaves Ophelia. But what is she to die of? People don't--as Rosalinde says--die of broken hearts. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves but not out of heart-break; they die because of a series of accidents and misunderstandings and because they think they have no other choice.

So the death of Ophelia is a problem. It can't be accidental because that would make it meaningless and it can't be intentional because that would be unbelievable. And her death has to connect with the rest of the play. Shakespeare solves this problem (more or less) by having her lose her wits: she becomes even more helpless than she has been all along, and that's saying a lot. (Ophelia is a lost motherless child who is used by her father and brother for their own purposes; they are not thinking of their own welfare when they tell her to stay away from Hamlet but their own. Her name, appropriately, is the ancient Greek word for 'advantage.') Does she kill herself or doesn't she? Hard to say. This necessary ambiguity--the fact that Ophelia's death is neither accidental nor intentional--is put to use in the conversation of the grave-diggers that opens that wonderful and insufficiently appreciated scene.

But the problem remains because it is a logical problem. Since the death of Ophelia had to be narrated instead of enacted, it doesn't quite make sense; the fact that her death is ambiguous only makes it worse. Since she doesn't know what she is doing, the observer is in a position to interfere. And Shakespeare must have known this, for he deals with it by so richly elaborating the Queen's account that the bare facts sort of disappear in the beautiful pathos of her poetry. And pathos, clearly, is what Ophelia's story is all about.

Please don't misunderstand me. I want to understand this play not score points off it. This play gives us a hero who doesn't want to be a hero, and an actor who doesn't know how to act, in a play that goes about as far as it can to create the illusion that it is not a play at all. In this play, it is not always easy to say what makes sense and what doesn't. The death of Ophelia is not the only thing that doesn't make sense. Maybe some things aren't supposed to make sense? This work of art goes where art had never gone before.


  1. There are other medical problems that exist in the accounts of deaths in Shakespeare's plays. Killing someone by putting poison into the porches of their [this is the correct pronoun] ears is an example. The most notable is the fact that Desdemona can still speak after she has been strangled or suffocated.

  2. Well, there's the question raised by Eliot. If the depiction of senselessness or radical contingency is your aim, is it achieved by introducing elements into your play that are senseless, unmotivated, or inexplicable? Maybe. Maybe Eliot's fallacy is no fallacy at all.

    Ron Salzberger