Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hamlet, part 6 - the Ophelia issue

I have to say that I've always taken issue with how Ophelia is portrayed. And so has my friend, Lisa Mantchev, author of the books Eyes Like Stars and Perchance to Dream. In fact, Ophelia and Hamlet are characters in Eyes Like Stars, with Hamlet being a selfish prince (I almost replaced those last three letters with a "ck") and Ophelia being . . . well, I can't tell you if you haven't read it.

We had a discussion about Ophelia this morning, and this is how it went:

Lisa: As a teen reader (and a student in AP English) I never had any use for Hamlet. In my mind, he was the same sort of melancholy introvert as Holden Caulfield, one of those moody emo boys with floppy hair and a tattered copy of some book I'd never heard of shoved in his back pocket . . . the sort of guy I would try to speak with during lunches in the tri but could never get to talk to me.

Thus (but not just by default!) all my affections and sympathies aligned with Ophelia. Here was a girl, I thought, being bossed around by her father and brother for their own advantage. If ever there was a girl trapped by time period and conventions and socio-political obligations, Ophelia was that girl. And, as a teen reader, I desperately, desperately wanted her to tell everyone to bugger off. I wanted her to sprout a spine and tell them all to get bent. I wanted her to have a life outside the role that had been written for her. When she couldn't manage it, I was angry; with her, with the world, with the constraints women in the past have had to deal with, and with myself for ever thinking that a boyfriend would be just the thing to solve all my problems.

Kelly: I didn't read Hamlet in high school - we did Macbeth and Othello and Julius Caesar, but not Hamlet. So my first exposure to him was my own leisure reading of the play when I was in my 20s, prior to the Mel Gibson release. I was drawn to Hamlet the same way I was kind of drawn to Heathcliff - that tragic, brooding guy who couldn't have what he wanted and was therefore a bit of a bastard. That said, I am with you in wishing that Ophelia would have developed a spine, or at least shown a bit of spunk - and really, Helena Bonham Carter's version of Ophelia managed to show a bit of sass: even though she was constrained to follow Polonius's command, she obviously did it grudgingly. And she sure as heck didn't go quietly into that good night.

The problem with so many depictions of Ophelia is that she's too tame, and then too crazy. That's certainly true of the Ophelia in the Tennant/Stewart production - she seems a bit wooden to me, and then completely crazy-cakes, and it was true in the recent Broadway production, where she appeared all unfocused and then shrieky. I don't really care for a feckless Ophelia. My preferred readings of that character are more nuanced. Kate Winslet was awesome in the Branagh movie version, bringing a fragility to the role and displaying so much confusion early on that her descent into madness didn't seem like a complete hop off the cliff, but I'm still waiting for the reading I most want to see. I mean, I know that Ophelia drops her basket (to borrow a term from the Ya Ya Sisterhood), but "though this be madness, yet there is method in it" - the songs she sings and the flowers she references (in conjunction with their recipients) show that she wasn't completely out of touch with reality, and may, in fact, have been no more "mad" than Hamlet - just a depressed girl lashing out at the king and queen under cover of madness, indicating that they are faithless and adulterous beings.

I like the idea of her retaining her rational mind but being cunning (which would earn her the "madness" diagnosis anyway), rather than being a lunatic.

Lisa: The lunatic angle just plays into the "oh, poor fragile dear, her mind couldn't handle reality and just snapped" school of thought that so infuriated me as a teenager. Hence I just got goose-bumbles all over at the idea of a cunning Ophelia, delivering her flower-speech much the same as Hamlet throws his thinly veiled barbs at Claudius and Gertrude.

I always picture the drowning scene playing out behind a scrim curtain as the Gertrude is narrating it . . . her wandering along the riverbank, the moment she falls in, gowns floating for a moment before growing water-leaden and sucking her under. But how fabulous would it be to see a version in which Gertrude has been made something of an accomplice; that she delivers the news that Ophelia has drowned only for the audience to see a dripping girl clambering out of the river-behind-the-curtain, exchanging her sodden dress for boy togs and cutting off all her hair? Probably not something Shakespeare ever fathomed, but then we could not only cheer Ophelia for her bravery and spunk, but Gertrude for helping release the precious dove from her gilded cage.

Not likely, but a girl can dream!

There is something else to consider about the drowning scene: the only flower Ophelia bestows upon herself during her famous speech is rue, not only a symbol of regret, but something used as an herbal abortifacient. Drowning was considered an acceptable means of suicide for unwed mothers, hinting that Ophelia might have been pregnant with Hamlet's child at the time of her death.

Kelly: That proposed behind-the-scrim scene would be awesome, although it would add a wrinkle to the funeral scene.

I am glad you are of the "Hamlet's child" camp and not of the "Claudius's child" camp. I really don't think the text supports a Claudius-Ophelia tryst, but I know that idea has legs in some camps.

Given the double entendres in Act I, scene 3, wherein Laertes seems to assume that Ophelia's raised her skirts for the prince and warns her about VD, and the terms used by Ophelia and Polonius also include a double meaning that indicates she's been intimate with Hamlet, and has expectations of marriage, but her father thinks marriage out of her reach, and the later conversations between Hamlet and Ophelia (Act 3, scene 1 - double meanings imply that their relationship was physical - and Act 3, scene 2, with Hamlet's talk of groanings and "cunt"-ry manners), a reading that allows that the two of them were bumping uglies is entirely supportable, and Hamlet's crazed grief over her death makes more sense if they were indeed lovers in a physical sense than if they were merely on speaking terms. So the notion that Ophelia's rue is there both as a symbol of her repentance of her transgressions AND as an abortifacient works in that context - and makes her "madness" following Hamlet's rejection that much more understandable. Her father is dead, her brother's in France, and her boyfriend has spurned her - how on earth is she to survive without male protection (at that time and in that place) when she is no longer marriageable due to her pregnancy? To say nothing of those erratic pregnancy hormones . . .

This is probably the last Hamlet post this year, but Lisa will be back to talk about The Tempest, which is the next play in the line-up. Later today, my summary of The Tempest.

*Edited to add: I have of course read Lisa Klein's book, Ophelia, which has Ophelia living on. And I like it a lot. I have also read Lisa Mantchev's books, mentioned above, with a rather non-traditional Ophelia as well. But in this post, I'm talking about wanting to see a stage or film production with a different portrayal of Ophelia, because I still haven't seen one that I completely love.

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1 comment:

Deborah said...

I have been looking for another source to verify your statement that drowning was considered an acceptable means of suicide for an unwed mother. I am very interested in this as it will help me with some research I am doing on Ophelia. Can you point me in the right direction?