Warning: I am assuming that you have read both book and play. If you have not, you have been warned that there will be spoilers. I am sorry to tell you this, but there are spoilers!!!!! So if you are afraid that this will ruin the book for you, stop reading here. Read the book. And then continue on.
So I don’t normally do this, and I do not know if I’m going to continue to do this. But I’ve been meaning to talk about this, both in my own context and in context with Lisa Klein’s Ophelia, which I reviewed a while ago. I recently reread Hamlet for school, and my teacher said that Ophelia is the only character who is actually crazy, which I disagree with. I see her point, obviously, since there’s not a ton of evidence to say that she’s not actually crazy without the context of Klein’s novel. But, having read Klein’s novel before taking the class, I had already thought about Ophelia as a perfectly sane person, and so naturally found evidence to support my own thoughts.
First: Ophelia’s songs. Ophelia knows exactly what is happening. I’m talking, of course, about after she is “mad.” There is a scene in the play in which she comes in singing songs to an audience of Claudius, Gertrude, and later on, her brother. Of course, to anyone without context, her songs have no meaning. They’re just songs. And for someone with a little context, she’s talking about her dead father, Polonius. But the songs can also be taken another way. (It’s been a while, but I believe Klein’s novel points this out:) one of the songs she sings has the lines:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
Of course, this could be about Polonius, who was recently slain by Hamlet. But it could also be about the late king, Gertrude’s dead husband. I took it to mean both: that she is both acknowledging her own father’s death, and telling Gertrude about her husband’s death, reminding Gertrude that her late husband is dead. Ophelia is literally telling Gertrude that her husband is dead and gone. Almost as if she is telling Gertrude it is okay, but also reminding her that her husband is dead. So of course, her other song rings true as well.
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead,
Go to thy death-bed,
He never will come again.
His beard as white as snow,
All flaxen with his poll:
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan:
God ha’ mercy on his soul!
Again, she could be singing for Claudius. But I think that she is also singing to Gertrude, about the late king. “No, no, he is dead…He never will come again,” is telling the queen that her husband is dead, and he will never return. Even if she remarries, it will never be the same. We also know that the late king has a beard. When Hamlet first hears about the Ghost, he asks:
Hamlet: “His beard was grizzled–no?”
Horatio: “It was, as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silver’d.”
In the song, Ophelia talks about a man with a white beard who has died. We know that Polonius and the late king both had silver beards. And so it can be said that she talks about both men within her song. It is not necessarily explicitly Polonius. It is also important to note that she sings these songs to Gertrude, not just a general audience. By singing to Gertrude, she makes it seem much more like a pointed moment than if she had just gone into a chamber at random and sung to some civilians. Instead she seeks Gertrude out, and sings these songs to her.
Second: The Flowers.
When we next see Ophelia, she is carrying flowers and herbs. (Whether they are real or imaginary is up for debate, and really up to the reader). And each have specific meanings. Rosemary: remembrance. She gives these to her brother, along with Pansies, for thoughts, in order to tell him to remember and to keep her and their family in his thoughts. To Gertrude, she gives Gertrude (or Claudius; we’re really not told in the play) Fennel, which represents deceit and flattery, and Columbine, which represents ungratefulness, and “forsaken lovers”. She gives these to make a jab at their deceitfulness in their marriage, since Gertrude was once married to the king whom Claudius killed, and Claudius was his brother. Ophelia also gives Gertrude a Daisy, representing innocence. And, of course, no one gets the violets (faithfulness), since they withered all when her father died (her words, not mine). In Ophelia
, Klein makes it a point to say that one of these flowers (I don’t actually remember which one but I’m pretty sure it’s Columbine) is a remedy for snake’s poison. And, of course, Claudius killed the king with snake’s poison poured into the ear (Claudius is also very snake-like in that he is cunning and poisoned the king in a Garden, cough cough, Eden
). In her own way, Ophelia is telling them (and us) that she does indeed know about the plot against the king’s life. (There are more flower meanings here
. I’m not going to go any further with the flowers from Ophelia, but if you’re curious…).
Of course, in Klein’s Ophelia, she is doing all this because she needs to be protected, so she pretends to be mad. She also needs to get out of Denmark and this is her last herah!
I’m not going to spoil the book more than necessary. If you want to know what happens after this in Ophelia, you’ll just have to read the book.
But I will say that I do not think that suicide would have been her answer. I do think that Ophelia wanted to escape her life, and so suicide would have made sense. But not after what she went through. But I’m speaking from the year 2014. And this brings me to my third point.
Third: History. In the time that Shakespeare would have written this play, women had absolutely no rights. The only jobs you could have occupied as a woman would have been a maid (maybe), a teacher, or a prostitute. You could only have occupied a teacher’s job if you were educated (naturally). So of course, a woman in Ophelia’s position, who was probably not educated the way teachers needed to be (piano, art, fluency in French, etc.) would have had very few options. She could have gone to a nunnery (as Hamlet suggests), or to a whore house (also as Hamlet suggests), but those were really her only two options. Unless, of course, she marries Hamlet. She was being courted by him, after all. Before the Ghost came, she might even have ended up marrying him. But because she was lured into spying on him by her father, or in Ophelia he scorns her to protect her from his own revenge on Claudius, she never gets that chance. Instead, Hamlet says that he never loved her, and that she should go to a nunnery (which means both a convent, and a whore house). Now, her chance of marrying into wealth is gone. She is no longer under the protection of Hamlet. Which leaves her father. Who is killed by Hamlet. Her brother, being away in France, cannot be there for her in a time where she cannot support herself. She is completely alone. Now, think back to what I said about women in this time: they had absolutely no power. The average woman could do almost nothing to take care of herself financially. And Ophelia, if she is truly sane, probably sees suicide as the only escape, her only true choice. If she goes to a nunnery/whore house, she’s doing what Hamlet said. And she can’t become a teacher, since she doesn’t have the proper education. So the only option that is hers, and only hers, is suicide (and by hers, I mean that it is not doing what someone else said to do. It is completely her choice, without getting the idea from someone else).
Personally, I still like the idea in Ophelia, where she is using suicide to escape from Denmark. Because Denmark is a prison, as Hamlet so eloquently states. Again, not going to spoil the novel. But I like that version a lot more than her just giving up, succumbing to her madness. And even despite the fact that a lot of people are going to disagree and say that she is crazy, that there is not enough evidence to say otherwise, I’ll forever believe that Ophelia is perhaps the sanest character in the play. Which, I realize is not saying a lot considering. But I’m definitely on the side that says she isn’t actually crazy. This play deals a lot with players and the fact that everyone in the play is an actor in their own life (just for example: Hamlet is pretending to be a crazy person). I believe that Ophelia is one of those people, pretending to be crazy.
But I also don’t want to influence your decision. So you read the play, and the novel if you chose, and then you tell me: sane or crazy?