The Silencing of Ophelia
In medias res is a narrative strategy that every gifted storyteller learns to master. Shakespeare adapted it to scene construction to cunning effect, creating dramatic tension or uncertainty by putting his audience into the middle of things. Hamlet’s opening line is a famously jumpy question—“Who’s there?”—asked by the wrong person. At the changing of the guard, in the dead of night, the sentinel on duty should be checking the identity of the man relieving him. But the reverse happens. Everyone is nervously alert because they are in the middle of an ongoing ghost story, but the audience remains in the dark until almost thirty lines into the scene when we begin to piece together that there’s been talk of an “apparition.” Ten lines later we find out that it is the ghost of “the King that’s dead”—whoever that is. This technique of inserting the audience into the middle of things occurs repeatedly. Act III, scene 1 begins with a conjunction, leaving unheard the first part of Claudius’ interrogation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet’s peculiar behavior: “An’ can you by no drift of conference / Get from him why he puts on this confusion?” A character may also enter a scene in progress, not grasping its import, and in this respect is just like the play’s audience. In Act III, scene 3 when Hamlet finds Claudius on his knees, apparently praying for forgiveness, he holds back from assassinating his father’s killer and usurper and thereby dispatching a penitent to heaven, not realizing that Claudius fails to repent. Hamlet enters and then exits this scene when the action is still in the middle of things.
We should not be surprised, then, that the fifth scene of Act IV similarly begins in the middle of things, with the staccato monosyllables spoken by Gertrude: “I will not speak with her.” A request has been made by one of the anonymous gentlemen who populate Shakespeare’s plays. Queen Gertrude issues a brusque, declarative refusal. We assume that she is refusing to speak with Ophelia because she is the only other “her” we have encountered in the play. The gentleman may be shocked by the queen’s curt rejection because he already knows something the audience is only now about to learn and to witness: that Ophelia, as the Elizabethans would phrase it, has gone mad. In the twentieth century she would have had a nervous breakdown. In our own era she would be traumatized. When the gentleman presses Gertrude to intervene, because the motherless Ophelia is distraught and “will needs be pitied,” the queen grows impatient and snappish: “What would she have?” The girl, Gertrude is told, is making incoherent accusations about her dead father, punctuated by “winks and nods and gestures” that unsettle everyone who sees her. In a dramatic world with no other woman in it, Ophelia is seeking out her one maternal surrogate. Why is Gertrude so determined to avoid any talk with her? Here the audience knows something that the royal court has not witnessed: Gertrude has been through a harrowing private scene with her son, who killed a man before her eyes and exhibited his own symptoms of a nervous breakdown, including having conversations with a ghost. Still worse, the man Hamlet killed was Ophelia’s father.
Backtrack for a few moments to the tortured, complicated family relationships that underlie the callousness of Gertrude’s “I will not speak with her.” The queen’s son, who had been courting Ophelia before the sudden death of his father and the precipitous remarriage of his mother, has been behaving badly for some time. Not just badly but insultingly, unnervingly, inexplicably—most recently in public at a royal performance of a play he kept interrupting with bitter, manic commentary. When The Murder of Gonzago takes a turn that seems to implicate Prince Hamlet’s stepfather Claudius in the death of the queen’s first husband, the king abruptly cancels the performance. The strained family bonds, evident from our first view of Claudius, Gertrude, and Hamlet together in Act I, deteriorate as the scenes accumulate. The strain is exacerbated by the role assumed by the Lord Chamberlain Polonius in investigating Hamlet’s troubling behavior. Polonius, a know-it-all by nature, has made his daughter end her romantic involvement with Hamlet; at the same time he assures the king and queen that Hamlet is suffering from unrequited love for Ophelia. The father then conscripts his daughter into a clumsy scheme to give Claudius visual evidence that Hamlet is “mad for love.” Later, during the aborted play, Hamlet makes a show of seating himself with, even putting his head in the lap of, a markedly uncomfortable Ophelia, who had, that same day, on her father’s orders handed back various love-tokens to Hamlet. The two families have become disastrously intertwined. Hamlet’s sometimes-filthy jokes directed to Ophelia during the play-within-the-play have the force of revenge porn. The Murder of Gonzago, directed against Claudius, also provides Hamlet an opportunity to humiliate Ophelia cruelly. In private he has already pelted her with accusatory insults that spill over to all women: “I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance.” During The Murder of Gonzago Hamlet’s misogyny becomes public and visible.
After the play is stopped and its audience evacuated our attention shifts to the long-simmering conflict between mother and son over her recent remarriage which now comes to a head. Gertrude intends, in Polonius’ words, to “lay home to him” for offending her new husband. Polonius inserts himself into this confrontation by spying on it, a stratagem with fatal consequences for himself and his daughter. As Gertrude’s scolding of Hamlet quickly shifts into the son’s berating of his mother, we see, as the courtiers do not, the circumstances under which Hamlet kills the “wretched, rash, intruding fool” hiding behind the curtain. Act III, scene 4 is extraordinary in every way. Hamlet thinks his hidden victim is his stepfather; the dispatching of a spy was an intended regicide. After Polonius is stabbed, his corpse lies onstage for the next 185 lines while Hamlet harangues Gertrude in blisteringly arrogant language about her second marriage (“You cannot call it love . . . at your age”). As the son talks and talks and talks, pruriently sorting through the details of his mother’s sex life, she begs him, repeatedly, “Speak no more.” And what started as a parental talking-to goes totally off the rails when Hamlet begins conversing wildly with a ghost visible only to him. In Gertrude’s eyes her son is gesticulating to and consulting with “th’incorporal air.” As the scene moves toward its close, Hamlet admonishes his mother (the son now turned moralizing parent) to abstain from sex with Claudius. He confides to Gertrude that he isn’t really mad at all, but here he protests too much. As he drags Polonius’ body offstage with a mock-cheerful “Good night, mother,” there is no doubt that in this scene Hamlet has been both mad-angry and mad-unhinged, and it is not easy to distinguish between the two.
I rehearse these well-known details in the chronology of Hamlet because, taken together, they may guide our understanding of what lies behind Gertrude’s cold dismissal at the beginning of IV.5: “I will not speak with her.” For the queen, her son, once a public embarrassment, is now a scourge to her conscience. She has seen Hamlet’s shocking behavior as he sat with Ophelia during The Murder of Gonzago and has gotten a taste of his misogyny herself. She has been the terrified witness of his killing of Polonius, whose body remained in view throughout the brutal tongue-lashing she got from Hamlet. She has been reminded that her only child is about to be exiled from Denmark on her husband’s orders. (“Alack, / I had forgot,” the distracted mother confesses.) On top of all this Hamlet wants her to pretend to Claudius that he really is crazy. She may half-believe her son’s insistent claim that he is quite sane, but she can’t be sure. How exactly should she plan to act with a livid husband who wants Hamlet out of the way? The last thing Gertrude wants now is to have to deal with Ophelia’s delirious grief over her dead father. “Her speech is nothing,” the gentleman admits, but her disjointed outbursts are inciting gossipy interpretation. Finally Horatio picks up the gentleman’s last theme and advises Gertrude, “’Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.” Policy, not pity and certainly not motherly concern, force the queen into reluctant, pinched sufferance. “Let her come in.”
There seem to be two young people in the Danish royal court who are losing their minds—one of them perhaps faking it, the other not at all. It’s been trauma on top of trauma for Ophelia, with her father killed by her former boyfriend who has unceremoniously lugged the guts into a hidden space. Claudius orders the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out where Hamlet has put Polonius’ corpse. In her distress Ophelia, whose brother is out of the country, whose father’s body is missing, and whose lover has publicly shamed her, seeks out the only other woman she knows, but Gertrude wants to shut her down.
The figure who dominates Act IV, scene 5 is an Ophelia we have never seen before, her hair a mess, plucking a lute, and singing distractedly of love and death, of a burial and a betrayal, of a shroud decked with flowers, and of a maid deflowered. She sings snatches of a ballad about Saint Valentine’s day in which the speaker recalls herself:
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose and donn’d his clo’es,
And dupp’d the chamber-door,
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
Was the romance between Ophelia and Hamlet sexual? That is a matter that lies outside the boundaries of the script Shakespeare composed. Whether Ophelia is literally autobiographical when she sings here is beside the point. What matters is that she feels like a young woman who has been seduced and abandoned. During one of her most disconcerting exchanges with Hamlet, just after the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, he tells her, “I did love you once,” to which Ophelia responds, “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” And then the verbal whiplash: “You should not have believ’d me. . . . I lov’d you not.” It is no wonder that in the traumatic aftermath of her father’s violent death and her lover’s rejection, Ophelia’s “mad” language refracts her experience of abrupt breaks in reality. Much of Ophelia’s poignant mad scene is about metamorphosis, her disordered words masking an underlying sense of a personal world and an identity that has been suddenly, shatteringly transformed. Recalling an old tale, Ophelia makes the most succinct statement of the tragedy that has overtaken her. “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
When Tom Stoppard turned Hamlet inside out in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he provided a road map for finding hidden byways in a well-traveled literary work. He took Shakespeare’s two forgettable and interchangeable nobodies and gave them bodies and voices of their own, while reducing Hamlet to a walk-on character who, annoyingly, keeps talking to himself. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is often funny, sometimes hysterically so, but it is not just a send-up. Stoppard was noticing that there are other nearly invisible tragedies in Hamlet besides that of its titular hero. “Now you see me. Now you—-,” Stoppard’s Guildenstern says as the spotlight cuts out on him at the play’s end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead taught me to pay closer attention in Hamlet to questions about latencies and absences: whom do we see and whom don’t we see? when do we see and hear them and when don’t we? and what silences and cuttings off matter in the world Shakespeare has constructed?
The Australian data scientist Peter Ellis has done elaborate statistical analyses of the words in Hamlet. In its more-or-less 30,000 words (depending on the edition used), Hamlet speaks 346 times, uttering 11,907 words—more than a third of the play’s total. By contrast, the reticent Ophelia speaks 57 times and uses a total of 1,163 words—a tenth of Hamlet’s vocal output and about a third of the total of her father Polonius. The cold statistics bear out my own impressionistic sense that Ophelia is smothered in words by the two dominating male figures in her life. But Ophelia’s verbal situation is not just a matter of numerical stats. What she says and what she is not allowed to say, what she hears and how she is silenced contribute to a tragedy that is starkly different from Hamlet’s—and one that may be at least as affecting, memorable, and recognizable for readers and audiences in our own time.
The teenaged Ophelia, quiet, manipulated, and fragile, stands apart from most of the other women Shakespeare invented for his plays. She doesn’t have Juliet’s willfulness or Cordelia’s steel or Cleopatra’s swagger or Desdemona’s serenity. She is incapable of the ruthlessness of many of Shakespeare’s queens, from Henry VI’s Margaret to Lady Macbeth. Nor does she have the spirited ability to shape and control events that distinguish most of the women in the comedies. In Ophelia Shakespeare has imagined a young woman who is strikingly isolated: motherless, used by her father as a pawn to curry favor with Claudius, verbally abused by her lover for reasons she cannot fathom, lectured condescendingly by her worldly brother Laertes. Consider Laertes’ departure for France in Act I, scene 3 (permission for which he got from Claudius by boldly speaking up for it in the preceding scene). As he packs his bags for the fleshly pleasures of Paris, he advises his sister that Hamlet’s interest in her is “trifling,” a mere “toy in blood”—hormones on the loose. Full of himself, Laertes takes some forty lines to hold forth on the passions and prerogatives of young male royals. Preserve your virtue, he instructs Ophelia, and “keep you in the rear of your affection.” As far as I can see, her brother’s preaching sparks the only moment in Hamlet in which we see both resistance and a bite of wit from Ophelia:
I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And reaks not his own rede.
Gently but very clearly Ophelia exposes the patriarchal smugness and hypocrisy, in even a good brother, that reminds women of the rules that govern their conduct, but men’s not so much.
People are constantly telling Ophelia what to do. No sooner has Laertes left the room, with an injunction to remember his words to her, than Polonius, never one to mind his own business, asks Ophelia what her exchange with her brother was all about. The conversation between father and daughter that follows is squirm-worthy. The more Ophelia tries to explain how things stand between her and Hamlet—how he has behaved in courting her and how she has responded to the “many tenders / Of his affection to me”—the more her father belittles her. “You speak like a green girl”; “think yourself a baby”; “Tender yourself more dearly”; “Go to, go to.” Each time Ophelia tries to speak up for herself—and, for that matter, speak up for Hamlet—Polonius overrides her. Finally, in his last twenty lines, he stifles her effort at reasoning with him, adding a father’s authority to the brother’s condescension: “I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth / Have you so slander any moment leisure / As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet. / Look to’t, I charge you. Come your ways.” By the scene’s end any resistance left in Ophelia has wilted. Not for the last time she is silenced. “I shall obey, my lord.”
Motherless daughters are not uncommon in Shakespeare’s plays. There are Desdemona, Miranda, and the trio of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Both Marina and Perdita have mothers who were presumed dead, and they do not meet their mothers until they are young adults. Happily, as far as we know, Lady Macbeth birthed no daughter since she would have dashed out an infant’s brains to further her ambitions. Juliet has a mother, but at the crucial moment when she appeals for Lady Capulet’s intervention to forestall an arranged marriage, she shuts out her daughter even more decisively than Gertrude does Ophelia. Lady Capulet’s exit line to Juliet forecasts Gertrude’s entrance line: “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word. / Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.” Juliet, for better and worse, goes ahead and does as she wills. Ophelia, faced with parental disapproval, has no choice but to accept the roles that her brother and father—and even her lover—demand that she play. But she needs someone she can talk to. Other Shakespearean women have confidantes and protectors. Desdemona, slapped by her husband and called a devil in front of a disbelieving dignitary from Venice, has Emilia as a friend with whom she can share her distress. In the more fantastical world of The Winter’s Tale, Hermione is accused by her husband of infidelity and imprisoned, and later after fainting at the news of her young son’s death, she is reported dead; in actuality Paulina, her closest friend and her protector, hides her away for sixteen years. And Shakespeare’s abused women are sometimes sheltered and comforted by men. When the walls start closing in on Juliet, she goes to Friar Lawrence for counsel and (ultimately ineffectual) aid. Because Cordelia spoke up and said what Lear didn’t want to hear, he disowns her and leaves her destitute until the incredulous king of France takes the “dow’rless daughter” as his queen. Ophelia stands apart from all these women, isolated, ignored, friendless, having no one to speak with her.
Three events devastate Ophelia before her breakdown. The first occurs in Act II, scene 1 after she had obediently distanced herself from Hamlet, refusing his letters to her. She suddenly bursts on the stage, looking so distressed that Polonius is startled: “How now, Ophelia, what’s the matter?” The event she reports to her father (“I have been so affrighted”) is one of the weirdest moments in a play that has plenty of them. Hamlet had suddenly appeared in her sewing room and performed a kind of dumbshow. With his shirt undone and filthy stockings down to his ankles, his whole body shaking, he seemed to her like a being “loosed out of hell.” Saying nothing, he held her roughly and stared her in the face, eventually nodding his head as if some suspicion were confirmed—then walked out of the room, looking back at her the entire time. As will become a pattern, Polonius is oblivious to his daughter’s shock over Hamlet’s appearance and the strange silent treatment he has given her. His first thought is to use this event to ingratiate himself with Claudius by providing a (preposterous) solution to his stepson’s sullen behavior. “Come, go with me. I will go seek the King. / This is the very ecstasy of love.”
The next time we see Ophelia is in Act III, scene 1 after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius and Gertrude their failure to identify the reason for Hamlet’s antics. The two amateur undercover agents can do no more than label Hamlet’s behavior “a crafty madness.” They have made ludicrous efforts to find out what disturbs him, but he “will by no means speak.” Ophelia is present during this cross-examination, but she is unacknowledged until after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been dismissed and after Gertrude is asked to leave so that Claudius and Polonius can test their own powers as spies. They are going to set up an encounter, “as ’twere by accident,” between Hamlet and Ophelia to see whether love accounts for his “affliction.” The test of that supposed cause plays out in the rest of the scene. Polonius positions his daughter and hands her a prayer book to pretend to read as an exercise in piety. Wordlessly, Ophelia begins walking with book in hand, as Claudius and Polonius take up hidden positions to see what transpires. This is the context in which Hamlet comes onstage for his best-known soliloquy.
There is little new to say about “To be, or not to be,” but it is striking that it is delivered at this moment when Ophelia has been compelled to simulate both piety and remorse for having accepted Hamlet’s love-tokens. Although audiences can see Ophelia walking back and forth with her book and perhaps glimpse the two snoopers peeking from behind the curtain, we accept the stage convention that they cannot overhear what we are hearing as Hamlet’s soliloquy takes us inside his head. Among all its many complexities “To be, or not to be” reveals Hamlet in a moment of profound authenticity in the context of the fakery all around him. He is emotionally naked beneath his manic mask, not acting out but revealing a melancholic wish to escape “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” “a sea of troubles,” “The heart-ache,” and the burden of “a weary life.” As he weighs the desire to end his life and the reasons not to do it, Hamlet talks himself out of suicide. Here as elsewhere his facility with words not only exhibits a self-reliant mind, it is lifesaving. As the soliloquy winds down, Hamlet emerges from his private thoughts to catch sight of Ophelia with her prayer book. His greeting sounds genuine, with an aching note of supplication, after he has just been rehearsing his weaknesses and suicidal fantasies. Hamlet addresses her with a word Shakespeare often used, notably and frequently in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a lover’s expression: “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins rememb’red.”
But things fall quickly apart when Hamlet suspects, as he had done earlier when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern began heavy-handedly questioning him about his moodiness, that there is something dodgy about Ophelia’s appearing with a prayer book in her hands. Just how quickly Hamlet catches on to the phoniness of this scene is a matter of staging. Derek Jacobi, in the 1980 BBC production of the play, eyes Ophelia pretending to read in her book, walks over, and calmly turns it rightside up. By the time Ophelia hands back the mementoes Hamlet had previously given her, his only question is whether she is rejecting him of her own volition (thereby reinforcing suspicions engendered by his mother’s remarriage that women are capricious and deceitful) or whether she has been stage-managed to perform a charade. Abruptly he asks, “are you honest?” She is then bewildered by a torrent of denials by Hamlet that he ever gave her anything or ever even loved her. His series of urgent imperatives that Ophelia go to a “nunn’ry,” an untainted sanctuary in a corrupt world, moves to a different register when, his antennae up, he interrupts himself to ask, “Where’s your father?” Guessing that the scene is a setup and ranting as he will later do with Gertrude, Hamlet is once again difficult to parse: how much is he mad-crazy and how much mad-angry? His repeated directives, “Get thee to a nunn’ry,” become more furious and misogynistic, and the well-known dual meanings of nunnery as convent and brothel gather force. Hamlet’s voice in this scene is so powerful and so characteristically self-referential that there is little verbal room for the emotionally wounded Ophelia to speak for herself. Until Hamlet leaves after his fifth and final “To a nunn’ry, go,” Ophelia has only single lines—sometimes only a couple of words—as she attempts to respond to Hamlet’s mystifying, accusatory, hysterical addresses to her. As she will later be silenced by Gertrude’s refusal to speak with her, here she is reduced to near-silence as Hamlet’s words suck up all the oxygen onstage.
The soliloquizing Hamlet is a master of words that articulate and amplify his emotional state, but his words also pound Ophelia into a numbed silence. Only after he leaves the stage is she capable of a short speech of a dozen lines of her own. Until her disjointed songs and distribution of herbs and flowers in IV.5, this is her longest, most eloquent speech. Although she is alone onstage these lines lack the intense subjectivity we associate with a soliloquy. Her speech is a lament for the Hamlet she once knew:
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectation and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observ’d of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of time, and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and stature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
Though calling herself “most deject and wretched,” Ophelia does not let the audience very far into her state of dejection. On later reflection we might see her portrait of Hamlet’s mind “o’erthrown” as a forecast of her own mental breakdown, an instance of the wrenching metamorphosis she too will undergo. But in the moment the speech is mostly about Hamlet, very little about herself. Her grief, which should leave Ophelia visibly shaken onstage, is immediately undercut by the entrance of Claudius and Polonius. They ignore her, as if she were invisible, while they dissect the scene they have just witnessed. Claudius still can’t figure out what is wrong with Hamlet, but he knows love’s got nothing to do with it. As the king and his counselor sort out the plot they had concocted, Ophelia approaches them, and is immediately silenced by her father. “How now Ophelia? / You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said, / We heard it all.” And so much for Ophelia. She has played the part required of her, and neither her observations nor her feelings are of any consequence.
Having been used and sidelined by her father, Ophelia suffers her most brutal humiliation when Hamlet shames her before the assembled royal guests for the play-within-the-play. Rejecting Gertrude’s request that he sit next to her during the performance, Hamlet instead lies down at Ophelia’s feet. Suddenly she is in the spotlight as all eyes are on her and the notoriously disturbed prince. The tedious plot of The Murder of Gonzago is upstaged by the real-life drama of Ophelia and Hamlet as he makes pointedly personal jokes about her, including a coarse pun in “country matters”:
Ham. Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Oph. No, my lord.
Ham. I mean, my head upon your lap?
Oph. Ay, my lord.
Ham. Do you think I meant country matters?
Oph. I think nothing, my lord.
Ham. That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Oph. What is, my lord?
For Ophelia the play going on in the background must seem endless, as Hamlet continues to make off-color jokes and she continues weakly trying to deflect them: “You are merry, my lord.” “You are naught, you are naught.” “You are keen, my lord, you are keen.” Hamlet grows more agitated as the crucial moment in the play he calls “The Mouse-trap” approaches. He himself had scripted the scene of Gonzago’s murder to simulate Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father, and he is unable to resist interrupting the play to goad Claudius and Gertrude. “You are as good as a chorus,” Ophelia says, as if to alert Hamlet that he is disruptively inserting himself into the play and drawing attention both to himself and to her as her embarrassment deepens. In the uproar that ensues after Hamlet loudly underlines the poisoning in the garden, Ophelia is swept off the stage along with the entire audience when “The Mouse-trap” is canceled, leaving only Horatio and Hamlet onstage to compare notes on the play’s effect on Claudius. We will not see Ophelia again until after she learns of the death of her father when, in desperation, she tries to speak with Gertrude whom she addresses as “the beauteous majesty of Denmark.”
The word “beauteous” occurs throughout Shakespeare’s plays and poems, and its sense is usually innocent and uncomplicated. But it does seem odd that Ophelia should call attention to Gertrude’s beauty at this moment. The context suggests Ophelia’s excessive compliment masks a deep anger with Gertrude, who has failed her. And it may not be stretching things to suggest that the use of “beauteous” here may echo the moment in Act II, scene 2 when Polonius reads aloud to Gertrude and Claudius a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia in which he salutes her as “the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia.” Polonius takes issue with Hamlet’s choice of words: “That’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase, ‘beautified’ is a vile phrase.” When Ophelia salutes Gertrude as a “beauteous majesty,” should we take that phrase, in its context, to be purposefully vile, a veiled insulting of the woman who refuses to share speech with her?
Our appreciation of the blow inflicted by Gertrude’s “I will not speak with her” is reinforced by an awareness of how much the act of speaking matters in this play. From the first scene until this moment preceding the fevered entrance of the unkempt Ophelia with her lute, speaking has been associated with authority, status, and self-control. The castle guards, paralyzed with fear of the ghost on the ramparts, are relieved when Horatio joins them. Suddenly the ghost appears again. “Thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio,” Marcellus pleads. But when Horatio addresses the ghost—“Speak, speak, I charge thee speak!”—he gets no response. At the ghost’s second appearance Horatio’s charges become still more emphatic: “Speak to me.” “Speak to me.” “Speak of it, stay and speak!” But the scholarly philosopher Horatio is no match for the royal ghost. He determines that only the prince will be able to speak with the dead king: “This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.” When Hamlet confronts the ghost in I.4, he gets right to the point: “I will speak to thee.” The ghost of Hamlet Senior tells his son that Claudius seduced Gertrude “with witchcraft of his wits.” It wasn’t a matter of Claudius’ good looks (“whose natural gifts were poor / To those of mine,” says the ghost) but of his slick words. Gertrude was talked into adultery. And, appropriately after the ghost exits the stage, Hamlet imposes silence on Horatio and the guards who are “Never to speak” of what they have seen and heard that night. Speaking and not speaking, strategic and enforced silences punctuate Hamlet’s action everywhere.
Hamlet himself speaks passionately and cannily, by the force of his own words eliciting speech from others. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is impatient: “Were you not sent for? is it your own inclining? is it a free visitation? Come, come, deal justly with me. Come, come—nay, speak.” And they spill the beans. “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue,” Hamlet coaches the tragedian rehearsing The Murder of Gonzago. “I will speak daggers to her,” Hamlet promises before he enters Gertrude’s bedchamber, just after he talks himself out of assassinating Claudius at prayer. Once at his mother’s side he bombards her with accusations. “What have I done,” Gertrude asks, “that thou dar’st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?” But her question only rouses Hamlet to turn up the volume and intensity until the queen begins to beg, “O Hamlet, speak no more!” “O, speak to me no more!” “No more!”
By contrast, Ophelia is often left speechless or is actively silenced. At the close of the first scene in which she appears—when first her brother and then her father disparage and rule out any love affair with Hamlet—Polonius commands her to keep silence. And she does. Later, after she is made to participate in Polonius’ fantasy by returning Hamlet’s gifts and letters, she approaches her father in a state of distress over the misogynistic invective of Hamlet’s “to a nunn’ry” rants. All she gets is a “How now, Ophelia?,” and she is dismissed without being allowed to say anything. That silencing is followed by her mortification during the play-within-the-play when she is muted by Hamlet’s sardonic compliments and crude insults. By the time Gertrude refuses speech with Ophelia, a strong pattern has emerged. And the gentleman who has been interceding to persuade Gertrude to meet with Ophelia makes the pattern complete. “Her speech is nothing,” he says of Ophelia’s incomprehensible ravings about murder and abandonment. He means that her speech makes no sense, but he also underscores the value that others have placed on Ophelia’s voice: precisely, none.
By the time her crazy talking and singing are recognized for what they are—the disordered expression of pain and loss from a girl whose feelings have been bottled up, ignored, and suppressed—it is too late. “This nothing’s more than matter,” Laertes says when he comes home from Paris and sees the transformation of his shy sister into the irrepressible madwoman, oblivious to the bewildered reaction of the spectators as she dispenses wildflowers and prayers and fragments of song. Throughout Act IV, scene 5, Gertrude has little to say, apart from “Alas” and “look here,” when Ophelia makes her first appearance in the scene playing her lute. She has agreed to see her, but she is still not speaking with her. When Ophelia returns near the end of the scene with her herbs and flowers, Gertrude is totally silent. Not until the end of the fourth act when Gertrude enters with the news of her drowning does she have words to give Ophelia. The speech that begins, “There is a willow grows askaunt the brook” is both the lengthiest and the most lyrical speech assigned to the queen in the play. Ophelia had gone to a willow tree, gathering wildflowers, weaving them together, and climbing the tree to hang the garlands from its branches. If Shakespeare had in mind the conventional association of willows with abandoned lovers, Hamlet was still on Ophelia’s broken mind. Gertrude describes in gorgeously macabre detail how Ophelia, singing old tunes as she had when she burst into view in scene 5, tumbled with her flowers from the tree into “the weeping brook.” Still singing, she slowly sank as her clothing “heavy with their drink / Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.” The queen gives the dead Ophelia the speech denied to her when she was alive.
Gertrude is not the only one who finally has magnificent words for Ophelia once she is gone. In death Ophelia occasions more speaking about and to her than she did when living. Laertes, hearing from Gertrude the story of his sister’s drowning, promises, “I have a speech a’ fire that fain would blaze.” That speech he saves for her funeral. The men in the play are especially good at making, especially eager to make, flashy speeches. Shortly before Ophelia’s death is announced, Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet with the unexpected news that he is back on Danish soil, and the words jump off the paper: “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb”—detailed and exuberant words that we will hear in Act V, scene 2 after the funeral, when Hamlet tells how divinity shaped his rough-hewed ends and let him escape ship during a pirate boarding after he had secretly rewritten and resealed his death warrant, replacing the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for his own. But before those revelations in the final act Ophelia’s tragedy gets its last, equivocal, and unceremonious obituary in the scene that starts Act V with two men digging her grave while discussing her suicide and the truncated Christian burial she is getting only—as they see it—because of her social rank.
Hamlet, just returned to Elsinore from exile, joins the gravediggers in their irreverent joking before his imagination turns darkly (and “too curiously,” Horatio thinks) to a meditation on the indignities of dying. When Ophelia’s funeral procession enters the graveyard, Hamlet does not know whose funeral he is witnessing. He finds himself, unaware, in the confused middle of things. An argument between a priest and Laertes about the foreshortened ceremonies for an assumed suicide leads to a gush of rhetoric in which Laertes combines a blessing with a curse:
Lay her i’ th’ earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A minist’ring angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.
Gertrude follows, scattering over the grave the flowers she says—now—that she wanted to save for the bridal bed. “I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.” Her sentimental self-image as a mother-in-law in a future that will never happen is soon to be obliterated in the massacre of the whole royal family, along with Ophelia’s brother, that ends the play.
In this burial scene Laertes is enraged by Gertrude’s mention of Hamlet’s name and theatrically jumps into the open grave to embrace his sister for the last time, calling for the dirt to be piled on top of him. Hamlet, at last realizing whose funeral he has been watching, is not to be outdone in the unseemly histrionics and suddenly appears, leaping into the grave after Laertes. He protests that he should speak more loudly than the brother: “What is he whose grief / Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow / Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand / Like wonder-wounded hearers?” In this torrent of emotional rhetoric, Hamlet at last speaks the words that neither Ophelia nor the audience has heard until now: “I lov’d Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers / Could not with all their quantity of love / Make up my sum.” In an unsettling way even here the scene becomes more about the always voluble Hamlet than about the now permanently silent Ophelia. He turns the proceedings into a contest with Laertes: “I’ll rant as well as thou.” Ophelia, lying in the open grave, is quite literally in medias res, forgotten in the chaos and shouting, the self-absorption and one-upsmanship.
The funeral, with its wisecracking gravediggers, priggish cleric, and melodramatic brother and lover each upstaging the other with speeches of fire, veers into theater of the absurd. It is not just the priest who can be charged with “maimed rites” that do Ophelia so little honor. Hamlet and Laertes make a shambles of the event. The rest of the final act is focused on two things: the final unraveling of Claudius’ plotting and the exposure of still more criminal acts (the unbated rapier Claudius provides for Laertes in the rigged fencing match, the poisoned chalice intended for Hamlet that he allows his wife to drink), and the canonization of Hamlet as avenging saint and martyr. Ophelia’s name is never again uttered. Her silencing is now complete. Hamlet, gifted with words and male prerogative—the two are inexorably linked in this play—talks repeatedly and eloquently about dying and about his own death. In his longest and most passionate soliloquy beginning “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!,” he intends, as always, to “unpack my heart with words.” He tosses that last admission aside with a dismissive simile (“like a very drab”), but Hamlet’s readiness with and entitlement to words preserves him from mental breakdown and animates him. As long as he can speak, he is alive. It is not incidental that, as he weakens when the poison on Laertes’ fencing foil takes effect, his dying words to Horatio reflect how much his life has been bound to language: “The rest is silence.”
Ophelia’s tragedy is the opposite of his. Hamlet boasted that he could be bounded in a nutshell and still be king of infinite space. And we believe him. Ophelia actually is bound in a nutshell, constricted and suffocated—and voiceless. Ophelia’s life, as much as we see of it within the boundaries of five acts, has been one of enforced silence, climaxing in a desperate call—answered too late by Gertrude—for a chance to unpack her heart with words. She comes in a full and terrible circle from her playful rebuke to Laertes for pontificating about how women should behave, but she never saw what was coming. “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Only in her madness, when language tumbles out uninhibitedly, does Ophelia make a direct and profound charge about masculinist privilege and culpability. “Young men will do’t if they come to’t, / By Cock, they are to blame.” Unlike Hamlet with his words, words, words, Ophelia never speaks of taking her own life. And then she does. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune strike more than one target in this play. Among its many wonders, Hamlet depicts a young woman set on a lonely path, leading to an abyss, in a lethal world of male verbal license.