Saturday night the ladies and I went to see Hamlet in Schiller Park. Both girls were enraptured. Sadly, the stage was not as riveted, and fell apart during the first half of the play. After intermission they decided to cancel the second half. We’re planning on going back Friday night.

Alyssa and I agreed to read the play together in preparation for seeing it Friday. I finished this morning, and can’t get one image out of my mind. It is the image of a drowned Ophelia. Her death is for me the true tragedy of the play, the most poignant moment in the manuscript; all the rest feels pointless.

Photography by Janine Joffe

Ophelia – Photography by Janine Joffe

The play begins with the king, Hamlet’s father, already dead two months or more, and Hamlet in the throes of depression over it. We learn by and by that Hamlet and Ophelia had been canoodling (at the very least) well before the king’s death. It’s quite clear to me that their activities involved more than just a few love letters passed under the table in study hall.

Whether or not Hamlet’s depression has had an effect on his relationship with Ophelia isn’t clear. What is clear, however, is that once Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, and is commanded by that ghost to seek revenge for his father’s murder, Hamlet throws Ophelia away like last week’s Frikadeller (I looked it up). Later, Hamlet plays with Ophelia, as much to say that she’s fine for a little hanky-panky, but will never again get to him as she once had in his pre-woman-hating days. Ophelia, who knows she’s given awaythe one thing her society values in a woman to a man now incapable of returning her intimacy, is destroyed.

Later we see Ophelia unhinged. Whether it was Hamlet’s rejection, his later accidental killing of Ophelia’s overbearing father, or a combination of these is never clear, though I have my suspicions. The death of the father (Polonius) is inconsequential. It is the death of Hamlet’s love for her, or what Ophelia took for love, that has ruined the girl. At any rate, in short order Ophelia plays no small part in her own drowning.

Why did Hamlet do this horrible thing to a girl who’d done nothing to him? Two reasons, I think. One, once he knows the truth about his father’s murder at his uncle’s hands, Hamlet recognizes that his life will never be the same. No matter what action he takes (he believes), the simple joy he felt with Ophelia is gone forever. Hamlet, being a child, takes this out on Ophelia out of sheer immaturity. Two, his father’s ghost commanded Hamlet not to visit any harm upon Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet clearly blames his mother for much of what has happened, yet since Hamlet won’t disobey his dead father, he redirects this anger and frustration on the only other female character in sight, Ophelia.

These actions are inexcusable. After this, I didn’t really care what happened to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, or Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (or is it Gildenstern and Rosencrantz?) It is Ophelia’s death that is the tragedy here, a death brought on by a society that valued women for only one thing, and barely for that.

Our own society is far from perfect, but I’m happy in the knowledge that we live in a time when my own daughters have choices that Ophelia could likely never have imagined.

Get thee to a nunnery, indeed. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark, and his name be Hamlet.

 

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