A few days ago I wrote about Ophelia, the tragic heroine of Hamlet. Tonight the ladies and I returned to Schiller to catch the entire play, rather than just the first half. It was wonderful.
I watched Ophelia closely, particularly in the second half of the play that we’d missed in the previous performance due to the stage malfunction. Throughout Ophelia’s madness, a thought occurred to me.
What if Ophelia is pregnant?
I couldn’t shake this idea, though I had no real evidence for it. A little research showed that I was far from the first to make this guess. There are many allusions to pregnancy, particularly unwanted pregnancy, in the play. I’ll mention two scenes here.
In the cruel scene in which Hamlet destroys Ophelia while both Polonius and Claudius listen, he tells her to “Get thee to a nunnery!” Maybe Hamlet really means a brothel, the common interpretation. But what if he really is referring to a place for unwed women to go when they’ve become pregnant? More cruelly, though, Hamlet complains that “it were better that my mother had not borne me.” A rotten thing to say to the woman you’ve just knocked up – but then, Hamlet’s pretty rotten here. Then there’s this line:
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough;
God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another:
I first read this as being all about makeup and looking pretty. But could “another” face mean the face of a newborn? Certainly a trick men can’t pull off.
you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures,
Again, I’d interpreted this as youth and exuberance as an enticement to men, but could it also be an allusion to young motherhood, full of baby talk and nicknames for the child?
Not the strongest of evidence, I admit. At the least, though, this reading makes me think about Hamlet wanting to avoid fatherhood along with all the other adult things he wants to avoid. He sees, now, growth and life as “rank”, overgrown, festering, and death as preferable to all of it, if only he did not have bad dreams (dreams of Hell for killing himself).
More telling, I think, are Ophelia’s handing out of flowers. The flowers are not random; they’re incredibly significant. In particular, Ophelia gives to the queen and to herself a flower called rue. Rue means what you think it might mean from the name: regret. But it also has another meaning. Rue is a contraceptive; also it causes abortions.
Ophelia gives some to the queen. Imagine what would happen if the queen gave birth to a son by Claudius. Who would be the next in line for the throne, Hamlet or the new baby? Had he a son by Gertrude, Claudius would have great reason to have Hamlet killed. Ophelia, to the very end here, is trying to protect the man she loves.
But Ophelia also keeps some rue for herself. She tells the queen to “wear your rue with a difference.” (as a contraceptive). For Ophelia, perhaps the rue has a different purpose.
Did Ophelia drown herself to avoid giving birth to a child the world would not accept? A child the evil Claudius would fear and despise? A child Hamlet himself has (knowingly or unknowingly) already rejected with his words? I don’t think Shakespeare makes it clear that this is the case – and he certainly could have in the text. Maybe it was just too shocking. However, there’s enough here about conception, about pregnancy, about childbirth, to elicit some thought, and build yet another layer into an amazingly deep and complex play.