Sunday, February 2, 2014

IV.vii. Ophelia's Death

The tail end of Scene 7 is Gertrude's description of Ophelia's suicide, which immediately asks the question: Did Gertrude watch the girl die and do nothing? Is she instead recounting news as related to her, and who is the original witness who failed to intervene? Even more choices are open to film director who may, unlike stage productions, actually show the event, perhaps without even the benefit of Shakespeare's words supporting the images. This is why I've chosen to isolate such a short sequence. Before heading into the various adaptations, let's take a look at the language itself. As usual, the Bard is in italics, and I use normal script to break in.


CLAUDIUS: How now, sweet queen!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes.
LAERTES: Drown'd! O, where?

A strange question. Not "how", but "where". The "why" is self-evident, and so perhaps is the "how". Laertes may assume it's a suicide and not an accident, from what he's seen of his sister's madness, and only wants to go to her.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them:

The vegetable imagery, already associated with Ophelia, is here distinctly melancholy. The scene takes place by a "weeping" willow, and dead men's fingers are at once a reference to her dead father and through their grosser name (usually dogstones, but there's a selection of testicular nicknames that might be appropriate), to the question of sexuality and whether or not she slept with Hamlet. The two ideas intermingled in her mad rants.

There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds

With "coronet" we get the image of a flowery crown, a parody of the crown she might have worn had she become Hamlet's queen. Like Hamlet, her royal destiny has been aborted by Court intrigue.

Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:

The mermaid image takes us to the sea on which Hamlet has recently sailed. Like her, his life has been saved by that sea, but only temporarily. For Ophelia, death comes swiftly. Hamlet gets another Act, but no more.

Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
LAERTES: Alas, then, she is drown'd?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Drown'd, drown'd.
LAERTES: Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord:
I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze,
But that this folly douts it.


KING CLAUDIUS: Let's follow, Gertrude:
How much I had to do to calm his rage!
Now fear I this will give it start again;
Therefore let's follow.


In reality, Claudius fears Laertes' rage will be smothered by this new grief, though he says the opposite. We'll see how the acting and staging impacts the sequence in the weeks to come.


Lentilite said...

Did Gertrude watch the girl die and do nothing?

Well, okay, how 'bout this.
Given that:
~ Gertrude tells everyone a story about how Ophelia died.
~ Gertrude had hoped that Ophelia would marry Hamlet.
~ Gertrude insists that Ophelia be buried in the churchyard (or at least influenced the coroner), which she should not if she committed suicide.
~ Ophelia is pregnant.

It is suggested on the above site that perhaps Gertrude helped Ophelia commit suicide because it was her best option, being pregnant with the child of the exiled prince who killed her father.

But I think another option (that Shakespeare alludes to with Ophelia's the list of herbs in Act 2) is that Gertrude helps Ophelia get an abortion. And either the abortion killed her (as was likely in the 15th century) or caused an infection which led to Ophelia's "insanity" and later death. Either way Gertrude helped cover up her true cause of death with the "she drowned, accidentally, and quite slowly, but nobody could possibly help her" story.

Siskoid said...

I've seen that theory, and it's a legitimate take on the story, though by no means the only possibility.