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During the play within the play, Hamlet asks his mother what she thinks of the play, and Queen Gertrude replies, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." The real problem in the play is that the ladies don't protest enough, in my opinion. The women in Hamlet have probably launched hundreds of thousands of term papers in the past 30 years or so, to say nothing of scholarly papers and essays, feminist and otherwise. Lots of clever, well-educated people have done mountains of research on them. You will find none of that here - just my own blatherings.

I want to talk about how both Gertrude and Ophelia aren't heard by the men in the play. They are correct when the men to whom they defer - Claudius and Polonius, respectively - are wrong, and how their inability to be guided by their own beliefs leads to disaster. Those are my theories, and I'm sticking to them. I should warn you that I'm not relying on any treatise or article that says such a thing – these are my opinions off the cuff, so take them or leave them as you will.

Still here? Okay. Here's the thing. Early on in the play, when Claudius (the King) and Polonius (the Secretary of State, essentially) are discussing what could be wrong with Hamlet, Polonius insists that Hamlet is crazy because he has been thwarted in his love for Ophelia. Gertrude, however, says that she suspects Hamlet's upset over the death of his father and the "o'erhasty marriage" between Claudius and Gertrude.

He tells me, my dear Gertrude, he hath found
The head and source of all your son's distemper.

I doubt it is no other but the main;
His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.

Well, we shall sift him.
  Act II, sc. 2.

Certainly Gertrude has the right of it in this situation, for Hamlet has been quite clear in his speeches that he's upset about the death of his father and his mother's rapid marriage to her brother-in-law. That she does not know the role Claudius played in her first husband's death can be inferred here, since she does not intimate that anything else (particularly anything as untoward as that) has taken place.

Similarly, early in the play Ophelia is warned by her brother to beware of falling in love with Hamlet, who, as a royal, will likely have to marry for purposes of state, and not based on emotion. Her father goes one better and warns her off Hamlet for all purposes, claiming that Hamlet doesn't truly care for her and only wants to get in her knickers. Ophelia protests that Hamlet does love her, but she is shouted down (quite literally) by Polonius.

What is between you? give me up the truth.

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.

Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

Marry, I'll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or--not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus--you'll tender me a fool.

My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honorable fashion.

Ay, fashion you may call it; go to, go to.

And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.

Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire.
  Act I, sc. 3

Ophelia, however, was right. It's proved in the poem written for her by Hamlet from when they were together ("Doubt thou that the stars are fire . . . But never doubt I love" in Act II, sc. 2), by his saying "I did love you once" (Act III, sc. 1), and by his distress at her funeral ("I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quantity of love, make up my sum." Act V, sc. 1.)

Had either of the men (Claudius or Polonius) actually listened to Gertrude and Ophelia early in the play, perhaps they would not have set Ophelia up to further betray Hamlet by turning spy for them.

Hamlet, knowing that he was being observed, could not help but feel betrayed by Ophelia, so he lashed out in anger, confusing and hurting Ophelia in return. Does it mean he didn't love her? No – it meant he was angry, and hurt, and feeling betrayed. The woman he loved was returning his letters and gifts, refusing to spend time with him, and now setting up for her father's benefit as well. How else should he feel? Not that it justifies his telling her that he'd never loved her and to get herself to a nunnery (a word which had the double meaning of "convent" and "whorehouse", rendering his comment ambiguous at best and insulting at worst).

Ophelia, unable to trust her own belief in Hamlet's love any longer, is terribly hurt by his performance for Polonius and Claudius. She is cut adrift at that point from the man she loves (as a possible life companion), and left with only her father (Laertes being in France, after all). Gertrude, in allowing herself to be persuaded that Hamlet's antics are related to Ophelia, agrees to allow Polonius to listen in on her conversation with Hamlet, which gets Polonius killed. Polonius's death results in Ophelia being completely cut adrift. I'm not the only one to make that particular connection, either. Here's a scene from the Canadian series, Slings & Arrows, and the episode in which the director, Geoffrey Tennant, tries to explain Ophelia's madness to the (untalented first) Ophelia. You can read it, immediately below, or watch it, just after:

Ophelia is a child. She has been dominated by powerful men all of her life, and suddenly they all disappear. Her brother goes to France. Her father is murdered by her boyfriend, and he is shipped off to England. She is alone for the first time, grieving and heartbroken and guilty because, as far as she's concerned, it's all her fault. She ignored her brother's advice and fell in love with Hamlet and now her father is dead all because of her. And the pain, and the loss, and shame and the guilt – all of this, is gnawing away inside this little child's mind, and it comes out as little songs. "And will he not come again? And will he not come again? No. No. He is dead." My father is dead, and I killed him. 'kay?

But I digress.

In the scene in which Hamlet kills Polonius (Act III, sc. 4), Gertrude is horrified to hear Hamlet's opinions of her and her conduct, but she does hear him out. And even though he sees the ghost of King Hamlet again (and she claims not to – some productions play it that she saw it, but denied it), she accepts that he is NOT mad by the end of the scene, that Claudius killed her first husband, and agrees to protect Hamlet's secret. In fact, she tells Claudius that Hamlet is as mad as the sea and wind when they argue to see which is superior (Act IV, sc. 1).

Another bit about Ophelia, before I go. While Hamlet feigns his madness and Ophelia's is arguably for real, there is also a method in her madness. The songs that she sings in Act IV, scene 5 are not complete nonsense, but are related to her story. She sings two songs related to her father's death, and the other song she sings – a bawdy one – is about a gentleman who beds a maid, then refuses to marry her because she'd already gone to bed with him. (It is similar to one of my grandmother's favorite catchphrases: "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?") The song she sings has been interpreted by many to indicate that she and Hamlet had been lovers. It could be that they were; it could as easily be that she wished they were, and now knows they never shall be - he has told her their relationship is over and been sent to England, after all. Her later quotes about rosemary ("that's for remembrance") are a reference to a well-known poem (also set to music) called A Nosegay Always Sweet, For Lovers to Send for Tokens of Love at New Year's Tide, or for Fairings.

Here endeth my ramblings on the play, although I must say that I believe I could have done a month's worth of posts on Hamlet alone. There will be one more Hamlet-related post, in which I'll be discussing various movie versions; otherwise, we're moving on to Henry V. Which reminds me that I've got something special planned for that. But you shall see tomorrow what it is. *rubs hands and cackles, a la one of the witches from Macbeth*

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 10th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
i dunno....
I think Hamlet just wanted to get in her knickers.
Jun. 10th, 2009 03:46 am (UTC)
Re: i dunno....
I did say that it was just my opinion. I think. I meant to, in any event.
Jun. 10th, 2009 10:50 am (UTC)
me thinks....
I agree
Jun. 10th, 2009 03:25 am (UTC)
Fascinating...and it was either Henry IV or V on which I wrote a test essay in college -- and my professor fell so in love with it, that he asked for my permission to publish it (under his name, I might add, though I didn't quite understand that, at the time) in a literary journal. Alas, I can't even remember the gist of the question which inspired the essay, though I know it had something to do with Henry and his father.
Jun. 10th, 2009 03:48 am (UTC)
Henry V is coming up tomorrow. Hee.
Jun. 10th, 2009 03:32 am (UTC)
This makes me want to go back and JUST read G and O's words, totally out of context. Hmm...
Jun. 10th, 2009 03:48 am (UTC)
Do it. DO. IT.
Jun. 10th, 2009 10:25 am (UTC)
Very good point about the women not being listened to, or being misunderstood if they are heard. The one place where Hamlet really reads between the lines and understands Ophelia, is when she tells him her father is "at home, my lord," when really he's right there spying on them.

During Ophelia's mad scene, however, something very strange happens, involving Claudius. He's horrified by her song, and demands to know "how long has she been like this?" In addition to singing a song about being deflowered, but not married by her seducer, Ophelia relives a conversation with some "sweet ladies" who give her "good counsel." Claudius says, "follow her close, give her good watch," yet the next time we see Ophelia, she's dead.

Not only that, but Ophelia comes in demanding to see the "beauteous majesty of Denmark,"--ie, Claudius.

Put this together with the fact that 1)Polonius wants Ophelia to dump Hamlet, and 2) Hamlet is obsessed with doubting Ophelia's chastity, and a dark possibility emerges. Polonius thinks Ophelia can do better than Hamlet. Claudius thinks Ophelia is going to say something incriminating. And Gertrude, just before the mad scene, says, "I will not see her." Ophelia talks about flowers and herbs...a lot. "there's fennel for you, and columbines." (flattery and deceit.) "there's rue (sorrow) for you, and some for me. oh, you must wear yours with a difference--there's a daisy.(infidelity.)"

Small wonder if the king and queen are a bit paranoid after this encounter, but there's more! All of the abovementioned herbs, are abortifacients. And using too much can induce....you guessed it, madness.

I think Ophelia's suicide, and her innocence or lack thereof, is meant to be every bit as ambiguous and mysterious as Marilyn Monroe's. Ophelia loves Hamlet, and would have made him a faithful wife, but just as Hamlet "cannot carve for himself," neither can she. She expects Hamlet to rescue her with a marriage proposal, and instead he urges her to "get thee to a nunnery." Little does she know that this advice stems at least in part from the fact that marriage to Hamlet would literally endanger her life, as long as Claudius is alive.

Hamlet compares Claudius to a serpent that "poisons everything in the garden." That includes Ophelia.
Jun. 10th, 2009 01:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Ophelia
Interesting stuff. I don't believe anything was going on between Claudius and Ophelia, though. And I read Polonius as telling Ophelia that she's not good enough for Hamlet, not that she can do better.

I also read Polonius as a darker character than most people give him credit for being. Hamlet's comments about Jephthah and about Polonius being a fishmonger/fleshmonger make that clear. Which reminds me I have a post about that to put up before I move on.
Jun. 10th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Ophelia
Polonius is telling Ophelia to "tender herself more dearly." But it's very clear he's working both ends against the middle trying to make a royal match for her.

We see from his later actions that he breaks up the young couple as a ploy to force Hamlet's hand, and gain a royal marriage. Polonius isn't direct, he's manipulative. He slanders his son to find out the truth, he breaks up his daughter's romance to discover whether Hamlet's intentions are pure.

Hamlet's comments about Polonius being a fishmonger are actually a joke about Lord Burleigh's new laws requiring a certain number of fish days each month, even though the country no longer had any religious reason to follow the old Catholic custom of fish days. Lord Burleigh was concerned with selling fish because the fishing industry supported England's navy. You could be arrested, fined, and imprisoned if you were caught eating meat on a fish day.

I know it's been traditional to read "fishmonger" as whoremonger, but that's because we don't get the joke and we want it to mean something! It's never used that way in any other play.

But the Jephthah quote, and the "if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog*snip* conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to it," is about Polonius going about to sell his daughter's flesh to the king as a concubine, rather than letting her marry Hamlet, a common practice in the Tudor courts and one that could prove fatal to Ophelia, what with all the murdering and poisoning going on in "Denmark."

The sun=the king. Hamlet, not being the king, isn't the sun here, nor is he a "good kissing carrion"--ie, a killer. Polonius may actually be innocent of the accusation--we are given NO indication that he's arranged any other suitors for Ophelia whatsoever. But whatever Polonius' plans for Ophelia are, they involve the royal family, and Hamlet knows this.

Since Hamlet apparently doesn't know whether Ophelia is a virgin, if she isn't, it's not Hamlet's fault. He'd know, if he slept with her. What he can't tell, is whether perhaps she's slept with someone else.

I read Polonius as very ambitious, a quality Shakespeare distrusted, especially in commoners and newly-created nobles.
Jun. 11th, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)
Great stuff, Kelly. You're running circles around me, but also making me think. :)

And Slings and Arrows -- swoon! One of my favorite shows of all time.
Jun. 11th, 2009 12:51 am (UTC)
I'm just prattling about some of the things I've been thinking about. I was seriously trapped inside my head for much of the weekend, thinking about Hamlet. Hubby and I even went to NYC to see Guys and Dolls. I read and took notes on the way up, while waiting for the show to start, at intermission, and on the way home. And I spent most of my time while we were walking around or eating or whatever thinking about the play and the characters as well. (I managed to pay attention to the show, but I confess that part of the time, I tried to figure out if any of the characters were similar to any of Shakespeare's characters. Certainly with Sister Sarah and Sky Masterson sparring and at cross-purposes, I thought of Benedick and Beatrice, or perhaps Rosalind and Orlando from As You Like It. But not really.)
Jun. 11th, 2009 12:55 am (UTC)
I love how your mind works!
Jun. 11th, 2009 12:52 am (UTC)
Ooh - meant to say that so far, the scene I included here is my favorite of the series. Paul Gross's performance there is splendid!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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