(Also submitted to Magpie 98 and ABC Wednesday)
"Y" is for "Year"
It was on a riverbank just like the one above that there occurred one of the most tragic scenes in Shakespeare:
In the play "Hamlet," it was the year of Ophelia's death.
Not just a tragedy, it was a mystery.
She drowned, but was it an accident or was it suicide?
Surely you’re familiar with Ophelia. She was Hamlet’s true love – not that he really appreciated her.
A daughter of the Lord Chamberlain, she can hardly be said to have lived a normal life; she had been firmly sheltered.
Ophelia clings to the memory of the days when Prince Hamlet had treated her with respect and tenderness, and she defends him and loves him to the very end despite his harsh treatment of her. She is incapable of defending herself, but through her timid responses we see clearly her intense suffering.
Her innocence is not a tactic. She simply cannot cope with the unfolding of one traumatic event after another.
Hamlet causes her emotional pain throughout the play and when she learns he is responsible for her father's death, she has endured all that she is capable of enduring and goes insane.
There follows the scene when she, quite mad, appears before the King and Queen. Ophelia, the very symbol of innocence, sings naughty songs, ditties no one would have expected she would even have been familiar with. They may seem harmless to us, living our dissolute twenty-first century lives, but from Ophelia at that time they’re something of a shock.
For example, she sang:
“Then up he rose and donn’d his clothes,
And op’d the chamber door.
Let in the maid, that out a maid,
Never departed more.”
Her subsequent death by drowning is reported to the court by the Queen, whose announcement of Ophelia's death has been praised as a kind of literary zenith; it’s one of the most poetic reports of death in all literature.
“There is a willow grows across the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of flowers, nettles, daisies and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name."
"Down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up, but long it could not be,
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch to muddy death.”
But there’s one thing that has always bothered me about this; it’s the mystery I mentioned earlier. The Queen makes the report as one who had been there, watching.
How could she have watched all this and done nothing to save the girl?
In addition, did Ophelia fall in or was it suicide?
Later, at her funeral, we see a sexton at the graveyard insisting she had killed herself and that the religious ceremony must be curtailed. Her brother Laertes is outraged by what the cleric says, and replies that Ophelia will be an angel in heaven when the cleric "lies howling in hell.”
1 year ago