Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

Ah, Shakespeare. In my previous post, I wrote about how I could not fathom how anyone could not at least like The Wind in the Willows, and now, with this post, I swap sides and join the ranks of the unfathomable. Everyone who loves classics seems to love Shakespeare, everyone that is except me.

I've tried several times since re-reading Hamlet back in January to write this post, and not managing to write anything at all has been at the back of my mind for a while. It's on my 25 re-reads list, and I wanted to write something about all the books I've read, and furthermore, most importantly, re-reading some of these books has changed my opinion on both the books I've revisited and the authors too. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most important books I've read this year: for over a decade I've had a strong aversion to most books by Jane Austen and I couldn't understand what it was that was so appealing, but in reading Pride and Prejudice again I suddenly saw her in an entirely new light. Austen is, all of a sudden, exciting. And Henry James - I love his novellas (not so much the novels, though), but I never got into The Turn of the Screw. But now I love it, and same with Middlemarch - that was one of the most rewarding re-reads of 2013. Finally, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway - I've always loved that, but re-reading it gave me a deeper appreciation. It made me love Woolf all the more. But Hamlet? I liked Hamlet when I read it for my A Levels in 1999, and I still like it. But "like" is as passionate as I get for Shakespeare. And how do I write about a book that I have no strong feelings for? But, it's the fact that I can't that makes me want to get on with it, so I shall try to write something, however I won't write about Hamlet, I shall write about Ophelia. 

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais. 1852. Oil on Canvas. Tate Britain.

Ophelia was a favourite among Pre-Raphaelite artists in the 19th Century, most famously portrayed by Elizabeth Siddal (1829 - 1862) in John Everett Millais' Ophelia (1861 - 1862), but there are several other paintings - here are my favourites:

by John William Waterhouse, 1889. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
by Arhur Hughes, 1851. Oil on canvas. City of Manchester Art Galleries.

by John William Waterhouse, 1910. Oil on canvas.
Private collection.

by John William Waterhouse, 1894. Oil on canvas.
Private collection.

The skull in Millais' Ophelia.
She was the daughter of Polonious, the sister of Laertes, and the love of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. She is virginal; she embodies innocence, and she is the victim of Hamlet's madness (or apparent madness). She intrigues me, but there is no real insight into her flat, one dimensional character. Her death is inevitable, and we can attribute her own madness and suicide to Hamlet, but if only it weren't so. It's wrong to dislike someone's writing because they did not write what you wanted them to write about, but at the same time I can't help but feel that. I wanted more. I wanted Ophelia by William Shakespeare, and perhaps others have wanted that, perhaps that is part of the reason she has become a kind of cult figure in art, although I can't help but feel the female victim of a man had, once, a certain kind of glamour attached to her. I wished for strength from a character who was weak (a weak character from all angles, it might be said), but then I have to wonder how old she was. I think she could have been so much more, but, well, I read Hamlet, not Ophelia.

"Oh rose of May!" (Laertes). From Millais' Ophelia.
The references to flowers were very interesting, however. Floriology, or the study of the meaning of flowers, is quite a fascinating subject. Ophelia is like a flower herself, and the flowers she hands out in Act 4 Scene 5, the flowers she gathers before her death, and the flowers at her funeral are all fraught with meaning. Indeed there are a lot of references to flowers and weeds in Hamlet, Hamlet himself refers to life as "an unweeded garden, / That grows to
From Millais' Ophelia.
seed; things rank and gross in nature" (Act 1 Scene 2), his love for Ophelia is described by Laertes as "
A violet in the youth of primy nature" (Act 1 Scene 3), and in warning Ophelia to remain a virgin, he says, "The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd" (Act 1 Scene 3). In her madness, Ophelia says to Laertes, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts."

From Millais' Ophelia.
To the King and Queen she gives fennel (strength), columbines (foolishness), and rue (sorrow; and a bitter herb known to cause miscarriages: Ophelia says, "there's rue for you; and here's some for me", which could be a reason why some scholars argue that Ophelia may have been pregnant). Then violets are mentioned (faithfulness and modesty), but "I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died". And, finally in this scene, daisies - innocence and purity. Perhaps this scene shows I haven't given enough credit to her, and that she was braver and stronger than it appeared. 

From Millais' Ophelia.
Soon after this scene, it is revealed by the Queen (in Act 4 Scene 7) that Ophelia has drowned. In one of my favourite speeches in Shakespeare, she says,
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 crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring 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;
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indu'd
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.
From Millais' Ophelia.

Willow - the weeping willow - for mourning and forsaken love, crowflowers (buttercups) meaning ingratitude, nettles to represent pain, daisies, as mentioned, for innocence, and long purples (the purple orchid) for love, beauty, and also lust (the word orchid comes from the Greek "ὄρχις" meaning "testicle").

Yes, I did enjoy the symbolism of flowers in Hamlet, and Ophelia is for me one of the most intriguing characters in Shakespeare's plays. As I say, I liked Hamlet, and I enjoyed reading it again. But I can never manage to love Shakespeare as much as others. I think I should follow one of my friend's advice, that is to watch Shakespeare, not read him. There's a lot to be said for reading plays, but I do wonder if I'd enjoy the performance more.

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Further reading:

Comments

  1. Ophelia is such a fascinating character. I love what you wrote about the flowers; I remember doing an analysis of their symbolism the first time I ever wrote about Hamlet. There's such a wealth of meaning in those short lines.

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    1. Yes, I never appreciated that the first time I read it. I was aware that there was symbolism, but it was very interesting researching this post and learning about it properly :)

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  2. It's very unlike me, but I actually like the idea of Ophelia being pregnant. When I read some scholar's article about it, I was first shocked, but then her speeches finally started making sense! And I like when something makes sense.

    Have you tried reading Macbeth? This is the play that made me love Shakespeare.

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    1. It does make sense, doesn't it? When I first read it I thought it was another example of folk reading WAY too deeply. But it's definitely possible.

      I have read Macbeth, but I was only 15 at the time. Perhaps I'll re-read it again soon... :)

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  3. I actually liked Hamlet so much I visited Elsinore (or the Helsingør castle twice while living close to Denmark). Interestingly, there's a tapestry of a king that actually killed his own brother in order to take his title.

    Never heard of the pregnant theory! Now I have to read it again, keeping in mind that she might be expecting Hamlet's child. Then she might just be one of the sanest characters in the play (she died out of desperation and in mysterious circumstances since the reader knows of her death through Gertrude's words). It actually makes sense since it is after all a play of uncertainty.

    I feel that she is often glamourized because the character is famous (even people who haven't read/seen the play might have an idea of what it is about) but not understood.

    Plays are made to be seen and heard. That being said, I also haven't seen it on stage (main reason for that is the fact that they don't play it in English where I live and I don't like my Shakespeare translated at all).

    P.S I was also an Austen-skeptic a few years ago. Pride and Prejudice is a good novel indeed but my favorite is Persuasion. I recommend it to you if you haven't read/reread it already. I feel like it is her least liked but to me, it is her quiet child - shy but extremely bright and clever. It discusses class prejudice and its consequences far more than P&P does.

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    1. I like the idea of Ophelia being the sanest one! Perhaps she was....

      "Plays are made to be seen and heard." - agreed. That's why I read very few plays. I'm going to try and get some Shakespeare DVDs.

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  4. Enjoyed reading this post! I've heard the name Ophelia often, and have been too ignorant of Shakespeare to know which play she is in. I read R&J and tried to read (and like) both Hamlet and Macbeth. It hasn't clicked for me yet. I do sense, though, Shakespeare is like opera - you have to watch and hear it to fully appreciate it.

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    1. I've known about Ophelia for a very long time because of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, but even though I've read all of Shakespeare I still get confused with who is in what!

      I wish Shakespeare would click with me!

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  5. I really dislike Shakespeare. I've made peace with it. There's plenty of great writing out there that I love, and we just can't all like everything.

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