24 July 2014

Ophelia as Fulcrum

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

I wrote, in my last column, of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude. I am an old fan of the prince of Denmark, as easily irked by his whiny indecision as I am charmed by his brooding darkness, as infuriated by his harsh cruelties as I am moved by his troubles and ruminations. And although I tend to scoff at most Freudian interpretations, even I wonder, sometimes, if Prince Hamlet seems to find similarities between Gertrude and Ophelia, and, therefore, shows mixed feelings towards the latter, hurting her as a substitute for hurting his mother. There is little doubt that he is cruel to Ophelia; in his proclamations that the women who seem pure are, in fact, black in their hearts with corruption and sexual desire, he slanders and judges her as the men in Shakespeare are wont to do.

Hamlet sees Ophelia as a willing decoy to the King in the nunnery scene; understandably, this is an act of betrayal as far as Hamlet is concerned and is a repetition of Gertrude’s betrayal of his father. (How easily he denounces the fidelity of women in general!) Gertrude’s betrayal has such violent repercussions that Hamlet begins to question the very notion of love. This possibly explains his behaviour towards Ophelia.

He says to her, before banishing her to a nunnery: ‘Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.’ So hurt is he by Gertrude’s deception that he cannot trust Ophelia, equating her beauty with infidelity (the crime his mother seems to have committed).

In the play-within-the-play scene, Hamlet refuses to sit by his mother, choosing, instead, to sit by Ophelia. This is Hamlet attempting to distance himself from his mother because he knows what he must do. If he allows Gertrude to affect his decision once more, as she did earlier and effected a delay, he may even convince himself that the play is not proof enough. In order to be resolute and avenge his father, Hamlet makes a conscious decision to keep his distance from Gertrude. Unfortunately, Ophelia once more becomes a pawn in this game.

Ophelia, though, is mostly like a child, more a Dickensian heroine than a Shakespearean one; she is naive and ingenuous, utterly unsophisticated in the ways of men. She is sheltered by her father and her brother and spends her days gathering flowers and threading needles and being generally sweet. Famous portrayals of Ophelia have had actresses playing her as mentally unstable, perhaps traumatized by incidents in her past. In Shakespeare, she is so blank a slate, so devoid of anything but gentleness and frailness, that anything – insanity, conniption, foolishness – can be painted easily on to her character. She is the good daughter of an over-ambitious father, the good girlfriend of an abusive boyfriend, the good sister of a misogynistic brother – is she ever anything but good? Even her death seems bizarre – she does not throw herself into the water so much as fall into it, weighed down to a watery death.

Ophelia, though, turns out to be the fulcrum of the play. It is at Ophelia’s funeral that Hamlet becomes keenly aware of the injustice done to her. Indeed, Gertrude too speaks from her heart when she mourns Ophelia and talks of the marriage that could have been. This is a turning point for Gertrude. Hitherto, she has used her power over Hamlet to delay his revenge and make him doubt the validity of the Ghost’s accusations. Now, seeing how the string of events has resulted in the death of Ophelia – whom Gertrude probably cared about genuinely – she has a change of heart.

Gertrude sees the ramifications of her actions. She determines to stand by her son even if she has to sacrifice herself. She does not openly swear her allegiance, but when she drinks the poison meant for Hamlet, her position becomes clear to him, and it is this that finally gives him the strength to do what he has known all along that he must do.


How easily one woman stands for all women in our world. Hamlet’s logic flows thus: If Gertrude has been unfaithful, then it follows that all women are unfaithful, and since Ophelia is a woman, she must be unfaithful too. This is laughable on paper but everyday judgements are passed just this way, especially when it comes to female indiscretion; we stand for our genders and our genders stand for us, and somewhere in the blurred lines between the two, our personalities are lost, fallen into a lake, weighed down and drowned.