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.

08 July 2014

The Great Hamlet Gertrude Conundrum

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.



In Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist desperately wants vengeance to be his, but is unable to take matters into his own hands. The question ‘Why does Hamlet delay?’ has been asked several times by several critics. No answer is yet entirely satisfactory. The machinations of Gertrude, who is aware of Hamlet’s attachment to her and her influence on him, manipulate him into delaying the action as much as possible. She does so to protect herself from being found out and to protect her son from the discovery that would shatter all his illusions about her. It is not just her sexual infidelity, if it is that at all, that horrifies Hamlet: it is the idea of her committing murder.

Hamlet, who is often seen as an intellectual protagonist, takes us through a series of soliloquies in which he questions the meanings of his actions, toys with the idea of death and contemplates the morality of revenge. Readers may come to the conclusion that Hamlet delays because he ponders the idea of revenge so much and is uncertain of the morality of his actions. But surely the almost perfunctory show of remorse that Hamlet makes after killing Polonius makes it clear that Hamlet has no qualms about committing murder. Rather than questioning the morality of vengeance itself, Hamlet is preoccupied with the idea of doling justice out equally, i.e., if Claudius must die, then must Gertrude die too? Hamlet delays in order to either exonerate his mother and therefore kill his uncle without guilt or to suspend the killing of his mother as much as possible.

In this regard, the question of Gertrude’s guilt becomes important. She is accused of three crimes: adultery, murder and incest. The third we know she is guilty of. The former two are more doubtful and Hamlet is just as confused as the reader about Gertrude’s involvement in the murder of King Hamlet and her relationship with Claudius before the murder. Gertrude, to protect Hamlet, manipulates him in the bedroom scene; until then, Hamlet’s intentions were to confront his mother, ascertain the truth and proceed with the revenge. After the scene, Hamlet goes through a series of doubts that are cleverly planted in him by Gertrude.

There are, in fact, quite a few versions of Hamlet in existence. In the first quarto (known among academics as the ‘bad quarto’), Gertrude vehemently denies any affiliation with the murder of the King: ‘But as I have a soul, I swear by heaven, / I never knew of this most horrid murder.’ This declaration, however, does not exist in the second quarto or the folio, leaving Gertrude’s role in the murder an ambiguous possibility. Hamlet, eager to believe Gertrude’s innocence in at least the former two sins, hurls accusations at her when he meets her in her bedroom, hoping to find evidence of her blamelessness. For him, the revenge must be delayed until he knows that his mother was not complicit in his uncle’s crimes. Without this evidence, condemning his uncle involves condemning his mother as well and Hamlet cannot bring himself to do that just yet. This is why also that Hamlet finds a reason to delay the murder of Claudius in the prayer scene.

This is not because he possesses a glorified image of her virtue; rather, it is because, given his own ‘virtue’, he will have to kill his mother for her sins if he is to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet puts off, as much as possible, having to be the Orestes to Gertrude’s Clytemnestra. This is not to suggest, as several critics have, that he would rather be the Oedipus to her Jocasta. Rather, this is an ordinary relationship between mother and son: Hamlet must struggle to forget that Gertrude is his mother and think of her, at the very least, as the wife of a murderer, even if not a murderer herself.

Others too see this relationship for what it is: Polonius even goes to the extent of hiding in the closet during the conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude. He seems to do this to ensure that Gertrude uses her powers to manipulate Hamlet and persuade him to abandon his plans of revenge. Hamlet arrives on the scene with specific objectives: to determine his mother’s role in the injustices done to his father and to persuade her to leave Claudius. Indeed, Hamlet seems to make allowance for his mother’s complicity and gives her one last chance to redeem herself by switching sides. But when he gets involved in the conversation, it takes on a more ominous note and Hamlet embarks on a tirade against her sins and condemns her for the incest she has committed.


The Gertrude-Hamlet problem is an old one: Freudian theorists wax eloquent about the complex and possibly sexual relationship between mother and son; but like in the Electra of Sophocles, there is much humanity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – these delays are the struggles of a human heart that cannot extract revenge without self-doubt, that cannot even be desirous of it without heartache.