Monday, November 23, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act IV, Scene 5 -- Part One

This is another scene that has SO MUCH going on that I'm going to split this into two parts.

Oh, this is a sad scene, isn't it?  For me, it's the saddest in the whole play.  I mean, yes, there's plenty of tragicalness to come, but Ophelia having lost her mind... it's heartbreaking.  She's probably the most guiltless character here, possibly except Horatio, and she's been so badly used by her father, her paramour, and her king -- I feel terrible for her.

Isn't it interesting that the Gentleman says Ophelia's "speech is nothing, Yet the unshaped use of it doth move The hearers to collection" (7-9) kind of mirrors what Polonius said about Hamlet's antic speech, that "though this be madness, yet there is method in't (II, 2, 201-02).  Hamlet was only pretending to mad, but it seems he was doing a very realistic job of it.

Also, even though Hamlet has been basically banished from Denmark, Horatio is still here.  And not just still here, but hanging out with Gertrude, giving her advice.  Do you suppose Hamlet asked him to stay and keep an eye on things?  Why do you think Claudius has kept him around?  I really have no idea -- I'm just doing my usual thing where I try to fill in gaps in stories I love.

Anyway, so Gertrude doesn't want to talk to Ophelia, but Horatio convinces her it would be a good idea, so in comes poor Ophelia.  She seems to be referring to her father's death and burial with her song about "He is dead and gone, lady" (28).  Then later she sings this rather bawdy song about a maiden who lost her virtue to a man who had promised to marry him, only to be spurned by him.  Sometimes this gets staged in a very bawdy way, implying more or less directly that this song somehow pertains to what's passed between Ophelia and Hamlet.  I'd like to share this insight from John Gielgud on this song:
"I'm rather sick of the wild indecency that has been put into the scene in recent productions, with Ophelia tearing off her clothes and clutching all the gentlemen.  I don't think Shakespeare meant it.  It must be a touching scene.  You see, I think in Shakespeare's time people always laughed at lunatics.  They visited madhouses right up to the eighteenth century in England as we visit the zoo today.  And Shakespeare knew that the only way to make madness pitiful, as is obvious with Lady Macbeth and Ophelia, was to give them a poignant, agonized, though not sentimental, scene.  If that was not intended by Shakespeare, Laertes would never say 'Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself she turns to favor and to prettiness.'  And to suddenly make Ophelia openly lewd onstage is against the intention of the writing." (John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet, Richard L. Sterne, p.16-17)
I like that.  (Obviously, or I wouldn't have taken the time to type it all up, huh?)  I don't personally think that Ophelia has been debauched by Hamlet, or is given to singing naughty songs.  I think it's much more likely this is a song she's heard the soldiers singing and thought was catchy, and it's just come to her mind now for some reason, so out it pops.  But if that's the case, I do wonder why Shakespeare has her sing it in particular... who knows.  The Freudians would say her madness has let her subconscious urges surface or something, I suppose.

Anyway, Ophelia threatens that Laertes will hear of Polonius' death (though clearly he already has) and runs off.  Claudius instructs Horatio to follow her and watch over her, and off goes Horatio too.  And that's where we'll stop today.

Favorite Lines:

"So full of artless jealously is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt" (18-19).

"Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be" (42-43).

"When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions" (77-78).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Hamlet is all about play-acting versus truly being, so of course Hamlet's feigned madness gets contrasted with Ophelia's genuine madness here.  Can you think of other reasons Shakespeare might have made her go mad instead of just making her really weepy or angry about Polonius' death and Hamlet's absence?  (Obviously if you haven't read/seen the whole play, this isn't going to work quite as well, but give it a whirl anyway if you want!)


  1. Ophelia's conflicting loyalties are the key: family or Hamlet but never self.

  2. I am so glad you shared that quote by Guilgud.I've never been comfortable with the smuttiness of Ophelia's insanity. Poo on what Old Fraud Freud might of suggested - he's also the source for Hamlet's sexual abuse of his mother. That's why we have to see the play every few years so we can scrub out the trendy of the past, (And I'm a psych major, so I have more than OFF exposure :^) ) And that's why I enjoy foreign languages. But back to Ophelia, yes- from how teary she is when Hamlet startles her in her chamber, I'd direct her as distraught, crying. I've seen her enter with real flowers, gaudy plastic ones, and an armful of dried grasses and twigs. I'd add bit of action to it with the grasses and twigs: she is holding one arm below her breasts & in that she is carrying the twigs, like holding a baby. With the other hand, she hands out bits as she names them. The bawdy song becomes a sorrowful lullabye. She probably wasn't just dreaming of marrying her Prince; she thought of little princes and princesses.(as your daughter may conceive -look to) I don't think dad or brother would have let her near enough to hear the bawdy version. More like a cautionary little song sung by the ladies in waiting.


    1. In the Ethan Hawke version, Ophelia is a photographer and hands out artsy Poloroid prints instead of flowers. I really dug that.

      I could see the song as a cautionary one, definitely! I like that interpretation.

  3. What a nerve wracking evening! The villainous treacherous lap top ate my post, ate its power cord, and took more than hour to finally re-charge.
    Ophelia's flowers:
    Claudius - fennel & columbine - too bad no poison ivy.
    Gertrude - rue (She's the only one who doesn't abuse her some way.)
    Laertes - rosemary and pansies
    herself - a daisy crown or necklace
    which leads us to (drum roll - you knew it was coming) the role of Horatio. He persuades the queen to see Ophelia on her first entry & follows the queen's entreaty to follow her at her first exit. When Ophelia returns, stage direction doesn't tell us whether Horatio is with her. I've seen it played both ways, as part of his being a witness even when he has no lines. I think it's the CS version -among others - that does have him following her in, then part way up a flight of stairs where he can stand above the group below, and observe without interfering, *If* a director places him among the group, I'd say give him rosemary for remembrance. Even amid her madness, I think she associates him with Hamlet, wants him to tell her falling off. Compare this with the "Remember me" of the ghost and Hamlet's coming "Report me and my cause aright."
    Needless to say, if it is played this way, he'll follow her out again. Which might lead to a dreadful consequence.
    In my yard I planted Ophelia's garden with all of the plants mentioned here, plus a miniature rose for Ophelia. ~smile~ if you want to do this, remember that fennel is a hardy, aggressive, villainous plant. Plant it or the Rose of May in a separate container to prevent the rose from being overrun.

    1. What a dreadful computer! I've had that happen many times, and know your pain only too well.

      I love giving Horatio the rosemary -- I would do that too. I'm going to watch the Ethan Hawke version tonight, and I'll try to take note of who she gives them all to in that one, and if Horatio is there. And yes, I really love how Hamlet's "report me and my cause aright" mirrors the Ghost's "remember me."

      I would love to have an Ophelia garden one day! Thanks for the warning on the fennel. I do have two rose bushes, and they both bloom 4 or 5 times a year.

  4. Yeah, I don't really know what to think of this scene right now. That is interesting though how Shakespeare was trying to makes madness a pitiable thing. Definitely worked.

    1. Sarah, I'm sorry it's taking me so long to reply to comments. Have you decided what to think of this scene?

  5. Thanks for the Gielgud quote ..... I'm right along there with him, although I know that our modern sensibilites would tend to go for the more debauched view ....... sadly ..... :-( I thought the loss of virginity could echo the loss of Ophelia's innocence. She was really quite a simple and sweet soul, but now she's lost not only her love (Hamlet), but her father forever. It's enough to push her over the edge.

    Why did Shakespeare have Ophelia go mad? Well, it sets up a contrast for Hamlet's madness and it gives Laertes another reason for revenge, which, of course, is a mirror for Hamlet's revenge. Otherwise, I have no idea ..... ;-)

    1. Cleopatra, you're welcome. I think that whether or not Ophelia and Hamlet have slept together, she's still a proper, innocent girl in every other way.

      I think the contrast with Hamlet's madness is the main reason Ophelia goes mad. It's that pretending-versus-really-being thing again -- Hamlet's play madness gets compared easily to real madness this way.

  6. I think this was the saddest scene I have read yet! Poor Ophelia - it really was heartbreaking to see her like that.
    My sentiments when she sang that risky song, was that it showed just how out of it she was, as it went against everything we have learnt of her character this far.

    1. Rose, that's definitely another interpretation, that her singing an out-of-character song shows how mad she is. Nice!


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