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As we have seen, all the persons in Hamlet except the hero are minor characters, who fail to rise to the tragic level. They are not less interesting on that account, but the hero has occupied us so long that I shall refer only to those in regard to whom Shakespeare's intention appears to be not seldom misunderstood or overlooked.
It may seem strange that Ophelia should be one of these; and yet Shakespearean literature and the experience of teachers show that there is much difference of opinion regarding her, and in particular that a large number of readers feel a kind of personal irritation against her. They seem unable to forgive her for not having been a heroine, and they fancy her much weaker than she was. They think she ought to have been able to help Hamlet to fulfil his task. And they betray, it appears to me, the strangest misconceptions as to what she actually did.
Now it was essential to Shakespeare's purpose that too great an interest should not be aroused in the love-story; essential, therefore, that Ophelia should be merely one of the subordinate characters; and necessary, accordingly, that she should not be the equal, in spirit, power or intelligence, of his famous heroines. If she had been an Imogen, a Cordelia, even a Portia or a Juliet, the story must have taken another shape. Hamlet would either have been stimulated to do his duty, or (which is more likely) he would have gone mad, or (which is likeliest) he would have killed himself in despair. Ophelia, therefore, was made a character who could not help Hamlet, and for whom on the other hand he would not naturally feel a passion so vehement or profound as to interfere with the main motive of the play. And in the love and the fate of Ophelia herself there was introduced an element, not of deep tragedy but of pathetic beauty, which makes the analysis of her character seem almost a desecration.
Ophelia is plainly quite young and inexperienced. She has lost her mother, and has only a father and a brother, affectionate but worldly, to take care of her. Everyone in the drama who has any heart is drawn to her. To the persons in the play, as to the readers of it, she brings the thought of flowers. 'Rose of May' Laertes names her.
Lay her in the earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring!
--so he prays at her burial. 'Sweets to the sweet' the Queen murmurs, as she scatters flowers on the grave; and the flowers which Ophelia herself gathered--those which she gave to others, and those which floated about her in the brook--glimmer in the picture of the mind. Her affection for her brother is shown in two or three delicate strokes. Her love for her father is deep, though mingled with fear. For Hamlet she has, some say, no deep love--and perhaps she is so near childhood that old affections have still the strongest hold; but certainly she has given to Hamlet all the love of which her nature is as yet capable. Beyond these three beloved ones she seems to have eyes and ears for no one. The Queen is fond of her, but there is no sign of her returning the Queen's affection. Her existence is wrapped up in these three.
On this childlike nature and on Ophelia's inexperience everything depends. The knowledge that 'there's tricks in the world' has reached her only as a vague report. Her father and brother are jealously anxious for her because of her ignorance and innocence; and we resent their anxiety chiefly because we know Hamlet better than they. Her whole character is that of simple unselfish affection. Naturally she is incapable of understanding Hamlet's mind, though she can feel its beauty. Naturally, too, she obeys her father when she is forbidden to receive Hamlet's visits and letters. If we remember not what we know but what she knows of her lover and her father; if we remember that she had not, like Juliet, confessed her love; and if we remember that she was much below her suitor in station, her compliance surely must seem perfectly natural, apart from the fact that the standard of obedience to a father was in Shakespeare's day higher than in ours.
'But she does more than obey,' we are told; 'she runs off frightened to report to her father Hamlet's strange visit and behaviour; she shows to her father one of Hamlet's letters, and tells him the whole story of the courtship; and she joins in a plot to win Hamlet's secret from him.' One must remember, however, that she had never read the tragedy. Consider for a moment how matters looked to her. She knows nothing about the Ghost and its disclosures. She has undergone for some time the pain of repelling her lover and appearing to have turned against him. She sees him, or hears of him, sinking daily into deeper gloom, and so transformed from what he was that he is considered to be out of his mind. She hears the question constantly discussed what the cause of this sad change can be; and her heart tells her--how can it fail to tell her?--that her unkindness is the chief cause. Suddenly Hamlet forces his way into her chamber; and his appearance and his behaviour are those of a man crazed with love. She is frightened--why not? She is not Lady Macbeth. Rosalind would have been frightened. Which of her censors would be wholly unmoved if his room were invaded by a lunatic? She is frightened, then; frightened, if you will, like a child. Yes, but, observe, her one idea is to help Hamlet. She goes, therefore, at once to her father. To whom else should she go? Her brother is away. Her father, whom she saw with her own eyes and not with Shakespeare's, is kind, and the wisest of men, and concerned about Hamlet's state. Her father finds, in her report, the solution of the mystery: Hamlet is mad because she has repulsed him. Why should she not tell her father the whole story and give him an old letter which may help to convince the King and the Queen? Nay, why should she not allow herself to be used as a 'decoy' to settle the question why Hamlet is mad? It is all-important that it should be settled, in order that he may be cured; all her seniors are simply and solely anxious for his welfare; and, if her unkindness is the cause of his sad state, they will permit her to restore him by kindness (III. i. 40). Was she to refuse to play a part just because it would be painful to her to do so? I find in her joining the 'plot' (as it is absurdly called) a sign not of weakness, but of unselfishness and strength.
'But she practised deception; she even told a lie. Hamlet asked her where her father was, and she said he was at home, when he was really listening behind a curtain.' Poor Ophelia! It is considered angelic in Desdemona to say untruly that she killed herself, but most immoral or pusillanimous in Ophelia to tell her lie. I will not discuss these casuistical problems; but, if ever an angry lunatic asks me a question which I cannot answer truly without great danger to him and to one of my relations, I hope that grace may be given me to imitate Ophelia. Seriously, at such a terrible moment was it weak, was it not rather heroic, in a simple girl not to lose her presence of mind and not to flinch, but to go through her task for Hamlet's sake and her father's? And, finally, is it really a thing to be taken as matter of course, and no matter for admiration, in this girl that, from beginning to end, and after a storm of utterly unjust reproach, not a thought of resentment should even cross her mind?
Still, we are told, it was ridiculously weak in her to lose her reason. And here again her critics seem hardly to realise the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover. Nor do they realise the utter loneliness that must have fallen on her. Of the three persons who were all the world to her, her father has been killed, Hamlet has been sent out of the country insane, and her brother is abroad. Horatio, when her mind gives way, tries to befriend her, but there is no sign of any previous relation between them, or of Hamlet's having commended her to his friend's care. What support she can gain from the Queen we can guess from the Queen's character, and from the fact that, when Ophelia is most helpless, the Queen shrinks from the very sight of her (IV. v. 1). She was left, thus, absolutely alone, and if she looked for her brother's return (as she did, IV. v. 70), she might reflect that it would mean danger to Hamlet.
Whether this idea occurred to her we cannot tell. In any case it was well for her that her mind gave way before Laertes reached Elsinore; and pathetic as Ophelia's madness is, it is also, we feel, the kindest stroke that now could fall on her. It is evident, I think, that this was the effect Shakespeare intended to produce. In her madness Ophelia continues sweet and lovable.
Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, She turns to favour and to prettiness.
In her wanderings we hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest sorrow, but never the agonised cry of fear or horror which makes madness dreadful or shocking. And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful. Coleridge was true to Shakespeare when he wrote of 'the affecting death of Ophelia,--who in the beginning lay like a little projection of land into a lake or stream, covered with spray-flowers quietly reflected in the quiet waters, but at length is undermined or loosened, and becomes a fairy isle, and after a brief vagrancy sinks almost without an eddy.'
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