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Ophelia's lyrical madness in Hamlet


Ophelia is one of the few female characters in the tragedy. She is introduced as Hamlet's potential wife but the events of the play, including the death of her father at the hands of Hamlet, eventually lead her to madness. She is associated to flowers and remains a symbol of innocence throughout the tragedy.

The King and the Queen witness Ophelia's madness

 
Ophelia here seems to have lost her mind following her father's burial ("to think they should lay him i' the cold ground"). She talks in riddles and sings songs about love and death.

Hamlet, IV.v

Queen Gertrude: Alas, look here, my lord.

Ophelia:
[Sings] Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did go
With true-love showers.

King Claudius:
How do you, pretty lady?

Ophelia:
Well, God 'ild you! They say the owl was a baker's
daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not
what we may be. God be at your table!

King Claudius:
Conceit upon her father.

Ophelia:
Pray you, let's have no words of this; but when they
ask you what it means, say you this:
Sings
To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

King Claudius:
Pretty Ophelia!

Ophelia:
Indeed, la, without an oath, I'll make an end on't:
Sings
By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

King Claudius:
How long hath she been thus?

Ophelia:
I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I
cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him
i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it:
and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my
coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;
good night, good night.

Keys to the text

1) What aspects of Ophelia's speech suggest incoherence and insanity?
2) Concentrate on Ophelia's last two songs. Beyond her father's death, what other reason for her madness is not identified by Claudius and Gertrude?
3) "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." How do you interpret that sentence? Is it as incoherent as those that that surround it?

Gertrude reporting Ophelia's death to Laertes


The depiction of Ophelia's death is widely acknowledged as one of the most poetic scenes in Shakespeare. The young maid falls into a brook while trying to adorn the branches of a tree with garlands of flowers...

Hamlet, IV.vii

Queen Gertrude: One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow; your sister's drown'd, Laertes.

Laertes:
Drown'd! O, where?

Queen Gertrude:
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 crow-flowers, 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 pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering 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 chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
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.

Keys to the text

1) In your opinion, why is Ophelia's death reported in a monologue rather than performed in front of the audience?
2) Is the theme of madness central to the monologue? In what way is it related to melancholy or extreme sadness?
3) In Shakespeare, madness sometimes occurs when a character is unable to deal with excessive grief or adversity. In this monologue, what line suggests that Ophelia cannot deal with reality and has found an escape in madness and death?

John Everett Millais's Ophelia, 1852


John Everett Millais was an English painter and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Commenting on Millais's Ophelia, Salvador Dali wrote that "Pre-Raphaelite painters bring us radiant women who are, at the same time, the most desirable and most frightening that exist."



Keys to the painting

1) What makes Gertrude's monologue a perfect source for a painting?
2) What expressions or feelings can you read on Ophelia's face? Is madness one of them? Is it coherent with Gertrude's monologue?
3) Why do you think nature is given such a prominent place in the composition?
450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth
Further readings
- Dossier A Midsummer Night's Dream
Vous trouverez dans ce dossier des articles de Francis Guinle, Geneviève Lheureux et Estelle Rivier, ainsi qu'une webographie élaborée par Frédérique Brisset.

- Visions dans et sur King Lear
Estelle Rivier, actes d'un colloque de l'Université du Maine, laboratoire 3L.AM

- Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece: the wound that cannot heal
Un article de Clifford Armion

- La Renaissance anglaise : horizons passés, horizons futurs
Recueil dirigé par Michèle Vignaux

- Measure for Measure in Performance
Journée d’étude organisée par Isabelle Schwartz-Gastine, Delphine Lemonnier-Texier et Estelle Rivier

- La photographie de Julie de Waroquier
Découvrez un univers qui évoque le motif de la noyade d'Ophélie
 
 
Mise à jour le 10 septembre 2013
Créé le 2 juillet 2013
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues