The true Ophelia : and other studies of Shakespeare's women online

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" The rough, uncultured man delights in seeing something
happen before his eyes. The man of refinement finds plea-
sure in those experiences that give rise to thought and





"Good alone is good without a name."

All's Well that Ends Well



All Rights Reserved





THE TRUE OPHELIA . . . . .13




PORTIA ....... 223




I NEVER wanted to play Ophelia. I had seen
her played too often, for one reason, and I had
not the slightest personal sympathy with her
character, for another. Her " mad " scenes
are the only opportunity she has of any
acting ; before then she is a quite negligible
quantity, as anyone on the stage will tell

At the best, Ophelia appeared to me as a
pretty, fragile, stupid, weak little inanity, of
no character whatever ; her very madness
only touching on account of her unprotected

It has long been a mystery to the many
what such an intellectual and full-grown man
as Hamlet could find to love and admire in so
insipid a little creature. On the other hand,
multitudes have denied that he ever was
seriously in love with her at all, in spite
of his own avowals, both verbal and on

Certainly most actors show some spasmodic
symptoms of erotic emotion in the one scene



they have together, when, however, if her
beauty thus moves him, her feeble behaviour,
or her attitude of mind, is considered quite
enough to exasperate him justly to the most
aggressive frenzy.

Many actresses have tried hard to make
Ophelia really interesting, one by wearing
black garments instead of the traditional white
ones in the " mad scenes " ; another by foam-
ing at the mouth in the " mad scenes," and
yet another by uttering piercing shrieks in
the " mad scenes," of course. Ophelia is an
utter nonentity until then, and no one seems
to have considered the possibility of her
being of any significance before that distressing

Yet, in spite of these efforts to materialise
the vagueness of her individuality a word
really too strong to be used in connection with
her she seems as much out of the emotional
scheme of the individual Hamlet as if her mad
scenes were only interpolated as a " turn," to
rest the minds of the audience from the philo-
sophical and grimmer scenes of the play. In-
deed it would not be impossible to cut her part
out altogether sacrificing a good " ranting "
scene for Hamlet, to be sure, but he has so many
that it might well be spared. A stranger to
the play would be no wiser concerning the



omissions. Nor would Ophelia lose by being
merely referred to, and her personality left to
the imagination.

The actresses who have " succeeded " in the
part have done so sheerly by means of their
own delightful personalities. They looked so
beautiful, moved so gracefully, spoke in such
sweet tones and wept with such pathos. But
they would have been exactly the same had they
been playing a " sympathetic " village idiot,
weeping over a dead canary !

One wonders who was the originator of the
traditional nonentity. Some delightful beauty,
maybe, whose rendering has seemingly been
left unquestioned.

It is strange that in the struggle for origin-
ality no one has ever attempted to play the
character as Shakespeare or Bacon has
created it ; with " business " entirely in keep-
ing with the text, and in an atmosphere of
sequential thought and feeling. If one did
attempt it, she was too insignificant to have
succeeded in making any impression officially,
beyond perhaps gaining the reputation in the
company of being a " crank."

Thus considering Ophelia with a mixture
of indifference and contemptuous pity, it so
happened that circumstances arose which
demanded that I should study her for

B 17


myself. Having seen some eight or nine pro-
ductions of the play, I did not feel exactly a
stranger to the young woman ; nevertheless the
sense of duty took me, naturally enough, to
some lunatic asylums. Then I settled down
to fix the lines in my memory, and discovered
" Ophelia."

A young girl, obviously motherless, and
without sisters, adored by an only and elder
brother, and the pet of her father. Of all
Shakespeare's heroines she is the most reserved,
sKy and virginal^ Beautiful and sensitive, sym-
pathetic and intelligent, as fresh as a scarce-
opened flower-bud, and utterly inexperienced
in the ways of the world and men. Modest,
generous in mind and trustful as a child, she
has an unsuspected depth of nature which is
revealed as her tragedy unfolds. She is the
lily-bud in the bouquet of Shakespearean
heroines, and the youngest of them all. Juliet,
to be sure, may be less in years, but she has
ripened early beneath a Southern sun and is a
passionate red rose ; nor, with such a plain-
spoken old nurse, is she ignorant of worldly
matters. It is somewhat startling, indeed,
to find her sounding Romeo on his " bent of



i; If that thy bent of love be honourable ; thy purpose
marriage "

within four hours of their first meeting.

The virginal soul of the fair Ophelia, slipping
slowly but irrevocably into the golden ecstasy
of first love, is so happy in the strange, ex-
quisite joy of loving ideally, and being so
beloved, that practical, mundane matters of
propriety, wedding-cake and other things
have not yet entered her mind. Nor has any
doubt as to the honesty of her lover's love
occurred to her. He has never given her the
slightest occasion to suspect him. Her sym-
pathetic intelligence and gentle beauty, her very
innocence of worldly matters have attracted
Hamlet, accustomed to court intrigues, and he
too always of a dreamy, inactive nature is
happy enough to let their innocent and sincere
romance continue as long as possible. He is
glad in just being with her, instructing her,
doubtless, in many abstract questions, looking
into her eyes and adoring her. Each has
perfect faith in the other,

He is not by nature a sensual man, and is
at that time feeling keenly the death of his
"dear father" and the unpleasantly hasty
remarriage of his mother with his father's
brother, a man he does not like or trust. He



knew well enough, at the back of his head,
that there would be many serious obstacles
to a union with Ophelia, and he was not
yet ready to go out and look for trouble. He
never was a man of action ; the only and fatal
occasion when he endeavoured to be one,
proved conclusively that such was not his
metier (Act III., scene 4), for he merely suc-
ceeded in killing the wrong man, Polonius !

It is a matter of significance that Ophelia is
not present at the first Court scene. Doubtless
her father lived in or very near the palace,
and Hamlet had many opportunities of seeing
and meeting her, but she is never represented
as being one of the " Court ladies." According
to the text, we first see her in " A Room in
Polonius 9 House" viz. in her own home.
Generally, in touring companies, the poor
creature finds herself dragged through taut
curtain ropes on to a strip of stage. There,
often with scarce a yard between the cloth
behind her and the footlights at her feet, she
has to endure a peculiarly difficult scene, and
cdhvey silently to the audience a very great
and important " impression " of her sensitive
and virginal soul. In this scene is struck the
first note of the tragedy that is to cause Hamlet
the most poignant suffering and blast her own
young life.



We see her (Act L, scene 3) for the first
time (and last) free from pain or sorrow, happy
and loving, and touched only with distress
at the departure of her beloved brother. The
affection and confidence between the two is
very marked, and how well Laertes appre-"
ciates the depth and sensitiveness of his sister's
character is proved by the extreme delicacy
and tenderness with which he words his tactful
warning of the false position in which she may
find herself in regard to Hamlet :

LAERTES. " For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,

Hold it a fashion, and a toy in blood ;

A violet in the youth of primy nature,

Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,

The perfume and suppliance of a minute ;

No more ! "

OPH. " No more but so ?"

she asks, smilingly, conscious of knowing a good
deal more about the depth of Hamlet's affection
than her brother does.

LAERTES. " Think it no more ;

For nature, crescent, does not grow alone
In thews and bulk ; but, as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now ;
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch



The virtue of his will : but you must fear,

His greatness weighed, his will is not his own ;

For he himself is subject to his birth :

He may not, as unvalued persons do,

Carve for himself ; for on his choice depends

The safety and the health of the whole state ;

And therefore must his choice be circumscribed

Unto the voice and yielding of that body,

Whereof he is the head : then, if he says he loves you,

It fits your wisdom so far to believe it,

As he in his particular act and place

May give his saying deed ; which is no further

Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.

Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,

If with too credent ear you list his songs ;

Or lose your heart ; or your chaste treasure open

To his unmaster'd importunity.

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister ;

And keep you in the rear of your affection,

Out of the shot and danger of desire.

The chariest maid is prodigal enough,

If she unmask her beauty to the moon :

Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes :

The canker galls the infants of the spring,

Too oft before their buttons be disclosed ;

And in the morn and liquid dew of youth

Contagious blastments are most imminent.

Be wary, then : best safety lies in fear :

Youth to itself rebels, though none else near."

The beautiful utterances touch her by their
justness, but in her heart she is absolutely



confident of Hamlet's love and honour, and
she herself has not as yet arrived at the stage
of love where the poison of the sunbeam-
feathered shaft subtly begins to work.

Serenely, therefore, she answers her beloved
brother :

tl I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart."

Then she dimples into a smile, as she
roguishly adds :

" But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven ;
Whilst, like a puff' d and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede."

Miss Ophelia is no fool, and hits him neatljg
as his half laugh and hasty " O fear me not y
should convey.

At this juncture Polonius enters the " tedi-
ous old fool," as Hamlet later calls him. It is
strangely curious to contrast the fine and wise
words he utters to his son with the tactless,
coarse vulgarity with which he presently
attacks his delicate little blossom of a daughter,
desecrating and destroying for ever the beauty



of her love dream and the bloom of her un-
conscious innocence. Laertes in his loving
warning conveys his fear, not that she may be
light and wanton, but that, if she seriously
loves Hamlet, her tender and sincere nature
will suffer deeply through an unhappy love.

To Polonius' first question Ophelia, utterly
unsuspicious of the verbal brutality to follow,
frankly replies. Mark well what follows:

POL. " Marry, well bethought :

'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late

Given private time to you ; and you yourself

Have of your audience been most free and bounteous :

If it be so, (as so 'tis put on me,

And that in way of caution), I must tell you

You do not understand yourself so clearly.

As it behoves my daughter, and your honour :

What is between you ? give me up the truth."

OPH. " He hath, my lord, of late, made many tenders

Of his affection to me."

POL. " Affection ? puh ! you speak like a green girl.

Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.

Do you believe his tenders, as you call them ? "

What gross insinuations concerning her
wondrous love idyll ! The poor child, who be-
lieved that no one knew the delicious, sacred
secret of his love, learns thus bluntly that they
are both being made the subject of vulgar and
malicious gossip. It takes a long while for the



lily type of young girl to become used to certain
material facts of life, and then it is only by
enshrining them as most holy sacraments.
Therefore the shock of such a discovery and
the manner of it, is terrible to her. That she
is publicly talked about as making herself
" so cheap " that it is considered necessary to

caution her father, for fear Horrible !

Polonius answers her with such cocksure
contempt for the vows of Hamlet that the
beautiful confidence she had thrilled with so
lately is shaken by her realisation of her own
ignorance of the hearts and ways of men.
White to the lips, all the joyousness faded
out of her young face, she utters slowly,
dazed with the shock of shame and new-
born doubt, the words which from hence-
forward may be said to sum up the stat
of her mind :

" / do not know, my lord, what I should think."

From gross tactlessness Polonius cheerfully
proceeds to outrageous insults :

POL. " Marry, I'll teach you : think yourself a baby ;
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly ;
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Wronging it thus) you'll tender me a fool"



This stings the miserable girl into a quid
remonstrance, not on her own behalf, but thai
of Hamlet :

" My lord, he hath importun'd me with love,
In honourable fashion ! "

But the coarse old man airily brushes he:
defence of Hamlet aside, continuing to vilify
his motives, and at the same time exonerating
him from blame. False vows and snares are
she is informed, perfectly permissible to youn {

POL. " Ay, fashion you may call it ; go to, go to."
OPH. " And hath given countenance to his speech, m;


With almost all the holy vows of heaven."
POL. " Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know
When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows ; these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a making
You must not take for fire. From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence :
Set your entreatments at a higher rate,
Than a command to parley. For lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him, that he is young ;
And with a larger tether may he walk,
Than may be given you ; in few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows ; for they are brokers
Not of that die which their investments shew,



But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. This is for all
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment's leisure,
As to give words or talk with the lord Hamlet.
Look to't, I charge you ; come your ways."
OPH. " I shall obey, my lord."

Poor child ! This is the beginning of the
tragedy of their mutual misunderstanding and
doubt. The poison now is beginning to work ;
she realises that she loves him very deeply, and
feels that she would die of shame if he really
held her in such light and dishonourable regard
as her father avows he does. She buckles on
the armour of her maiden pride, and deter-
mines to prove to him that she is not so light
and accessible as he or they may fancy.

" I shall obey, my lord ! "

she says quietly. But in her heart is the passion-
ate prayer that he will yet prove himself the
true lover she has believed him to be.
. ,

The next appearance of Ophelia is again in
her own home (Act II., scene 1). One must
consider a moment what has happened since
Polonius forbade her to speak to, or even to see,



Hamlet. She has been brooding alone, over
her sewing, the love-poison stealthily rankling
in her veins. Wounded in her love, in her
pride ; and her heart and head at war with
each other

" / do not know, my lord, what I should think."

Poor, unhappy little girl, lacking in initia-
tive from her very inexperience and ignorance.
Meantime, strange things have occurred to
Hamlet, the involuntary cause of her distress.
Since their last meeting he has suffered the
double shock of seeing the ghost of his father,
and learning from him of his murder, and the
treachery of Claudius. He is also deeply
moved at his father's grief at the disloyalty, if
not worse, of his Queen, knowing how dearly
she was loved by him :

" O most pernicious woman ! "

Wrung by misery, and racked with helpless
horror, Hamlet now if ever needs the sym-
pathetic and intelligent companionship of his
" soul's idol," his " celestial, most beautified
Ophelia," the one pure honest thing in an
intriguing court. He seeks her and finds the
door shut in his face, without the least warning
or explanation. He writes to her, again and



again, but his letters remain unanswered.
This, from the one creature in whom he has
had the most loving faith ! Gods 1 are all
women mere wantons, insincere and fickle ?
The shock is a severe one ; his mind is corroded
with bitterness, but such is the fierceness of his
love, and so thoroughly awakened is his desire
to see her, that, regardless of etiquette, his own
dignity, of every possible consequence in short,
he desperately effects an entrance into Ophelia's
own apartment.

There, rendered inarticulate by grief and
emotion (and she dumb from alarm, shame
and surprise at his wild appearance), he can
find no words in which to reproach her. She
has been too recently his soul's idol for him to
turn his tongue to bitter epithets ; and fearing
his own passion, maybe, he silently drags him-
self away, still unenlightened as to the cause
of the change in her. And she hastens to the
only creature she has to look to for support
and guidance.

Act II., scene 1. Enter OPHELIA, white and
trembling, still " not knowing what to think."

POL. " How now, Ophelia ? what's the matter ? "
OPH. " O my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted ! "
POL. " With what, in the name of heaven ? "
OPH. " My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,



Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbraced ;
No hat upon his head ; his stockings f oul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankle ;
Pale as his shirt ; his knees knocking each other ;
And with a look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosed out of hell,
To speak of horrors he comes before me."
POL. " Mad for thy love ? "

Poor Ophelia ! In her cry of anguish lies
her tragedy :

" My lord, I do not know ! "

How can she ? Has not Polonius denied
the possibility of his caring seriously ? Has
Hamlet himself said a word to enlighten her
on the subject, one way or the other ? She
answers first the question which touches her
most nearly, and adds in reply to the suggestion
of madness :

" But, truly, I do fear it."

POL. "What said he?"

OPH. " He took me by the wrist, and held me hard ;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm ;
And, with his hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face,
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so ;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound,



As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being : that done, he lets me go :
And, with his head over his shoulder turned,
He seemed to find his way without his eyes ;
For out o' doors he went without their helps ;
And, to the last, bended their light on me."
POL. " Come, go with me : I will go seek the king.
This is the very ecstasy of love ;
Whose violent property f oredoes itself,
And leads the will to desperate undertakings,
As oft as any passion under heaven,
That does afflict our natures. I am sorry
What, have you given him any hard words of late ? "
OPH. " No, my good lord ; but, as you did command,
I did repel his letters, and denied
His access to me."

POL. " That hath made him mad.

I am sorry that with better heed and judgment,
I had not quoted him : I f ear'd he did but trifle,
And meant to wreck thee ; but, beshrew my jealousy !
It seems, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions,
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king :
This must be known ; which being kept close, might


More grief to hide, than hate to utter love.

x Ophelia, sick with love and doubt, recognising
too that something is most seriously amiss with
her beloved, drinks in Polonius' diagnosis with



eager hope that after all it may be correct and
her doubt-tortured soul may find happiness
again in the certainty that Hamlet really loves
her, in all honour.

This scene, by the way, is not always played,
as it only concerns Ophelia, they say ; and the
play being so long all unimportant scenes are

Act II., scene 3. In the meantime Hamlet,
cut to the quick at the seeming betrayal of his
faith, the most callous slighting of his love,
hardens his heart, and steeps his soul in
astringent bitterness.

First his beloved and " seeming virtuous ?!
mother, and now this adored and seeming
trustworthy maiden. Well, let women go,
and a curse on them I But love cannot be
thus lightly dismissed, and the celestial element
having vanished has left him just a piqued
cynical man of flesh and blood and other
human drawbacks passionately enamoured of
a girl he thinks he has just reason to despise.

How dangerous to Ophelia is the state of
his mind is obvious in his sombre, outrageous
warning to Polonius :

HAM. " Have you a daughter ? "
POL. " I have, my lord"



HAM. " Let her not walk V the sun. Conception is a
blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive friend,
look to it ! "

/ Hamlet has not the slightest suspicion that
Ophelia has been told he is vowing love and
fidelity to her simply to trap her into love for
him, that he may betray her. Ophelia is
utterly unaware of the shocks Hamlet has
experienced, and the discoveries he has made
(concerning his father, mother and uncle),
since their last meeting. And naturally a
very young and virginal girl has no idea of how
love may affect a man. The whole essence of
tragedy is the inevitable result of ignorance and
cross-purposes, and, thanks to the gross tact-
lessness of Polonius, Hamlet's love history alone
was enough to blight the life of any man.

Polonius, having informed the King and Queen
that he has a daughter, proceeds to read to them
a letter from Hamlet to her, in proof of his
suggestion that Hamlet's admitted " lunacy "
may be caused by the sufferings of love. A
wonderful letter, in which the lover asks for
nothing, not even a reply, but is just content
to adore :

"To the Celestial, and my soul's idol, the most
beautified Ophelia, in her excellent white bosom,
these, etc.

c 33


" Doubt thou the stars are fire ;
Doubt that the sun doth move ;
Doubt truth to be a liar ;
But never doubt I love.

" O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers ; I have
not art to reckon my groans ; but that I love thee best,
O, most best, believe it. Adieu.

" Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine
is to him, HAMLET."

The result of this interview is that when
next seen Ophelia is under the patronage of the
Queen. Thus, in Act III., scene 1, we see her
again, torn between passionate hope and in-
tense anxiety. Reserved and shy in her bear-
ing, she has learned her bitter lesson too well
to give anyone the chance of again terming
her " too free and bounteous " of her society,
or of cautioning her father on her behalf.
And in her mind she is pondering on how to
give Hamlet an opportunity of reconciliation,
without laying herself open to any possible
suspicion of unmaidenly desire for him ! That
ugly scene with her father has tainted her

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Online LibraryActressThe true Ophelia : and other studies of Shakespeare's women → online text (page 1 of 11)