Has anyone noticed that Ophelia is pregnant? In all the productions of Hamlet that I've seen, she is interpreted as an innocent girl in love with the doomed Prince. He breaks her heart, and her sanity goes with it. She drowns herself out of madness.
But I think her madness has a point to it. In Ophelia's first scene, her brother Laertes warns her to beware of Hamlet's affection for her:
" For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood...
In other words: the Prince is toying with you. Ophelia demurs ("No more but so?") but appears to submit to her brother's wishes.
Next, Ophelia's father Polonius complains,
"'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."
That is, "You've been spending a lot of time alone with this guy." Ophelia, in the time-honored fashion of daughters, claims the relationship is completely innocent: "he hath importun'd me with love / In honorable fashion."
All well and good, but in III:i, Ophelia is set to spy on Hamlet. (Some editors would have Hamlet overhear her father and Polonius asking her to do it. If we suppose a lost stage direction that has Hamlet entering seven lines before he speaks, we can explain why Hamlet suddenly turns on her with such otherwise inexplicable viciousness.) Ophelia listens to his suicidal soliloquy, which he ends by pretending to notice her for the first time:
Nymph, in thy orisons
be all my sins remembered.
Orisons are prayers. If Hamlet has importuned Ophelia in honorable fashion, why should his sins be remembered in her prayers? The implication is that they have sinned together.
Hamlet really lays into her in III:i, ending by telling her, "To a nunnery, go!" In high school they tell you that "nunnery" was slang for a whorehouse, and the rest of his barbed repartee suggests that he thinks she is as dishonored as she is dishonest. He knows she is deceitful from having just heard her agree to spy on him. The best way for him to know she is dishonored is if he has dishonored her.
But it is the mad songs that Ophelia sings in IV:7 that really give away her secret. More than half of her songs are songs of mourning; after all, Hamlet has just killed Ophelia's father. That might be why Ophelia warns, "They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." After all, she is no longer the daughter of the King's chamberlain; she is now only the daughter of a dead old man. But perhaps she knows all too well what she soon may be, for shortly she sings:
Tomorrow is St. 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.
Why is Ophelia singing about a maid seduced by her lover? Aside from the songs of mourning, all her songs are songs of betrayed love. A few lines later, she is singing an even more pointed song:
Quoth she, "Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed."
"So would I ha'done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed."
It is hard to avoid the thought that Hamlet has seduced and abandoned her. Hamlet even has the gall to mock-warn Polonius in Act 2 Scene 2. Whilst Hamlet is assuming his 'antic disposition', he tells Polonius that 'Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive - friend look to't'. [Thanks to reader Winnie H for this point.]
When she returns, she has gathered herbs. "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you love, remember..." The various herbs have symbolic meanings well-documented in the scholarship, but the only herb she intends for herself is rue: "...there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o'Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference." The symbolic meaning of rue is regret. Ophelia has much to rue, but the symbolic meaning is not the only one. The herb rue (ruta graveolens, aka Herb-of-Grace) is a powerful abortifacient. My herbiary notes that rue is "Lethally toxic, do not use during pregnancy."
Herbal abortifacients are mild poisons. You poison yourself to the point where your body decides it's too sick to support the growing embryo, and rejects it. If you miscalculate in one direction, continued pregnancy; in the other direction, you die. No one would take rue as a poison; it's an ugly way to go. Presumably Shakespeare would have given Ophelia something painless if she had intended to poison herself; hemlock, say.
A girl who has been seduced and abandoned need fear nothing but a broken heart, provided there is no evidence of her shame. But if she is pregnant, then there is no way to hide what she has done, unless she can abort the child, or kill herself. And, indeed, shortly thereafter, Ophelia drowns herself.
The conventional interpretation is that Hamlet has broken her heart and then killed her father. But the play seems to suggest strongly that Hamlet has seduced her, and to hint that she is pregnant as well.
It is not hard to imagine Ophelia falling in love with the romantic Prince, and giving in to his passions. He has promised to marry her, and it is not an impossible promise. The Queen later says of Ophelia (V: 2) "I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." Ophelia might well have hoped to become Queen when Hamlet ascended the throne, as his uncle Claudius has promised.
Hamlet has been away at Wittenberg long enough for Claudius to murder Hamlet's father and then to marry his mother Gertrude, and then for the news to reach Hamlet. Presumably this would be a few months at least, long enough for Ophelia to know she's pregnant. When he returns, she is hoping he'll do the right thing.
But Hamlet rejects her, kills her father, and to destroy all hope, is sent by King Claudius to England to be executed. What will become of the mother of the doomed prince's bastard? There is only one way to preserve her honor, and she takes it.
The point is, the next time someone puts on Hamlet, Ophelia really ought to be showing. Okay?
NOTE: A reader writes in to remind me just how specific Gertrude is when she later describes Ophelia's suicide -- as if she saw it, but did nothing about it. That would make perfect sense if Gertrude knew Ophelia's problem, and agreed that suicide was her only real option.
Also, Amy Aldro writes in to point out that the heroine of The Rape of Lucrece "kills herself after Tarquin rapes her to preserve her honour." So it's a theme Shakespeare comes back to...
Autumn S points out "You said "Hamlet has been away at Wittenberg long enough for Claudius to murder Hamlet's father and then to marry his mother Gertrude, and then for the news to reach Hamlet. Presumably this would be a few months at least, long enough for Ophelia to know she's pregnant. When he returns, she is hoping he'll do right by her." I would like to mention that during the play Ophelia says it has been "Twice two months" since his father's death. After four or more months of being pregnant, would people not begin to notice the pregnant belly that she had? And even if it had been more months, which we can safely assume it hasn't because of Ophelia's statement, would she not have begun to show?" Which is an excellent point. Is it possible that she is showing, and people are talking around the subject?
Copyright © 2008 by Alex Epstein. All rights reserved.