By Sam Sarafin, V Form
Reviving Ophelia’s Song
What happens to a life so battered and bruised under the gift wrap of perfection? What happens to a life
whose opportunities have been seized by another, whose ideals and self-importance are plucked out of fingertips before they even left a print? In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Ophelia is often depicted as well-composed and sophisticated. When Ophelia sings a song before her death, she can attribute the meaning of the lyrics to one feeling or event – most often, this meaning is madness or grief. While Ophelia sang this song to convey her distress, there are many hidden meanings in the lyrics. Ophelia’s song is not an expression of one event or one feeling – it is the verbalization of grief over Polonius and Hamlet and a scrutiny of Gertrude’s portrayal of love. In it, Ophelia laments about patriarchal society and the way she had been controlled and used.
In her first song, Ophelia addresses her mourning and a recent loss, singing, “He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone, / At his head a grass-green turf, / At his heels a stone” (IV.v.29-32). This string of words paints a clear image of a dead man and of Polonius because of his recent death. Ophelia did not have a mother figure to support her through life’s rough moments – instead, Ophelia had a father figure who she attached her love to, and who she obeyed consistently. Polonius’ central role in Ophelia’s life as a loved and respected role model only made his death more impactful on Ophelia’s conscience. Death is a monster, not only in its handling of a human being, but in its ripple effect on loved ones, friends, and even strangers. All of these people react to death and to the news of death in varying, unique ways. The stress of such a sudden and tragic event has caused inner turmoil and possible craziness to gnaw at Ophelia, so the song provides an outlet for her abundant emotions and thoughts.
In a similar way, the first song also addresses Ophelia’s loss of Hamlet because though he is still alive, his presence has left her abandoned. Ophelia, in the company of others, sings the words, “How should I your true love know / From another one?/ By his cockle hat and staff / And his sandal shoon” (IV.v.23-26). In the midst of missing her father, Ophelia has attributed at least a moment to missing a true love, and is pondering whether that love really was true. Because of Ophelia’s recent ties to Hamlet, Ophelia is questioning whether or not Hamlet loved her when he was in her life. By adding in another “one” (IV.v.24) person, Ophelia is comparing Hamlet to someone unknown, thinking that his love for her was like any stranger’s love for her: nonexistent. These few lines in her song depict a woman trying to deal with the loss of a man, and though he is not gone forever, the woman is missing his presence while doubting his intentions and recent actions.
Though Ophelia could be missing Hamlet when she sings her frenzied song, the song is also about how Hamlet used and abused Ophelia throughout the span of the play. In the midst of her first song, Ophelia projects that, “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” (IV.v.58-61). The tone of this lyric portion is accusing as opposed to reminiscent of Hamlet’s love, because Ophelia is blaming young men for regret, sorrow, and shame. Because of the word “young” (IV.v.60), Ophelia is likely singing about Hamlet – she is singing about how he took advantage of her, acted like he loved her, and then abused and obliterated her in the end. This song is more than Ophelia going crazy, and the song is so often overlooked that most people would not realize that this is the reveal of Ophelia’s fed-up, abused self – this is the Ophelia that let Hamlet use her and did not complain. For most people holding in information, there comes a time when it all comes spilling out, and because Ophelia’s information is tangled up within her emotions, she sounds almost insane as she sings the lyrics.
Hamlet, though he is the protagonist of the play, is not the only man who abused a very obedient Ophelia – both Polonius and Laertes damaged Ophelia’s emotions, and established within her a fear of men. At the beginning of the second song, Ophelia begins with a statement about her role in society, singing, “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be our Valentine” (IV.v.48-51). Ophelia is positioned in a patriarchal society where she is pressured to fear men constantly, and the phrase, “I a maid at your window” (IV.v.50) shows her obedience and her loyalty to men as a whole. As a maid, Ophelia is waiting right beside a man to do as they ask. Ophelia is trapped within the bars of societal constructs, the pressures to be perfectly sane, to be obedient and to be loved by a man, to obey your father and brother – and she must fear the consequences if she does not. Bound by these patriarchal and unrealistic constructs, Ophelia purges her emotions in a borderline-insane song because she is shattering under the pressure that has weighed her down for the entirety of her life.
While addressing her struggles and her mourning, Ophelia also touches upon the actions and the romantic drama surrounding the queen, and addresses how the situation is similar to her own. When Ophelia first enters the scene, she is confronting the queen when she sings, “He is dead and gone, lady, / He is dead and gone” (IV.v. 29-30). Though Ophelia could be implying another man, because she is specifically singing to Gertrude, Ophelia could be addressing the queen about the King Hamlet, who is truly dead. Ophelia goes on further to prod Gertrude about her hasty romantic decisions, stating, “Larded with sweet flowers / Which bewept to the grave did not go / With true-love showers” (IV.v. 38-40). Because Gertrude never properly mourned her husband but quickly went to marry his brother instead, Ophelia is singing about the grave which Gertrude probably never visited, meaning Gertrude’s love for King Hamlet diminished with time or never existed at all. Many people grow out of admiring feelings for people over time, and though Gertrude may have had admiring feelings towards King Hamlet around the time of their marriage, her dismissal of mourning at his death signifies a change in heart. Ophelia scrapes at the surface of many societal debates about this issue, such as the length of time that someone should mourn a death, how mourning expresses true love, and how the answers to these debates are never the same. Because Ophelia is questioning Gertrude’s relationship with King Hamlet due to the short span of time with which she mourned, Ophelia is also questioning if Prince Hamlet really loved her at all because he did not mourn the loss of her as a romantic partner for very long, if at all. While singing of her own issues and involvement with Gertrude’s expression of love, Ophelia is proving that everyone has a different idea of what true love is.
Most people would take one look at this song and call it, and Ophelia, completely mad. Most people would skim over the lyrics and assume that Ophelia is completely heartbroken over the death of Polonius. Though this may be true, the song expands further beyond a lost father – this single song is Ophelia finally becoming herself. Chained for so long by societal standards, Ophelia is now singing, speaking freely the thoughts that arise in her head. Inferior for her entire life, Ophelia is now a brave woman facing men as whole, a woman tired of being pushed around and a woman who is now coming out from the shadows of fear. Though Ophelia mourns the losses of Polonius, King Hamlet, and Prince Hamlet, she is also free from their grasp, free to sing, free to confront authority such as the queen, and free to make her own decisions about love and life. Ophelia, in singing this song, is not gift-wrapped in anything but, instead, conveys her raw, true self.