‘Ophelia’ is Not ‘Hamlet’, and That’s to the Character’s Detriment


As Hollywood Reporter reported earlier this week, there’s a film adaptation in the works of Ophelia, Lisa Klein’s YA Hamlet novelization of the same name. As opposed to the play itself, which the Reporter assumes is exceedingly dour (noting that “more characters die in it than in a season’s worth of Game of Thrones”), we’re assured that the film “takes a different road, landmarked with a secret wedding, characters who survive and a semi-happy ending.” The idea of an alternative interpretation of Hamlet from the male-dominated play’s ostensibly victimized, put-upon female lead is certainly an intriguing one, but this adaptation appears to misinterpret everything that made Ophelia such a fascinating character in the first place.

Hamlet is an intensely metatextual work, likely the most self-aware work ever composed in any medium; it knows itself as a play to the same degree that we know ourselves as humans. Each character is aware of their diegetic role, and most of the action and conflict can be read as related to that awareness. Characters fight for each other’s roles as the principal of the play much as they struggle for political power. Every action represents not its real-life counterpart but its theatrical being: the signifier is its own referent. Death, in this case, much more than the end of a character, is a dramatic gesture: for Hamlet and Ophelia, the more death-obsessed characters, it is the ultimate gesture and a means of agency.

Controlling one’s own death is controlling one’s own place in the text, how one becomes codified as a character; especially in Shakespeare, we largely remember characters far more for how they depart than for how they enter. Hamlet himself dies twice at the end of the play, first being stabbed and then poisoning himself. His dual death indicates the fulfillment of his death obsession, granting him a degree of agency: he’s accomplished what he set out to do. Ophelia, like all of Hamlet’s characters, is text, and knows that she is text, and, in Hamlet, text doesn’t die. The play is designed to repeat endlessly, ending with a command to “bid the soldiers shoot” and opening with two soldiers standing watch. No one dies in the bodily sense; “death” is a theme and a collection of signifiers that many characters aspire to, knowing that, if anything, it makes their presence in the text more permanent. It’s an opportunity for agency, and Ophelia exploits her death for more agency than is granted almost any other character.

Ophelia, like all of Hamlet’s characters, is text, and knows that she is text, and, in Hamlet, text doesn’t die.

Ophelia is a radical character, a self-aware prisoner of societal norms and ingrained misogyny who eventually dedicates her textual existence to embodying and grotesquing the effects of that ever-present misogyny. She can roughly be understood as a victim of the virgin-whore dynamic; Hamlet’s insult to her, “get thee to a nunnery,” is most famous for its double entendre of “nunnery” as “whorehouse,” but the dual meanings of the word perfectly embody the source of her anxiety: whatever her actions, she’ll be condemned to one side of the equation.

In her final appearance in the play before her death scene, Ophelia sings songs that are tonally and structurally similar to nursery rhymes, but juxtapose childish and death-like imagery in increasingly disturbing ways. Her songs start out innocent enough (“How should I your true love know?”) but quickly descend into deathly imagery (“He is dead and gone, lady.”) She takes a detour back to romantic imagery (“I a made at your window, to be your valentine”) before assuming the fiery tone of a woman scorned (“Alack, and fie for shame!”) Her death scene famously involves her distributing flowers to all present, assigning each one a meaning — and in doing so, performing her own act of textual interpretation and signification. As some critics have pointed out (and, indeed, as Klein’s novel incorporates), the flowers that she distributes had their own meanings — columbines, for instance, are associated with marital infidelity. Laertes even comments on the effectiveness of her performance, calling it “a document in madness” and noting that “thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, she turns to favor and to prettiness.” In her performance, “prettiness” and idealized femininity become agents of madness.

Today, we’d better understand what Ophelia does as performance art. She foregrounds performativity and implicates her audience directly and confrontationally. She exaggerates traditionally feminine and virginal signifiers until they become grotesque and threatening, conflating traditional feminine loveliness and deathly madness. She harnesses the power of those signifiers for her own means — much as, for example, Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” involved her taking the misogynistic ideal of feminine passivity to an extreme and disturbing degree. Ophelia shows that the logical conclusion of feminine loveliness and passivity is the violent destruction of the woman, regressing to a childlike state and, finally, to death. She exploits the appearance of madness to gain a larger presence in the text much as Hamlet does, challenging his spot as the dominant figure of the play.

In Klein’s novel, however, the performance is a ploy, with Ophelia faking her own death so as to slip away in private. Changing the intent from a grand, confrontational statement about misogyny and societal expectations of women to a simple plan for escape minimizes the power of the original. Ophelia’s aims are much smaller here.

One of the more upsetting aspects of Klein’s novel is that it has Ophelia taking Hamlet’s advice literally and getting herself to a convent. Not only does this run entirely counter to the complex, recursive double-entendre of the original statement, but — considering it’s Klein’s version of Ophelia’s grab at agency — it means her attempt at self-actualization is guided by a male character. Hamlet’s remark isn’t a suggestion; it’s a violent, abusive attack. In accepting his “advice”, she surrenders to the suggestion of the male lead. Her supposed agency in this adaptation is illusory; in diegetic terms, she’s more subservient to the will of her male oppressors than ever.

Ophelia focuses on a romantic relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet, apparently a strong and loving one up until the point where he goes mad. But besides pre-existing expectations of the dramatic structure, there’s little in Hamlet to suggest that he and Ophelia are or have ever been in love. They’re never seen interacting until his “madness” takes hold, so their interactions are largely defined by Hamlet’s cruelty to Ophelia, his tone ranging from meanly mocking to ragingly abusive. She, in turn, mainly speaks of him in worried tones, noting how he seems progressively madder and more ghostly. There’s very little lovestruck soliloquizing: Ophelia is deeply concerned about Hamlet.

Ophelia’s death scene has her taking ownership of herself and her dramatic role, ripping her character away from the influence of others to create her own identity.

The novel’s focus on their romantic relationship, then, reads as almost normalizing the abuse and defining her relative to Hamlet even more so than the play itself does. Ophelia’s death scene has her taking ownership of herself and her dramatic role, ripping her character away from the influence of others to create her own identity. This adaptation places that identity back in the hands of Hamlet, negating the work that Ophelia herself has done. At the end, Ophelia ends up with Horatio, a plot invention that seems to make her an even more passive character than in the original. Instead of being defined solely in relation to Hamlet, she’s now split between two of the men in the play. Rather than granting her more agency, it further divides her existing agency.

This is, of course, all ignoring the obvious argument in favor of Ophelia: it’s an adaptation focusing on giving one of the male-dominated play’s two female characters greater representation, reclaiming an art form whose beginnings were so misogynistic that even the women’s roles were originally played by men. Hamlet is a work borne of a culture even more intensely misogynistic than our own, and it should be reclaimed by women who want to see themselves better represented in one of the great creative works of all time. Any attempt to do so is heartening, and I hope that Ophelia inspires more.

As a Jew, I wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable calling The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock one of the best and most complex literary figures of all time were it not for the work that critics and adapters have done to move him from an anti-Semitic stereotype to a rich and varied character with seemingly countless possible interpretations. There are a myriad of ways in which this could be done for Ophelia: an all-women or genderswapped cast would add interesting dimensions to the textual themes of theatricality and the mutability of identity (these productions already exist, of course, and Sarah Bernhardt is one of the stage’s most famous Hamlets, but how great would it be to see one onscreen?).

If we’re interested in changing the text itself, an adaptation wherein Ophelia is allowed some of Hamlet’s more famous soliloquies (given the ongoing conflict in the play of characters fighting for each other’s theatrical roles, it could work as a valid interpretation) could open up interesting dimensions. The idea of rewriting the play from Ophelia’s perspective isn’t itself a bad one: giving her more space and making her authorship of her own death more obvious could do a great justice to her feminist character. For the impact that she leaves on the play, she’s less present than most of the other principal characters, and imagining what she might have been doing and thinking during those times offstage could yield some truly interesting results.

But having Ophelia furtively slip away from her death is a fundamental change to her character, and an underestimation of how radical she already is. Ophelia gains agency through her death; she owns it and turns it into one of the play’s most powerful setpieces and statements, and does so with great intent. She authors that scene, and it leaves enough of an impression to loom over the play at large. Robbing her of that power, even if done out of respect to the character, seems cruel.

It’s not that Shakespeare didn’t likely hold these prejudices of his time, but that his characters were so strong and fully-realized that they can’t help but evolve with our cultural understanding of how marginalization and oppression function, almost as our view of real historical figures might. His characters were his greatest strength; he took old, archetypal plots and rejuvenated them with characters who had complex psychology and motivations, so rich and detailed that many critics analyze them as real people rather than text. We remember his characters long after we forget the specificities of the plots surrounding them. Adaptations and reinterpretations like Klein’s help to aid their evolution, pushing them forward rather than leaving them as static relics of the past, letting them grow with us. In order to do so effectively, though, we need to retain what made those characters so powerful to begin with.

Jacob Moore is a Boston-based writer. You can find him on Tumblr and Twitter.