H2016: But soft you now, the (fair?) Ophelia

OpheliaThinksHarderIn furtherance to my preparation for Round One of auditions, I tried to set out some of my ideas about Ophelia. For a character who only appears in a handful of scenes, Ophelia looms large over my conception of the play, partly because I know she has almost as much cultural traction as Hamlet at this point, but also because — god help me — I want my production to be a love story.

Almost at once, that feels like a trap. The kind of modern love stories that I hate the most are those which cast heroines as passive and ineffectual prizes to be fought over. Even worse are those in which the heroine is treated horribly by her (richer, higher class, generally more powerful) lover. These stories curl my lip and make me shake my head: really? It’s 2015, and we’re still telling this story?

But then I read Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, and I become part of the problem. Ophelia is exactly that sort of heroine. She is bossed around by her brother and father, used as bait by the villains, verbally and maybe physically abused by her bewildering, hot-and-cold boyfriend, and driven to suicide by…well, we’re not even really sure what sends her into the drink, except a strong narrative necessity to pile on the tragedy in the final acts. Ophelia can be a very challenging and rewarding role for a young actress, but in the final analysis, her madness and death are only part of the story because of their effects upon the men in her life.

I don’t believe my production can subvert that trajectory entirely; it’s stitched too deeply into the play’s fabric. But I believe that I can interpolate a different kind of relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia earlier in the play, such that she maybe does have a bit of agency, and maybe even dies on her own terms, like most of Shakespeare’s male suicides.

I can’t elaborate much just yet, but if I stand a ghost of a chance of pulling it off, I’m going to need an actress playing Ophelia who can do any or all of the following:

1. Show some backbone. There are a few lines already in the play where we see Ophelia push back against the patriarchal forces in her world. And there are undoubtedly other opportunities to show this assertiveness through gesture or subtext. Ophelia knows who has the power in Elsinore, but that doesn’t mean she need to bow her head whenever the powerful men around her speak or act. That includes Hamlet, who is among the worst offenders in the misogyny department, and not just in his own play, either.

2. Share some interests. Ophelia is underwritten; she exists purely as a love interest for the hero, and while she generally has interesting scenes with him and with other supporting characters, she doesn’t pop as a character on her own. The closest we get to a set of interests is sewing, singing, and swimming. I’d love to see an Ophelia who brings a few of her own qualities, although hopefully they can be woven organically into the play (ie. no skydiving Ophelias need apply).

It also feels important that Ophelia have some connection to Hamlet that would justify their mutual affection. Actually, let me back up and point out that, at no point does Ophelia actually express affection for Hamlet. When he says, “I did love you once,” she agrees, “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” She is dismayed by his apparent change of heart, and altogether devastated by his madness, but all the other talk of “love” in the play comes from Hamlet, Laertes, or Polonius, not from Ophelia herself. However, as radical as it might be to portray an Ophelia who is merely nonplussed by Hamlet’s weird obsession with her, the stakes are much higher if there is a mutual love.

So, once again, it’s going to make for a stronger character and a stronger relationship if an actress can pinpoint (a) what Ophelia sees in Hamlet, and (b) what common interests they might have had prior to the play’s inciting incident. As always, I have a few ideas, but I’d prefer to find an actress with the initiative to bring some of her own ideas to the game.

3. Slow, creeping madness? I’m less certain about this point, but I’ve generally been more satisfied watching Ophelias (Opheliae?) who are just a little bit unhinged right from the start. The play provides reasons for her decline into madness, but they feel inadequate to me, in the same way the King and Queen’s attempts to explain Hamlet’s madness fall short of the mark. Naturally, it must be confusing for a girl when her sorta-boyfriend stabs her dad to death, but Shakespeare’s portrayal of Ophelia’s insanity is so flamboyant by modern standards that one starts to look for additional traumas to justify the abrupt shift.

The most rewarding solution, for both actress and audience, is to introduce Ophelia as someone with latent or emerging mental illness. This arguably makes her madness less integral to the tragedy — if she has, say, schizophrenia, then we know she would have manifested symptoms regardless of Hamlet’s actions — but her suicide is still the result of general neglect, and the consequence of Denmark’s encroaching rottenness. In the 21st century, a mentally ill girl who slips through the cracks could be a much more relevant tragic story.

I remain wary of this approach, however, and I have a couple of solutions in my back pocket if it doesn’t work out — staging approaches that could help to “jump-start” Ophelia’s madness. If you’ve been reading my comments about the Ghost carefully, you might have an inkling about one of them. I’ll keep the rest to myself for now.

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