H2016: Sing a Song of Insanity

"Ophelia Pregnant" by Thomas Dodd

“Ophelia Pregnant” by Thomas Dodd

Yesterday, I rehearsed with KO and TP, looking at a small section of the scene normally numbered 4.5, aka Ophelia’s mad scene. It was the first rehearsal we’ve had that I left more bewildered than when I arrived. I expect it won’t be the last of its kind.

It’s very important to me that we portray Ophelia in a sympathetic and comprehensible light, even when she is reduced to a raving lunatic. Ironically, as TP points out, her madness is what Ophelia is best remembered for, and a big part of what draws actresses to the part. Most performers, I’ll wager, don’t really know why Ophelia has lost her wits, or how to portray that, until they get right inside her character. Modern conceptions of mental illness only cloud the waters, since Shakespeare was writing dramatic madness, not plausible psychological madness. Yet I have resisted letting this scene become a mere showpiece for KO (although I have no doubt she’d knock it out of the park).

So I began the rehearsal by asking both actors (Ophelia and Claudius) to scrutinize each of the “nonsense” songs, to see what they might be about. Claudius, of course, would have a personal take on them — by this point in the play, he is deeply concerned about political instability in Denmark:

…the people muddied,
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers,
For good Polonius’ death; and we have done but greenly,
In hugger-mugger to inter him…

Translation: we should never have tried to cover up Polonius’s death at Hamlet’s hands, and if word of it gets out, we’re screwed. With that in mind, many of Ophelia’s songs read like veiled threats to the establishment:

He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.

Or, this next song, whose meaning Ophelia seems to modify by adding a “not” that disrupts the rhythm:

White his shroud as the mountain snow,
Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did not go
With true-love showers.

KO agreed that the latter song probably expresses Ophelia’s suppressed grief about Polonius, but she suggested that the former song, which is literally about the search for a deceased “true love,” could be alluding to Hamlet, who is not dead in fact, but might be dead to Ophelia’s heart (“The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!”). Unquestionably, the next song is about broken hearts and broken promises, as well as — there’s just no way around it — lost virginity.

Tomorrow is Saint 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.

It’s easy to render all these songs abstract and allegorical. Ophelia is grasping for the words to express her disordered thoughts, and by utilizing “snatches of old tunes,” she is liable to miss the mark a few times. In the same way that we needn’t assume that tomorrow is actually St. Valentine’s, we can’t assume that what the betrayal described in this song is literally what Hamlet has done to her.

But if we do assume that, it raises the stakes. If, as the riddle implies, Hamlet has deflowered Ophelia, then her value in Elizabethan society is diminished utterly. As TP points out, she is also by this time a young woman without any male support: her father is dead, her brother is abroad (or so she thinks), and her erstwhile lover has vanished after treating her abysmally. Ophelia’s madness starts to make sense if she feels genuinely helpless after a lifetime of being told what to do and think by the paternal figures surrounding her.

Following this thread a ways, we floated the possibility that Ophelia might be pregnant. The only piece of “evidence” for this comes later in the same scene, when Ophelia offers Gertrude (or another person in the court) an herb called rue, saying:

there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference.

In addition to symbolizing regret in Shakespeare’s day, rue was also a known abortifacient — that is, a substance that induces abortion. This is pretty obscure, even for one of Shakespeare’s crazy characters, but it was enticing enough to deserve some early discussion. As I pointed out, it not only raises the stakes for Ophelia (and Hamlet, if he ever finds out), but it also arguably increases the play’s body count.

So far, KO’s take on Ophelia in this scene has revolved around her need to be acknowledged. She is too traumatized and abused to keep quiet, but lacking any other means to make herself the centre of (male) attention, she sings sexually suggestive songs, utters oblique threats (“My brother shall know of this”), and generally gets in people’s faces. It’s an uncomfortable process to watch, especially if audiences clue in to Claudius’s political paranoia and realize that Ophelia is creating more trouble for herself by speaking up.

Given this objective for the scene, we even wondered whether Ophelia might choose to fake a pregnancy (or to persuade herself to believe in one). We envisioned a silent scene, just before 4.5 begins, depicting Ophelia strapping a “baby bump” to herself — maybe the last in a series of self-applied disguises or transformations. The problem with this conspicuous approach to pregnancy (whether it’s genuine or faked) is that nobody in the court says anything about it. The closest we could get was Claudius’s line, “How long has she been thus?” whose meaning could be shifted from “When did she go mad?” to “How far along is she?”

Although I haven’t ruled it out completely, I feel like the pregnancy angle is not going to work for us. I like the way it would draw attention to her status as a female victim in a world of manipulative men, but I’m afraid the choice would bring along with it a host of unrelated and unwanted issues. The trick, then, is to give Ophelia other, equally shocking, ways to grab the attention of the court. Tearful, romantic ballads incline towards a sentimental type of madness which, in this day and age, is easily dismissed. I want to find a way to keep Ophelia sympathetic, and her intentions clear, but still make her derangement as upsetting as possible.

Any suggestions?

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