“Nay, but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed/Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty –”


Act Three, Part Four

By Dennis Abrams


Let’s talk some more about Ophelia.  And about Gertrude.

As I think we’ve seen so far, Hamlet’s tragedy is not exclusively, as Schlegel thought, a tragedy of thought.  It’s not even just Hamlet’s tragedy.  Hamlet’s musings on the “thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to” are interrupted by the arrival of Ophelia, the “Nymph” whose relationship with Hamlet is as shaky as his relationship wit himself.  Much has been written to try to unravel just what Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship was (or became), but the play (and Shakespeare) gives little away.  Polonius was all to ready to attribute Hamlet’s behavior to frustrated love (particularly after both he and Laertes – perhaps too hastily? – advise Ophelia to steer clear from him), and it seems that the Prince has at one point sent her love letters, but beyond that, there lies little but uncertainty.  It doesn’t help matters that the only time we see the two alone, Hamlet’s “feigned” madness (yet another huge question mark hanging over the play and our reading of it) is beginning to seem, at least from appearances more and more real.  When Ophelia tells him that she has “remembrances” from him to return, Hamlet denies even this much, retorting, “No, no, I never gave you aught.’  What follows is one of the most perplexing episodes of the tragedy, and certainly one of the most distressing and painful to watch (or read):

Hamlet:  I did know you once.

Ophelia:  Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

Hamlet:  You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it.  I loved you not.

Ophelia:  I was the more deceived.

Hamlet:  Get thee to a nunnery.  Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

At first claiming that he loved Ophelia, then in his very next breath denying it, Hamlet’s words are almost willfully obscure.  He might men that because “virtue” can do nothing to “inoculate” mankind (“our old stock”) from its essential sinfulness, his “love” was not authentic, but honestly, his language is becoming more broken than before.  Typically, it seems that the Prince has transformed a personal situation into something beyond that, arguing that humanity is so “sullied” by sin that love itself is a delusion.  That hardly helps to soften the savagery of his words to Ophelia, nor the cruelty of his insistence, repeated five times in this scene, that Ophelia should “get…to a nunnery” (also, as we know, Jacobean slang for a brothel) rather than feel as she does.

And when Hamlet confronts his mother just a few scenes later, his thoughts return again to the themes of “breeding” and sinfulness.  As the critic Jacqueline Rose noted, Hamlet’s seemingly bizarre projection onto Ophelia of intemperate lust (the kind that breeds “sinners”) seems, at least on the surface, suspiciously close to his feelings about Gertrude.  When he accuses his mother of “compulsive ardor,” it seems clear that his feelings about the incurable sinfulness of humanity (learned at Wittenberg perhaps?), are magnified by his belief that in marrying the murderer of her husband, Gertrude has performed a kind of nightmarish version of adultery:

Hamlet:     Nay, but to live

In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed

Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love

Over the nasty sty –

Gertrude:    O, speak to me no more!

These words like daggers enter in mine ears

No more, sweet Hamlet.

(How…fetid is Hamlet’s description?)

And even though we don’t have to see Hamlet as suffering from a Freudian Oedipal complex (which, as we saw yesterday, Harold Bloom fervently believe we should not do), it hamlet_gertrudeis interesting at least to make note of the connections that complicate his relationships with the play’s two female characters, not in the least the nightmarish links he constructs between sexuality, sin and death.  And of course the brutal irony of it all is that Hamlet’s spiraling obsession with the sins of the body are played out while there is a real corpse to be dealt with – that of Polonius, who he has just stabbed (suddenly and sinfully, and given it was with a knife…what would Freud say?) behind a wall-hanging.


From Harold Bloom:

There is a recent “Be kind to Gertrude” fashion among some feminist critics, though only John Updike (so far as I know) has extended the defense to Claudius.  It is difficult not to be attracted by Gertrude, because Shakespeare has endowed her with an amiable lustiness.  Hamlet is magnificently eloquent but otherwise badly self-advised when he admonishes his mother and denounces her healthy appetite:

You cannot call it love; for at your age

The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,

And waits upon the judgment, and what judgment

Would step from this to this?  Sense sure you have,

Else could you not have motion; but sure that sense

Is apoplex’d, for madness would not err

Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d

But it reserv’d some quantity of choice

To serve in such a difference. What devil was’t

That this hath cozen’d you at hodman-blind?

Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,

Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,

Or but a sickly part of one true sense

Could not so mope. O shame, where is thy blush?

T.S. Eliot, who had his own aversion toward his mother, particularly admired (and imitated) the most piercing lines here:

Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,

Ears without hands or eyes…

Gertrude needs defending only if she knew that Claudius had poisoned King Hamlet, and nothing in the text indicates that.  Shakespeare does not resolve the enigma of how far back the relationship with Claudius goes, but I think we can assume that Gertrude required some solace whenever the whenever the warlike King Hamlet was slaying the Hamlet_and_Gertrude_0first Fortinbras or smiting the sledded Pollacks on the ice.  That surmised, Gertrude and Claudius certainly are one of the happiest marriages in Shakespeare until the Ghost sets young Hamlet upon his very hesitant quest for revenge.  Still, I would vote for the Macbeths as much the best marriage in Shakespeare, so the connubial bliss of Gertrude and Claudius is somewhat irrelevant, once murder outs.

Prince Hamlet is not exactly one of Shakespeare’s most loving characters, though he protests otherwise.  Ophelia evidently dies a virgin, though Hamlet would seem to have garnered experience elsewhere, to judge from his general knowingness and his theatrical connections.  He is conversant with Shakespeare’s players, and the Globe was hardly a temple of chastity.  Aldous Huxley’s useful formula – ‘high brows, low loins’ – can be invoked in regard to the best mind ever represented in literature.

Shakespeare, as it customary with his superb perspectivism, does not allow Hamlet to mediate Gertrude for us.  That is certainly a gain, since Hamlet carries his grudge to the grave. After Gertrude dies, calling out ‘O my dear Hamlet!’ her son delivers the extraordinary line ‘I am dead, Horatio.  Wretched Queen, adieu.’  One feels that as heroic a sexuality as Gertrude’s deserves some warmth in a final salutation; she should have mothered Falstaff rather than Hamlet.

We remember Gertrude for two scenes in particular:  her narration of Ophelia’s death by water, and her terrified response to her authentically frightening son in the closet and portrait confrontation.  Gertrude’s is a challenging role for an actress, and I have only seen a few good performances of the part.  But then, how difficult it is to play any role in Hamlet’s tragedy, where the actor attempting the crucial consciousness is given three-eighths of the lines, and is almost always the center of concern, even when he is offstage.  Falstaff, Iago, and Cleopatra do not have mothers (or fathers, either), and only they and Lear rival Hamlet as representations.  Gertrude had much to endure, and little to enjoy, in her brilliant son.”

And finally this, from John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet:

The Nunnery Scene

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go out, and the scene begins to shape itself for the eavesdropping.  The King bids the Queen leave him with Polonius and Ophelia, and tells her of their purpose.  He insists, and accepts the point without question, that they are ‘legal espials.’  The innocent little scheme is justified in the interests of Denmark, and of Hamlet itself, and she expresses the hope that the outcome will bring happiness for them all, Ophelia included.  Gertrude is always hoping for the best.  The King’s words,

For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,

That he, as t’were by accident, may here

Affront Ophelia.

should be carefully noted in passing, if we wish to understand exactly what follows.  Hamlet is not coming to the lobby of his own motion; he has been sent for.  Not, of course, ostensibly by Claudius, but ‘closely’ that is privately or without his knowledge of the real sender of the message.  Nevertheless some kid of pretext has been given; and, when he arrives, he will find, not what he expects, but Ophelia.  There would be no flaw in this expedient, if the object of it had not happened to overhear the whole plot the day before.

The snare is now laid; the decoy is made to appear at once innocent and tempting; and the fowlers take cover.  Polonius gives Ophelia a prayer-book, and says ‘walk you here’; ‘here’ being, of course, the lobby at the back of the stage.  There is, however, a theatrical tradition that she should be kneeling when Hamlet enters, which is I think a sound one; for, 144px-Ophelia_(Pierre_Auguste_Cot)if she is only walking up and down with a book in her hands, how does he know that she is at her ‘orisons?’ I presume, therefore, that some kind of prie-dieu stood in the lobby.  Finally, before actually ‘bestowing’ himself behind the arras, Claudius utters an aside, which it is also important not to miss.  ‘Read on this book,’ says the moralizing father to his daughter,

That show of such an exercise may colour

Your loneliness; we are oft to blame in ‘this,

‘Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage

And pious action we do sugar o’er

The devil himself;

upon which the King comments to himself:

O, ‘tis too true,

How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience,

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art,

Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it

Than is my deed to my most painted word:

O heavy burden!

It is the first indication in the play that Claudius possesses a conscience; and it lead up to the ‘blenching’ in the play scene and the prayer that follows.  But there is more in it than this.  The reference, after ‘devotion’s visage’ to

The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art

is leitmotiv on Shakespeare’s part.  The linked images hark back to the ‘fishmonger’ and his ‘good kissing carrion’; and reopen a theme which Hamlet will present elaborate.

Hamlet walks into the trap in complete unconsciousness.  As he enters, his mind is not on the plot, his uncle or Ophelia.  If he remembers the Ghost at all, it is to write it off as a snare of the evil one.  He is back again where he wsa when we first had sight of his inner self; back in the mood of the soliloquy which begins

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.

But he is no longer thinking of his own ‘sullied flesh,’ still less of the divine command.  By constantly turning it over he has worn the problem to the bone:

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

A like expression of utter weariness is not to be found in the rest of human literature.  Sleep, death, annihilation, his whole mind is concentrated upon these; and the only thing that holds his arm from striking home with ‘the bare bodkin’ is the thought of ‘what dreams may come,’ ‘the dread of something after death.’  For he is without the consolations of Lucretius.  He believes in immortality, which means that by death he may exchange one nightmare for a worse.  Eternity has him in a trap, which dwarfs the little traps of Claudius and Polonius to nothingness.  No one But Shakespeare could have interrupted an exciting dramatic intrigue with a passage like this.  The surprise and the audacity of it take our breath away, and render the pity of it the more overwhelming.

As the meditation finishes, Hamlet sees Ophelia behind him upon her knees.  The sight reminds him of nothing except ‘the pangs of disprized love,’ and those have long been drowned in ‘a sea of troubles.’  ‘The fair Ophelia!’ he exclaims; the words have no warmth in them. And, when he addresses her, he speaks in irony:

Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

Romantic actors interpret this as gushing tenderness; and even Johnson calls it ‘an address grave and solemn, such as the foregoing meditation excited in his thoughts.’  Dowden, however, sees ‘estrangement in the word ‘nymph;’ and I find deliberate affectation in that word and in ‘orisons.’ They are both pretentious expressions, while the reference to ‘all my sins,’ the sins for which she has jilted him, the sins he will enlarge upon later in the scene, surely indicates a sardonic tone.  In any event, it is certain that most critics have completely misunderstood the dialogue that follows, because in their sympathy with Ophelia they have forgotten that it is not Hamlet who has ‘repelled’ her, but him.  She had refused to see him and had returned his letters; she could not even speak a word of comfort when in deep trouble he forced his way into her room with mute pitiable appeal.

After that he had done with her; and the Ophelia he now meets is a stranger.  Stranger indeed!  For listen:

Good my lord,

How does your honour for this many a day?

Is she implying that he has neglected her?  It was only yesterday he had been with her despite her denial of his access.  But at first he takes small not of her words and answers with polite aloofness:

I humbly thank you, well, well, well.

It is a form of address he employs later with people like the Norwegian Captain and Osric, while the repeated ‘well’ sounds bored.  Nevertheless, she continues:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,

That I have longed long to re-deliver.

I pray you now receive them.

What should that mean?  Once again, however, he brushes it aside: ‘I never gave you aught,’ – the woman to whom gave gifts is dead.  Yet still she persists:

My honoured lord, you know right well you did,

And with them words of so sweet breath composed

As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,

Take these again, for to the noble mind

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

There, my lord.

And here she draws the trinkets from her bosom and places them on the table before him.

The unhappy girl has sadly overplayed her part.  Her little speech, ending with a sententious couplet, as Dowden notes, ‘has an air of being prepared.’  Worse than that, she, the jilt, is accusing him of coldness towards her.  Worst of all, Hamlet who has been ‘sent for,’ who meets her in the lobby ‘by accident,’ finds her prepared not only with a speech but with the gifts also.  She means no harm; she has romantically arranged a little play scene, in the hope no doubt of provoking a passionate declaration of affection, which perhaps

Will bring him to his wonted way again,

as the Queen had remarked just before Hamlet’s entrance, and will at any rate prove to the King that she and her father are right in their diagnosis of the distemper.  But the effect upon Hamlet is disastrous.  Until that moment he had forgotten the plot; it is a far cry from thoughts of ‘the undiscovered country’ to this discovery.  But he is now thoroughly awake, and sees it all.  Here is the lobby and the decoy, playing a part, only too unblushingly; and there at the back is the arras, behind which lurk the Fishmonger and Uncle Claudius.  His hamlet-tormenting-opheliawild ‘Ha, ha!’ the fierce question ‘are you honest?’ that is to say ‘are you not a whore’ together with a significant glance around the room, are enough to show the audience that he realizes at least, and warn them to expect ‘antic disposition.’  Everything he says for the rest of the scene is intended for the ears of the eavesdroppers.  As for the daughter who has been ‘loosed’ to him, she will only get what she deserves.  For play-acting has completed her downfall in his eyes.  First the abrupt breaking-off of all intercourse between them, without any reason given, then the failure to meet his last appeal, then the overhearing of the plot in which she was to take a leading part, and last this willing and all too facile participation; it is surprising that to an imagination ‘as foul as Vulcan’s stithy’ such things should appear in the worst possible light, or that he should treat her from henceforth as the creature he believes her to be?  He puts her to one final test before the scene is over; but the dice are loaded against her.  Thus, through a chain of misconceptions, due to nothing worse than narrowness of vision and over-readiness to comply with her father’s commands, Ophelia blackens her own character in her lover’s eyes.  The process has been obscured hitherto owing to the absence of one important link in the chain; but the link now makes clear, explains Hamlet’s attitude, and shows her fate as even more pathetic than we had supposed.”


An interesting perspective.  I’ll have more from him tomorrow.  Plus other fun stuff.


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