“They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be”


Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Let’s look at Ophelia.  And Gertrude and Ophelia.  First from Harold Bloom:

“Polonius is an old meddler, and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are confidence men at best [MY NOTE:  That sounds about right – I dislike them more each time I read the play.], but the fragile and lovely Ophelia is quite another matter, and Hamlet is monstrous to simmons opheliatorment her into true madness.  One of Shakespeare’s great set pieces, Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s suicide, gives the play a lyrical splendor that helps justify Dr. Johnson’s praise of its variety:


There is a willow grows askant the brook

That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream.

Therewith fantastic garlands did she make

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,

That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,

But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.

There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds

Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,

When down her weedy trophies and herself

Fell in the weeping brook.  Her clothes spread wide,

And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,

Which time she changed snatches of old lauds,

As one incapable of her own distress,

Or like a creature native and indued

Unto that element.  But long it could not be

Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,

Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay

To muddy death.


Alas, then she is drown’d.


Drown’d, drown’d.

[MY NOTE:  So beautiful and heartbreaking…with that final repeated “Drown’d, drown’d” just perfect.]

The pathos here yields to an extraordinary aesthetic effect, unique to Ophelia.  The contrast between ‘muddy death’ and the vision of the mad girl singing songs of praises as she floats has a sublime resonance, akin to Hamlet’s realization that he is at once nothing and everything in himself, ‘infinite in faculties,’ and ‘this quintessence of dust.’  The loving Ophelia, a ‘ministering angel,’ dies chanting as an image less of victimization than of the power of Shakespeare’s language to evoke a unique beauty.

That beauty is engendered by Hamlet’s cruelty, indeed by his failure to love.  Despite his passion in the graveyard, we have every reason to doubt his capacity to love anyone, even Ophelia.  He does not want or need love, that is his lonely freedom, and it provokes the audience’s unreasoning affection for him.  Shakespeare’s wisdom avoided the only fate for Ophelia that would have been more plangent than her death-in-water; marriage to Hamlet the Dane.”


From Bradley:

Still, we are told, it was ridiculously weak in her to lose her reason. And here again her critics seem hardly to realise the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover. Nor do they realise the utter loneliness that must have fallen on her. Of the three persons who were all the world to her, her father has been killed, Hamlet has been sent out of the country insane, and her brother is abroad. Horatio, when her mind gives way, tries to befriend her, but there is no sign of any previous relation between them, or of Hamlet’s having commended her to his friend’s care. What support she can gain from the Queen we can guess from the Queen’s character, and from the fact that, when Ophelia is most helpless, the Queen shrinks from the very sight of her (IV. v. 1). She was left, thus, absolutely alone, and if she looked for her brother’s return (as she did, IV. v. 70), she might reflect that it would mean danger to Hamlet.

Whether this idea occurred to her we cannot tell. In any case it was well for her that her mind gave way before Laertes reached Elsinore; and pathetic as Ophelia’s madness is, it is also, we feel, the kindest stroke that now could fall on her. It is evident, I think, that this was the effect Shakespeare intended to produce. In her madness Ophelia continues sweet and lovable.

Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour and to prettiness.

In her wanderings we hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest sorrow, but never the agonised cry of fear or horror which makes madness dreadful or shocking.[78] And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful. Coleridge was true to Shakespeare when he wrote of ‘the affecting death of Ophelia, – who in the beginning lay like a little projection of land into a lake or stream, covered with spray-flowers quietly reflected in the quiet waters, but at length is undermined or loosened, and becomes a fairy isle, and after a brief vagrancy sinks almost without an eddy.'[79]


And another take:

“Through Ophelia we witness Hamlet’s evolution, or de-evolution into a man convinced that all women are whores; that the women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desire. And if women are harlots, then they must have their procurers. Gertrude has been made a whore by Claudius, and Ophelia has been made a whore by her father. In Act II, Polonius makes arrangements to use the alluring Ophelia to discover why Hamlet is behaving so curiously. Hamlet is not in the room but it seems obvious from the following lines that he has overheard Polonius trying to use his daughter’s charms to suit his underhanded purposes. In Hamlet’s distraught mind, there is no gray area: Polonius prostitutes his daughter. And Hamlet tells Polonius so to his face, labeling him a “fishmonger” (despite the fact that Polonius cannot decipher the meaning behind Hamlet’s words). As Kay Stanton argues in her essay Hamlet’s Whores:

Perhaps it may be granted…that what makes a woman a whore in the Hamlets’ estimation is her sexual use by not one man but by more than one man…. what seems to enrage [Hamlet] in the ‘nunnery’ interlude is that Ophelia has put her sense of love and duty for another man above her sense of love and duty for him, just as Gertrude put her sense of love and duty for her new husband above her sense of love and duty for her old. Gertrude chose a brother over a dead Hamlet; Ophelia chooses a father over a living Hamlet: both choices can be read as additionally sexually perverse in being, to Hamlet, ‘incestuous’. (Stanton,New Essays on Hamlet 168-9)

But, to the rest of us, Ophelia represents something very different. To those who are not blinded by hurt and rage, Ophelia is the epitome of goodness. Very much like Gertrude, young Ophelia is childlike and naive. Unlike Queen Gertrude, Ophelia has good reason to be unaware of the harsh realities of life. She is very young, and has lost her mother, possibly at birth. Her father, Polonius, and brother, Laertes, love Ophelia tremendously, and have taken great pains to shelter her. She is not involved with matters of state; she spends her days no doubt engaged in needlepoint and flower gathering. She returns the love shown to her by Polonius and Laertes tenfold, and couples it with complete and unwavering loyalty. “Her whole character is that of simple unselfish affection” (Bradley 130). Even though her love for Hamlet is strong, she obeys her father when he tells her not to see Hamlet again or accept any letters that Hamlet writes. Her heart is pure, and when she does do something dishonest, such as tell Hamlet that her father has gone home when he is really behind the curtain, it is out of genuine fear. Ophelia clings to the memory of Hamlet treating her with respect and tenderness, and she defends him and loves him to the very end despite his brutality. She is incapable of defending herself, but through her timid responses we see clearly her intense suffering:

Hamlet: …I did love you once.
Ophelia: Indeed, my, lord, you made me believe so.
Hamlet: You should not have believed me…I loved you not.
Ophelia: I was the more deceived.


Her frailty and innocence work against her as she cannot cope with the unfolding of one traumatic event after another. Ophelia’s darling Hamlet causes all her emotional pain throughout the play, and when his hate is responsible for her father’s death, she has endured all that she is capable of enduring and goes insane. But even in her insanity she symbolizes, to everyone but Hamlet, incorruption and virtue. “In her wanderings we hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest sorrow, but never the agonized cry of fear or horror which makes madness dreadful or shocking. And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful”. (Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy 132-3). The bawdy songs that she sings in front of Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius are somber reminders that the corrupt world has taken its toll on the pure Ophelia. They show us that only in her insanity does she live up to Hamlet’s false perception of her as a lascivious woman.”


And then, this scene by scene breakdown:

Enter Queen, Horatio and a Gentleman:
This scene begins in the middle of a conversation. The first thing we hear is “I  will not speak with her” (4.5.1), spoken by the Queen as she comes into the room. Horatio and a gentleman follow the Queen into the room, trying to get her to change her mind. As the scene progresses, we learn that they must be speaking of Ophelia, who has gone mad and wants to see the Queen. The gentleman says that “Her mood will needs be pitied.” The Queen asks, “What would she have?” (4.5.3), but the gentleman doesn’t answer her question. Instead, he tells the Queen it would be a safer to speak to Ophelia, because she has been talking about her father, and “tricks,” and she’s making people wonder what’s going on. Horatio sums it up by saying, “‘Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds” (4.5.14-15). Apparently Horatio has more influence with the Queen than the gentleman does, and she says that Ophelia can come in.

Alone for a moment while Horatio and the Gentleman go to get Ophelia, the Queen reveals why she doesn’t want to speak to Ophelia. She says “To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, / Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss” (4.5.17-18).That is, she feels great guilt, and any little thing can make her think that everything is about to go terribly wrong. We still don’t know exactly what makes her feel guilty, but she feels so much guilt that she’s afraid that even her efforts to hide it may give her away.

Enter Ophelia:
The rest of the scene is more interesting if we remember the Queen’s fear of Ophelia’s madness, and the fact that Ophelia has asked to speak with the Queen. Random craziness can be quite boring, but Ophelia, though she is indeed crazy, must think that she is delivering some sort of message to the Queen.

When Ophelia enters she asks, “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” (4.5.21), and sings an old ballad that begins “How should I your true-love know / From another one?” In the closet scene, Hamlet asked Queen Gertrude that same kind of question, and answered it, too. In his view, King Hamlet was her “true love,” and he could be distinguished from “another one” by the fact that he was handsome and noble, whereas Claudius is an ugly murderer. In Ophelia’s song, the question is answered by saying that the “true-love” is a pilgrim on his way to the holy shrine of St. James in Spain. Then the Queen asks Ophelia what she means, and Ophelia answers with another bit of song, beginning, “He is dead and gone, lady” (4.5.29). Ophelia’s father is “dead and gone,” but so is King Hamlet, and perhaps Ophelia is singing as one bereft woman to another.

Enter King:
As Ophelia is singing of the funeral of the one who is “dead and gone,” the King enters, and Ophelia promptly changes a line of the old ballad. The ballad describes a beautiful, sentimental funeral, in which a pure white shroud covers the body. On the shroud are mounds of flowers, and as the body is lowered into the grave, the flowers are “bewept” by “true-love showers.” That is, the dead one’s lover is crying so hard that the flowers are getting all wet. Ophelia, however, adds a contradictory “not” to this pretty picture. She sings that the body was “Larded with sweet flowers / Which bewept to the grave did not go / With true-love showers” (4.5.38-40). There could be two connections between Ophelia’s “not” and the King. The King got Polonius’ funeral over with as quickly and quietly as possible. And probably the King didn’t have much time for tears at his brother’s funeral, either, seeing that he was set on marrying his brother’s wife.

When the King asks Ophelia how she’s doing, she answers with a greeting and then a kind of philosophical comment: “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (4.5.42-44).According to legend, a baker’s daughter was stingy when Jesus asked her for bread, so she was turned into an owl. This was a strange transformation, and what Ophelia says seems to indicate that we are all subject to such transformations, because we “know not what we may be.” The King, for example, was the King’s brother, and now he’s the King himself. And Ophelia, for another example, was once beloved of both Hamlet and her father. Now, one has killed the other, and she’s crazy.

Finally, Ophelia sings a song that she says will say “what it means.” The song is about St. Valentine’s day, and it starts out lilting and romantic, with a girl saying she is “a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine” (4.5.50-51).But then the song turns darkly cynical. The man opens his door to “Let in the maid, that out a maid / Never departed more” (4.5.54-55). This says, with a pun, that the girl was a virgin when she went in, but not when she came out. Then the girl complains that her valentine promised to marry her if she went to bed with him, and he pulls the old double-standard trick on her. Sure, he would have married her, if “thou hadst not come to my bed” (4.5.66).

Why does Ophelia sing this song? Perhaps because it expresses just what her brother told her about Hamlet. Laertes told her that even though it might look like Hamlet really loved her, as soon as he got her into bed, it would be all over, because he wouldn’t marry her. If this is what Ophelia is referring to, being crazy seems to have made her more knowing about how the world goes.

As Ophelia leaves, she says she can’t help herself from weeping at the thought of “him” in the “cold ground.” If the “him” is her father, her next words probably give the King a little scare: “My brother shall know of it . . . .” At the end, Ophelia seems to imagine herself as a kind of princess, calling for her coach and saying “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night” (4.5.72-73).

Exit Ophelia and Horatio:
Horatio goes out with Ophelia, and the King and Queen are alone. The King bewails their fate. Troubles are piling up. Polonius has been killed and buried “hugger-mugger,” Ophelia has gone mad, the “muddied” people are passing around rumors about Polonius’ death, and to top it off, Laertes has secretly come back from France and is listening to those rumors. Already, everybody probably thinks the King killed Polonius. The King says “O my dear Gertrude, this, / Like to a murdering-piece, in many places / Gives me superfluous death” (4.5.94-96). A “murdering-piece” is a canon that works like a shotgun, shooting hundreds of pellets all over the place. It’s enough to almost make us feel sorry for the King, if he hadn’t brought it all on himself.

Just as the King is finishing his complaint, we hear noises and in comes a messenger with more bad news. Laertes is just outside, at the head of a mob which is clapping, cheering, and shouting, “Choose we: Laertes shall be king!” (4.5.107).

Enter Laertes:
No sooner has the messenger delivered his warning than Laertes himself comes bursting in, shouting, “O thou vile king, / Give me my father!” (4.5.116-117).To protect her husband, Gertrude rushes forward and clings to Laertes, but the King acts the part of a king and faces Laertes down. He tells Gertrude to let Laertes go, because “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king, / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will” (4.5.124-126).This king hasn’t much divinity in him, but he gets his way. Laertes is full of words, saying that he doesn’t care if he’s damned to hell. He says, “Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father” (4.5.136-137). But Laertes doesn’t act. Instead he listens as the King tell him that “I am guiltless of your father’s death, / And am most sensibly in grief for it” (4.5.150-151).

Re-enter Ophelia:
At this point, just as it appears that the King is getting Laertes to calm down, there’s more trouble. The mob outside begins rumbling again, and we hear someone say “Let her come in!” Ophelia has apparently gotten free of her keepers, and she comes back into the room, alone, and very deranged.

Traditionally, she appears–in the sixteenth-century phrase–“with her hair about her ears,” and carrying flowers. As soon as Laertes sees her, he understands that she has gone act4scene1-opheliamad. His first reaction is horror; he doesn’t want to look at what he’s seeing, saying “tears seven times salt, / Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!” (4.5.155-156). In other words, he wishes that his tears could make him blind. His next thought is of revenge, and he promises that someone will have to pay for his sister’s madness. Last, he mourns. He addresses his sister as “O rose of May! / Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!” (4.5.158-159). Then he asks if a young woman’s wits can be destroyed as easily as an old man’s life, and decides that Ophelia loved her father so much that her sanity followed him to the grave.

As before, Ophelia sings. Now she seems to be singing of how her father was carried to his grave, never to return. But before she finishes singing the song, Ophelia passes out flowers. Today, we associate roses with love, and lilies with Easter. In Shakespeare’s time, many flowers had meaning, and it seems that Ophelia’s flowers have some kind of mad meaning. Perhaps the rosemary for remembrance and the pansies for thought go to Laertes, who remembers his father and thinks about his sister. The fennel for flattery and the columbines for ingratitude could go to the King. Ophelia has some rue, for sorrow and repentance, and maybe she gives some to the Queen, with the comment that “you must wear your rue with a difference” (4.5.183), because the Queen’s sorrow and repentance are not the same as Ophelia’s. There’s a daisy for dissembling, which could also go to the Queen, or perhaps the King. Finally, there’s violets for faithfulness. Ophelia says of them: “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end” (4.5.184-186). Then Ophelia sings again of a funeral, and says goodbye, and is gone

And finally:

Enter Queen:
Just as the King is telling Laertes his fool-proof method of killing Hamlet, the Queen enters with bad news: “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, / So fast they follow; your sister’s drown’d, Laertes” (4.7.163-164). Laertes asks “where?” and the Queen replies with a speech that has become famous because it is so poignant. Ophelia died in flowers and song. The Queen begins her story by describing a place where “There is a willow grows aslant a brook” (4.7.166) There Ophelia made garlands of willow branches, interwoven with Ophelia Drownedwildflowers: “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples / That liberal shepherds give a grosser name” (4.7.169-170). The willow is a traditional symbol of forsaken love, and making a garland of willow is what a lover does when his/her beloved has left him/her. Also, the daisy is a symbol of dissembling, and nettles sting, and the “grosser name” of the “long purples” is almost certainly sexual. Altogether, it seems that we are seeing a woman who has been driven mad by lost love, rather than by the death of her father. Ophelia climbs the willow to hang her garlands on it, a branch breaks, and she falls into the water with the garlands. “Her clothes spread wide; / And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up: / Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes” (4.7.175-177). (At this point we might ask why no one jumped in after her. An answer might be that no lady would know how to swim, but the real answer is that it’s not an issue that Shakespeare brings up, so don’t ask.) As Ophelia floats among her weeds and flowers, singing, her clothes become waterlogged and pull “the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death” (4.7.182-183).

At the news, Laertes tries to fight off tears, but without success. First he makes a kind of sad joke, saying “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, / And therefore I forbid my tears” (4.7.185-186). But the tears come, and Laertes promises that “when these are gone, / The woman will be out” (4.7.188-189). hat is, when he has finished crying, he will have gotten all of the “woman” out of himself and be a man again. He exits, still weeping, with his best-remembered lines: “I have a speech of fire, that fain would blaze, / But that this folly drowns it” (4.7.190-191).”

The King, true to form, is worried about his own skin. He tells the Queen that they have to follow Laertes because the news of Ophelia’s death may ignite Laertes’ rage again. So it seems that the King, even after all of his manipulation of Laertes, is still afraid of him.”

Your thoughts?  Is Hamlet fully to blame for Ophelia’s descent into madness and death?


More tomorrow…


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1 Response to “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be”

  1. Pingback: Accommodation | brucelarochelle

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