Gertrude: One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow. Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
Laertes: Drowned! Oh, where?
Gertrude: There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, 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 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 mermaidlike awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted 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,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
Laertes: Alas, then she is drowned?
Gertrude: Drowned, drowned.
Gertrude reports the events of Ophelia’s death as if she had seen (and heard!) them herself. How did Gertrude know all those details of Ophelia’s death?
Was Gertrude there? Did she put pressure on the ‘envious sliver’ Ophelia was standing on? Or was Gertrude just watching when the bough broke but then took no action at all to help save Ophelia?
Let’s look more closely at what happened.
Ophelia dies during act IV, somewhere between scene V and scene VII.
Scene V opens with Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover, confronting Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and getting in a famous, subtle dig: “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” At this point, Ophelia is either mad from grief over the death of her father or she is feigning madness for reasons of her own, as is Hamlet. (Assuming, that is, Hamlet’s pretend madness really is pretend. It’s always possible Hamlet in fact is mad and his pretense at pretense is, well, just a pretense.)
In the middle of scene V, after Ophelia’s confrontation with Gertrude, Ophelia exits and Cladius instructs Horatio to follow her. However, a few moments later Ophelia returns and there’s no direct mention of Horatio returning also to keep an eye on her. When Ophelia exits, again, she will not return.
Gertrude exits just after Ophelia. There is no mention of either of them again until scene VII when Gertrude enters with the news of Ophelia’s drowning. And with all the details of Ophelia’s death…
Did Horatio continue to follow Ophelia as Claudius instructed him to do? Did Horatio witness Ophelia fall into the brook and report the details to Gertrude?
I don’t believe it. If Horatio had witnessed Ophelia fall into the brook, wouldn’t Horatio have jumped in and pulled her out? And Horatio almost certainly wasn’t Gertrude’s source for the details of Ophelia’s death because after scene V, Horatio was busy with the sailors delivering Hamlet’s letters in scene 6.
Where did Gertrude get the details of Ophelia’s death?
Gertrude must have been at the brook.
At the very least, Gertrude witnessed Ophelia fall into the brook and did nothing herself to save Ophelia, didn’t summon attendants to help. At the worst, Gertrude helped break the branch Ophelia was standing on. It’s murder, either direct or indirect.
Gertrude has her murder, just as surely as Claudius has his and Hamlet has his.
One big happy family.
It’s worth noting that scene VII, the scene that ends with Gertrude reporting the death of Hamlet’s lover, opens with Gertrude’s husband, Claudius, conniving to kill Hamlet. Royal family murder symmetry.
So why has history, all of pop culture, raised up Ophelia as a kind of icon of female suicide when a straightforward reading of the play casts her death as a murder?
Is it more acceptable in civilized culture for us to think that a young woman may kill herself than it is to think that a mother may kill her son’s lover?
Why have so few books even commented on the possibility of Gertrude murdering Ophelia? Or on the incongruity of Gertrude having so many details of the death?
Heck, a woman writer, Carolyn Heilbrun, has written about Gertrude and singled out her description of Ophelia’s death, saying: [Gertrude] leaves Laertes and the King together, and then returns to tell Laertes that his sister is drowned. She gives her news directly, realizing that suspense will increase the pain of it, but this is the one time in the play when her usual pointed conciseness would be the mark neither of intelligence nor kindness, and so, gently, and at some length, she tells Laertes of his sister’s death, giving him time to recover from the shock of grief, and to absorb the meaning of her words. [my emphasis] Heilbrun recognizes the speech is unique, but she never questions the content of it. Geesh!
It’s all very weird.
I don’t know which I find more interesting: Shakespeare’s play, ‘Hamlet,’ or the fact that four hundred years of pop culture critics and trend mongers have ignored the textual parallels between Ophelia and Hamlet and instead have reduced Ophelia to a one dimensional suicide victim (based on, in fact, only the words of the woman who almost certainly directly or indirectly killed Ophelia).
It’s all very weird.
I don’t know who has treated Ophelia worse, Hamlet, Gertrude or literature professors.