Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Did Gertrude Murder Ophelia?

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.


Elizabeth said...

If all this is true, what was her motive for murdering Ophelia?

Anonymous said...

a theme throughout the play is the oedipus complex between hamlet and gertrude. it's possible that would have something to do with it.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that someone else has finally asked the same questions that have been flying around in my brain regarding Ophelia's death.

I do not believe that Gertrude murdered her, because of the two following parts of the play.

First, in Act III Scene I, Gertrude says:

"And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness; so shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours."

And secondly, at Ophelia's funeral in Act V Scene I she says:

"Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave."

These do not seem the sentiments of someone who wishes Ophelia dead.

Instead, I think that Gertrude was repeating an account of Ophelia's death told to her by someone else.

The king and queen would spend most of their waking time surrounded by servants and courtiers, and it seems unlikely that Gertrude would be wandering around unattended out in the weeds near the brook, spying on Ophelia.

It still leaves me wondering who it was that saw all this garland-making, singing, floating, and drowning - and did nothing to help get her out of the brook.

The only thing that makes sense to me is that perhaps the willow was huge, the "brook" was more like a river, and as folks back then very likely didn't learn to swim, the place where Ophelia fell in was too deep for the watcher(s) to do anything but gather information and relate it to someone when they got back to the castle.

But that still leaves something unexplained... if they could not get to her to save her, how did they get to her to bring her to burial? Seems if they could do the one, they could have done the other, no?

Chunter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chunter said...

@Elizabeth: Gertrude (and Claudius) may have been seething over Ophelia's accusations of them through the flowers (Columbine and Rue were symbols of adultery) and sought to get back at them for that.

Anonymous said...

gertrude's complicity in ophelia's suicide is at odds with her character during the rest of the play. she is not lady macbeth! the 'there is a willow...' speech is possibly from kyd, possibly from an earlier draft. or perhaps a printer's error. de madariaga calls it 'negligence and indifference' and an example of the bards' 'lack of respect' for his audience. empson simply has 'an impossible description'. the beauty of the speech might have justified its otherwise inexplicable inclusion.
there are many errors in hamlet, eg how did old hamlet (ghost) know the fashion of his murder when he was sleeping at the time? and many puzzling lines. why does hamlet wrongly estimate (twice) the time since his father's death? and then refer to claudius as his mother?
the play asks many more questions than it answers, which is of course what makes it so bewitching.
remember that joyce tells us that 'a man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and are the portals to discovery'.

Zoe M Thompson said...

I argued this point for HOURS in my AP lit class years ago. I'm so glad to find a person in agreement.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to think that Gertrude did the deed; or, at the very least, let out a sigh of selfish relief while Ophelia sank into the drink. Chunter's on to something with his "Columbine and Rue" comment. Prior to Ophelia's "Beat Them Over The Head With Plant Symbolism" dance, her father had hammered the idea into Gertrude's head that it was Hamlet's infatuation with Ophelia that was the cause of his madness. Ophelia then comes in dripping insanity and dropping innuendo- bombs all over the place, driving the point home for Gertie. While Claudius is treating the symptom (by shipping off Hamlet and talking down Ophelia's brother), Mommy Dearest goes out for a walk by the river and removes the cause of the disease. On another note, if the reader allows for Gertrude to be responsible for Ophelia's death, she symbolically becomes "one" with her husband in sin. Claudius eliminated Old Hamlet with an alibi no one would suspect, so then Gertrude eliminates Ophelia under the pretense of suicide.

It gets even more twisted if you consider the possibility that Ophelia could have been in on Hamlet's scheme from the time he burst into her room all hat-less and crazy. Maybe he asked her to play along, which is what made the betrayal of murdering her father even more cruel. It would certainly give a new perspective on the "lay your head in my lap" scene right before the play.

LisaJD said...

Horatio: ‘Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds

This seems motive enough for Gertrude; Ophelia in her madness spreading rumours that did not put Claudius, Hamlet, or the court in a good light. Maybe Gertrude felt like she had to get rid of Ophelia, but felt guilty about it?

Anonymous said...

It's an absurd proposition. If Gertrude were responsible, would she publicly reveal so many details? The very reason that the question is difficult is that Gertrude could not possibly have been there. If she had been there and had killed Ophelia, she wouldn't return to Elsinore and announce the details of the crime she had just committed.

The more likely explanation is that she lies about the details to exculpate Ophelia, to free her from the crime of suicide. This explanation is consonant with Gertrude's character throughout the play: she's willin to do whatever it takes to put the best spin on unfortunate events.

Richard Simpkins said...

It's also inexplicable that such a murder wouldn't be discovered and avenged by the end of the play. Everyone confesses in the final scene, so that they may receive absolution before meeting their maker. Gertrude's death would have been justice, and her soul would been laid bare, as happened with every single character who kills.

Nigel Bradley said...

Personally, I see Gertrude every bit as dark as Claudius. She may not have poured the poison in King Hamlet's ear, but she was quite quick to marry her husband's murderer. She was in on it from the start. King Hamlet might not want his son getting mixed up on "that" side of the issue, but it's there none the less. To think otherwise, would be to see Gertrude as stupid, and she is quite sharp, giving observations quick and concise: "more matter, less art," "methinks the lady doth protest too much," and being the only one who insists that Hamlet's madness is due to his father's death and their quick marriage.

So--Gertrude is not stupid, and is quite fine with King Hamlet's death. She doesn't want her son dead, obviously, but when Ophelia goes mad, starts throwing accusations around, and makes it clear that she's going to be a problem... Gertrude has her removed.

She's every bit as evil... and thus, she has to die at the end.

Anonymous said...

Yikes. This reading seems to draw on a potential, idiosyncratic break in the classic unities for the sake of dramatic effect, something that happens OFTEN in Shakespeare's work. You may want to a take a closer look at the many, many, many well argued and nuanced interpretations that the "literature professors" you mention have offered to unravel Ophelia's character before insinuating that her character has been marginalized by literary criticism. Reality attests vastly to the contrary.