Click here for a copy of the 1984 essay assignment. As of right now, the due date hasn’t been decided. I wanted to get the assignment to you before you got too far into the text in order to allow you to take notes about specific topics and ideas.
Yesterday in class, I asked a couple of groups to analyze Ophelia’s madness. I was hoping some people would get to the idea that perhaps she goes crazy due to guilt, ashamed that she had actually wished for her father’s death. Instead, a group in 3rd hour suggested that she was pregnant. My first response was that they were crazy. Despite my reaction, I couldn’t shake the thought.
While I’m not prepared to say Ophelia was pregnant, I think a reasonable case can be made that she was. The first objection I had to the claim was that Hamlet asks her if she is honest in act 3, scene 1. We are told in our notes that “honest” means chaste, but as a pun, it’s possible that she takes the question to mean to mean truthful. Hamlet later tells her to go to a nunnery, slang for a brothel.
One of the songs Ophelia sings in act 4, scene 5 is about Valentine’s day and a maid becoming a maid no more. The other songs all refer to her father’s death, an actual event. Perhaps this song refers to an actual event as well. Moreover, she hands out flowers and herbs to different people in the scene. The flowers themselves are symbolic. She gives rue to Gertrude and keeps some for herself. Rue, according to our text, is a symbol of sorrow. It also an herb that was used to cause abortions, giving it the symbolic meaning of adultery. One could make the argument that Gertrude gets it to accuse her of adultery, and Ophelia keeps it to deal with her pregnancy.
Is her death a suicide in response to pregnancy and the loss of love of the baby’s father (which is what Polonius warned Ophelia of)? If so, we should look at Hamlet’s misogyny as Hamlet’s misogyny.
Some of you astutely asked about succession in Hamlet today. Shouldn’t Hamlet have become king? Did Gertrude marry Claudius in order to preserve Hamlet’s succession to the throne? It turns out that Denmark, unlike England, had an elective monarchy. The Danes (and by Danes, I mean a collective of Danish nobility) elected their monarchs until 1660 when Denmark became a hereditary monarchy. While the Hamlet would have been a prime candidate for the throne, perhaps because he was away at Wittenberg, Claudius is elected instead. While Gertrude may have married Claudius for love, the possibility that she married him in order to keep her social status and to keep Hamlet as logical successor to the throne exists. Hamlet alludes to the elective process in act V, but we’re not quite there yet.
So, no clear cut answers on this question (of course).
The other astute observation that was made today, by Carissa, was that Hamlet’s demeanor with his mother in act 3 scene 4 is much like an abuser. While he may rightfully feel betrayed by the speed with which his mother remarried (possible reasons for which are above), his desire to control whom she should have relationships with and his desire to control her sex life are reminiscent of the abusive controller. Is this evidence of Hamlet’s ability to be a powerful and violent king like his father? Is his misogyny born out of something other than a feeling of betrayal?
So, again, there are rarely clear answers in the study of literature. That’s why it is so much more interesting than some other subjects (fwiw, if you stick with the study of math, it will eventually get just as subjective. See non-euclidean and finite geometry.)
Don’t forget to complete your summer reading requirement!
Have Act 4 read for Monday. We may not get to it until Tuesday, but in case we do, I want you to be ready.
As we continue to explore Act 3, it strikes me that the element we are missing is performance. Hamlet was meant to be seen, not read (which is not the case with all plays, like Faust, which has only been performed in its entirety a couple of times). I am posting a few renditions of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy here:
Kenneth Branagh’s version:
Mel Gibson’s version:
Sir Laurence Olivier’s classic version:
And, a new version in which Ethan Hawke is contemplating his mortality in a Blockbuster:
Just as tone is created in text through diction, directors and actors create meaning through visual imagery, and tone, speed, and intensity of voice. Think about what each video adds or changes to the meaning that you had in your head.
Don’t forget your hero comparison presentations are due on Monday. We’ll be starting Shakespeare next week.
While reading The Old Man and the Sea, be on the look out for Christ imagery and elements of the hero’s journey.
Read the first 700 lines (10 chapters) of Beowulf by Monday. Be looking for elements of the hero’s journey while you are reading.