Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hamlet: “Oh, by the way, Ophelia is pregnant!”

I've taken off a few months to do my own novel editing and indepth education. So here's a sample of one of my latest essays from Critical Thinking-Literature.

Hamlet: “Let [your daughter] not walk i’th’ sun: conception is a blessing but as your daughter may conceive, friend—look to’t” (2.2 181-3).

As I read Hamlet and watched the movie I couldn’t fight the nagging feeling I was missing something; a thought grabbed a hold and wouldn’t go away—what if Ophelia was pregnant. Why else would Hamlet go ballistic when Laertes and Polonius forbid him from seeing her and then used her to plot against him? He had to be furious when denied access to her bed knowing it was too late. It is no secret that they had a physical relationship. “Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed” (4.5, 60-64). Ophelia’s silly song lyrics not only suggest a physical relationship between her and Hamlet, but lead the reader to believe something more that lost virtue resulted from their romantic liaisons’. I heard someone say that Ophelia died an innocent virgin. I disagree. Not only does the possibility of Ophelia’s pregnancy drive the play but it adds to the human complications. Evidence supporting this idea lies in the participants.

Ophelia was young and innocent—at one point. And there is nothing more obnoxious than a young girl in love. Silliness and empty-headed nonsense rule their existence. It’s like they’ve stepped off the planet. A parent and a brother would notice these changes. But if the young lady in question is pregnant, then the incidents of flightiness and mood shifts would have been ten fold. The threat and/or opportunity that Ophelia might become pregnant were ever present in the thoughts of her brother and father. Their suspicion adds dimension and angst to the drama and tragedy of the play. It’s central to the theme of madness. Whether Laertes or Polonius suspected Ophelia of being pregnant, I believe so. No doubt they speculated some hanky-panky was going on between Hamlet and Ophelia. Why else would both of them warn her away from him?“Shakespeare immediately draws the attention to the significance of Ophelia’s chastity (Act 1, Scene 3). In this scene, both her brother and father lecture her on virtues of maidenhood, her virginity, while they tell her to repel Hamlet’s letters and love. Her brother warns her to fear her ‘chaste treasure open’ (1.3, 30) and to ‘unmask her beauty to the moon’ (1.3, 36). Her father continued the same sentiments…” (Sekinger).

Laertes tells his sister that Hamlet might just be going through a phase “and a toy in blood. A violet in the youth of nature that is in its prime…but not lasting” (1.3, 7-9). Ophelia says “really”? Laertes suspects a problem resulting from their physical relations and admonishes her to refuse Hamlet her bed. Imagine the girl’s frantic fears now she suspects she’s with child and father and brother rail on her and she can’t keep company with the baby’s daddy. Laertes continued in that vein telling her that Hamlet couldn’t love so lowly a creature because he has a responsibility to the state. Gosh, why not just push her into the pond and be done with it? Laertes must have been clued in to Ophelia’s pregnancy.

Polonius inadvertently admits to such a claim. Polonius’s knowledge is revealed when Hamlet discloses that he knows Ophelia, his lady love might be pregnant. Check out the words that Hamlet uses when he confronts Polonious. He said, “For a sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—have you a daughter?” Polonius wonders why Hamlet keeps “harping” on his daughter until Hamlet tells him, “Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to’t.” (2.2, 196). Okay, dad, look, me and your daughter have been fooling around and because I’m a scoundrel, your precious, virtuous daughter is preggers.

It is thought by scholars that the word “sun” in the referenced text may have meant “son” as in the son of Hamlet. But it’s interesting to note how Hamlet uses the simile of breeding of maggots on a dead dog to what he had done in his relationship with Ophelia. He’s not happy with himself, so this can’t be a good thing for him to reproduce. It’s clever the way Hamlet dances around the possibility, yet Polonius has an odd response. “Indeed, that is out of the air. How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.” (II.II, 220). Catch the “allusion to the following word descriptions in the footnote of: breed (198), conception (197), pregnant (220), and delivered of (223)” (Sekinger). The words uttered by Polonius are much too portentous not to have us suspect he knew.
Shakespeare is a master at making us wonder. Was she? Wasn’t she? I wondered what Hamlet meant when he confronted Ophelia in the hall within hearing of Polonius and The King. “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldn’t thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1, 131-132.) I don’t think this was specifically meant to reference her going to a brothel or whorehouse, although that’s a notable explanation. It could have been a place to protect Ophelia and her unborn child, because Hamlet also says, “…I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me” (3.1, 132-134). He doesn’t want his child to suffer the same fate as he will. Because of Hamlet’s anger which is further complicated by the knowledge of her pregnancy, the bitterness of his indecision to kill Claudius and the final betrayal of the woman he loved, Hamlet finally snaps. Love turns to accusation.
“Hamlet: …God has given you one face and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad. I say, we will have no marriages: those that are married already, all by one, shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.” (3.1, 154-162.)

No wonder poor Hamlet teetered on the brink of insanity. Everything is starting to add up and the total is freaking him out. 1) The crap with his mother and Claudius, 2) his back-and-forth indecision about revenge, 3) Ophelia’s refusal of his bed and his tenderness, 4) she throws his love back in his face, 5) Ophelia betrays him, and finally 6) he learns she’s carrying his child all the while deceiving him. How sad for Hamlet. How sad for Ophelia.
Perhaps Ophelia didn’t realize she was pregnant right away. Hamlet’s been away at school, the old king died, his mother and Claudius were married. A few months may have passed but now she knows. That knowledge added to the tension and dramatic slip into madness. She’s been commanded to refuse the attentions of her lover and her baby’s father and ordered to refuse his offerings of love and give back his love letters and refuse him her bed. Family loyalty is one thing, but she’s torn. Does she reveal her pregnancy and spoil everything, or go insane?

It is her father who put the final screws to her and fractured her heart. He asked her if Hamlet has given her many offers of love and affection, which angers him. When she answerd in the affirmative, he lost his cool. “Affection, puh! You speak like a green girl unsifted in such perilous circumstance” (1.3, 117). Polonius mocked her relationship with Hamlet by telling her Hamlet only wanted one thing from her and when he’s got it, it’s over. “In few, Ophelia, do not believe his vows, for they are brokers” (1.3, 135). Ophelia tried to tell her father that Hamlet’s love for her was genuine. “My Lord, he had importuned me with love in honourable fashion” (1.3, 116-117), “and hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of heaven” (1.3, 119-121). In her mind, she’s already married to Hamlet, so why not conceive and bare his child? But it is really at the end of the play, where Ophelia’s insane raving cements the supposition that she’s is going to have Hamlet’s child. Ophelia sees her brother in the great hall, brings everyone flowers and sings a little ditty, “There’s rue for you, and here’s a rue for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. You (must) wear your rue with a difference” (4.5, 205-207). Although the herb plant carries one symbolic meaning of grace and regret, it is also carries the power of an abortifacient—abortion. “Herbal abortifacients tend to be mild poisons. The idea is that you poison yourself to the point where your body decides it’s too sick to support the growing embryo or fetus, and rejects it” (Epstein). Ophelia wouldn’t have chosen rue for herself if there wasn’t a reason for its properties to be used in her behalf.Let’s examine again the evidence. Laertes warned off his sister from the pitfalls of loving a person of higher station with the blood of youth running through his veins. Even in jest Polonius confirmed her pregnancy with terms like “pregnancy,” “conception,” and “delivered of” in his statements to/and about Hamlet. Hamlet dropped not-so-subtle hints to Polonius that he knew Polonius’s daughter was pregnant. Hamlet went back and forth, but in the end recoils at her betrayal, thus telling her to leave and get to a “nunnery.” But it is the plaintive, melancholy song which Ophelia sings that gave the final clue. The song acts as a confession to Gertrude and Claudius before Ophelia takes her rue and climbs down the bank of the river:

By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack and fie for shame,
Young men will do ‘t, if they come to ‘t;
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quote she “Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.”

He answers:

“So would I ‘a done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.”

He bedded me, he rejected me, I’m preggers, I’m history. In my opinion, Ophelia’s pregnancy is pivotal to the story. Hamlet’s confused inaction and impetuousness were a result of wrestling with that knowledge and of course, Ophelia’s madness. We see a woman who lived a fairy tale life then was commanded to reject her lover and the father of her child, and was then brutalized by said lover who just happened to murder her father, and now he’s been packed away on a ship bound for England. In her mind she does the only honorable thing she could think of—death by water. “…many in an Elizabethan audience would take this as a clear suggestion that she [Ophelia] was pregnant, since drowning was the preferred method of suicide for unmarried women who were pregnant” (Lady). Tis sad but true, our lady Ophelia was with child. “And I, of ladies most deject and wretched” (3.1, 169). So, as one person suggested, the next time Hamlet is staged, dress Ophelia in maternity clothes to save time and confusion.

Works Cited

Epstein, Alex. Crafty Screenwriting. Henry Hold and Company, LLC. New York, N.Y. 2002. 19 Feb 2011.

Lady, Lee. Hamlet and Ophelia. 19 Feb. 2011.

Sekinger, Aleksandra. “Ophelia Commits Suicide Because She is Pregnant?” 14 January 2010.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hamlet Second Quatro. 1604.