Thinking Through Ophelia


"She had so little of him and he had so much of her"

I heard this on NPR, it's a variation of a line from a story about a young woman in the mid-west who gives her all to a boy who works at McDonald's. Of course it mapped perfectly onto Ophelia and Hamlet (as everything does in this heatwave) and it made a serious thinking-through of her become necessary. Who is this girl? And who is she as I've interpreted her?


As the text presents her, Ophelia occupies very little space. She isn't without her moments of wit, but these are often reduced onstage to the register of precociousness. She teases Laertes incisively but often this moment barely complicates a director's reading of her as simple, one dimensional, peripheral.

As I pull her apart, I find the indication that she lives deeply in her head and can barely be bothered to come out except to be with Hamlet. Because he feels like the stuff of her own fantasies, she feels safe with him and safe in their world together. Of course, their world together is her curation of the external expression of her interior fantasy. Everything is aesthetically gorgeous and nostalgic, which indicates her inability to come out of her head unless the outside world looks like her interior one. Her fragility is stilled only by worship: she worships Marilyn, romance, and Hamlet equally. 


With the demise of her father and her relationship with Hamlet, Ophelia immerses herself in a finally-justified sadness. I see her as always having lived in a state of removed introspection that bordered on tragic. With these two events her sadness is no longer self-pitying, it is justified. Ophelia luxuriates in the schadenfreude of her own situation now that her own sorrow has justified cause. Virginity lost, childhood lost, she is tangibly ruined in ways her psyche hadn't yet delighted in. Before it had been her loneliness, the impenetrability of her interior world that had allowed her to cultivate a delicate, artistic sadness. Now that real misery has let itself in, she delights in the justification of the way she has always felt, along with the comfort of sinking into familiar symbolic feminine roles: the orphaned, the ruined, the spurned. 



Tangibility of bigger ideas is vital to these characters. Hamlet's inaction causes him to yearn for a past time of masculinity, and that's why he adorns himself in the James Dean leather and gel: to create the facade of manly competence when inside he still feels like a boy. The leather jacket, the cigarette case, they're all totems that remind him of one way, one especially cinematic and romanticized way, of ascending into manhood. He feels (but isn't outright thinking) that if he wears leather and chain-smokes, adulthood will simply fall on him by mistake or he'll die young by living fast before he has to do anything himself. 


Similarly, Ophelia pursues an equally contrived femininity to lend credence to her inner feelings of preemptive loss and tragedy. She recasts her depression as delicate, citing Marilyn as an excuse to live mired in self-doubt and crippling withdrawal from the present moment. The heels keep her immobile unless pulled along by Hamlet as she is stuck forever posing, always for him, in the stature of femininity with none of the logic behind anything she does. Her bed, her clothes, everything is contrived to make him think she knows what she's doing, despite being years behind him and living years behind that. I imagine her practicing her best Mid-Atlantic accent in front of the mirror, reciting poetry with tears running down into her ears in the middle of the night, and buying lingerie with her allowance that no one will ever see. She lives in the fantasy, and dies in the fantasy of beautiful tragedy.

The reality, of course, is that while alluring, tragedy is anything but beautiful. It is gasping, ugly, and insatiable. She may not have touched a drug in her life, have only sipped champagne on her 18th birthday, but Ophelia is an addict and Hamlet is her enabler as they live chasing life's most cutting aches: "despised love," nostalgia, and poetic heartbreak of all other varieties.