The Psychology of Shakespeare/Chapter 3

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OPHELIA.

 

"Che per amor venne in furore e matto."

Ophelia, so simple, so beautiful, so pitiful! The exquisite creation is so perfect, yet so delicate, that we fear to approach it with the rough touch of critical remark. Child of nature in simplicity and innocence—without guile, without suspicion—and therefore, without reserve, or that deceit which often simulates a modesty more dainty than the modesty of innocence. And yet, not ignorant though innocent; but with quick native intellect, which appreciated the selfishness, and rebuked the fears, of her brother's caution; which still more fully appreciated, and was able most eloquently to describe, the noble qualities of her princely lover, "the glass of fashion and the mould of form;" simple, yet not obtuse; but possessing quick sentiment, and lively fancy, to a degree which made her most impressible to all generous emotion; sensitive, but yet reticent; thrilling through every fibre of the soul to the touch of love, and the anguish of despair; yet allowing no confession to be extorted, and no cry to escape, until she sees her lover "quite, quite down;" when, with unselfish grief lamenting his fall, she allies her fate with his, and cries aloud in the agony of woe, "and I of ladies most deject and wretched." It is strange how thoroughly we seem to know Ophelia, notwithstanding her taciturnity and reserve. She says nothing of herself, and yet we seem to look into the very recesses of her clear soul; thus presenting one form of contrast to the being with whose fate her own was entwined, who constantly soliloquising and self-analysing, nevertheless leaves upon us the impression that we know the vast amplitude of his thoughts and feelings, but dimly and in part. The one is the translucent and limpid fountain, reflecting but one image; the other, the ever-varying river, with rapids, and smooth reaches, and profound depths, reflecting and representing the varied features of earth and Heaven.

Ophelia is passive, but not impassive; her very reticence is eloquent of feeling. Her love, like that of Imogen and Desdemona, has more of sentiment than of passion in it. It does not vent itself in strong expressions like the passions of Juliet and Cleopatra. It is imaginative, retiring, sensitive, fearful of it self, and yet without one particle of selfishness. In this, also, it is unlike the amour passion, which is essentially selfish. Not that Ophelia is wholly without passion; for love without passion cannot exist, except as a mere dream. But the constituents, sentiment and passion, which are in all love, though in infinitely varying degrees, appear in Ophelia to exist in the greatest possible amount of the former, and the least of the latter.

Sensitive, and imaginative, and devoted, the poor girl was endowed with all the faculties of moral suffering. That she should suffer greatly, undeservedly, irremediably, was needful in order to make her the object of that intense pity which the character excites; and which was certainly wanted in the drama to perfect it as a tragedy. The character is not very prominent, but it so entirely seizes upon our sympathy and pity, that, in this respect, it leavens our regard for the whole play. Ulrici has called Hamlet a "Gedankentrauerspiel," or, tragedy of thought; as if there could be any tragic emotion excited by thought alone, whose unmodified influence is to cause assent or dissent? Yet, if the character of Ophelia were wanting, there would be so much justice in the epithet which this critic has applied to the drama, it would appeal so much to thoughts and opinions, and so little to sentiment, that it would be too much a drama of thought and opinion to take the rank it does in the most sacred shrine of the tragic muse.

Pity, soft-eyed mother of the virtues, ever assuaging the severe aspect of their male parent, justice; pity, most unselfish of all the emotions, although in truth but one form of self-suffering; pity, that appreciation of evil which we understand and sympathize with, and therefore suffer with or compassionate when we behold others under the weight of its affliction; pity, whose Heavenly influence it is the highest aim and object of the tragic muse to invoke, is the sentiment which the character of Ophelia more powerfully elicits than that of any other of Shakespeare's female characters. For if Imogen was at one time as wretched, her misery was changed into joy; and if Desdemona was equally innocent, her agony was more brief, and less intense. The sufferings of Cordelia were alleviated by active resistance against the evil power by which they were occasioned. In Lear, the king of sorrows, and in Othello, the lion poisoned by a villain's hand, are characters which excite pity as intense, though not as unmixed; for in neither is the agony felt to be quite undeserved, or quite unavoidable. For it is to be remarked, that to excite the pure sentiment of pity—First, it is needful the suffering reflected from the consciousness of another upon our own sensibility should be such as we can appreciate, and bring home, as it were, to ourselves;

"Haud ignarus mali miseris succurrere disco."

Secondly, that the sufferings should be great. We do not pity the petty miseries of life; and although a man's happiness may be stung to death by poisonous insects as certainly as it can be torn by the fangs of a savage monster, we are not revolted at wounds which we cannot see. Thirdly, unmixed pity can only be excited by suffering, which is undeserved and unavoidable. When a man brings upon himself only so much suffering as he deserves to endure; or when, through wilfulness or obstinacy, he endures suffering which he can avoid, justice holds up the stern finger and forbids pity to interfere. But avoidability of suffering and desert of suffering are so relative and varied with circumstance, that some amount of obstinacy or demerit is readily overlooked by the tender eyes of compassion. "Treat us all according to our merits," says Hamlet, "and who shall escape whipping?" Feel for us all according to our merits, and who shall deserve pity?

Yet justice modifies pity, nay, sometimes forbids it—even where suffering is greatest. The agonies of hell, as they are painted on the broad canvas of Milton, do not excite pity, because they are felt to be justly endured.

Ophelia is, from the first moment of her appearance, suffering the anguish of doubt and wounded love. Unlike Desdemona and Imogen, there is no bright period of the character. There is gentle but real sorrow in her first words, "No more but so?" Must she consider herself merely the toy of her princely lover? "The perfume and suppliance of the minute?" Has he been trifling with her love? and his own, is it nothing but youthful lust, dishonourable to himself and dangerous to her? "No more but so?" She does not believe it; her brother sees that she does not believe it, and he gives more credit to Hamlet's earnestness. "Perhaps he loves you now;" but he may not marry where he chooses; he may not carve for himself; therefore it behoves poor Ophelia to exercise her wisdom where wisdom is rarely exercised, and to believe Hamlet's love only so far as the probability of an honourable marriage may justify her faith. Match-making probabilities, which the poor girl was far enough from being able to estimate Laertes does not advise his sister according to the truth of the saying, that "the woman who hesitates is lost." He advises her to believe in Hamlet's love to a certain extent, not to give too credent an ear:

"Be wary then, best safety lies in fear;
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near."

Polonius knows that best safety lies in flight; he insists upon no half measures. The not very delicate warning of Ophelia's disagreeable brother, that she is likely to lose her honour to Hamlet's unmastered importunity, is evidently distasteful to the poor girl, and gives occasion to the only sparkle of displeasure which the gentle creature ever shews, in that quick witted retaliation of advice,

"But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whilst, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own read."

Ophelia's reference to the primrose path of dalliance which her libertine brother was likely to lead, shews, from the first, that her purity of mind is not the result of ignorance. She seems young and ardent—her brother fears for her honour not more on account of Hamlet's importunity, than on account of her own youth, which is likely to rebel against the dictates of prudence, though unsolicited, "though none else near."

What the old father has to say takes a much more straightforward and decisive form than the advice of Laertes, who feels that he is treading on tender ground, and who gets repaid by counter advice. Polonius reproaches his daughter that she has been "most free and bounteous of her audience with Hamlet;" and he tells her downright, "you do not understand yourself so clearly, as it behoves my daughter, and your honour." To the demand that she should give up the truth to him, the poor frightened girl at once acknowledges Hamlet's suit, but carefully conceals the state of her own heart.

"Oph. He hath, my lord, of late, made many tenders
Of his affection to me.
Pol. Affection? puh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
Oph. I do not know, my lord, what I should think.
Pol. Marry, I'll teach you : think yourself a baby:
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or, (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Wronging it thus,) you'll tender me a fool.
Oph. My lord, he hath importun'd me with love,
In honourable fashion.
Pol. Ay, fashion you may call it; go to, go to.
Oph. And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.
Pol. Ay, springes to catch woodcocks."

A green girl, indeed; a baby in the perils of court amours, having the credulity of innocence, but not that of stupidity. A sensitive unsophisticated maiden for the first time in love, wondering at the new and strange sensation, scarcely confessing it to herself, unable to distinguish the traits of the mysterious tyrant who has set up his throne in her young heart. The father and the brother fear for her chastity; and these fears may have been well founded, for she appears the very prototype of Margaret in Faust, who, in the very spirit of unselfish devotion, could refuse her lover nothing. But they need not have feared for her modesty, or for that precious quality in women which the cold word modesty, or moral moderation, does not express: the shamefacedness of love (pudicitia, pudewr, Keuscheit) at once the effect and the proof of moral purity. Had Ophelia been capable of measuring her love in accordance with the advice of her worldly brother, of yielding to Hamlet so far as the probability of the voice of the nation assenting to his marriage might justify her, her chastity might have been perfectly safe; but it is certain that the pudicitia of her love would have been lost. There are such beings as brazen prudes. There are also those who have fallen and are pure. Rousseau well says, "Le vice a beau se cacher dans l'obscurité, son empreinte est sur les fronts coupables; l'audace d'une femme est le signe assurá de sa honte; c'est pour avoir trop a rougir qu’elle ne rougit plus, et si quelquefois la pudeur survit a la chastité, que doit on penser de la chastité quand la pudeur même est éteinte?"

Between this scene and the next one in which Ophelia appears, time must have elapsed, during which Hamlet has pursued his suit; since Ophelia, in obedience to her father's command, has repelled his letters and denied access. These letters would scarcely have been written by Hamlet, subsequently to his interview with the ghost and his vow to erase all trivial fond records from the table of his memory. According to the progress of the love story, therefore, the last scene of the first act would appear to belong to the second act; which would leave Hamlet's mad appearance in Ophelia's closet as the first and immediate consequence of his resolve to "put an antick disposition on." This it is which changes the old courtier's fear that Hamlet intended to wreck his daughter's honour, into the belief in his sincerity and consequent madness; and thus arises his regret that he had not noted him with better heed and judgment.

Ophelia's plasticity and yieldingness of character, rather than her depth of filial affection, appear manifested in the readiness with which she first obeys the old man's orders to reject Hamlet's addresses, and with which she subsequently lends herself to the deceit which is practised upon her lover, to test and demonstrate his state of mind, and especially, whether, as Polonius maintained, and the Queen finely expressed, that her "good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet's wildness." The arranged meeting of Hamlet and Ophelia, "as 'twere by accident," and the pretence of the maiden to read a book as a colour to her loneliness, was a species of conduct inconsistent with her ingenuousness of character, and to which she appears to have lent herself in sorrowful unquestioning obedience. The dialogue which follows is a terrible punishment for any fault she may almost unconsciously have committed. Her lover sees the snare laid for him, and recognizes the deceitful part she is taking. She has not seen him "for this many a day," and longs to re-deliver his remembrances formerly so precious to her, now become so poor since he has proved unkind. How much she expresses in how few words. What simplicity and faith in his love—"Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so." What patient anguish at his denial of his love—"I was the more deceived." What unselfish forgetfulness of her own deep sorrow, to which the word forgiveness would be misapplied, since the slightest notion of resentment never seems to have entered her gentle soul. When she recognizes in his disdainful vituperation the incoherence of insanity, she cries, "Oh help him, ye sweet heavens!"—not herself, but him. Not because she is deceived and rejected, but because he is quite, quite down, is she of ladies most deject and wretched. Not for her own blighted hopes, but because his unmatched form is blasted with ecstacy, does she raise that cry of anguish—

"Oh! woe is me!
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!"

In the whole of the play there is not a more exquisite passage than this lamentation of the desolate maid over the supposed ruin of her lover's intellect.

Ophelia appears once more, before her own mind is "as sweet bells jangled out of tune," when one of the audience before the players; but it is to be remarked, that she never makes a consecutive speech again. To Hamlet's indelicate banter, she makes the curtest replies, scarcely sufficient to defend her outraged modesty. She is concealing, and, as well as may be, bearing up against the anguish gnawing at her heart. But fancy and intellect are benumbed by sorrow, only to display themselves at a later date, again active, though perverted, under the stimulus of disease.

It is left in some doubt to what extent grief at the death of Polonius concurred, with pining sorrow at the blight of her love, in giving rise to Ophelia's distraction. The King and Queen, and Laertes, evidently refer it to the former cause; yet although in her gentle ravings she constantly refers to her father's death, and never directly to her lover's unkindness, we are inclined to refer to the latter as by far the most potent, though it may, perhaps, not be the sole cause of her distraction. This opinion founds itself upon the form of insanity which is depicted, namely, mania with prevalent ideas of the sentiment of love, or erotomania, as it is learnedly called. "In medicine," says Ferriar, "we have fine names at least, for every species of disease," and erotomania is the fine name for that form of insanity in which the sentiment of love is prominent, as nymphomania is the fine name for an allied but sufficiently distinct variety in which the instinct is excessive.

We have somewhere read that Ophelia's snatches of song were culled from the street ballads of the day, and that Shakespeare thus obtained an easy theatrical effect. This, however, seems probable only with reference to the two longer and more indelicate effusions beginning, "Good morrow, 'tis St. Valentine's day," and "By Gis and by Saint Charity." The snatches of song which precede have so peculiar a reference to her state of mind, that it seems impossible they could be other than impromptu, strung together at the time:

"How should I your true love know from another one?
By his cockle hat and staff, and his sandal shoon?"

"He’s dead and gone, lady, he's dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf, at his heels a stone."

"White his shroud as the mountain snow,
Larded all with sweet flowers,
Which bewept to the grave did go,
With true-love showers."

They well express the confused connection in the poor head, between the death of her father, and the loss of her lover; the one is foremost on her lips, but it is not difficult to see that the latter is uppermost in her thoughts. The same confusion between the two sources of her sorrow is manifested in all she says. In the lines—

"They bore him barefaced on the bier,
And in his grave rain'd many a tear;—
Fare you well, my dove"—

the two first lines seem to go for the loss of her father—the last for her lover. The same lucid confusion and imperfect concealment are still more obvious in her distribution of flowers.

Oph. There's rosemary, that's for remembrance: pray you, love, remember: and there's pansies, that's for thoughts. There's fennel for you, and columbines:—there's rue for you; and here's some for me:—we may call it, herb of grace o'Sundays:–you may wear your rue with a difference.—There's a daisy:—I would give you some violets; but they withered all when my father died:—They say, he made a good end."

Well might her passionate brother, softened for a moment by her grief and sweetness, exclaim—

"Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour, and to prettiness."

For never was sentimental mania more truly and more exquisitely depicted than in this effusion of mad song.

"Sie wiegte Schmerz und Sehnsucht
Und jeden Wunsch mit leisen Tönen ein.
Da wurde Leiden oft Genuss, und selbst
Das traurige Gefühl zur Harmonie."—Goëthe's Tasso.

It seems impossible that Shakespeare could have done otherwise than drawn from the life in this character. He has in truth and in deed verified the introductory observation, that her mood will needs be pitied, for gentleness and goodness, struggling in the deepest affliction of which human nature is capable, have never been more finely drawn; and yet not overdrawn, for in the vivid reality of the picture there is not one touch of mawkishness. Compare, in this respect, the love-lorn maiden of Sterne, poor Maria, who allowed the stranger to wipe away the tears that trickled down her cheeks with his handkerchief, which he steeped in his own, and then in hers, then in his own, until it was steeped too much to be of any further use. "And where will you dry it, Maria?" said I. "I will dry it in my bosom," said she, "it will do me good." One never meets with such bathos of sentiment as this in the real insane, nor in the insane characters of the great master. Ophelia's prettinesses are as natural as they are touching. The freshness of reality encircles her head like the wild flowers with which she weaves her garlands. This fantastical dress of straws and flowers is a common habit of the insane, but it seems more natural in Ophelia than in the angry and raging madness of old Lear, in whom it is also represented. The picture of her insanity is perfected by many other touches as natural and true. She

"Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,
That carry but half sense."

She winks, and nods, and makes gestures, which have the double effect of breeding dangerous conjectures in the minds of the people, and of delineating, with exactness, the habits and practices of gentle but general mania. There is no consistency in her talk, or rather, there is only the consistency of incoherence, with two prominent ideas, the loss of her lover, and her father's death. "Well, God'ield you! they say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!"

"You must sing, Down a-down, an you call him a-down-a. O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master's daughter."

Compare this perfect incoherence with the apparent incoherence of Hamlet, whose replies, as Polonius observes, are often more pregnant of indirect meaning, than reason and sanity could be. There is no hidden meaning in aught that poor Ophelia says. When for a moment she wanders from her leading train of thought, the consequency of ideas is utterly lost. Even at the last, when she has fallen into the weeping brook, she has no appreciation of her danger.

"Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, a while they bore her up:
Which time, she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress."

Utterly lost, except to the insane train of ideas, she is as insensible to danger as a somnambulist; and singing her life away, she passes from the melody of madness to the silence of the grave. O rose of May! too soon blighted! but whose perfume shall endure in a monument of immortal words, when the tombs of Egyptian kings shall have crumbled into the desert dust!