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Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes

From The Riddles of Hamlet by Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston, Stratford & Co.

When Ophelia is conducted before the Queen, she seems at first not to recognize her, and gazing about in vacant stare, exclaims, "Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark." The presence of her lover's mother anchors her wandering mind, and, all heedless of Gertrude's words, she begins to sing of him in snatches of old ballads. They come flowing in music from the silent halls of memory, where they had entered when perhaps her old nurse sang her to sleep in days of childhood. The first is the story of a maiden who inquires of a traveller concerning her lost lover. He may be known by "cockle hat, and staff, and sandal shoon." These were the honored insignia of religious pilgrims, who, in the fulfilment of holy vows or from devotion, journeyed to sacred shrines across the seas and often to the Holy Land.

In those ages of Faith they not only afforded safety to the pious stranger in his wanderings through foreign regions, but even won for him the respect and honor due to a sacred personage. Hence, as a consequence of the common sacredness of the pilgrim's habit, lovers in their adventures sometimes resorted to its guise. The ballad was probably suggested by Hamlet's departure to a foreign clime. In Ophelia's mind all is disorder; ideas and phantasms mingle in confusion without sequence and distinctness. Afflicted over the dual loss of her father and her lover, her stricken mind cannot perceive their objective difference, and with the death of the one she also mourns the death of the other.

Her reference to the legend of the baker's daughter discloses how the love of Hamlet and her filial love, had subsisted in her mind in conjunction with the cautions and fears which Polonius and Laertes had so indelicately avowed concerning the danger to her virtue. Though it is not certain that she had in her sanity seriously suspected the motives of her lover, yet the disagreeable aspersions of his honor were the burden of her thoughts; and now she reveals what a deep impression they had made upon her.

The legend had been often used in her early childhood to enkindle kind feelings for the poor and unfortunate. Such impressions, after others of later years have faded, remain still fresh in the memory of the insane, as well as of those in second childhood. The story, which is current to-day among the nursery tales of Gloucestershire, relates that the Savior in disguise entered a baker's shop, asking for some bread; and, when the baker charitably put a large piece of dough into the oven to bake for Him, his daughter rebuked him, and for her unkindness was changed into an owl. The idea of this sudden transformation prompts Ophelia to exclaim: "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." It no doubt suggested the thought of her own unkindness to Hamlet; for her equally heartless conduct had, she believed, made him insane. But as her heartlessness was due to obedience, her father's suspicions of her lover's motives now recall to her memory another ballad which recounts the somewhat analogous case of a man who with false vows had betrayed a too trusting maiden. The song she had heard in childhood when she did not understand its meaning. The stanza she sings to her Valentine she would rather have died than sing when he lay at her feet in the Play; and she would not now sing it, were she not crazed by love.

The character of some of those ballads, thinks Hudson, is surprisingly touching. They tell us, as nothing else could do, that Ophelia is utterly unconscious of what she is saying. Their immodesty is not inconsistent with her purity, as all can testify who have had experience with insane patients.1 The ballad she sings contains an allusion to an old custom according to which the first maiden seen by a man on February the fourteenth was considered his Valentine or true love for that year. Scott made it the basis of his plot in The Fair Maid of Perth.

From the thought of the wrong done by the false lover of the ballad, Ophelia comes to think of the evil done by her own lover in the slaying of her father, and in sorrow exclaims: "I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him in the cold ground." Her affliction recalls to mind the advice she had heard in younger years: "We must be patient" in suffering. "Let us hope all will be well." The memory of her father gives rise to the associated idea of Laertes, and she says: "my brother will know of it," and avenge it, "and so I thank you for your good counsel."

These words, no doubt refer to his last farewell, when, before departing for Paris, he had cautioned her to have no further relations with the Prince. Then that counsel was most disagreeable, but now that Hamlet has slain her father, it seems wise and good. With a deep bow and a "good night sweet ladies," Ophelia quietly departs, leaving all lost in pity and bewilderment. The King alone breaks the solemn silence by commanding the friend of her lover to follow after and to keep her from harm.



1. Dr. Strachey says: "If we bear in mind the notorious fact that in the dreadful visitation of mental derangement, delicate and refined women will use language so coarse that it is difficult to guess where they can ever even have heard such words; if we remember that mental fever quickens old forms into life, and consider that the infant ears of the motherless Ophelia might have heard the talk and the songs of such a nurse as that of Juliet, we shall find nothing improbable or even unseemly in the poor girl's songs."

How to cite this article:
Blackmore, Simon Augustine. The Riddles of Hamlet. Boston: Stratford & company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.


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Gertrude's Account of Ophelia's Drowning

"The coroner, it is true, afterwards decided at the inquest (V. i. 4-5) that the death was to be regarded as accidental; but as there were no witnesses (had there been any the Queen would at least have apologised for their inaction), the populace arrived at a conclusion quite inconsistent with the Queen's account, namely, that Ophelia had committed suicide (V. i. 1-2); and the clergy independently arrived at a similar conclusion (V. i. 262-4), admitting indeed that it was somewhat 'doubtful' (1. 250), but sure that they were justified in depriving her of the benefit of the doubt. Gertrude's story is clearly fictitious." Wilbraham Fitzjohn Trench. Read on...

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