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Ophelia's End - A Document in Madness

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

The action of Ophelia in this her last appearance is, in absence of stage directions by the Poet, a matter of conjecture. The role, as commonly enacted at the present day, has been described as follows:
"Ophelia enters with her hair and whole figure entwined with chains of flowers; and in her thin outer skirt, she carries a mass of them. She advances slowly with the strange light of insanity in her eyes, sits down upon the floor, and plays with the flowers in a childish way, as she sings. Then she arises, distributes rosemary, pansies, fennel, columbine and rue, sings her last song, loiters a moment after her parting benediction, and runs out in a burst of mad laughter."
The pitiful plight of Ophelia startles Laertes into voicing his deep sentiments of affection. Though his animosity towards the King in person has sensibly ceased, he again yields to thoughts of violence and resentment, and swears anew to revenge himself for her sad affliction. Never having understood the sister whom he so dearly loved, nor having known her real and deep affection for the lord Hamlet, he wonders why "a young maiden's wits" should be as frail "as an old man's life." Hence supposing her dementia to be solely due to her father's death, he concludes that love, when existing in natures most sensitive and refined like Ophelia's, causes reason to follow after the object beloved.

Listless and regardless of her brother's words, Ophelia begins to sing mere fragments of old ballads, as her memory recalls them at haphazard from the long ago. Meaningless refrains were common to these old songs, as is seen from their frequent recurrence in many of Shakespeare's plays. The music of the refrain she sings, seems by association of phantasms, to awaken memories of her childhood, when she had often heard her nurse sing the same ballad to the hum of the spinning-wheel. Of the song itself, nothing save what the text affords, has come down to us.

Whether in the distribution of flowers to the members of the court, Ophelia gave them out as they came to hand, or whether she chose a particular flower suitable to each person, is open to conjecture; neither in the text, nor by any stage direction has the Poet left us any certainty. By a long established custom, however, which has become a fixed stage tradition, Ophelia assigns rosemary to Hamlet, who is present to her imagination; she gives pansies to Laertes; fennel and columbines to Claudius; and rue to the Queen and herself. On this passage, Hunter annotates:
"Ophelia in unbalanced mind thinks of marriage; with it comes the idea of rosemary, and she addresses him who should have been the bridegroom, Hamlet himself, as her lover. She then feels her disappointment. Hamlet is not there, and she turns to another flower — the pansy, or heart's ease — as more fitting her condition; for the pansy is associated with melancholy."
When the mind is unsettled, it is usual for some idea to recur which has been introduced at a critical period of one's life. Now when Laertes was warning Ophelia against encouraging the attentions of Hamlet, he urged her to consider them as trifling, and his love but a violet in the youth of primy nature. These words, imprinted on her mind in association with the idea of Hamlet and her brother, are now recalled when she again converses with her brother on the same unhappy subject. Violets represent faithfulness, and they all withered, when her lover by the slaying of her father, had interposed a final obstacle to her union with him.

The language of flowers is very ancient, and was to Ophelia, like to most young maidens, a fond subject of study. Rosemary is emblematic of remembrance, and was distributed and worn at weddings, as well as at funerals. The pansy is a symbol of thought, of pensiveness, and of grief. The daisy represents faithlessness and dissembling. Fennel designates flattery, or cajolery and deceit; and columbine, ingratitude; and these two flowers Ophelia befittingly presents to the guileful and faithless Claudius. Rue is a bitter plant with medicinal qualities, and was in folk lore a symbol of repentance. She calls it "an herb of grace on Sundays;" because the wearer when entering a church on that day, dipped his rue in Holy Water, which always stood within the portals, and blessed himself with it, in the hope of obtaining God's "grace" or mercy. "There's rue for you," she says to the Queen, and "here's some for me." The Queen, however, is to wear hers with a difference, that is, in token of repentance, while she will wear it in regret and grief at the loss of her father and her lover. In the distribution, the demented maiden is seen naively but unwittingly to choose the flower most suited to each person.

In Ophelia 's deranged mind, thoughts of Hamlet and her father incoherently commingle. After singing "For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy," a line from a ballad of Robin Hood, she passes to another in memory of her father, and dwells with satisfaction upon the words, "They say he made a good end." The expression may seem meaningless to the uninitiated; but to the Catholic they are richly significant.

Those, whose religion offers them no sacraments of the dying, have often been puzzled by the fact that Catholics, when dangerously ill, are so insistent in the call for the ministrations of a priest. On hearing of a friend's death, the first question which a Catholic eagerly asks, is "how did he die?" or "did he make a good end?" or "did he receive the last sacraments?" These are all one and the same question. The readiness is all. If the deceased, contrite of heart, was, in the confession of his sins, absolved from them by the power of the keys which the Savior entrusted to His Church; if thus properly disposed, he received the Eucharistic Body of the Lord, the pledge of his salvation and future resurrection; and if he peacefully departed from this world, with the last sacred Unctions of Holy Church, his friends feel consoled in the hope, which greatly mitigates their grief, that, having died in the grace and friendship of God, the soul of the departed has found mercy at the tribunal of justice in the spirit world.

This is well illustrated by the words of the ghost; Hamlet's father complained, not so much of the murder, as of the fact that he had been deprived of the last sacramental rites of Holy Church:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, Unhousl'd, disappointed, unaneled, No reckoning made, but sent to my account With all my imperfections on my head; O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
Had Ophelia known the circumstances of her father's death, she would have felt more poignant grief; but her friends concealing them, sought to soothe her by the assurance that "he made a good end." This assurance with all that it means, she herself makes repeatedly the one element of consolation in her grief; for though demented, she still is mindful of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and, accordingly, at the close of the ballad she prays that "God may have mercy" on her father's soul, as well as on "all Christian souls," and uttering the parting greeting, "God be with you," she departs from the scene, leaving all affected with pity and commiseration.

Ophelia's sad condition had sensibly stirred Laertes to great affliction, and the King pretending to share his grief, attempts to soothe his feelings: let him summon his wisest friends to sit with him in council in the judgment of his griefs. Before them he shall lay the facts, and if they adjudge him guilty of Polonius' death, he is ready to forfeit life and crown in atonement; if guiltless, then Laertes should be patient; since even then, he will cooperate with him in the work of his revenge. Laertes approves the design, but declares that even though the King be innocent, yet the secret cause of his father 's death and the denial of a public funeral with all the honors customary to his station, are grievances which in voices loud cry to heaven for redress and punishment.

Claudius wisely admits the offense to be grievous, and laconically replies, "Let the great axe fall" upon the neck of the offender. That it would so fall upon Hamlet, the King had little doubt; but at present, he deemed it inopportune and even unwise to communicate to Laertes his secret plot upon the Prince's life. He must in the meanwhile keep him busy in the proceedings of the proposed council, which, for one cause or another, he can protract for a few days, in the hope that the ambassadors who will soon return from England, shall testify to Hamlet's death. This fact assured, he can then secretly summon Laertes, and, summarily dispensing with further proceedings, satisfy his grievances and thirst for revenge by exposing to him, how in furtherance of his cause, he had justly inflicted the death penalty upon the murderer of his father.

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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