A Prose Writer’s Soliloquy

Summer and FIFA have officially made it to my list of deadly habits. Lie-ins, obscenely long lunches (sorry for the alliteration), pointless trips to the mall, hours on the PS3 screaming at imaginary people, hours in front of the tv screaming at real people. I could probably go on forever. Productivity has been a bit of an uphill battle. Just to give everyone an idea of how bad it’s been, I feel accomplished just for finishing this paragraph.

What I’m gonna post today may come as a bit of a surprise………… wait for it………… schoolwork! Don’t get me wrong, I do not get any adrenaline rush whatsoever from papers, assignments, classes. In fact, I generally pretend they don’t exist as long as I can get away with it. That is, when the deadlines leap out at me from dark corners and practically smack me in the face. So why do I, model layabout of the century, include them in a blog that is supposed to be entirely about what I love? Simply because these particular papers have somehow proved to be much more than tedious interruptions to my peace of mind. In some cases, the topics are too original to ignore, too brilliant not to care about. In others, the results of having finished these papers were well worth my aggravation and the hours I could have spent wasting time.

I will only post one today. It was done for a Shakespeare class two semesters ago. I’d been fairly intimidated at the prospect of having this particular professor review even a word I’d written. She was a British stereotype, in a very good way, of course She was acerbic, witty, extremely intelligent, dignified and gave off the distinct impression that she did not suffer fools gladly. When I finally got round to reading the paper topics, I was astonished at how differently she operated from other professors I’d had. The very first prompt was to write a monologue, from the point of view of a submissive female character in one of the tragedies! I was both psyched and terribly afraid she’d hate whatever I came up with.

Ophelia (1894), John Mill Waterhouse, from Wikipedia

I decided on Ophelia, Hamlet’s tragic and virtuous lover who is

driven mad by his nasty, incredibly unfair treatment of her and her father’s murder at his hands. I’d been irritated with her in the play because all she did was wring her hands and cry whenever he was behaving like a sexist pig to her. When she eventually becomes insane, she gets a little more interesting. She speaks in riddles and brings symbolic flowers into the throne room, more than hinting that she is aware of Claudius’ machinations. Here, I transformed her supposed madness into anger. She is controlled, but utterly furious at the wretchedness of her situation, at Hamlet’s behaviour, at everyone for not taking her seriously. I just felt that anger made her more forceful and multi-faceted than she would be otherwise. To my immense surprise and satisfaction, my professor thought so too!

It might be a little hard to get into at first; after all, I did have to make my soliloquy seem like Shakespeare wrote it. But not to fear, most of it is composed of an explanation that will (hopefully) clarify my intentions behind it. Without further ado, enjoy!

Soliloquy Among the Rue, Beneath the Weeping Willow

Act 4.5, after line 70 and just before 154

Ophelia: God speed you, my name is Madness. I am a faithful slave to lunar whims, a nocturnal gatherer of nightshade, my hair briar-like and banshee wail inhumanly sorrowful. Thus says the king, who ponders these lays that I sing, wondering at their meaning. Perhaps he thinks them the pretty tunes of a witless pretty maiden? Maybe, he will even dance to them. He gives a feather more weight! Poor, hapless, beleaguered Ophelia! But am I not Madness? I go beneath this mourning veil of a willow tree to gather the flowers sleeping there, gatherer that I am. With them, I shall freshen this stifling viper’s nest of incest and murder, the hair of a Medusa. I shall strew them over her coiling tendrils and rouge her cheeks till she is a pure, blushing maiden as I once was. But how, why does this tender gorgon look so like the queen? Alas, she is as fair and as silent as her! You flowers must speak for us courtly dames, for only you may speak plainly. You shall freeze the king in his stride and pour poisoned whispers in his ear, reminding him of the heavenly rebuke that awaits him. Or perhaps Denmark’s own Medusa shall spot you first and meet you stare for stony stare. She would not suffer you to address her king so boldly. She will know your purpose first, for she is well versed in your speech. After all, it is a woman’s lot to speak our minds through breath perfumed with your fragrance, lest our husbands think us wanton with our words and send us to a nunnery! [Hysterical laughter]

A Detailed Explanation

The soliloquy takes place in an imagined setting just after Ophelia has just confounded the court with her cryptic songs. Symbolically enough, she is sitting beneath the willow tree from which she will fall to her watery death and picking the flowers she will immediately present to the court and her brother (4.5.173-182). I chose this particular point in the storyline to intervene with Ophelia’s point of view because she is at her most intriguing and yet also most incomplete when she is mad. She is simultaneously uninhibited and crafty, interspersing innocent melodies with subtle hints that she knows more than she lets on. I have depicted her madness as a liberating mechanism rather than a mental condition, unleashing a Pandora’s box of forbidden ideas and sentiments that would make a maiden blush, were she in her right mind.

But first, there are always the technical issues. Ophelia, from what we had previously seen of her, had a personality that could basically have been summed up in a single phrase she utters to her father: “I shall obey, my lord” (1.4.136). There was going to be a glaring discrepancy between the way I wished to present her and what we saw of her in the play. While I wanted her forcefully emotional and bitter inside, the worst she could come up with when Hamlet assaults her virtue by telling her that he “…could interpret between you and your love if I could see the puppets dallying” was “You are keen, my lord, you are keen” (3.2.225-227). Adding new dimension to Ophelia was crucial in an in-depth character exposé like the soliloquy but challenging with such an incredibly limited characterization to work from. The other complication was her madness. I could not help comparing my depiction of her in this state to taking a inebriated friend home to meet my parents. It simply felt like I was presenting this heightened thoroughly unreal version of her under the influence of an external force rather than providing an unadulterated portrait of a little understood character.

In order to pull off replacing her staid disposition with my own characterization, I adopted a compensation tactic. Ophelia serves a highly decorative function in the play, which I have played up to startling effect. Her madness has an aesthetic quality to it, replete with flowers and songs. Even her death, a morbid event in and of itself, is beautiful and imprints strongly in the mind like picture perfect iconography in a Renaissance painting.

…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,

Or like a creature native and endued unto that element

(4.7.146-151)

This visual aspect of her characterization, even in her insanity, bleeds into her thought life in my soliloquy. Because she is so much of an image herself, she basically thinks in them as well. However, I do not merely use these lush pictorial elements to placate the nagging discrepancy between her thought life and actions. It contributes to a sense of intellectual and creative rigor that I would like to introduce as a possibility in Ophelia’s make-up. Inside her head, she is eloquent, highly creative and prone to forming mini vignettes about situations or people she feels particularly strongly about. Ophelia invents an entire play within a play of her own here, directing the queen through a quasi-narrative. Gertrude stars as Medusa, a once beautiful creature now transformed into something tainted and monstrous for performing an act of desecration through sexual relations. Also, the gorgon’s hair is a writhing pit of slimy snakes much like Denmark itself at the time. Quite literally, she places the weight of the kingdom on the queen’s head, retribution for her transgression. As stinging as her criticism of the queen’s actions might seem, Ophelia also sees her as a fellow victim of the restrictions and stereotypes the men shackle them in. Hamlet prods at Gertrude’s sexuality, impudently informing her: “You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame”

(3.4.67-68).. Laertes adopts an all-knowing self-righteous tone when he tells his sister “The chariest maid is prodigal enough/ If she unmask her beauty to the moon” (1.3.36-37).  The men in both their lives assume the right to tell them what they are and what they should be, expecting them to submit to their subordinate roles as “nature” would dictate. Because of her feeling of kinship with the queen in this respect, Ophelia conjoins them as a single unit towards the end, rewriting the conflict of her interior drama as one against a patriarchal standpoint rather than one opposed to the rot at the heart of Denmark.

The vehemence with which she resents the established code of conduct foisted on her is perhaps more understandable in this light. This now gives her a possible backing for her enigmatic song about the maid jilted by a callous lover:

Young men will do’t if they come to’t

By Cock, they are to blame

Quoth she ‘Before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.”

So would I ‘a’ done, by yonder sun,

An thou hadst not come to my bed.

(4.5.59-60).

Could this be drawn from personal experience?  It is certainly a possibility. Although not in the exact same manner, Hamlet is just as cruel and dismissive as this fictional seducer is to his lover. Far from treating her like his cherished sweetheart, he almost seems to use her as a practice board for the repugnant abuse he will fling at Gertrude. In the only two scenes in which he directly interacts with her, he makes bawdy assaults on her virtue that have no backing evidence whatsoever. He even lambastes the physically pleasing disposition she has been taught to appropriate all her life to attract men and quite likely exercised applied rigorously to make herself appealing to him:

I have heard of your paintings, too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t.

(3.1.142-146)

My Ophelia has been painfully awakened to the fact that all her training on ladylike, attractive behavior had really done was earn her his contempt. Nothing she does, whether she behaves as is fitting for her “station” or speaks her mind, seems to satisfy. Her heart is not merely broken here, it is as bitter as gall. This is quite evident in her mocking echo of him telling her to “get thee to a nunnery” as bit of petty revenge on her part (3.1.122).

Ophelia is far too lucid to be entirely bereft of her senses. Much of what she says in her encounter with Claudius and Gertrude is indeed nonsensical yet tinged with a keen understanding of her dire situation and of her surroundings that is hard to dismiss as mere fool’s talk:

But I cannot choose but to weep to think they should lay him i’th cold ground. My brother shall know of it. And so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my couch! Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night. (4.5.66-70)

She is wholly cognizant of the fact that her father is dead and that her brother is coming back and will find out soon. Her gift of the flowers too raises questions about her supposed insanity; she very deliberately gives Gertrude and Claudius “fennel for you, and columbines”, each respectively symbolizing flattery and infidelity (4.5.177). My version of Ophelia is not so much mad as drunk on her sorrows, which brings me back to the analogy of the inebriated friend. Just like an intoxicated person, she is not truly behaving like herself but is instead revealing facets of herself that previously lay dormant beneath her mask of good breeding and ladylike restraint. Her accumulation of misfortunes, particularly the loss of her father, have now thrown her into an abyss from which she knows no means of escape. My soliloquy finds her stumbling to grasp some form of agency and a sense of meaning in her tragic situation when everything is spiraling out of control. She feebly tries to alleviate her stifled mental state by doing her own form of emotional unfolding in the only way she knows how: indirectly. Thanks to a lifetime of being seen but not heard and to her own natural docility, she is ill equipped to freely voice her thoughts. Thus, even her most stringent feelings are severely watered down when outwardly manifested, appearing instead as cryptic messages scattered throughout sweet smelling bouquets and melodic lays.

My soliloquy, I believe, is a plausible inclusion to Act 4.5 because it supplies the reader with Ophelia’s unedited viewpoint without changing any detail in the original plot. Also, it gives an idea of the thought processes that had likely led to her eventual suicide. Most of all, it provides Ophelia with the sympathetic audience she so needed to preserve her own sanity of mind. She does not die as another forgettable victim of the chaos plaguing the Danish court; we can now see her as a rounded character who is perhaps even as complex as Hamlet.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare: Volume 2 The Later Plays..   Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard and Katharine Eisaman Maus. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007

The End

On a completely different note altogether……. Argentina’s 4-1 victory against Korea was pure BEAST!!!! Here’s to the best bromance of all time, Messi and Maradona!!! ¡Ole! XDDDD

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jenny Ketcham
    Jun 25, 2010 @ 04:06:16

    Well, you didn’t say how your marks were on the paper, probably wanting to be modest, but I must say I’m impressed at your soliloqy, and I’ve heard a lot of the Bard, having worked in a Shakespearean theatre company for over twenty years! A tricky thing, achieving those rhythms. In the vernacular, “Huzzah!”

    Reply

    • teknicolorchina
      Jun 25, 2010 @ 06:43:45

      Thanks a lot! It may not seem like it, but this is not actually in iambic pentameter or in blank verse. Woulda been finished otherwise, haha. She just said we had to achieve the tricky balance of fitting it into the text but not imitating it. In other words, we basically had to make it our own.

      I’m really glad someone with your level of experience likes this, really. Nothing like a professional telling you you’re doing it right!

      Reply

  2. Nicole H.
    Jul 05, 2010 @ 23:53:49

    Congrats on starting a blog, Sharon!! Sorry for being slow to comment, I’ll blame it on the summer laziness :-/ hehe

    Anyways, concerning the essay: wow! Quite an impressive essay… and the hysterical laughter at the end of Ophelia’s soliloquy is a nice touch 😉

    I love how your addition to the play portrays Ophelia as using her hysteria to transcend the patriarchal oppression of her father, Hamlet and, of course, society. I think it adds an interesting dimension to the play because, while the discussion of Hamlet’s insanity/feigning insanity is common, it is less popular for Ophelia to be offered any sort of such agency.

    Nice work, chica, keep it up!

    Reply

  3. teknicolorchina
    Jul 06, 2010 @ 04:21:28

    Not to worry, it seems that summer laziness has kind of got hold of just about everyone anyway. Good job beating it. =P

    Yeah, nobody takes Ophelia seriously at all. Everyone just pities her or orders her around. I figured she had to get tired of it at some point and bite back the only way she knew how!

    Thanks so much for reading!

    Reply

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