In the last post, we discussed the plot and historical context of Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet. In this post, we will take a closer look at the non-leading roles of the play. We will begin with Ophelia, the half-girlfriend of Hamlet, sort of. Warning, this video and article discuss suicide, but that is a major plot point of the play, so you probably expected this. Next, we look at Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother who he has a complicated relationship, to say the least. Side note, is it just my family, or does everyone call people Gertrude when they are being silly? My grandmother will say things like, “Watch where you’re going there Gertrude,” after I stubbed my toe or something. Just me? Yes? That tracks. Anyways, we end our discussion with a look at regicide or the killing of most of the royals in this play. I will admit, killing off all the characters is more closure than most modern-day movies give.
I wouldn’t classify Hamlet as a player, but he was certainly not quality dating material. At the beginning of the play he leads Ophelia to believe that he is in love with her, then kills her father and screams at her to go to a nunnery while flirting (poorly, but that is just my opinion). I’ll grant him the fact that killing her father was an accident. It still doesn’t help the relationship.
Despite many saying the women in this play don’t have much power, Ophelia does offer subversive commentary, disguised by madness, on some of the other characters that modern-day audiences may miss. This is where we get the phrase “method in the madness.” When she hands out flowers, she is doing so purposefully as those plants had well-known meaning for the original audience. Fennel, meaning flattery, and columbine, representing marital infidelity, for Gertrude. She says the violets, faithfulness, died when her father died. It is poetic and clever.
Additionally, it can be argued, very carefully, that by her choosing “not to be,” to quote the famous monolog, she exercised the most decisive action compared to all the other characters. It is imperative to say, this was most definitely NOT a good decision, and she certainly had more options as evidenced by her giving flowers with a message earlier. However, it is illustrative of her ability to take action while others, Hamlet, were extremely indecisive.
With Gertrude being the other female in the play, the assumption is she has no power or the least power of all the characters. However, by marrying Claudius, she is casting the single vote to make him king rather than her son. This is the most power any one character can have. It also raises the question of how involved was she in the king’s murder?
Additionally, the audience is forced to question her loyalty the entire play. Is she doing what she thinks is best for her son, or is she caught up in her lust for Claudius? We get a hint that ultimately her loyalty was to Hamlet, at least at the end, when she drinks the wine meant to kill Hamlet even after the warning from Claudius, thus saving Hamlet, at least until he is stabbed. She also calls out for Hamlet with her dying breath, not her husband.
Historical context is necessary to understand many parts of this play. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was considered a very bad thing to kill the king or any royal ruler. Royalty, at the time, was considered to be a divine appointment by God. To put it more emphatically, THE Creator of the universe put kings and queens into power. To go against royalty was to go against this creator. Not a popular thing to do.
The fact that this play opens with the murder of a king and ends with the murder of the rest of the regency is nothing short of scandalous. The people of the time most definitely would have had some thoughts about mortal and divine justice and the cycle of violence. Today’s audience will have those same thoughts, but the added context helps us understand the magnitude of this message.
This video explores these ideas and more. It is an excellent source for examining the plot and subplot of this famous play. I highly recommend this video for use in discussing the play as a class. John Green is thoughtful in his word choice and presentation around delicate ideas. This is a must-watch for anyone studying Hamlet.
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