On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters – By Helena Faucit, Lady Martin


[3] Bryntysilio, August 10, 1880

“O rose of May! Sweet Ophelia!”

And so you ask me, my friend – indeed, I may almost say that you insist – after our late talk over her, that I should put down in writing my idea of Ophelia, so that you may make, as you tell me, a new study of her character.

You are accustomed to write fluently all your thoughts, and therefore you will hardly believe what a difficult task you have set me. My views of Shakespeare’s women have been wont to take their shape in the living portraiture of the stage, and not in words. I have, in imagination, lived their lives from the very beginning to the end; and Ophelia, as I have pictured her to myself, is so unlike what I hear and read about her, and have seen represented on the stage, that I can scarcely hope to make any one think of her as I do. It hurts me to hear her spoken of, as she often is, as a weak creature, wanting in truthfulness, in purpose, in force of character, and only interesting when she loses the little wits she had. And yet who can wonder that a character so delicately outlined, and shaded in with touches so fine, should be often gravely misunderstood?

[4] Faint and delicate, however, as these shadowings are, they are yet so true to nature, and at the same time so full of suggestion, that I look on Ophelia as one of the strongest proofs our great master has left us of his belief in the actor’s art (his own), and of his trust in the power possessed, at least by sympathetic natures, of filling up his outlines, and giving full and vivid life to the creatures of his brain. Without this belief could he have written as he did, when boys and beardless youths were the only representatives of his women on the stage? Yes, he must have looked beyond “the ignorant present,” and known that a time would come when women, true and worthy, should find it a glory to throw the best part of their natures into those ideal types which he has left to testify to his faith in womanhood, and to make them living realities for thousands to whom they would else have been unknown. Think of a boy as Juliet! as “heavenly Rosalind”! as “divine Imogen”! or the gracious lady of Belmont, “richly left,” but still more richly endowed by nature – “The poor rude world,” says Jessica, “hath not her fellow.” Think of a boy as Miranda, Cordelia, Hermione, Desdemona – who “was heavenly true” – as the bright Beatrice and so on, through all the wondrous gallery! How could any youth, however gifted and specially trained, even faintly suggest these fair and noble women to an audience? Woman’s words, woman’s thoughts, coming from a man’s lips, a man’s heart – it is monstrous to think of! One quite pities Shakespeare, who had to put up with seeing his brightest creations thus marred, misrepresented, spoiled.

Ophelia was one of the pet dreams of my girlhood – partly, perhaps, from the mystery of her madness. In my childhood I was much alone – taken early away from school because of delicate health; often sent to spend months at the seaside, in the charge of kind but busy people, who, finding me happy with my books on the beach, left me there long hours by myself. I had begged from home the Shakespeare I had been used to read there – an acting edition by John Kemble. This and the Arabian Nights – how dear those books were to me! Then I had the Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan was my great hero. I think I knew him by heart. His [5] address to the council I have often declaimed to the waves, when sure of being unobserved. I had also a translation – I do not know by whom (poor enough, but good enough for me then) – of Dante’s Inferno, some lines of which sank deep into my heart. I have not seen the book for years; but they are still there :-

“Up! be bold!
Vanquish fatigue by energy of mind!
For not on plumes, or canopied in state,
The soul wins fame! “

How often since, in life’s hard struggles and trials, have these lines helped me!

My books were indeed a strange medley, but they were all that were within my reach, and I found them satisfying. They filled my young heart and mind with what fascinated me the most – the gorgeous, the wonderful, the grand, the heroic, the self-denying, the self-devoting.

Like all children, I kept, as a rule, my greatest delight to myself. I remember on some occasions, after I had returned home to my usual studies, when a doubt arose about some passage which had happened to be in the little storehouse of my memory, being able to repeat whole chapters and scenes of my favourites to the amused ears of those around me. But I never revealed how much my life was wrapped up in them, even [6] to my only sister, dear as she was to me. She was many years older than myself, and too fond of fun to share in my day-and-night dreams. I knew I should only be laughed at.

Thus had I lived again and again through the whole childhood and lives of many of Shakespeare’s heroines, long before it was my happy privilege to impersonate and make them, in my fashion, my own. During the few years I acted under Mr. Macready’s management, almost the first, as you know, in my theatrical life, I was never called upon to act the character of Ophelia – I suppose, because the little snatches of song (though merely, one might say, the humming of a tune) kept still alive the tradition that an accomplished singer was required for the part. I had my wish, however, when in Paris, a little later, I was asked, as a favour, to support Mr. Macready in Hamlet by acting Ophelia. I need not say how nervous I felt – all the more because of this singing tradition. The performances were given in the Salle Ventadour, on the “off-nights” of the Italian Opera.

Oh how difficult it is, however much you have lived in a thing, to make real your own ideal, and give it an utterance and a form! To add to my fright, I was told, just before entering on that scene, that Grisi and many others of the Italian group were sitting in a private box on the stage. But I believe I sang in tune, and I know I soon forgot Grisi and all else. I could not help feeling that I somehow drew my audience with me. And what an audience it was! No obtrusive noisy applause, for there was no organised claque for the English plays; but what an indescribable atmosphere of sympathy surrounded you! Every tone was heard, every look was watched, felt, appreciated. I seemed lifted into “an ampler ether, a diviner air.” Think, if this were so in Desdemona, in Ophelia, what it must have been to act Juliet to them! I was in a perfect ecstasy of delight. I remember that, because of the curtailment of some of the scenes in Romeo and Juliet (the brilliant Mercutio was cut out), I had to change my dress very quickly, and came to the side-scene breathless. I said something to Mr. Serle, the acting manager about the hot haste of it all – no pause to gather oneself up for the great exertion that was to follow. He replied, “Never [7] mind, you will feel no fatigue after this.” And he was right. The inspiration of the scene is at all times the best anodyne for pain and bodily fatigue. But who could think of either before an audience so sensitively alive to every touch of the artist’s hand?

But to return to “sweet Ophelia.” I learned afterwards that, among the audience, when I first attempted the part, were many of the finest minds of Paris; and some of these found “most pretty things” to say of the Ophelia which I had introduced to them. Many came after the play to my dressing-room, in the French fashion, among them Georges Sand – to say them, I suppose; but having had this ordeal to go through before, after acting Desdemona, the character in which I first appeared in Paris, my English shyness took me out of the theatre as soon as I had finished, and before the play ended. All this was, of course, pleasant. But what really gratified me most was, to learn that Mr. Macready, sternest of critics, watched me on each night in the scenes of the fourth act; and among the kind things he said, I cannot forget his telling me that I had thrown a new light on the part, and that he had never seen the mad scenes even approached before. How I treated them, it would be difficult to describe to you in words, because they were the outcome of the whole character and life of Ophelia, as these had shaped themselves in my youthful dream.

And now to tell you, as nearly as I can, what that dream was.

I pictured Ophelia to myself as the motherless child of an elderly Polonius. His young wife had first given him a son, Laertes, and had died a few years later, after giving birth to the poor little Ophelia. The son takes much after his father, and, his student-life over, seeks his pleasure in the gayer life of France; fond of his little sister in a patronising way, in their rare meetings, but neither understanding nor caring to understand her nature.

The baby Ophelia was left, as I fancy, to the kindly but thoroughly unsympathetic tending of country-folk, who knew little of “inland nurture.” Think of her, – sweet, fond, sensitive, tender-hearted, the offspring of a delicate dead mother, tended only by roughly-mannered and uncultured natures! One can see the sweet child, with no playmates of her kind, [8] wandering by the streams, plucking flowers, making wreaths and coronals, learning the names of all the wild-flowers in glade and dingle, having many favourites, listening with eager ears when amused or lulled to sleep at night be the country songs, whose words (in true country fashion, not too refined) come back again vividly to her memory, with the fitting melodies, as such things strangely but surely do, only when her wits had flown. Thus it is that, when she has been “blasted with ecstasy,” all the country customs return to her mind : the manner of burying the dead, the strewing of the grave with flowers, “at his head, a grass green turf; at his heels, a stone,” – with all the other country ceremonies. I think it important to keep in view this part of her supposed life, because it puts to flight all the coarse suggestions which unimaginative critics have often made, to explain how Ophelia came to utter snatches of such ballads as never ought to issue from a young and cultured woman’s lips.

When we see Ophelia first, this “Rose of May” is just budding; and, indeed, it is as a bud, never as a full flower, that she lived her brief life.

“Et rose – elle a vécu, ce que vivent les roses,
L’espace d’un matin.”

She was still very young, in her early ‘teens, according to what Laertes says, when he last sees her. We can imagine her formal, courtierly father, on one of his rare visits to his country house (ill spared from his loved court duties), noting with surprise his little daughter growing into the promise of a charming womanhood. The tender beauty of this budding rose must no longer be left to blush unseen; this shy, gentle nature must be developed, made into something more worthy of her rank. She must imbibe the court culture, and live in its atmosphere. She must become a court lady; and this hitherto half-forgotten flower must be made to expand, under his own eye and teaching, into the completeness of a full-blown hothouse exotic.

When we first see her, we may fairly suppose that she has been only a few months at court. It has taken off none of the bloom of her beautiful nature. That remains pure and fresh [9] and simple as she brought it from her country home. One change has taken place, and this is a great one. Her heart has been touched, and has found its ideal in the one man about the court who was likely to reach it, both from his rare and attractive qualities, and a certain loneliness in his position not very unlike her own. How could she help feeling flattered – drawn towards this romantic, desolate Hamlet, the observed of all observers, whose “music vows” have been early whispered in her ears? On the other hand, what sweet repose it must have been to the tired, moody scholar, soldier, prince, dissatisfied with the world and all its ways, to open his heart to her, and to hear the shy yet eloquent talk which he would woo from her – to watch the look, manner, and movements of this graceful child of nature – watch, too, her growing wonder at her new surroundings, the court ceremonies, the strange diversities of character, and to note the impressions made upon her by them, – what delight to trace and analyse the workings of this pure, impressionable mind, all the more interesting and wonderful to him because of the contrast she presented to the patient stem! In all this there was for him the subtle charm which the deep, philosophical intellect must ever find in the pure unconscious innocence and wisdom of a guileless heart.

One can see how the tiresome officiousness and the platitudes of Polonius irritate Hamlet beyond endurance. What a contrast the daughter presents to him! Restful, intelligent, unobtrusive, altogether charming, and whom he loves “best, O most best, believe it … Thine evermore, most dear lady, while this machine is to him, Hamlet.” And to Ophelia, how great must have been the attraction of an intercourse with a mind like Hamlet’s, when first she saw him, and had been sought by his “solicitings”! How alluring, how subtly sweet to one hitherto so lonely, so tender-hearted, shy and diffident of her power to please; yet, though she knew it not, so well fitted to understand and to appreciate all the finest qualities of the young Lord Hamlet! We see how often and often they had met, by Polonius’s own telling. Nor could he possibly have been ignorant that they did so meet. He says –

[10] “But what might you think,
When I had seen this hot love on the wing,
(As I perceived it, I must tell you that,
Before my daughter told me).”

Then, all that her brother says to her shows complete indifference to her feelings. I never could get over the shock of his lecturing her “touching the lord Hamlet,” when we first see them together as he is starting for France. Poor maiden! to have this treasured secret of her inner life, her very life, her very soul, a secret so sweet, so sacred, so covered over, as she thinks, from all eyes – thus dragged rudely to the light; discussed in the most commonplace tone, and her very maidenly modesty questioned! Who will say she is not truthful, when, on beings asked, as she is soon after, by her father, “What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you?” she replies at once, notwithstanding all her pain, “So please you, something touching the lord Hamlet”? Think how her whole nature must again have shrunk and quivered, while listening to the cautious and worldly platitudes of her father, which follow! Then, to be commanded to deny herself to the one being dear to her, and with whom she had sympathy: what a feeling of degradation as well as anguish must have been behind the few words she utters! “I shall obey, my lord.”

Ophelia naturally had her attendants, whose duty it was to tell her father of these meetings, and who evidently did so. They were clearly not objected to by him, and he let the interviews go on, till he thought it might be as well, by interfering, to find out if Hamlet were in earnest in his attachment, and if it would be sanctioned by the king and the queen. By this interference his worldly wisdom overreached itself. It came at the wrong, the worst time. He bids Ophelia deny Hamlet access to her, trusting that this will make the Prince openly avow his love; and was, of course, in entire ignorance of the fearful scene, the dread revelation, which had meanwhile taken place, and which was destined to cut Hamlet’s life in twain, obliterate from it all “trivial fond records,” and shake to its foundations all faith in womanhood, hitherto most sacred to him in the name and person of his mother, the mother whom from his boyhood [11] he had fondly loved, and whom he had seen so cherished and adored by his dead father.

[11] Pause a moment with me, and think of the extraordinary attractions of this mother. Another Helen of Troy she seems to me, in the wonderful fascination which she exercises on all who come within her influence; not perhaps designedly, but like the Helena of the second part of Goethe’s Faust, by an untoward fate which drew on all insensibly to love her :-

“Wehe mir! Welch streng Geschick
Verfolgt mich, überall der Männer Busen
So zu bethören, dass sie weder sich
Noch sonst ein Würdige verschonten.”

“Woe’s me, what ruthless fate
Pursues me, that, where’er I go, I thus
Befool men’s senses, so they not respect
Themselves, nor aught that’s worthy!”

What a picture is presented of the depth of her husband’s love, in Hamlet’s words that he would not “beteem the winds of heaven visit her cheek too roughly”! And this spell still exercises itself upon his spirit after his death. Observe how tenderly he calls Hamlet’s attention to the queen in the closet scene : –

“But look, amazement on thy mother sits!
Oh, step between her and her fighting soul!”

Claudius, his successor, perils his very soul for her. See what he says of her : –

“She’s so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere
I could not but by her.”

She is tenderness itself to her son. “The queen his mother,” says Claudius, “lives almost by his looks.”

I cannot believe that Gertrude knew of the murder of her husband. His spirit does not even hint that she was privy to it; if she had been, could he have spoken of her so tenderly as he does? Hamlet, in the height of his passion, does indeed charge her with this guilty knowledge in the words –

“Almost as bad, good mother
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.”

[12] Again he calls Claudius in her hearing “a murderer and a villain”; but in both cases the imputation clearly wakens to echo in her soul, and she puts it down, with much else that he says, to “the heat and flame of his distemper.” “The black and grained spots” in her soul, of which she speaks, are the stings of her awakened conscience, to which her husband’s spirit had warned Hamlet to leave her – remorse for her too speedy forgetfulness of her noble husband, and almost immediate marriage with his brother, towards whom she must have previously shown some preference, the shame of which Hamlet’s passionate words have brought home to her so unexpectedly and irresistibly.

Gertrude eventually sees with satisfaction the growing love between Hamlet and Ophelia. She loves the “sweet maid,” and hopes to see their betrothal, and to strew her bridal bed. On her side, Ophelia has felt fully the gracious kindness of the queen; has gratefully returned the affection shown to her; and, like the rest, has been drawn closely towards her by her beauty and winning graciousness. A proof of this attachment breaks out in her madness, when she clamours for, and will not be denied, the presence of “the beauteous majesty of Denmark”.

Ophelia’s conduct in reference to the meeting with Hamlet, concerted by her father and the king, has drawn upon her head a world of, I think, most unjust censure and indignation. When the poor girl is brought, half willingly, half unwillingly, to that (for her) fatal interview, we must not forget the previous one, described by her to her father, when she rushes in affrighted, and recounts Hamlet’s sudden and forbidden intrusion upon her in her closet, where she was sewing; exhibiting a garb and plight in which no sane gentleman would venture to approach a lady – slovenly, “his stockings foul’d, ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ankle,” the woe-worn look, the sigh so piteous and profound, the eyes, as he went backward out of the chamber, bending to the last the light upon herself. Her father’s interpretation is, that “he is mad for her love; and he assigns as the cause for this outbreak, that she “did repel his letters, and denied his access.” Here his worldly wisdom is again at fault.

[13] “I am sorry that with better heed and judgement
I had not quoted him: I feared he did but trifle,
And meant to wreck thee.”

All this is startling and sad enough, but not entirely hopeless or remediless. Ophelia has, at least, the solace of hoping, believing, that she is beloved by her “soul’s idol.” Could she, then, but see him once again, she might learn whether Hamlet’s strange agitation were really what was represented, – whether, as her father had said, he were indeed “mad for her love”! In this state of mind, surely she is not much to be blamed, or judged very harshly, if she consented to lend herself to the arrangement proposed by her father; acutely painful though it must have been to her sensitive nature, after denying him access to her repeatedly, thus seemingly to thrust herself upon her lover’s notice, and become, as it were, the partner in a trick. She has, also, the sanction of his mother, the queen, who says: –

“And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish,
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet’s wildness; so shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours.”

Her fault, if fault it were, was cruelly expiated. She will test his affection by offering to return his love-tokens, his gifts and letters – anything to end this torturing suspense. We can believe how cautiously, how tenderly her approaches are made to her so deeply loved, and, as she fears, so sadly afflicted Prince. That Ophelia should, after repeatedly denying her presence to him, thus place herself in his path, and challenge his notice, at once excites in Hamlet’s mind a suspicion of some device to circumvent him. Saluting her at first gently, his tone alters, as he sees in the offer of the return of his “remembrances” a repetition, he believes, of the plot laid for him before in the persons of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That he is again to be thus played with, and that this innocent girl, as he had thought her, should lend herself to entrap him, drives him past patience; and without mercy he begins to pour down upon her the full vials of his wrath. In their last interview he has been touchingly gentle and sad: voiceless – showing a pathos beyond words: like [14] the reluctant parting of the soul from the body. Now, his rude, meaningless words, his violent manner, his shrill voice, “out of tune and harsh,” the absence of all courtesy, convince her that he is mad indeed.

How can it be otherwise? In all their former intercourse he had appeared to her as

“The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers!”

His gifts were offered to her with “words of so sweet breath composed as made the things more rich.” Now he could not be more pitiless if the worst of he sex stood before him, and not this young creature, this tender willow, swaying, bending before the storm-bursts of his wrath, the cutting winds of his fierce words. Many of these words, these reproaches, must have passed harmless over the innocent head which did not know their meaning.2 But what a picture (who could paint it?) is that of the stunned, bewildered, heart-stricken lamb, thus standing alone to hear the sins of all her sex thrown at her! She can only whisper a prayer or two for him – no thought of her own desolation comes to her. “Oh, help him, you sweet Heavens! … Oh Heavenly powers restore him!” When suddenly challenged, “Where’s your father?” the question recalls to her remembrance, what she has for the time forgotten in deeper matter, that he is at this very moment acting the degrading part of an eavesdropper. What can she do but stammer out in reply, “At home, my lord”? Shall she expose the old man, when thus called to answer for him, to the insults, the violence of Hamlet’s mad anger, which she fears would have fallen upon his head had she told the truth? No; like Desdemona she faces the falsehood, and, to screen her father, takes it upon her own soul: “Oh, who has done this deed? … [15]Nobody; I myself. Farewell; commend me to my kind lord.” Who thinks of condemning Desdemona? As Emilia says, “Oh, she was heavenly true.” And yet I have seen Ophelia’s answer brought forward as proof of her weakness of her character; and this weakness asserted to be the cause of Hamlet’s failure, or, at least, to play an important part in the tragedy of his character. Such weakness I call strength, in the highest, most noble, because most self-forgetting sense of the word.

And so Ophelia, in her “weakness,” fears to tell the truth, lest, in this too terrible paroxysm of madness which now possesses him, Hamlet might possibly kill her father. But this catastrophe, alas! is soon to follow, and proves to be the drop too much in her cup of lonely anguish. When Hamlet has left the scene, even then, I think, no sob is heard, no tears are shed: there is no time yet for self-pity. Her soul’s agony is too deep for tears – beyond all utterance of the common kind. First in her thoughts is the “noble mind o’erthrown,” and “most sovereign reason, like sweet bells jangled.” At last, when she has gone through the catalogue of his rare virtues, his princely qualities, his noble attributes – all “quite, quite down”! – at the end she looks at herself – she who had “suck’d the honey of his music vows.” What is left for her? – for her, “of ladies most deject and wretched”? “Oh, woe is me! To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” This is all she says, “still harping on” Hamlet.

In the usual stage arrangement Ophelia leaves the scene with these words. Shakespeare makes her remain; and how greatly does this heighten the pathos of her position! Her heartless father, knowing nothing, seeing nothing of the tragedy that is going on before his eyes, unconscious from first to last how deeply she has been wounded, and still treating her merely as a tool, says –

“How now Ophelia!
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said;
We heard it all.”

He and the king had only eyes and ears for Hamlet; and so she drifts away from them into a shoreless “sea of troubles,” unheeded and unmissed.

[16] We see her once again, playing a sort of automaton part in the play-scene – sitting patiently, watchfully, with eyes only for the poor stricken one who asks to lay his head upon her lap. You notice, in the little that passes between them, how gently she treats her wayward, smitten lover. And then, having no clue to his trouble, no thread by which to link it with the past, she is scared away, with the rest, on the poisoning of Gonzago, at what appears to be a fresh outbreak of Hamlet’s malady. By this time her own misery and desolation will have come home to her fully – her wounded heart, her wrecked happiness must be more than the young, unaccustomed spirit can stand up against. She is not likely, after her previous experience, to seek solace in her father’s sympathy: nor is hers a nature to seek it anywhere. If found, it must come to her by the way. The queen is, by this time, wrapped up in her own griefs – inclined to confess herself to Heaven, repent what’s past. “O Hamlet! thou hast cleft my heart in twain … What shall I do?” She is grieved enough for Ophelia when she sees her “distract,” but has had no time to waste a thought upon her amid her own numerous fast-growing cares – not even, as it seems, to break to her the news of her father’s death. There might have been some drop of comfort, if the queen had spoken to her of Hamlet, and told her, as she told the king, “He weeps for what is done!” As it was, most likely, in the usual marvel-loving way of common people, the news of Polonius’s death by hamlet’s hand was conveyed to Ophelia’s ears by her attendants hurriedly, without preparation. Shock upon shock! The heart already stricken, the young brain undisciplined in life’s storms, and in close and subtle sympathy with him who was her very life, she catches insensibly the infection of his mind’s disease, her wits go wandering after his, and , like him, she falls down – “quite, quite down.” One feels the mercifulness of this. The “sweet Heavens,” to which she had appealed to help Hamlet, had helped her! Her mind, in losing memory, loses the remembrance of the woeful past, and goes back to her childhood, with its simple folk-lore and nursery-rhymes. Still, through all this, we have the indication of dimly remembered wrongs and griefs. She says she hears, “there’s tricks i’ the [17] world, and hems, and beats her heart; … speaks things in doubt, that carry but half sense: … would make one think there might be thought, though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.” But the deeper suffering – the love and grief together – cannot (perhaps never could) find expression in words. The soul’s wreck, the broken heart, are seen only by Him who knows all. Happily, there is no vulgar comment made upon the deep affection which she had so silently cherished – no commonplace, pitying words. “Oh! this,” says the king, “is the poison of deep grief; it springs all from her father’s death.” Laertes says –

“O rose of May!
… O Heavens! is’t possible a young maid’s wits
Should be as mortal as an old man’s life?”

He comes a little nearer the truth in what follows –

“Nature is fine in love: and where ’tis fine,
It sends some precious instance of itself
After the thing it loves.”

But one sees he has not the faintest insight into the real cause of her loss of wits. The revenge he seeks upon Hamlet is for his father –

“His means of death, his obscure funeral –
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones,
No noble rite, nor formal ostentation –
Cry to be heard, as ’twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call’t in question.”

A matter of family pride in Laertes, as well as grief for his father’s loss. Then at her grave, he says –

“Oh, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursčd head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of!”

Only “when they shall meet at compt” will Hamlet even know the grief he has brought upon, the wrong he has done to, this [18] deep and guileless spirit. So far as we see, he has indeed blotted her from his mind as a “trivial fond record.” he is so self-centred, so enwrapped in his own suffering, that he has no thought to waste on the delicate girl whom he had wooed with such a “fire of love,” and had taught him to listen to his most honeyed vows. He casts her from him like a worthless weed, without a word of explanation or a quiver of remorse. Let us hope that when he sees her grave, his conscience stings him; but beyond ranting louder than Laertes about what he would do for her sake – and she dead! – there is not much sign of his love being at any time worthy of the sweet life lost for it. Perhaps you will think that, in the fulness of my sympathy for Ophelia, I feel too little for Hamlet. But this is not really so. One cannot judge Hamlet’s actions by ordinary rules. He is involved in the meshes of a ruthless destiny, from which by nature and temperament he is powerless to extricate himself. In the infirmity of a character which expends its force in words and shrinks from resolute action, he unconsciously drags down Ophelia with him. They are the victims of the same inexorable fate. I could find much to say in explanation and in extenuation of the shortcomings of one upon whom a task was laid, which he of all men, by the essential elements of his character, was least fitted to accomplish.

But you see I only touch upon his character so far as it bears upon Ophelia, on what he has been to her and what he is. Before the story begins, he has offered her his love “in honourable fashion.” Then we hear from her of the silent interview which so affrights her. After this, when for the first time we see them together, he treats her as only a madman could, and in a way which not even his affectation of madness can excuse. Again, in the play-scene which follows, the same wilfulness, even insolence is shown to her. Now, whatever his own troubles, perplexities, heart-breaks, might be, it is hard to find an apology for such usage of one whose heart he could not but know that he had won. He is even tenderer, more considerate, to his mother, whom he thinks so wanton and so guilty, than to this young girl, whom he has “importuned with love,” and “given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven.”

[19] I cannot, therefore, think that Hamlet comes out well in his relations with Ophelia. I do not forget what he says at her grave: –

“I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum!”

But I weigh his actions against his words, and find them here of little worth. The very language of his letter to Ophelia, which Polonius reads to the king and queen, has not the true ring in it. It comes from the head, and not from the heart – it is a string of euphemisms, which almost justifies Laertes’ warning to his sister, that the “trifling of Hamlet’s favour” is but “the perfume and suppliance of a minute.” Hamlet loves, I have always felt, only in a dreamy imaginative way, with a love as deep, perhaps, as can be known by a nature fuller of thought and contemplation than of sympathy and passion. Ophelia does not sway his whole being, perhaps no woman could, as he sways hers. Had she done so, not even the task imposed upon him by his father’s spirit could have made him blot her love from his mind as a “trivial fond record,” for it would have been interwoven inseparably with his soul, once and for ever.

When Ophelia comes before us for the last time, with her lap full of flowers, to pay all honour and reverence, as she thinks, in country fashion, to her father’s grave, the brother is by her side, of whom she had said before, most significantly, that he should “know of it … I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i’ the cold ground.” Then that brother can lavish in her heedless ears the kind phrases, the words of love, of which, perhaps, in her past days he had been too sparing. “O rose of May! dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!” But the smiles are gone which would once have greeted these fond words. He has passed out of her memory, even as she had passed out of his, when he was “treading the primrose path of dalliance” in sunny France. She has not thought but to bury the dead – her dead love – her old father taking the outward form of it. Even the flowers she has gathered have little beauty or sweetness – “rosemary for remembrance; pray you, love, remember:” [20] the lover has said he never gave her aught! “I loved you not” – “rue,” for desolation; fennel and columbines – a daisy, the only pleasant flower – with pansies for thoughts. Violets she would give, but cannot. “They withered all” with her dead love.

To Ophelia’s treatment of her brother in this scene I ventured to give a character which I cannot well describe to you, but which, as I took care it should not be obtrusive, and only as a part of the business of the scene, I felt sure that my great master, the actor-author, would not have objected. I tired to give not only his words, but, by a sympathetic interpretation, his deeper meaning – a meaning to be apprehended only by that sympathy which arises in, and is the imagination of, the heart.

When Laertes approaches Ophelia, something in his voice and look brings back a dim, flitting remembrance; she gives him of her flowers, and motions him to share in the obsequies she is paying. When her eyes next fall upon him, she associates him somehow with the “tricks i’ the world.” A faint remembrance comes over her of his warning words, of the shock they gave her, and of the misery which came so soon afterwards. These she pieces together with her “half sense,” and thinks he is the cause of all. She looks upon him with doubt, even aversion; and, when he would approach her, shrinks away with threatening gestures and angry looks. All this was shown only at intervals, and with pauses between – mostly by looks and slight action – a fitful vagueness being indicated throughout. The soul of sense being gone, the sweet mind had become “such stuff as dreams are made of”. The body bore some resemblance to the rose of May; but it was only as the casket without the jewel. Nothing was left there of the thoughtful, reticent, gentle Ophelia. The unobtrusive calm which had formerly marked her demeanour had changed to waywardness. The forcing her way into the presence of the queen, where she had been used to go only when summoned, clamouring for her will, and with her winks, nods and gestures, “strewing dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds,” tells with a terrible emphasis how all is changed, and how her reason, too, has become “like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh”.

[21] Poor rose of May! Who does not give a sigh, a sob of grief, at miserable Gertrude’s beautiful account of the accidental watery death of this fragile bud, cut down by the cold spring storm, before her true midsummer had arrived? She sings her own requiem, and carries the flowers of her innocence along with her to the end. Like the fabled swan, with her death-song on her lips, she floats unconsciously among the water-lilies, till the kindly stream embraces and takes her to itself, and to “that blessed last of deaths, where death is dead.”

Dear friend, these are little better than rough notes. I have written much, yet seem to have said nothing of what I would fain have said. “Piece out my imperfections with your thoughts.”

Yours always affectionately,



To Miss Geraldine E. Jewsbury.

1 I have lately found among my old school-books this little volume, which first introduced me to Dante. It is entitled, The Inferno of Dante Alghieri, translated into English Blank Verse with Notes by Nathaniel Howard. London : 1807. The passage referred to in the text occurs in canto xxiv. (lines 46 to 54 of the original). It is scored in pencil on the margin with an emphasis, which shows how much it had impressed me. My memory deceived me as to the sequence of the lines, which are as follows: –

” ‘Up’ cried the sage, ‘now needs thy arduous strength,
For not on plumes or canopied in state,
The soul wins fame, without whose vital smile
Whoe’er consumes away his gift of life,
Expires and leaves such vestiges of himself
As smoke in air, or unregarded foam
Quick-dying in the water. Up! be bold!
Vanquish fatigue by energy of mind,
That conquers every struggle, if uncrushed
Beneath the burden of the body’s frame.’ “


“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face,
and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and nick-name
God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more
on’t; it hath made me mad … To a nunnery, go!”