Shakspeare’s Heroines : Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical and Historical – By Mrs. Jameson


[153] But there was yet another possible modification of the sentiment, as combined with female nature; and this Shakspeare has shown to us. He has pourtrayed two beings, in whom all intellectual and moral energy is in a manner latent, if existing; in whom love is an [154] unconscious impulse, and imagination lends the external charm and hue, not the internal power; in whom the feminine character appears resolved into its very elementary principles – as modesty, grace 1 tenderness . Without these a woman is no woman, but a thing which, luckily, wants a name yet; with these, though every other faculty were passive or deficient, she might still be herself. These are the inherent qualities with which God sent us into the world: they may be perverted by a bad education – they may be obscured by harsh and evil destinies – they may be overpowered by the development of some particular mental power, the predominance of some passion; but they are never wholly crushed out of the woman’s soul, while it retains those faculties which render it responsible to its Creator. Shakspeare then has shown us that these elemental feminine qualities, modesty, grace, tenderness, when expanded under genial influences, suffice to constitute a perfect and happy human creature; – such is Miranda. When thrown alone amid harsh and adverse destinies, and amid the trammels and corruptions of society, without energy to resist, or will to act, or strength to endure, the end must needs be desolation.

Ophelia – poor Ophelia! Oh, far too soft, too good, too fair, to be cast among the briers of this working-day world, and fall and bleed upon the thorns of life! What shall be said of her? for eloquence is mute before her! Like a strain of sad, sweet music, which comes [155] floating by us on the wings of night and silence, and which we rather feel than hear – like the exhalation of the violet, dying even upon the sense it charms – like the snow-flake dissolved in air before it has caught a stain of earth – like the light surf severed from the billow, which a breath disperses; – such is the character of Ophelia: so exquisitely delicate, it seems as if a touch would profane it; so sanctified in our thoughts by the last and worst of human woes, that we scarcely dare to consider it too deeply. The love of Ophelia, which she never once confesses, is like a secret which we have stolen from her, and which ought to die upon our hearts as upon her own. Her sorrow asks not words, but tears; and her madness has precisely the same effect that would be produced by the spectacle of real insanity, if brought before us: we feel inclined to turn away, and veil our eyes in reverential pity and too painful sympathy.

Beyond every character that Shakspeare has drawn (Hamlet alone excepted), that of Ophelia makes us forget the poet in his own creation. Whenever we bring her to mind, it is with the same exclusive sense of her real existence, without reference to the wondrous power which called her into life. The effect (and what an effect!) is produced by means so simple, by strokes so few and so unobtrusive, that we take no thought of them. It is so purely natural and unsophisticated, yet so profound in its pathos, that, as Hazlitt observes, it takes us back to the old ballads; we forget that, in its perfect artlessness, it is the supreme and consummate triumph of art.

The situation of Ophelia in the story2 is that of a [156] young girl, who, at an early age, is brought from a life of privacy into the circle of a court – a court such as we read of in those early times, at once rude, magnificent, and corrupted. She is placed immediately about the person of the queen, and is apparently her favourite attendant. The affection of the wicked queen for this gentle and innocent creature is one of those beautiful and redeeming touches, one of those penetrating glances into the secret springs of natural and feminine feeling, which we find only in Shakspeare. Gertrude, who is not so wholly abandoned but that there remains within her heart some sense of the virtue she has forfeited, seems to look with a kind yet melancholy complacency on the lovely being she has destined for the bride of her son; and the scene in which she is introduced as scattering flowers on the grave of Ophelia is one of those effects of contrast in poetry, in character, and in feeling, at once natural and unexpected, which fill the eye, and make the heart swell and tremble within itself, like the nightingales singing in the Grove of the Furies in Sophocles .3

Again, in the father of Ophelia, the Lord Chamberlain Polonius – the shrewd, wary, subtle, pompous, garrulous old courtier – have we not the very man who would send his son into the world to see all, learn all it could teach of good and evil, but keep his only daughter as far as possible from every taint of that world he knew so well? So that when she is brought to the court, she seems, in her loveliness and perfect purity, like a seraph that had wandered out of bounds, and yet breathed on earth the air of Paradise. When her [157] father and her brother find it necessary to warn her simplicity, give her lessons of worldly wisdom, and instruct her “to be scanter of her maiden presence,” for that Hamlet’s vows of love “but breathe like sanctified and pious bonds, the better to beguile,” we feel at once that it comes too late; for from the moment she appears on the scene, amid the dark conflict of crime and vengeance, and supernatural terrors, we know what must be her destiny. Once, at Murano, I saw a dove caught in a tempest – perhaps it was young, and either lacked strength of wing to reach its home, or the instinct which teaches to shun the brooding storm, but so it was – and I watched it, pitying, as it flitted, poor bird! hither and hither, with its silver pinions shining against the black thunder-cloud, till, after a few giddy whirls, it fell, blinded, affrighted, and bewildered, into the turbid wave beneath, and was swallowed up for ever. It reminded me then of the fate of Ophelia; and now, when I think of her, I see again before me that poor dove, beating with weary wing, bewildered amidst the storm. It is the helplessness of Ophelia, arising merely from her innocence, and pictured without any indication of weakness, which melts us with such profound pity. She is so young, that neither her mind nor her person have attained maturity: she is not aware of the nature of her own feelings; they are prematurely developed in their full force before she has strength to bear them; and love and grief together rend and shatter the frail texture of her existence, like the burning fluid poured into a crystal vase. She says very little, and what she does say seems rather intended to hide than to reveal the emotions of her heart; yet in those few words we are made as perfectly acquainted with her character, and [158] with what is passing in her mind, as if she had thrown forth her soul with all the glowing eloquence of Juliet. Passion with Juliet seems innate, a part of her being, “as dwells the gather’d lightning in the cloud;” and we never fancy her but with the dark splendid eyes and Titian-like complexion of the south: while in Ophelia we recognise as distinctly the pensive, fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the north, whose heart seems to vibrate to the passion she has inspired, more conscious of being loved than of loving; and yet, alas! loving in the silent depths of her young heart far more than she is loved.

When her brother warns her against Hamlet’s importunities –

For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion, and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward not permanent, sweet not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute –
No more! –

she replies with a kind of half-consciousness,

No more but so?

Think it no more.

He concludes his admonition with that most beautiful passage, in which the soundest sense, the most excellent advice, is conveyed in a strain of the most exquisite poetry:

The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself ‘scapes not calumnious strokes.
The canker galls the infants in the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed:
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

[159] She answers with the same modesty, yet with a kind of involuntary avowal that his fears are not altogether without cause:

I shall th’ effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede .

When her father, immediately afterwards, catechises her on the same subject, he extorts from her, in short sentences uttered with bashful reluctance, the confession of Hamlet’s love for her, but not a word of her love for him. The whole scene is managed with inexpressible delicacy: it is one of those instances, common in Shakspeare, in which we are allowed to perceive what is passing in the mind of a person without any consciousness on their part. Only Ophelia herself is unaware that while she is admitting the extent of Hamlet’s courtship, she is also betraying how deep is the impression it has made, how entire the love with which it is returned.

What is between you? give me up the truth!

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.

Affection! puh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

[160] OPHELIA.
I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby,
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly:
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Wronging it thus) you’ll tender me a fool.

My lord, he hath impórtuned me with love
In honourable fashion.

Ay, fashion you may call it. Go to, go to.

And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With all the vows of heaven.

Ay, springes to catch woodcocks.
. . . . This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander any moment’s leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to’t, I charge you: come your ways.

I shall obey, my lord.

Besides its intrinsic loveliness, the character of Ophelia has a relative beauty and delicacy, when considered in relation to that of Hamlet, which is the delineation of a man of genius in contest with the powers of this world. The weakness of volition, the instability of purpose, the contemplative sensibility, the subtlety of thought, always shrinking from action, and always occupied in “thinking too precisely on the [161] event,” united to immense intellectual power, render him unspeakably interesting: and yet I doubt whether any woman, who would have been capable of understanding and appreciating such a man, would have passionately loved him. Let us for a moment imagine any one of Shakspeare’s most beautiful and striking female characters in immediate connexion with Hamlet. The gentle Desdemona would never have despatched her household cares in haste, to listen to his philosophical speculations, his dark conflicts with his own spirit. Such a woman as Portia would have studied him; Juliet would have pitied him; Rosalind would have turned him over with a smile to the melancholy Jaques; Beatrice would have laughed at him outright; Isabel would have reasoned with him; Miranda could but have wondered at him: but Ophelia loves him. Ophelia, the young, fair, inexperienced girl, facile to every impression, fond in her simplicity, and credulous in her innocence, loves Hamlet; not from what he is in himself, but for that which appears to her – the gentle, accomplished prince, upon whom she has been accustomed to see all eyes fixed in hope and admiration, “the expectancy and rose of the fair state,” the star of the court in which she moves, the first who has ever whispered soft vows in her ear: and what can be more natural?

But is it not singular, that while no one entertains a doubt of Ophelia’s love for Hamlet – though never once expressed by herself, or asserted by others, in the whole course of the drama – yet it is a subject of dispute whether Hamlet loves Ophelia. Though she herself allows that he had importuned her with love, and “had given countenance to his suit with almost all the holy vows of heaven;” although in the letter which [162] Polonius intercepted Hamlet declares that he loves her “best, O, most best!” though he asserts himself, with the wildest vehemence,

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

still I have heard the question canvassed; I have even heard it denied that Hamlet did love Ophelia. The author of the finest remarks I have yet seen on the play and character of Hamlet, leans to this opinion. As the observations I allude to are contained in a periodical publication, and may not be at hand for immediate reference, I shall indulge myself (and the reader no less) by quoting the opening paragraphs of this noble piece of criticism, upon the principle and for the reason I have already stated in the Introduction:

“We take up a play, and ideas come rolling in upon us, like waves impelled by a strong wind. There is in the ebb and flow of Shakspeare’s soul all the grandeur of a mighty operation of nature; and when we think or speak of him, it should be with humility where we do not understand, and a conviction that it is rather to the narrowness of our own mind than to any failing in the art of the great magician that we ought to attribute to any sense of weakness which may assail us during the contemplation of his created worlds.

“Shakspeare himself, had he even been as great a critic as a poet, could not have written a regular dissertation upon Hamlet. So ideal, and yet so real an existence, could have been shadowed out only in the colours of poetry. When a character deals solely or chiefly with this world and its events, when it acts and is acted upon by objects that have a palpable existence, [163] we see it distinctly, as if it were cast in a material mould, as if it partook of the fixed and settled lineaments of the things on which it lavishes its sensibilities and its passions. We see in such cases the vision of an individual soul, as we see the vision of an individual countenance. We can describe both, and can let a stranger into our knowledge. But how tell in words so pure, so fine, so ideal an abstraction as Hamlet? We can, indeed, figure to ourselves, generally, his princely form, that outshone all others in manly beauty, and adorn it with the consummation of all liberal accomplishment. We can behold in every look, every gesture, every motion, the future king,

The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state;
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
Th’ observed of all observers.

“But when we would penetrate into his spirit, meditate on those things on which he meditates, accompany him even unto the brink of eternity, fluctuate with him on the ghastly sea of despair, soar with him into the purest and serenest regions of human thought, feel with him the curse of beholding iniquity, and the troubled delight of thinking on innocence, and gentleness, and beauty; come with him from all the glorious dreams cherished by a noble spirit in the halls of wisdom and philosophy, of a sudden into the gloomy courts of sin, and incest, and murder; shudder with him over the broken and shattered fragments of all the fairest creations of his fancy; be borne with him at once from calm, and lofty, and delighted speculations, into the very heart of fear, and horror, and tribulations; have the agonies and the guilt of our mortal world [164] brought into immediate contact with the world beyond the grave, and the influence of an awful shadow hanging for ever on our thoughts; be present at a fearful combat between all the stirred-up passions of humanity in the soul of man, a combat in which one and all of these passions are alternately victorious and overcome; – I say, that when we are thus placed and acted upon, how is it possible to draw a character of this sublime drama, or of the mysterious being who is its moving spirit? In him, his character and situation, there is a concentration of all the interests that belong to humanity. There is scarcely a trait of frailty or of grandeur, which may have endeared to us our most beloved friends in real life, that is not to be found in Hamlet. Undoubtedly Shakspeare loved him beyond all his other creations. Soon as he appears on the stage we are satisfied: when absent we long for his return. This is the only play which exists almost altogether in the character of one single person. Who ever knew a Hamlet in real life? yet who, ideal as the character is, feels not its reality? This is the wonder. We love him, not, we think of him, not because he is witty, because he was melancholy, because he was filial; but we love him because he existed, and was himself. This is the sum total of the impression. I believe that, of every other character, either in tragic or epic poetry, the story makes part of the conception; but of Hamlet, the deep and permanent interest is the conception of himself. This seems to belong, not to the character being more perfectly drawn, but to there being a more intense conception of individual human life than perhaps any other human composition. Here is a being with springs of thought, and feeling, and action, deeper than we can [165] search. These springs rise from an unknown depth, and in that depth there seems to be a oneness of being which we cannot distinctly behold, but which we believe to be there; and thus irreconcilable circumstances, floating on the surface of his actions, have not the effect of making us doubt the truth of the general picture .”5

This is all most admirable, most eloquent, most true; but the critic subsequently declares, that “there is nothing in Ophelia which could make her the object of an engrossing passion to so majestic a spirit as Hamlet.”

Now, though it be with reluctance, and even considerable mistrust of myself, that I differ from a critic who can thus feel and write, I do not think so: – I do think, with submission, that the love of Hamlet for Ophelia is deep, is real, and is precisely the kind of love which such a man as Hamlet would feel for such a woman as Ophelia.

When the heathens would represent their Jove as clothed in all his Olympian terrors, they mounted him on the back of an eagle, and armed him with the lightnings; but when in Holy Writ the Supreme Being is described as coming in His glory, He is upborne on the wings of cherubim, and His emblem is the dove. Even so our blessed religion, which has revealed deeper mysteries in the human soul than ever were dreamt of by philosophy, till she went hand-in-hand with faith, has taught us to pay that worship to the symbols of purity and innocence which in darker times was paid to the manifestations of power: and therefore do I think that the mighty intellect, the capacious, soaring, penetrating genius of Hamlet may [166] be represented, without detracting from its grandeur as reposing upon the tender virgin innocence of Ophelia, with all that deep delight with which a superior nature contemplates the goodness which is at once perfect in itself, and of itself unconscious. That Hamlet regards Ophelia with this kind of tenderness – that he loves her with a love as intense as can belong to a nature in which there is (I think) much more of contemplation and sensibility than action or passion – is the feeling and conviction with which I have always read the play of “Hamlet.”

As to whether the mind of Hamlet be, or be not, touched with madness – this is another point at issue among critics, philosophers, aye, and physicians. To me it seems that he is not so far disordered as to cease to be a responsible human being – that were too pitiable: but rather his mind is shaken from its equilibrium and bewildered by the horrors of his situation – horrors which his fine and subtle intellect, his strong imagination, and his tendency to melancholy, at once exaggerate, and take from him the power either to endure, or, “by opposing end them.” We do not see him as a lover, nor as Ophelia first beheld him; for the days when he importuned her with his love were before the opening of the drama – before his father’s spirit revisited the earth; but we behold him at once in a sea of troubles, of perplexities, of agonies, of terrors. Without remorse he endures all its horrors; without guilt he endures all its shame. A loathing of the crime he is called on to revenge, which revenge is again abhorrent to his nature, has set him at strife with himself; the supernatural visitation has perturbed his soul to its inmost depths; all things else, all interests, all hopes, all affections, appear as futile [167] when the majestic shadow comes lamenting from its place of torment “to shake him with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul!” His love for Ophelia is then ranked by himself among those trivial, fond records which he has deeply sworn to erase from his heart and brain. He has no thought to link his terrible destiny with hers: he cannot marry her: he cannot reveal to her, young, gentle, innocent as she is, the terrific influences which have changed the whole current of his life and purposes. In his distraction he overacts the painful part to which he had tasked himself; he is like that judge of the Areopagus, who being occupied with graver matters, flung from him the little bird which had sought refuge in his bosom, and that with such angry violence, that unwittingly he killed it.

In the scene with Hamlet,6 in which he madly outrages her and upbraids himself, Ophelia says very little: there are two short sentences in which she replies to his wild, abrupt discourse –

I did love you once.

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

You should not have believed me: for virtue cannot so inoculate
our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.

I was the more deceived.

Those who ever heard Mrs. Siddons read the play of Hamlet cannot forget the world of meaning, of love, of sorrow, of despair, conveyed in these two simple [168] phrases. Here, and in the soliloquy afterwards, where she says,

And I of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,

are the only allusions to herself and her own feelings in the course of the play; and these uttered almost without consciousness on her own part, contain the revelation of a life of love, and disclose the secret burthen of a heart bursting with its own unuttered grief. She believes Hamlet crazed; she is repulsed, she is forsaken, she is outraged, where she had bestowed her young heart, with all its hopes and wishes; her father is slain by the hand of her lover, as it is supposed, in a paroxysm of insanity: she is entangled inextricably in a web of horrors which she cannot even comprehend, and the result seems inevitable.

Of her subsequent madness, what can be said? What an affecting, what an astonishing picture of a mind utterly, hopelessly wrecked! – past hope – past cure! There is the frenzy of excited passion – there is the madness caused by intense and continued thought – there is the delirium of fevered nerves; but Ophelia’s madness is distinct from these: it is not the suspension, but the utter destruction of the reasoning powers; it is the total imbecility which, as medical people well know, frequently follows some terrible shock to the spirits. Constance is frantic; Lear is mad; Ophelia is insane. Her sweet mind lies in fragments before us – a pitiful spectacle! Her wild, rambling fancies; her aimless, broken speeches; her quick transitions from gaiety to sadness – each equally purposeless and causeless; her snatches of old ballads, such as perhaps her nurse sang her to sleep with in her infancy – are all so [169] true to life that we forget to wonder, and can only weep. It belonged to Shakspeare alone so to temper such a picture that we can endure to dwell upon it –

Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour and to prettiness.

That in her madness she should exchange her bashful silence for empty babbling, her sweet maidenly demeanour for the impatient restlessness that spurns at straws, and say and sing precisely what she never would or could have uttered had she been in possession of her reason, is so far from being an impropriety, that it is an additional stroke of nature. It is one of the symptoms in this species of insanity, as we are assured by physicians. I have myself known one instance in the case of a young Quaker girl, whose character resembled that of Ophelia, and whose malady arose from a similar cause.

The whole action of this play sweeps past us like a torrent which hurries along in its dark and resistless course all the personages of the drama towards a catastrophe which is not brought about by human will, but seems like an abyss ready dug to receive them, where the good and the wicked are whelmed together.7 As the character of Hamlet has been compared, or rather contrasted, with the Greek Orestes, being, like him, called on to avenge a crime by a crime, tormented by remorseful doubts, and pursued by distraction, so, to me, the character of Ophelia bears a certain relation to that of the Greek Iphigenia, 8 with the same strong distinction between the classical and the romantic conception of the portrait. Iphigenia led forth to sacrifice, with her unresisting tenderness, her mournful [170] sweetness, her virgin innocence, is doomed to perish by that relentless power which has linked her destiny with crimes and contests, in which she has no part but as a sufferer; and even so poor Ophelia, “divided from herself and her fair judgement,” appears here like a spotless victim offered up to the mysterious and inexorable Fates.

“For it is the property of crime to extend its mischiefs over innocence, as it is of virtue to extend its blessings over many that deserve them not, while frequently the author of one or the other is not as far as we can see, either punished or rewarded..”9 But there’s a heaven above us.

1 By this word, as used here, I would be understood to mean that inexpressible something within the soul which tends to the good, the beautiful, the true, and is the antipodes to the vulgar, the violent and the false; that which we see diffused externally over the form and movements where there is perfect innocence and unconsciousness, as in children.

2 i.e . in the story of the drama; for in the original “History of Amleth the Dane,” from which Shakspeare drew his materials, there is a woman introduced who is employed as an instrument to seduce Amleth, but not even the germ of the character of Ophelia.

3 In the “Œdipus Coloneus.”

4 “And recks not his own rede,” i.e. heeds not his own lesson.

5 Blackwood’s Magazine, vol ii.

6 Act iii. scene 1.

7 Goethe . See the analysis of “Hamlet” in “Wilhelm Meister.”

8 The “Iphigenia in Aulis” of Euripides.

9 Goethe .