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Queen Gertrude's Account of the Death of Ophelia

From Shakespeare's Hamlet: A New Commentary by Wilbraham Fitzjohn Trench. London: John Murray.

The picturesqueness of the passage in which [Ophelia's death] is announced may cause it to serve well as material for treatment by Millais in a picture full of imaginative suggestion as well as of detailed nature-study; but such descriptive value as the passage possesses cannot hide from us its perfect absurdity. The first impulse of Laertes is, naturally enough, to run to the spot where Ophelia's body lies; so his inquiry has reference only to the precise locality: but the information given him comprises every thing but that. He is offered a vague and general description of landscape, the silvery greyness of the willow's leaves being noted, and the glassy stillness of the water that reflects them: he is given in detail the composition of Ophelia's floral garlands, with a brief excursus upon the two names by which one of the wild orchids is popularly known.

He is told that his sister was seen to clamber into the willow, upon a branch which broke, out of mere spitefulness says the Queen (1. 174); so she fell thence into the stream, whose moistness Her Majesty attributes to its tears of sympathy. There, he is informed, they watched her float a while, and heard her sing 'melodiously' some 'snatches of song': at last they saw her sink, down to the 'muddy' bottom of the 'glassy-' surfaced stream: Ophelia was drowned! Laertes might well inquire who the witnesses were. Horatio was responsible for Ophelia's safe-keeping (ii. 75): was it then he that saw and heard all this? No, nor anyone else. The whole passage is absurd, and as undramatic as it could be, if it is regarded as the account of the actual death of Ophelia.

Is the passage, then, to be treated as a blot upon the play, as an example, unique in Hamlet, of the dramatist's forgetting the dramatic in his interest in description? No such theory can for a moment be entertained by the intelligent reader until a rational explanation of the difficulty has been sought in vain. And not in vain will rational explanation be sought. Let the passage be considered afresh and in its true setting.

When Laertes broke down the door and forced his way in, Gertrude, though her husband tried to impart to her of his customary self-possession, was naturally in terror. It was in vain that she besought Laertes to be 'calm.' 'Where is my father?' was his demand. 'Dead,' replied Claudius. 'But not by his hand,' interjected the terrified Queen, feeling that her husband was in mortal danger. 1 More tragedy has occurred since then in the Polonius family: there is another death to announce. Now suppose she comes in and says, 'Laertes, your sister's drowned,' she must expect to have to answer an excited inquiry as to how it occurred. If she gives the true reply, 'Nobody knows,' 2 why then, Laertes may break out into an awful fit of passion, and cry: 'How came she dead? I'll not be juggled with! To hell, allegiance!' and so forth, as before. Then her life or her husband's will be positively in danger again.

So she has resolved that at the moment of informing Laertes of the sad event she must urge that it was purely accidental, while to lessen the bitterness of it she will assure him that the death was painless, Ophelia's mind having too far gone for her to feel 'her own distress.' With this view, she has made up a story which in its every phrase shows signs of having been carefully prepared a story full of circumstance and detail to give to Laertes in reply to his expected inquiry about the manner of Ophelia's death. So as soon as he speaks, she tells him her story, leaving unanswered his question because it happens to be not 'Oh, how?' but 'Oh, where?' For Gertrude is awkwardly unimaginative, as has been seen before. 3

Lacking refined sensibility herself, she cannot well enter into the feelings of others. That is why she has expected Laertes, dangerously angry about his father's death, to be dangerously angry like wise upon hearing of his sister's death; whereas the uppermost feeling of Laertes is naturally enough one of poignant grief. He was expected to demand immediately a full explanation; whereas his first inquiry is as to the spot where the event occurred, his first impulse being (naturally enough) to hasten thither. 4

Thus explained, the Queen's description of the drowning comes to be of a piece with all the rest of the play: once the temper of the speaker has been apprehended, the words are seen to be in perfect accord with that temper: that is to say, the passage is perfectly dramatic. And, thus explained, it affords one more illustration to show how little effort this dramatist makes to secure a proper stage effect, or how distinct dramatic value is from theatrical value to his mind.


1. Soon after, she went out. The stage-direction (at IV. v. 200) should (I am sure) read 'Exit Ophelia followed by Queen.'

2. The coroner, it is true, afterwards decided at the inquest (V. i. 4-5) that the death was to be regarded as accidental; but as there were no witnesses (had there been any the Queen would at least have apologised for their inaction), the populace arrived at a conclusion quite inconsistent with the Queen's account, namely, that Ophelia had committed suicide (V. i. 1-2); and the clergy independently arrived at a similar conclusion (V. i. 262-4), admitting indeed that it was somewhat 'doubtful' (1. 250), but sure that they were justified in depriving her of the benefit of the doubt. Gertrude's story is clearly fictitious.

3. In Act I. Sc. ii.

4. Gertrude's fear of Laertes comes out once more in the remarkable message that she sends to Hamlet in V. ii. 216. Her fear proved to be well grounded.

How to cite this article:
Trench, Wilbraham Fitzjohn. Shakespeare's Hamlet: A New Commentary. London: John Murray, 1913. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < >.


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"Unfortunately for Ophelia, Laertes on departing, reminded her of his counsel in the presence of her father. His words sufficed to rouse the old courtier's prying instinct. Over-mastered by curiosity, he insists on knowing the import of his son's advice. He approves the judgment of Laertes, and goes even further, by condemning her for being too free and bounteous of her time with the Prince, and for not understanding what behooves his daughter and her honor. His severe arraignment, while chargeable to solicitude, most commendable in a father, was due more to the low estimate which he entertained of Hamlet's honor and his motives." Simon Augustine Blackmore. Read on...

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