From The Riddles of Hamlet by Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston, Stratford & Co.
The action of Ophelia in this her last appearance is, in absence of stage directions by the Poet, a matter of conjecture. The role, as commonly enacted at the present day, has been described as follows:
"Ophelia enters with her hair and whole figure entwined with chains of flowers; and in her thin outer skirt, she
carries a mass of them. She advances slowly with the strange light of insanity in her eyes, sits down upon the
floor, and plays with the flowers in a childish way, as she sings. Then she arises, distributes rosemary, pansies,
fennel, columbine and rue, sings her last song, loiters a moment after her parting benediction, and runs out in a
burst of mad laughter."
The pitiful plight of Ophelia startles Laertes into voicing his deep sentiments of affection. Though his animosity
towards the King in person has sensibly ceased, he again yields to thoughts of violence and resentment, and swears
anew to revenge himself for her sad affliction. Never having understood the sister whom he so dearly loved, nor having
known her real and deep affection for the lord Hamlet, he wonders why "a young maiden's wits" should be as frail
"as an old man's life." Hence supposing her dementia to be solely due to her father's death, he concludes that love,
when existing in natures most sensitive and refined like Ophelia's, causes reason to follow after the object beloved.
Listless and regardless of her brother's words, Ophelia
begins to sing mere fragments of old ballads, as her memory
recalls them at haphazard from the long ago. Meaningless
refrains were common to these old songs, as is seen from
their frequent recurrence in many of Shakespeare's plays.
The music of the refrain she sings, seems by association of
phantasms, to awaken memories of her childhood, when she
had often heard her nurse sing the same ballad to the hum of
the spinning-wheel. Of the song itself, nothing save what the
text affords, has come down to us.
Whether in the distribution of flowers to the members
of the court, Ophelia gave them out as they came to hand, or
whether she chose a particular flower suitable to each person,
is open to conjecture; neither in the text, nor by any stage
direction has the Poet left us any certainty. By a long established custom, however, which has become a fixed stage tradition, Ophelia assigns rosemary to Hamlet, who is present to her imagination; she gives pansies to Laertes; fennel and columbines to Claudius; and rue to the Queen and herself. On
this passage, Hunter annotates:
"Ophelia in unbalanced mind thinks of marriage; with
it comes the idea of rosemary, and she addresses him who
should have been the bridegroom, Hamlet himself, as her
lover. She then feels her disappointment. Hamlet is not
there, and she turns to another flower — the pansy, or heart's
ease — as more fitting her condition; for the pansy is associated with melancholy."
When the mind is unsettled, it is usual for some idea
to recur which has been introduced at a critical period of
one's life. Now when Laertes was warning Ophelia against
encouraging the attentions of Hamlet, he urged her to consider them as trifling, and his love but a violet in the youth of
primy nature. These words, imprinted on her mind in association with the idea of Hamlet and her brother, are now recalled when she again converses with her brother on the same unhappy subject. Violets represent faithfulness, and
they all withered, when her lover by the slaying of her father,
had interposed a final obstacle to her union with him.
The language of flowers is very ancient, and was to
Ophelia, like to most young maidens, a fond subject of study.
Rosemary is emblematic of remembrance, and was distributed
and worn at weddings, as well as at funerals. The pansy is
a symbol of thought, of pensiveness, and of grief. The daisy
represents faithlessness and dissembling. Fennel designates
flattery, or cajolery and deceit; and columbine, ingratitude;
and these two flowers Ophelia befittingly presents to the
guileful and faithless Claudius. Rue is a bitter plant with
medicinal qualities, and was in folk lore a symbol of repentance. She calls it "an herb of grace on Sundays;" because
the wearer when entering a church on that day, dipped his
rue in Holy Water, which always stood within the portals,
and blessed himself with it, in the hope of obtaining God's
"grace" or mercy. "There's rue for you," she says to the
Queen, and "here's some for me." The Queen, however, is
to wear hers with a difference, that is, in token of repentance,
while she will wear it in regret and grief at the loss of her
father and her lover. In the distribution, the demented
maiden is seen naively but unwittingly to choose the flower
most suited to each person.
In Ophelia 's deranged mind, thoughts of Hamlet and her
father incoherently commingle. After singing "For bonny
sweet Robin is all my joy," a line from a ballad of Robin
Hood, she passes to another in memory of her father, and
dwells with satisfaction upon the words, "They say he made
a good end." The expression may seem meaningless to the
uninitiated; but to the Catholic they are richly significant.
Those, whose religion offers them no sacraments of the dying,
have often been puzzled by the fact that Catholics, when
dangerously ill, are so insistent in the call for the ministrations of a priest. On hearing of a friend's death, the first
question which a Catholic eagerly asks, is "how did he
die?" or "did he make a good end?" or "did he receive the
last sacraments?" These are all one and the same question.
The readiness is all. If the deceased, contrite of heart, was,
in the confession of his sins, absolved from them by the
power of the keys which the Savior entrusted to His Church;
if thus properly disposed, he received the Eucharistic Body
of the Lord, the pledge of his salvation and future resurrection; and if he peacefully departed from this world, with
the last sacred Unctions of Holy Church, his friends feel
consoled in the hope, which greatly mitigates their grief,
that, having died in the grace and friendship of God, the
soul of the departed has found mercy at the tribunal of justice
in the spirit world.
This is well illustrated by the words of
the ghost; Hamlet's father complained, not so much of the
murder, as of the fact that he had been deprived of the last
sacramental rites of Holy Church:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousl'd, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head;
O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!
Had Ophelia known the circumstances of her father's
death, she would have felt more poignant grief; but her
friends concealing them, sought to soothe her by the assurance that "he made a good end." This assurance with all
that it means, she herself makes repeatedly the one element
of consolation in her grief; for though demented, she still is
mindful of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, and, accordingly, at the close of the ballad she prays that "God may
have mercy" on her father's soul, as well as on "all Christian
souls," and uttering the parting greeting, "God be with
you," she departs from the scene, leaving all affected with
pity and commiseration.
Ophelia's sad condition had sensibly stirred Laertes to
great affliction, and the King pretending to share his grief,
attempts to soothe his feelings: let him summon his wisest
friends to sit with him in council in the judgment of his
griefs. Before them he shall lay the facts, and if they adjudge him guilty of Polonius' death, he is ready to forfeit
life and crown in atonement; if guiltless, then Laertes should
be patient; since even then, he will cooperate with him in the
work of his revenge. Laertes approves the design, but declares that even though the King be innocent, yet the secret
cause of his father 's death and the denial of a public funeral
with all the honors customary to his station, are grievances
which in voices loud cry to heaven for redress and punishment.
Claudius wisely admits the offense to be grievous, and
laconically replies, "Let the great axe fall" upon the neck
of the offender. That it would so fall upon Hamlet, the King
had little doubt; but at present, he deemed it inopportune
and even unwise to communicate to Laertes his secret plot
upon the Prince's life. He must in the meanwhile keep him
busy in the proceedings of the proposed council, which, for
one cause or another, he can protract for a few days, in the
hope that the ambassadors who will soon return from England, shall testify to Hamlet's death. This fact assured, he
can then secretly summon Laertes, and, summarily dispensing with further proceedings, satisfy his grievances and
thirst for revenge by exposing to him, how in furtherance
of his cause, he had justly inflicted the death penalty upon
the murderer of his father.
How to cite this article:
Blackmore, Simon Augustine. The Riddles of Hamlet. Boston: Stratford & company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/opheliasend.html >.
Did You Know? ... Anyone involved in the production of plays in Elizabethan England, from the playwright to the theatre owners, knew that the Master of Revels was the man to impress and fear, for he auditioned acting troupes, selected the plays they would perform, and controlled the scenery and costumes to be used in each production. Read on...