deconstructing frames of reference: how do we talk about ophelia?

characters in dramatic literature are often referred to possessively, as though the play they inhabit has ownership over them. much of the time this is fitting or necessary, but i also think that it says a lot about the ways that characters interact with their environments.

hamlet is a name play - which is to say that it revolves around its titular character. if we look at other plays of this type, something becomes evident.

titular characters rarely need their worlds to be specified unless they are the subject of multiple works. no one would think of referring to macbeth as “macbeth’s macbeth”, but something like ”macbeth’s witches” is fairly common. it transmits ownership, which i’ll get into shortly. what i’m really trying to work out here is when one would be more inclined to say “playname’s othercharacter” as opposed to “othercharacter, from playname”. in other words, when will someone go for the possessive instead of the referential?

what i find most interesting about shakespeare is that many of these characters have entered the western canon in such a way that their worlds do not need to be named. macduff, for instance, (while we’re still with the scots) can be safely referred to without one having to say “macbeth’s macduff”. i wonder whether this has less to do with the recognition of his placement within the world of the play and more to do with the recognition that he is not macbeth’s macduff - he vehemently defies macbeth’s ownership. for scotland (read: duncan).

how does this transfer over to other characters? i think a lot of it has to do with the amount of control the title character has over his surroundings. cymbeline, for instance, is hardly the focus of cymbeline, the text of which is dominated by imogen, who bulldozes over every other character with over 600 lines. the titular king himself has almost half that. maybe it’s just that cymbeline isn’t super popular (which is unfortunate, because it’s a great play that has been done a great deal of disservice with regard to genre) but the words “cymbeline’s imogen” don’t feel natural.

i’ll skip titus andronicus and coriolanus for now, because this theory largely an apostrophe issue and i don’t think the same vernacular stipulations apply. same goes for double name plays like romeo & juliet and antony & cleopatra. timon of athens is gonna sit this one out, too, because of that “s” issue and the confusion that comes with removing his designation. pericles, prince of tyre has a similar issue (i would also argue that his dominion over his own play is…tenuous. at best.) and as tempted as i am to include the merchant of venice (antonio) and the merry wives of windsor here, they don’t hold the same linguistic merit

instead, let’s look at more examples. “julius caesar’s brutus” and “julius caesar’s cassius” seem natural, because even though those two are most of the play, caesar’s ownership over all of them is the focus. (spoiler: that’s why he dies.) and this is how we get into kings - guys who, like julius caesar, are inseparable from their titles, like king lear and the somewhat more nondescript king john (that play, surprisingly, is a lot of fun). “king lear’s cordelia” gives us a pretty good idea of lear’s dynamic with his daughter, who never stops belonging to him even though he disowns her in act 1. without getting into the particulars of king john, i’ll say that his dynamic makes statements like “king john’s henry” (his son, henry iii) reasonable, though probably not necessary (henry has 30 lines and is hardly a focal figure).

kings with numbers attached to their names complicate matters a bit, but not much. i think it’s interesting to see how the same name can sound natural or unnatural when in possession of another. for example, “henry iv’s falstaff” is a confusing, if important distinction if one is attempting to differentiate between the falstaff of the henriad and the falstaff that appears in merry wives (or even the similar figure who turns up briefly in henry vi.) falstaff belongs to henry iv in a way that “henry iv’s hotspur” does not share (arguably, until his death). henry vi has a hard-won claim over margaret (though a very convoluted one that takes forever to set in) that makes “henry vi’s margaret” admissible in a way that “henry vi’s joan” is not, because while it is one thing to differentiate between joan la pucelle’s appearances in various works, it is another thing entirely to imply that she belongs to the king as margaret later does.

this is where stuff starts to get really wild. “henry v’s katherine” versus “henry v’s kate” is the division between identifying a character and identifying a dynamic. katherine belongs to the play, but kate (anglicized and wedding-dressed) belongs entirely to our buddy harry le roy. 

one may refer to “othello’s desdemona” or “othello’s iago”, even “othello’s cassiobut one will not likely say “othello’s emilia" because, unlike desdemona (his wife), cassio (his chosen lieutenant), and even iago (there isn’t a succinct way to sum up their relationship), emilia does not belong to othello as she belongs to iago (in spite of how he treats her).

what it really comes down to is whether characters belong to the plays they inhabit or to charactrs within those plays. still with me?


hamlet is a play about a guy named hamlet working out how best to deal with the murder of his dad, hamlet. 

consider: “hamlet’s polonius” versus “hamlet’s horatio”. horatio is undeniably hamlet’s, whereas one would be more inclined to say “polonius, from hamlet”. (arguably, this is because polonius belongs to claudius, and not to hamlet at all.)

gertrude is where things begin to get complex (as usual). ”hamlet’s gertrude” evokes the queen’s dead husband, hamlet (heretoforth referred to as “ghostdad”) to whom it could be argued she had a sense of belonging. until she married his brother claudius and her son, also hamlet, Our Hamlet, lost respect for her.

does hamlet belong to gertrude? undoubtedly, because even as he distances himself from her, in the duel scene they demonstrate concern for one another - gertrude offering to wipe hamlet’s face, hamlet becoming very distressed when she (spoiler!) dies. but does gertrude belong to hamlet? this is where the oedipus theorists usually make their entrances, so i’ll move on to ophelia. 

hamlet’s ophelia” is so heavy, in part because ophelia is one of those names that is, by now, so inexorably tied to hamlet. nothing hurts so much as belonging to hamlet except possibly not belonging to hamlet.

people in the play and outside of it over the past few centuries, have tended to assume that it is this not-belonging to hamlet that leads to her death. girl loves boy, boy leaves girl, girl cries, girl dies. it happens over and over. it’s an insidious pattern that has been making its circles through media for AGES. 

belonging is a form of possession. hamlet, a ghost just like his father, haunting ophelia even when he isn’t there. hamlet in her body, hamlet pulling the strings. hamlet’s ophelia lacks agency; hamlet’s ophelia is censored and subject to incredible violence. 

where’s ophelia’s ophelia? stay tuned.

my shakespeare show went up two weeks ago! check out these pictures.


I. THE KITCHEN. [1.3] Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes. 

II. THE CLOSET. [Events described in 2.1] Ophelia, Hamlet.

III. THE BATHTUB. [2.2] Ophelia, Hamlet.

IV. THE LIBRARY. [2.1] Ophelia, Polonius.

V. THE LIVING ROOM. [3.1] Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius.

VI. THE PATIO. [3.2] Ophelia, Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Old Ham.

VII. THE HALL. [4.5] Ophelia, Gertrude, Horatio, Claudius, Laertes, A Gentleman.

VIII. THE GREENHOUSE [Events described in 4.7] Ophelia, Laertes.

IX. THE BASEMENT. [4.7] Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude.

X. THE GARDEN. [5.1] Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet, Horatio, Laertes, Priest.


contrast: gertrude’s flowers, the ones she uses to embellish her story about ophelia’s death

willows tend to grow near water. the one gertrude mentions grows slanting over a brook. she has ophelia slip from a branch into the water. then gertrude mentions crow-flowers - this could be a reference to buttercups, but there’s a wildflower known as “crow-poison” that i think fits better. even the type of buttercup is a “creeping” buttercup. either way, those crow-flowers are accompanied by nettles. nettles sting if you touch them. they’re pretty dangerous (fun  fact: shakespeare uses them as a metaphor for danger in henry iv, part i.)

next, gertrude mentions daisies, which is all well and good, but she follows that up with “long purples”, saying “cold maids” call them “dead-men’s fingers”. (drowned maids are pretty cold if you ask me.) there’s a lot of debate on the actual species being referred to with those.

but gertrude’s flowers are ominous. she refers to them as weeds twice in one speech, which is one part shakespeare-speak (see also: 4.1 of pericles) and one part implied spookiness. 

it’s also worth mentioning that gertrude uses the term “hoar-leaves” to describe the willow. this is a kind of greyish white color (the color of a blooming willow tree) but “hoar” sure does sound a lot like “whore”, which is a very shakespearean nod to his audience’s sensibilities. it comes across as very intentional and also says something about the way gertrude could be interpreted as seeing ophelia (in some versions, as a corrupting influence on her son).

ophelia’s flowers

pansies for thoughts, rosemary for remembrance, fennel (“sow fennel, sow sorrow”), scary fennel (not a spider, i promise), columbines (foolishness, adultery. i think they look like moths), rue (more adultery, women’s suffering), more rue (known as a powerful abortifacient), daisies (innocence/loss thereof), violets (not anymore).

piecing together text from the first folio and comparing it to other editions. noticed something strange/fascinating/important

in 4.5, we get ophelia’s last line in the play before she dies:

And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God buy you.


another version:

And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi’ ye.


and then we have the first folio:

And of all Christian Soules, I pray God.

God buy ye. [ Exeunt Ophelia]

see that? that. that right there. it’s in the stage directions.

exeunt literally translates to “they go out”. it’s used to denote multiple people leaving a stage. when she leaves the first time, she gets a cursory [ Exit.]

but when ophelia leaves the stage for the last time before she drowns, she gets  [ Exeunt Ophelia]. 

(it’s important to note that exeunt is also used when certain named characters leave the stage on their own, but this is fairly uncommon and when it does happen it is very important.)

keep in mind that this also occurs in the context of her “madness” - ophelia spends the scene singing snippets of songs, handing people flowers. she’s…distressed. if she is in her right mind, it is not her usual mind. (as a side note, if she’s under control, it is not the control she is usually under - which is to say that it might be her own.)

anyway there’s a reason i’m working my script from the first folio as opposed to any of the later versions. more on this as it progresses.

an introduction

i’ve created this blog to document my div iii process. 

this is going to be a space for sorting things out, for getting ideas down and figuring out how they might come into play. 

but i also want to keep it as a reminder to myself that my div is not all that exists! 

this project is huge, and i’d like to do what i can to make it accessible and fun while still holding myself accountable for its completion.

here comes ophelia.