I WILL turn now to another portion of the play: that connected with
Ophelia. Let us note at the outset three things:
(1) That there is an obvious dramatic motive for adding this love story
to the play.
(2) That it can hardly have any relation to the history of James I.
(3) That it cannot fairly be said to be suggested by the saga source.
I will deal with these points in order.
(1) The dramatic motive for the addition of Ophelia's story is plain
enough; it adds greatly to the interest of Hamlet as a play,
and to the interest of the prince himself as a character. Just as the
addition of the story of Marguerite to that of Faust increases
the value of the drama by adding pathos and tenderness to something
that would otherwise be too purely intellectual, so does the addition
of Ophelia's story increase by its pathos the value of Hamlet.
(2) Apparently, also, this portion of the play has nothing whatever
to do with James I. James married, as most princes marry, in the same
conventional and well-accepted way, and the only romantic circumstance
connected with his marriage was the voyage to bring his bride home to
Scotland, which has already been discussed.
(3) Neither does the saga give much suggestion. Saxo recounts how Amleth's
enemies attempt to employ a certain woman as a decoy; they plan that
she shall entice the prince, who is pretending madness, to make love
to her, and so obtain possession of his secrets; Amleth, however, is
forewarned by a friend who fastens a piece of straw to a horse-fly,
and sends it past the place where Amleth lurks. Amleth detects the meaning
of this somewhat fantastic device; he drags the woman off into a remote
covert where he violates her, but without revealing anything or betraying
himself in any way at all. She is so deeply ashamed that she herself
denies any connection between them, and the trap thus proves of no avail.
The Hystorie of Hamblet smooths out some of the worst absurdities
from this narrative and says that the lady had "from her infancy
loved and favoured him," but here also she is a mere decoy to vice,
outwitted and rejected.
It is obvious that we are miles away from the story of Ophelia and
Hamlet with all its romance and subtlety. What seems plausible is that
the woman in the saga was the mere starting-point, and that all the
rest is the poet's own creation. But here, again, let us refer to our
standard criterionthe Elizabethan audience. Let us remember that
the point from which we started was the Essex conspiracy and the Essex
trial with which the subject of the Scottish succession was inseparably
Would the audience think the story of Ophelia had anything to do with
the Essex trial?
I can only say that I feel pretty sure they would, for it shows features
which have the most marked resemblances to the stories of the two heroines
connected with that trial: Elizabeth Vernon, the wife of Southampton,
and Lady Essex.
If Shakespeare started from this point he would most certainly find
there the suggestion for his love-story.
We may quote a letter from Rowland White:
"My lord of Southampton doth with too much familiarity court
the fair Mistress Vernon, while his friends, observing the Queen's
humours towards my Lord of Essex, do what they can to bring her to
favour him, but in vain."
Southampton's love for Elizabeth Vernon cost him the favour of the
queen; nothing would induce Elizabeth to consent to his marriage. From
this time (1595) onwards Southampton's high spirit was incessantly galled;
he was kept apart from the woman he loved, ordered to absent himself
from Court, and continually checked in his public career.
We may quote the following extracts from Rowland White's letters January
"I hear my Lord of Southampton goes with Mr Secretary to France,
and so onward on his travels, which course of his doth extremely grieve
his mistress, that passes her time in weeping and lamenting."
And again on February 1st:
"My Lord of Southampton is much troubled by her Majesty's strangest
usage of him. Somebody hath played unfriendly parts with him. Mr Secretary
hath procured him license to travel. His fair mistress doth
wash her fairest face with many tears. I pray God his going away
bring her to no such infirmity which is as it were hereditary to her
name." February 12th, "My Lord of Southampton is gone
and hath left behind him a fair gentlewoman that hath almost wept
out her fairest eyes."
Shortly after Elizabeth Vernon was ordered away from Court, Chamberlain
"Mrs Vernon is from the Court and lies at Essex House. Some say
she hath taken a venue under her girdle and swells upon it; yet she
complains not of foul Play but says My Lord of Southampton will justify
it, and it is bruited underhand that he was lately here four days in
great secret of purpose to marry her and effected it accordingly."
The secret marriage seems to have taken place in 1598, and the queen,
possibly getting to hear of it, was totally alienated from Southampton.
In 1599, Essex went to Ireland; that Shakespeare watched this venture
with interest and hoped for a successful issue is proved by the open
and daring reference to it in Henry V. Southampton accompanied
Essex, and was made his General of Horse, but the queen commanded Essex
to revoke the appointment. Southampton returned to London, and continued
to give great offence by absenting himself from Court and frequenting
plays instead. White writes on October 19th: "My Lord Southampton
and Lord Rutland come not to Court, they pass away the time in London
merely in going to plays every day."
The offence in this lay, of course, in the connection the stage was
invariably supposed to have with politics.
Both Essex and Southampton repeatedly offended the queen by the connection
they had with plays and players, just as Hamlet offended the king by
his connection with plays and players; if Elizabethan dramas
in general, and Shakespeare's in particular, were always dealing with
purely imaginary events and characters where would be the cause for
The candid truth is, all our evidence goes to show that the dramatists
in general, and Shakespeare quite as much as the others, offended
as Hamlet did in the Gonzago play.
Southampton, as we have already pointed out, in disgrace at the Court,
joined in the rash and foolish Essex conspiracy. Like Essex, he was
condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted to perpetual imprisonment;
this was the situation in which he lay at the time Hamlet was written,
and Southampton's only hope lay in the accession of James I; as the
Essex conspiracy was supposed to be in his favour, James might naturally
be expected to set Southampton free and, as a matter of fact, it was
one of the first things he did on his progress in April 1603. Chamberlain
"the 10th of this month the Earl of Southampton was delivered
out of the Tower, and the King looked upon him with a smiling countenance.
. . . These bountiful beginnings raise all men's spirits and put them
in great hopes."
Now, we can surely see a certain resemblance between these events and
the love-story of Hamlet and Ophelia. There is, to begin with, the wooing
with too much familiarity.
Polonius and Laertes both complain to Ophelia that she is laying her
honour too much open to suspicion. Laertes says
"weigh what loss your honour may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmasterd importunity." [Act I, iii.]
"'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous . . .
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour."
Elizabeth Vernon, when her honour was called in question, justified
herself and her lover by declaring that he had pledged her his word;
so Ophelia justifies herself and Hamlet:
"He hath importuned me with love
In honourable fashion . . .
And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven."
Elizabeth Vernon is separated from her lover, and so is Ophelia
is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet."
Elizabeth Vernon's love affair was made a court affair and a matter
of state interference; it was discussed by everyone in a way calculated
to cause agony to a sensitive soul: so is Ophelia's.
Since marriage was made impossible by this cruel interference there
was a very strong suspicion that Elizabeth Vernon had been seduced;
her lover went away, and in his absence she was in the deepest distress
and in danger of insanity. All these things unite to make pathetic the
story of Ophelia: she is under the shadow of disgrace; Hamlet's language
to her in the play scene is of the coarsest and most imprudent kind,
and such as would destroy her reputation in the ears of anyone overhearing
it; the songs she herself sings in her madness suggest the same thing.
Does it not look as if Shakespeare were simply carrying a step farther,
and making a degree more pathetic, the events already suggested to him
by his friend's story? At any rate, the play is here, also, far and
away closer to contemporary events that it is to its so-called sources.
Southampton, certainly the poet's generous patron, quite possibly his
best-beloved friend, was even then in the Tower, his neck in jeopardy
on account of the peril brought about by this very love-story. He and
his mistress were regarded as innocent unhappy beings, exasperated into
disgrace by the needless persecution of a true love.
Could anything be more plausible than that Shakespeare would himself
be deeply and profoundly moved by their fate, and would desire to awaken
sympathy with them if he could? And, if to show his sympathy also perfects
his wonderful drama, why not?
Moreover, the unity which he must consider first and foremost, is already
a unity in the minds of his audience, for all these things were bound
up in the most intimate and vital way with the questions of the Essex
conspiracy and the Scottish Succession.
With regard to the relations between Hamlet and Ophelia there can be
little doubt, I think, that Shakespeare means them to be substantially
innocent since they are depicted with so much sympathy; but whether
they were meant to be innocent in the literal sense of the word is quite
another question. We must not allow ourselves to be misled by Victorian
The suspicions of Laertes and Polonius might be explained to be due
to their own foulness of mind; but Hamlet suggests the same thing by
his language in the play scene, and so does Ophelia in her songsall
these things taken together imply a conclusion other than that of innocence.
May it not be an essential part of Hamlet's tragedy that he and the
woman he loves have genuinely yielded to temptation?
In this connection I may quote Tieck
"How much of fine observation is there in what is said of Ophelia
in Goethe's 'Wilhelm Meister': But, if I do not entirely misunderstand
Shakespeare, the poet has meant to intimate throughout the piece that
the poor girl, in the ardour of her passion for the fair prince, has
yielded all to him. The hints and warnings of Laertes come too late.
It is tender and worthy of the great poet to leave the relation of
Hamlet and Ophelia, like much else in the piece, a riddle; but it
is from this point of view alone that Hamlet's behaviour, his bitterness
and Ophelia's suffering and madness, find connection and consistency."
"At the acting of the play before the court, Ophelia has to
endure all sorts of coarseness from Hamlet before all the courtiers;
he treats her without that respect which she appears to him to have
long before forfeited."
I cannot help adding that our modern habit of sentimental interpretation
interferes with Shakespeare's tragedy if the worst happened to Ophelia
it does not make her tragedy less, but only more poignant; it makes
her as overwhelmingly pathetic as Marguerite in Faust.
In this connection I may point out that many critics have been puzzled
by the fact that Hamlet's love for Ophelia seems to be obvious only
in certain scenes of the play and not in others.
Furnivall goes so far as to think that the Hamlet who was at first
depicted as the lover of Ophelia was very different and not as mature
as the later Hamlet:
"I look on it as certain that when Shakespeare began the play
he conceived Hamlet as quite a young man. But, as the play grew, as
greater weight of reflection, of insight into character, of knowledge
of life, etc., was wanted, Shakespeare necessarily and naturally made
Hamlet a formed man; and by the time that he got to the grave-digger's
scene, told us the prince was thirtythe right age for him, but
not his age when Laertes and Polonius warned Ophelia against his blood
that burned in youthful fancy for her"a toy in the blood."
The two parts of the play are inconsistent on this main point in Hamlet's
Now, this is exactly my own point of view, only I think the discrepancy
arises from the fact that Shakespeare is drawing his Hamlet from more
than one original, that the character is, in fact, a composite, and
that all the parts of the composite are not consistent.
Another point to be noted, is that Hamlet never refers to Ophelia in
his soliloquies; in these soliloquies he shows himself a good deal of
a misogynist and his misogyny appears to be largely due to his mother's
misconduct, but he never refers either to Ophelia's love for him, or
to his for her; in fact, he forgets all about her during the greater
part of the play. This is very curious if he really cared for her so
Another detail to observe lies in one of the songs sung by Ophelia;
it is a lascivious song, and concerns the meeting of two lovers as Valentines
and their licentious union; Nash wrote for Southampton a lascivious
poem entitled "The Choosing of Valentines" which deals with
almost identical circumstances; it was dedicated to the earl in two
sonnets, one prefixed and the other suffixed.