22 October, 2021

LitStaff Pick: Favorite Characters from Shakespeare

OpheliaOphelia_1894
Hamlet

If you were a certain kind of adolescent girl, and I was—with a grandiose sense of love and naive ideas about the romance of the tragic—you were bound to get caught up in the idea of Ophelia. The ill-fated heroine in love with the mad Prince was too perfect an embodiment of the shadowier aspects of my teenage imagination. Ophelia, of course, is the sad girl whose guileless character serves as counterpoint to Queen Gertrude, but in the process of being a plot device, Ophelia is subject to some unlucky strokes of fate: the hot and cold nature of Hamlet’s affections; the uncertainty of whether they will in fact marry; and the sudden death of her father, Polonius. I didn’t know any better than to abandon myself to matters of tragic love, so when Hamlet coldly tells Ophelia, “get thee to a nunnery,” I swooned.

To me, Ophelia was irresistible—with her white gown, her flowing hair, the wildflowers that at the height of her madness, she lovingly gives to strangers. Interestingly, the details we’ve come to associate with her character have their origins in dramaturgical symbolism of the time. The white gown stood for her virginal purity, naturally, but the flowing hair told audiences she was mad, and the wildflowers indicated a likely deflowering. An even more nuanced reference occurs in the herb she herself takes:

… there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me; we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference.”

Rue being a symbol of regret, it also happens to be an herb that is poisonous and was known for its abortive properties. Things may have been worse than we thought. For more on that thread of Ophelia lore, read here.

And finally, for diehard Ophelia fans, here’s a literary mixtape dedicated to the Denmark’s saddest girl, from Flavorwire.

-Lauren Alwan

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