June 7: Poor Ophelia


Act IV, Scene V of Hamlet today -- wherein we discover that Ophelia has gone mad, because of 1) the death of her father, but also probably 2) the shitty deal she's getting in general.

I am, as always, intimidated by Hamlet and the long tradition of Hamlet commentary. When I'm reading these Classics that I've never heard of I feel freer, because I am also unaware of any scholarly superstructure around, say, the essays of Robert Louis Stevenson. (And yet I know it must exist because graduate students have to study something. ) But Hamlet, Jesus. So I will confine myself to a few bullet points.

• I had forgotten that the murder of Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes's blowhard dad, is really the motor of the second half of the play. These days you would probably want to move it up a little and start your story sooner. "Doesn't Hamlet deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer seem like an up-and-back?" -- that kind of thing. Shakespeare, however, is extravagant.

• Excellent carpentry by Shakespeare, also, where we first hear about Ophelia's madness from Gertrude -- who also must be going a little nuts by now.

• Here's one of Ophelia's bawdy songs:

“By Gis, and by Saint Charity,
Alack! and, fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to ’t;
By Cock, they are to blame.
"Cock" is footnoted by the Harvard Classics editor, who tells us it means, "A corruption of 'God.'" Of course it does.

• Finally, I think this may be the last "Hamlet" excerpt of the year, so I'm going to put an excerpt from one of my favorite poems, Zbigniew Herbert's "Elegy of Fortinbras":
Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

UPDATE: I forgot my favorite part, which is the description of today's reading from the alas-no-longer-online Daily Reading Guide itself. It is a small masterpiece of early 20th century advertising prose:
"There's Rosemary -- that 's for Remembrance!"
Do you know the rest of Ophelia's famous line? "Hamlet" is the most popular play in the entire world. It has been quoted so often that reading it is like meeting an old friend.
It has it all -- the heartiness of asserting that a play about two families and an entire nation become utterly undone is "like meeting an old friend"; the peer pressure of the fact that "Hamlet" is the most popular play, not just in the world, but in the entire world; and the enticement in the form of a question in the first sentence. "Why, I don't know the rest of Ophelia's famous line," the mark reader is supposed to say. "I best purchase this series of books!"

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