by Lisa Klein
Reviewed by Melissa
Hamlet. Shakespeare's preeminent tragic character.
I don't get him. Never have.
It's not that I haven't tried. I've seen four movie versions of the play (Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh ), seen the stage play, and read it a couple of times. It still doesn't make sense. While I understand, to an extent, Hamlet's increasing madness, I don't understand the rest of the characters. How come Polonius is such a jerk to his daughter (is it just a result of the time period)? What is the deal with Gertrude and her relationship with Hamlet? Horatio... who's he, again? And so on.
The one character who has never, ever, made any sense to me is Ophelia. What's the deal with her doting on Hamlet? How did she meet him in the first place? And why does he tell her to get to a nunnery? And why does she kill herself, anyway? I always end up feeling she's a pathetic wash of a girl who's just too easily manipulated.
So, I was intrigued with Klein's book. She's a former English professor, and I could tell that she really knows the play. Obviously, Klein has thought long about Ophelia; that comes through remarkably well. She makes Ophelia a complete character, giving her a back story and a future story. Ophelia becomes someone with whom the reader can empathize. In short, Klein helped me make sense of Shakespeare's play.
Klein chooses to begin Ophelia's story 6 years before the time during the play. Ophelia's ten, and because she's motherless (died in childbirth) and because Polonius is a neglectful father (choosing instead to devote himself to personal advancement), she's allowed to run wild. She's educated, having studied with Laertes, but that's about it. Until Gertrude notices her in the courtyard and invites her to become part of the court. Polonius, recognizing an advancement opportunity when one stares him in the face. So, Ophelia becomes part of Gertrude's court, learning -- with some difficulty -- to become a lady.
I liked this Ophelia. She was headstrong, willing to banter with Hamlet and Horatio and stand her ground with anyone, from her rival in court to her father's repeated attempts to make her into some sort of a spy. But, she was also immature. She was captivated with the prince, and when he turned his attentions to her, she willingly reciprocated. Soon, with the aid of Horatio, Hamlet and Ophelia were finding ways to meet outside of the walls of the castle. It's easy to see how she would be caught up in the excitement of the romance with Hamlet, and how -- especially once his father's ghost's visit -- she would be easily confused by Hamlet's actions. She barely knows him. They've only just been married, and it was in secret so she's unable to share her connection to Hamlet with anyone. So, when he becomes involved in revenge upon the evil and relentless Claudius, it's easy to understand how Ophelia would also be overwhelmed.
Where Klein departs most from the play is in the initial revelation (it's the Prologue, so I'm not spoiling anything):
Ophelia didn't commit suicide. I was curious and, I have to admit, incredibly relieved. It makes so much more sense this way. Ophelia needs to leave Elisnore, she is afraid for her life -- the lives of anyone close to Hamlet are suspect to Claudius and therefore in danger -- so, what better way to escape than to become dead to the world?"
It was the last 15 or so chapters -- after Klein left Shakespeare's story behind -- that I enjoyed the most. It's during these chapters that Ophelia really grows up, really learns how to trust and to love. After her supposed death, Ophelia makes her way, bearing Hamlet's child, to a convent in France. In the company of nuns who actually care for one another, rather than women who are just vying for a position, Ophelia is able to discover her true self. She is granted the opportunity to hone her talent for healing (she picked up an interest in herbs while in Elsinore). She makes friends -- true friends -- who are willing to bear her secrets with her. She is challenged by -- and overcomes that challenge -- men who think she is a harlot, and not the legitimate wife of a prince. She eventually delivers her child, and finds peace in that. Most of all, she finds happiness.
It is a very fitting end to the Ophelia that Klein has imagined. I felt this book improves upon the source material, which can be a difficult thing to do, especially with Shakespeare. Klein respects the play, deftly weaving Shakespeare's lines throughout the novel. But she gives the characters a life and the reader an understanding that just isn't there -- at least for me -- in the play.
However, It's not a book just for Shakespeare devotees (or even those who are trying to understand the plays). It's simply an excellent story about a girl who loves, is betrayed and learns to love again. Which is the best reason to read it.