Last night over pizza Romana at Forio’s La Tinaia, I had an engaging conversation with vacationing English writer Jeremy Trafford about his novel, “Ophelia,” which he explained is a “prelude” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
He said that too many just blindly accept some of the play’s premises as valid, and they don’t bother to question the portrayal of Hamlet’s girlfriend, which in fact is rather sketchy. In the play she, of course, goes mad. But what led her to it? Shakespeare provides no real insight into the question or indeed to her character, and one of the purposes of his book, he said, is to fill in the blanks.
“Now, revenge is utterly immoral, there is simply no justification for it,” Jeremy said. “And here is Hamlet, thrown into a frenzy because he’s unable to bring himself to avenge the murder of his father. Shakespeare simply accepts the notion that the biblical ‘eye for an eye’ is moral. Which has always deeply troubled me.”
Jeremy read philosophy and history at Cambridge in the 60s, which explains his emphasis on the play’s moral dimension. I asked him how he handles Ophelia's father, Polonius, inasmuch as some interpretations present the character as a wise man, while in others he’s seen as a bumbling fool.
“I treat Polonius as a serious figure,” Jeremy said. “I don’t agree that he’s a buffoon. After all, how could such an important appointed court official, as he was, be entrusted with such great responsibility?”
“But wait,” I said. “I don’t find it at all surprising that a moron could be elevated to high office. Look at the current American president for God’s sake.”
Jeremy laughed. “Well, yes. But I still feel there is sufficient evidence to support my view of the man. Besides, it’s a novel!”
Is it written in Shakespearean style? “No,” Jeremy replied, it’s in standard English, but I have taken care to keep the language and scenes consisent with the period of the play. It's essentially a story of relationships. Between Hamlet and Ophelia, between Hamlet and his father, and between Man and whatever people may think of as their idea of God.
"Perhaps the central focus of the novel is Ophelia's love for two people - Svendborg and Hamlet. And then we have Hamlet, who is in love with Ophelia against his father's wishes. So one strand of the book is about Authority and the questioning of Authority. Obedience to the prevailing moral code versus the rights of the individual.”
We went on to discuss some of the versions of the play we’ve enjoyed. We spoke of Paul Scofield’s marvelous recordings, of Mel Gibson's effort, and the excellent film directed by Kenneth Branagh, who starred with Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams, and Kate Winslet.
“I love this production,” Jeremy said. “Most especially because it’s so rare. Not a single word has been cut!”