John Palcewski (forioscribe) wrote,
John Palcewski

Ophelia Exegesis


Herewith the complete text of the letter I sent today to my friend Jeremy Trafford, author of the novel "Ophelia."

Dear Jeremy,

Allow me to leap right into my multitude of positive reactions to your novel, in no particular order of importance. I’ll begin with the extended opening metaphor on page 1. I found it compelling, all encompassing:

“Their horses’ hooves pounded the wet sand, and shivers of water shot into the air. Perhaps he too had ridden this way, for she could see another set of footprints. She tried to follow them as they skirted the ribbed crescents imprinted by the waves, but sometimes they became so faint she could hardly make them out, and sometimes they disappeared entirely.”

The disappearing footprints are, in my view, a prefiguring of the breaks in the linear chain of Ophelia’s sanity. They’re also an allusion to the fleeting shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, a recurring theme of your novel. It’s evocative, too, of Augustine’s description of the devoted Christian soul’s search for “divine traces” in the woods of the material world. This is such an important and appropriate device that I was a bit taken aback by what immediately follows:

“Were these like the impressions of his love, she wondered, puzzling and elusive as they were at times, vanishing with a gleam into extinction? Were these like the traces of his erratic promises, soon to be erased by the obliterating sea?”

I initially thought had I been your editor, I would have tried to persuade you to delete that passage because the metaphor is so powerful and vivid that it simply requires no explanation. But then I realized that here was your very first revelation of the mind and character of Ophelia, as you imagined it. She, fully capable of discerning meaning and metaphor on the wet sand of a beach, is not as passive and perhaps unimaginative as I might have thought. Of course it must remain. You know exactly what you’re doing!

Then another astonishing metaphor on page two, that of Ophelia encountering a recently dug-up grave (Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well). “Looking at the half-concealed skull, she impulsively bent down to push it back into the earth.” Is this not a symbol of the nature of madness, which is to obliterate or bury what can no longer be tolerated by consciousness?

In this passage, too, is the first appearance of another recurring theme of your novel, and that is duality, dichotomy: “The earth seemed so thick and raw, its embedded bones stenching in the sun, and the flowers and buds appeared so delicate by contrast.” Life, death.

And here, also, you show how a single entity can have divergent meanings:

“How curious, she pondered, that it [a willow] should be considered a weeping tree, an emblem of felt sorrow and lost love. Seen at this season, it seemed far more emblematic of hidden strength, of regeneration, of the secret powers of the reviving year.”

As for Polonius, I was curious as to how you would emphasize his seriousness rather than his absurdities. He’s a diplomat, a politician, after all. The King has confidence in him. But he’s also a father, and through the eyes of his daughter he’s got his shortcomings. “Yet if only his fatherly devotion didn’t take such unappealing forms at times, [my emphasis] as in his absurd little lectures, his telling her what to do with such tedious insistence; as in doing all he could to keep her away from Hamlet, unbearably harping on the doubts she already had and diminishing the hopes the Prince himself so evasively had weakened.”

In our conversation at La Tinaia you said, with considerable passion, that revenge can never be justified on moral grounds. Yet you will agree that getting even is central to our identity as humans, as mortals. Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet struggles mightly with the issue. Your Svenborg, on the other hand, seems much less ambivalent. In his deep religious conviction he accepts and genuinely strives for the ideals of compassion and humility. And in this is still another appearance of a long series of dualities, of dichotomies, that shine from your pages.

“In his often brutal human heart he [Svenborg] craved for vengeance; only in his soul, faintly illumined by a spark of Christ’s divinity, could he hope for justice with forgiveness.” He fully understands the conflict within himself, and yet is not tormented by it.

It might have been well enough for you to provide just one morally strong character in opposition to the often befuddled nature of Prince Hamlet, but you’ve added another, and that is Ophelia and her Christ-like ministering to Svenborg. She nurses him on his sickbed, kisses his open sores. This is compassion in its purest form. But then you describe—in a startling and imaginative leap—Ophelia crawling into his sickbed and making love to him. To her it’s very much like a dream, something she only imagines. And when it is over, she loses memory of it. The sexual episode just vanishes from her mind.

Now, this is radical. Astonishing. My God, man, you have a powerful imagination! I am left wondering: Doesn’t Ophelia realize the magnitude of her betrayal of her beloved Hamlet? And then later—as if her cuckolding her betrothed isn’t enough—she slays the guard who tries to rape her on her way from Svenborg’s cell on the eve of his execution.

What does this tell us about the woman? Well, early on we learn that “…she knew her memory was often subject to her wishes: that sometimes she forgot what she didn’t wish to know and sometimes she recalled what hadn’t entirely happened.”

In my mind, this is a precursor to the madness that eventually overcomes her. It leads me to conclude that she wasn’t “driven” insane by a series of traumatic events, but rather was predisposed to it all along. Which makes her a lost soul rather than one who has fallen from grace by way of sinful behavior. Now, as a reader my heart goes out to her, I’m drawn to her in a paternalistic way, I wish dearly I could help her. But of course that’s impossible. The poor child is doomed.

Metaphors abound in your text, and they are all of a marvelous piece. You find a multitude of ways to reinforce your major themes. For instance on page 45, King Hamlet recalls his illness. “…the unconscionable monotony! Four o’clock in the morning he suddenly had woken, and there’d been at least two hours before the sun would rise above the eastern hill.”

Were there clocks in the 16th century? Yes, indeed, and some rather fine ones at that. Some were adorned with intricate mechanical trimming, and exquisite miniature gold, bronze, and silver statuary. Little characters marched out and performed short plays. Some showed the phases of the moon, and the movement of the planets. The wheels and gears of these devices were, in fact, “…a metaphor for the solar system, the universe, for the mind of man, and the very nature of God,” according to one scholarly account. Now, despite the elaborate beauty of these machines, no clock could ever be wholly accurate. Once again, this is the great contrast between the natures of God and man.

Now, I find it fascinating that you’ve devised a way of connecting this to the aforementioned Plato’s cave. In a passage in Chapter 14 the prince asks his father what he’s been studying, and the monarch replies, The Republic.

“And what’s it mean then?” the King asks. “That we never see the substances of things—only the fire and the shadows?”
“Yes,” the prince replies, “the perfect substances remain in heaven, and we are only allowed their earthly counterfiets.”

The King later muses, “Had God intended life always to be so woefully inadequate? People too?…Perfection, it seemed, God kept for his own obscure delight.”

The poignant conclusion of the chapter is that the King realizes that neither he nor his son “…could afford to demand perfection from each other, and remain, as a consequence, too much alone.”

Another subtle and ingenious connection to the shadows on the cave’s wall—as well as to a famous interchange between Hamlet and Gertrude in the play—appears in Chapter 16. Gertrude and Ophelia are discussing the King’s desire for Hamlet to marry the daughter of the king of Sweden.

“This foreign marriage,” Gertrude says, “isn’t popular.”
Ophelia replies, “My lady, I’m not ambitious for myself…”
“No,” the Queen said, “but he seems to love you.”
Seems, madam?” Ophelia exclaims. “But he doesn’t always seem the same with me. And I fear to be a casulty of his.”

In all three cases the very nature of human knowledge or belief is called into question. Can we ever trust what we call reality? Things seem one way, but often they turn out to be another. How, indeed, can any of us with any confidence interpret a mere shadow?

Before the law, Paul said, there was no sin. And before Christian theologians got around to inventing it, there was no Holy Ghost . King Hamlet (in your Chapter 25) is perplexed enough by the notion that the divine Father and Son are in fact of the same identity, and so it’s natural that “…he’d never really understood the Trinitarian doctrine.”

Now, the inpenetrable mystery of the “paternity motif” is examined at great length in the Scylla and Charbdis episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the episode we’re taken to the National Library of Dublin, where Stephen Dedalus launches into a numbingly long Platonic dialogue involving himself, Mr. Best, John Eglinton (Magee), George Russell (A.E.), and the librarian Quakerlyster. The topic? Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Stephen plays the role of Socrates, and finally leads the group to a tortured and curious conclusion. Which is that in Hamlet, Shakespeare identifies entirely more with Hamlet pere than with Hamlet fils. Which is another way of saying that as an author creating his characters, he becomes his own father. The scholar Stuart Gilbert puts it this way: “God (Father and Son)—Shakespeare—Stephen Dedalus: all are vehicles of like energy. And the artist himself…is by a subtle cross-allusion drawn into the net.”

Returning to your Chapter 25, the King contemplates God the Father, whose hands are “…warm, healing and sustaining.” But then he is struck by a “…sudden image of the ripped and bleeding hands of Christ, of His imploring eyes and falling tears….He was shaken by the contrast.”

The King’s thoughts are confused for a moment, “and he was surprised by his sudden longing to hold his son within his arms, or at least to reach out and touch his shoulder, but he couldn’t bring himself to perform the strange action.”

It’s acutely touching to see the King aware of the impossibility of fully understanding these divine father/son mysteries, and imagining that solace may come from embracing his son. Even more touching is the poor monarch’s inability to do it in this instance. Both he and his own son are condemned to loneliness.

* * *

I was moved to write at this length because I wanted to give you the full measure of my admiration for your great achievement in Ophelia. It’s unquestionably a beautiful work of literary art, informed by acute intelligence, a thorough understanding of the characters, an enviable imaginative sweep, and above all, an authentic love of the play and its author. You’ve enriched my understanding of Hamlet senior and junior, as well as Claudius, Ophelia, and Polonius. Indeed, you have permanetly altered and expanded my perceptions of them, and I thank you.

With warm regards and deep admiration,



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