My name is Ophelia.
I've no doubt you've heard of me—my short life was made famous when William Shakespeare penned his unforgettable drama 'Hamlet' in the early 1600's. But my life—and death—occurred a little earlier than that, and there was more to my life than Herr Shakespeare wrote. Of course, he concentrated upon catching the attention of his audience—an often rude and noisy audience—and the life and times of a simple noblewoman were not the high drama he envisioned.
Nevertheless, his writings immortalized me and made me famous.
I was born in Denmark in 1564, the fifth of six children and the only daughter. My parents' names were Polonius and Elizabeth, and of my elder siblings, two died unnamed, and another, Rolf, died shortly after I was born. The only one who lived to adulthood was Laertes, seven years my senior and the most overprotective brother imaginable. I imagine that this protective instinct came from losing so many siblings, but at times, though I loved him dearly, I found him insufferable.
My mother died when I was but two years old, giving birth to her sixth and final child. The babe lived two days, and then was buried with her. My father grieved the loss of his wife and child, but in a way I think he was happier without my mother. Theirs had been a marriage of convenience, not of love, and they had never quite reconciled to the idea of their marriage, despite the births of six children.
Many people regarded my father as a fool, but he was no such thing. To be sure, he acted the fool before our neighbors and fellow members of the nobility, but these actions hid his cleverness and ambition. And they worked. When I was fifteen, we moved to the court of the great King Hamlet and Queen Gertrude.
This was to be my downfall. I had never cared for the attentions of the boys and young men of the neighboring estates—they had seemed far too young and foolish to attract my notice. The older men did not appeal to me, either—their age, if nothing else, put me off, for I had grown up reading stories of handsome young princes, and no other man would suffice. My father and brother raged at me, for I was of marriageable age, perhaps a little beyond it, but I was searching for a dream—and I found him.
Young Hamlet, prince of Denmark, was everything I had ever dreamed of. Handsome, noble, rich beyond belief—here was the fine prince I had waited all my life for. That he was royalty, and that members of royalty rarely married women of my station, did not occur to me. He was the one I longed for, and felt certain that if I could only attract his attention, he would love me and wed me, and I would be at his side as he ruled over Denmark, conquering its enemies and bringing it to new glory.
But he never seemed to notice me. For more than a year, I pined for him, wishing that just once he would look upon me and smile at me, turn his attention to me instead of the great matters of state that forever occupied him.
Finally, late in the summer of my second year at court, he took notice of me. I was wandering beside a little stream outside the castle, reading a book and daydreaming, when he unexpectedly came upon me from a little bridge that spanned the stream. I was startled that I dropped my book in the water, and he quickly moved to retrieve it. When he returned it to me, now dripping wet and nearly ruined, he looked closely at me, as though seeing me for the first time.
"Ophelia, isn't it?" he asked, his eyes fixing upon me with a glint of humor at my nervousness.
"Yes, milord…Hamlet…Prince Hamlet…" Suddenly, I remembered my manners and began to curtsy, but he took my hand and pulled me up.
"We are not at court, Ophelia," he reminded me. "There is no need for such formality here."
I laughed, my earlier nervousness fading away. He seemed so kind, so gentle, so…normal. I was sure that I could trust him.
As the days passed, he sought me out again and again, and as winter fell over the land, he began to hint that I would soon be his bride, and we became lovers.
Winters in Denmark are long and cold, with plenty of time for secret assignations about the palace. I loved him, he loved me…the world was as bright as the longest summer day, for I was a young girl in love.
I felt sure that he would announce our betrothal soon, and waited eagerly. Hints of doubt began to assail me when he did not, but he reassured me that he was waiting for the best time.
And then the cold realities of life at court reared their ugly heads. King Hamlet was found dead, his face distorted in agony. Most believed it to be a natural death, at least at first—he was of the age when many men die suddenly, their hearts giving out without warning. But Hamlet was sure that it was something else that had killed him, that he had been murdered, and his suspicions only grew more intense when his mother married his Uncle Claudius within a short time of his father's death. Claudius and young Hamlet had never gotten along well, but I had never thought that he would usurp his nephew's birthright and take his place as king.
Hamlet was filled with rage, more than I thought necessary—after all, Claudius, too, was getting old, and his mother was beyond the bearing of children—there was no doubt that Hamlet would one day be king. I wanted to soothe him, to comfort him, but his rage only grew. On the very night of the wedding, it was said that his father's ghost appeared outside the palace—and was rumored to have appeared before.
I didn't know what to believe. Perhaps King Hamlet had indeed been murdered, if the rumors of a ghost were true, or perhaps his rage was only at the unholy union of his wife and brother. I chose at last to not pay it too much heed, and instead spoke with my father and brother of my love for Hamlet.
Their reaction shocked me. They warned me away from him, knowing better than I did that I could never marry a prince, for my station was not high enough. They were further worried that I would come to harm, for Hamlet seemed to them to be mentally unbalanced. I, too, had noticed that at times he seemed to be going mad, but in my love and devotion to him, I had ignored it.
But the words of my father and brother penetrated more deeply than I had thought possible, for soon thereafter I began to take more notice of Hamlet's seemingly insane behavior. I told my father, who then reported it to the king. I still loved Hamlet, however, whatever his faults, and approached him at last, only to find myself pushed and shoved about, with him screaming at me to "Get thee to a nunnery!"
I was devastated. The man whom I loved so much, who had taken my innocence, now wanted me gone from his sight, from his life? I couldn't believe it, didn't want to believe it. Perhaps he truly was mad, for he would never have spoken words of love and taken me to his bed if he did not mean to wed me.
But the worst was yet to come. Some nights later, after a traveling band of actors performed a play that left the king noticeably uncomfortable, Hamlet went to speak to his mother alone. His demeanor frightened her, and she cried out for help, and my father, who had been hiding behind a curtain to spy on Hamlet, also cried out for help. Hamlet, immediately assuming that King Claudius was the one hidden behind the curtain, stabbed him. He soon discovered his mistake, but showed so little regret as he brought the body out of the room that my heart broke. I stared at the body of my beloved father, now still and bloodied, and then at Hamlet's face, and the pain and anguish washed over me.
Hamlet had never loved me, for if he had, he would have shown more regret at killing my father. This act brought more pain to me than his rejection of me, than his delay in announcing our betrothal, and all I could do was fall to my knees and scream. My father was dead, killed by my lover—and he didn't care.
Hamlet's madness seemed to have spread to me. I could think of nothing but his betrayal, of my father's death—of the way that Hamlet had so callously used me and then cast me aside. He had sworn that he loved me, that he would marry me—but he had never meant it. Had I been carrying his child, he would have cast me out in shame, just another foolish young girl seduced by a lusty prince.
In anguish, I returned to the stream where he had first taken notice of me, the little brook that had bubbled and sparkled so merrily that summer day. It was late winter now, and the brook was surrounded by dirty, soot-stained snow, only a trickle of water still flowing free between the ice-encrusted banks. I sat there for a long time, heedless of the cold, my hands plucking aimlessly at the dead remains of the previous summer's flowers. At last, I cast the dead flowers aside, and reached for a leafless willow branch overhanging the stream, my body convulsed with sobs as I asked myself the same questions over and over again. Why had Hamlet deserted me? Why had he betrayed me?
The frozen branch snapped in my hand, sending me tumbling into the icy water. It was deep, and the ice sharp and cold, but somehow it didn't seem to matter. I could have cried out, could have struggled toward shore, but I did not. Instead, I floated quietly in the icy water, waiting for death to claim me. When the gentle waves turned me over, pressing my face into the water and cutting off my source of life, I did not struggle, but only waited calmly as the world faded from my view and a blissful feeling of peace overtook me.
I know little of what happened after that, for although a part of me still lingered there after my death, it did not see with the brilliant clarity that I had in life. But that brilliant clarity of vision in life had brought me to my end, drowning in an icy brook not far from the palace, so perhaps it was better that way.
What I do know is that I was buried in consecrated ground, despite my suicide—I was a noblewoman, after all, and excuses were made for what I had done, and questions asked. My brother arrived just as I was being buried, filled with grief and rage that my love for Hamlet had brought me to this bitter end. Hamlet, too, was there, and when I heard him cry out that he had loved me, my heart broke again, though I had never known that a ghost could have a heart. He had loved me, and hadn't betrayed me, and in the madness brought on by my anguish, I had taken my own life, losing the life that we might have had together.
I fled from the place, never to return.
Some years later, a playwright by the name of William Shakespeare heard the whole sad tale and committed it to paper, creating a drama that was to endure over the centuries to come. It didn't tell the whole story—no play can, or it would take a lifetime to tell. But it kept the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, in people's minds—and preserved my memory, as well.
Countless actors and actresses have played that role, some better than others. The play has been performed on the stage too many times to count, and in the twentieth century, after the amazing invention of moving pictures, it was made into a film many times. I've watched them all, hoping that in some way they might hold the key to my freedom from this endless wandering.
But so far, none have. There was even a book inspired by me, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, but that was not the key to my freedom, either. I have often despaired of going to my rest, for my sin seems unforgivable.
But perhaps there is hope. Perhaps the one thing that can free me is to have my story told in whole, as I am doing now, and shown to the world. Until the day that the key to my freedom is found, I shall remain here, shadowing the living and weeping for those who find themselves as I did—and rejoicing when their lives take a different turn from mine, and are ultimately blessed with a happy ending.
Ophelia PoloniusdatterFebruary, 2004