If you’ve been following my blog recently then you should already know that in my ENG4U class, we’ve been comparing and studying 4 main different versions of Hamlet (if you didn’t know this, here’s your update!). While in my last post I was comparing the different Hamlet characters and their “To be or not to be” soliloquies, I want to just shift the focus over to Ophelia for a moment here. I find it quite interesting that no matter what I look up about this play, the majority (not all) of the topics are about Hamlet the character; however, I find Ophelia to be a just as vital role in this play because no only does her character add something to the theme of insanity, but she also creates a side love story mixed with confusing and anxiety.
There are two major scenes which I want to discuss with Ophelia’s character. One is her little moment in the spot light after Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech when she is put into role by Claudius and her father, and the second (which isn’t as major as the first) when the dumb show is playing and the reactions and tensions between her and Hamlet.
As many directors may know, Ophelia’s character is portrayed to be very weak, shy, and isn’t quite able to stand up for herself. The different movie versions that we (my ENG4U class) watched, each show Ophelia in a different way, yet she still manages to fit with these original character traits. Here is a list of the actresses who played Ophelia and which actor of Hamlet they are linked with:
Helena Bonham Carter —> Mel Gibson
Kate Winslet —> Kenneth Branagh
Lindagay Hamilton —> Campbell Scott
Mariah Gale —> David Tennant
During Mariah Gale’s scene of giving back Hamlet’s things after his speech, she seems to be quite genuine. When she first speaks to him, she does look as if she pity’s his insanity and really does care for him. As shes giving back the letters, her expression changes to wanting to get the task over with as if she remembered that her father and Claudius are watching them. When Hamlet all of a sudden reacts to her giving the letters back, she seems to be quite frightened by how ‘insane’ he is acting. After he looks up towards the security camera, she looks towards where her father and Claudius are hiding with an expression of concern because he found out and she doesn’t know what to do or how to react to what’s going on. When she says “Help him you sweet heavens” myself, or the rest of my class, couldn’t help but laugh just because of how fake her acting seems every time she prays to God to heal him. I can see where the concept of this action came from, however, by constantly doing it over and over again, and how dull and unenthusiastic she looks through out it all just ruins the effect. To see this scene between Hamlet and Ophelia click here but skip ahead to 2:57.
This version of Hamlet seems to be the best representation of Hamlet and Ophelia’s love for each other. Throughout all of the Act 2 scene 2 when Hamlet is acting crazy around her, Ophelia seems to be genuinely concerned for him due to her love for Hamlet. Also, during the dumb show, we can see how much they do care for each other because, although in different versions Hamlet seems to be making witty and rude remarks towards Ophelia, here is seems not as intense and you can still see her caring for him by the way she’s wrapping her arms around him. Here is a link to the dumb show scene, skip to 1:33:15 to see how connected Ophelia and Hamlet seem: even while he’s dancing around acting insane she smiles at him.
In the Helena Bonham Carter version, some of the most popular comments consist of how young Ophelia seems compared to Hamlet. I do agree with these comments; however, I feel that this only adds to the idea of how weak and shy Ophelia is portrayed compared to Hamlet. During the dumb show scene, when Hamlet is making his remarks towards Ophelia, she looks to be completely terrified by him and his insanity. Even when he looks at her, Ophelia seems to be always expecting the worse and thinking that at any moment, something bad is going to happen.
My personal favorite version of this scene would have to be the Lindagay Hamilton version. From the start, when Ophelia is being ‘caked’ up with makeup, to the end when Hamlet becomes paranoid, everything fits in with my original idea of how this scene would actually happen. The fact that the director decided to show Ophelia being dressed up shows how her father and Claudius are just putting her into roles to prove their points while ignoring what she thinks. This all adds to the idea that they’re playing Ophelia like a pawn in a chess game which could be one of the factors that lead her to her own mental insanity. At the very start of this scene, Ophelia looks like her emotions are being played with and she looks too afraid to actually go through with the plan. This version seems to show the most physical attraction between Ophelia and Hamlet, and because of this, also adds more physically suspension when Hamlet asks where Ophelia’s father is.
In Kate Winslet`s version, Ophelia looks like she`s being forced to say what is coming out of her mouth. The fact that Ophelia keeps kissing Hamlet does raise his suspicious which makes her character seem even worse at lying to him. When Hamlet turns violent Ophelia just looks terrified which shows to us that she really didn`t want to confront him and adds to the idea of Claudius and Polonius playing Ophelia like a pawn in their game in order to prove their own points.
One thing that I noticed from all of the different verison`s of Hamlet was that, when the dumb show was playing, and the affection scene between Gertrude and King Hamlet was being played, the majority of the characters (Gertrude, Claudius, Horatio, Polonius, and Hamlet) realized that this was to be a connection of Gertrude and King Hamlet`s marriage; however, if you were to actually study Ophelia`s facial expressions, you can see that when these scenes come on, she stares at Hamlet as to think that this is somehow supposed to be a connection to their own little love story that`s going on.