« ZurückWeiter »
billow, which a breath disperses—such is the character of Ophelia : so exquisitely delicate, it seems as if a touch would profane it; so sanctified in our thoughts by the last and worst of human woes, that we scarcely dare to consider it too deeply. The love of Ophelia, which she never once confesses, is like a secret which we have stolen from her, and which ought to die upon our hearts as upon her own. Her sorrows ask not words, but tears; and her madness has precisely the same effect that would be produced by the spectacle of real insanity, if brought before us: we feel inclined to turn away, and veil our eyes in reverential pity and too painful sympathy.
Beyond every character that Shakespeare has drawn (Hamlet alone excepted), that of Ophelia makes us forget the poet in his own creation. Whenever we bring her to mind, it is with the same exclusive sense of her reai existence, without reference to the wondrous power which called her into life. The effect (and what an effect !) is produced by means so simple, by strokes so few and so unobtrusive, that we take no thought of them. It is so purely natural and unsophisticated, yet so profound in its pathos, that, as Hazlitt observes, it takes us back to the old ballads; we forget that, in its perfect artlessness, it is the supreme and consummate triumph of art.
The situation of Ophelia in the story is that of a young girl who, at an early age, is brought from a life of privacy into the circle of a court-a court such as we read of in those early times, at once rude, magnificent, and corrupted. She is placed immediately about the person of the queen, and is apparently her favourite attendant. The affection of the wicked queen for this gentle and innocent creature is one of those beautiful redeeming touches, one of those penetrating glances into the secret springs of natural and feminine feeling which we find only in Shakespeare. Gertrude, who is not so wholly abandoned but that there remains within her heart some sense of the virtue she has forfeited, seems to look with a kind yet melancholy complacency on the lovely being she has destined for the bride of her son; and the scene in which she is introduced as scattering flowers on the grave of Ophelia is one of those effects of contrast in poetry, in character, and in feeling, at once natural and unexpected; which fill the eye, and make the heart swell and tremble within itself-like the nightingales singing in the grove of the Furies in Sophocles.*
It is the helplessness of Ophelia, arising merely from her innocence, and pictured without any indication of weakness, which melts us with such profound pity. She is so young, that neither her mind nor her person has attained maturity; she is not aware of the nature of her own feelings; they are prematurely developed in their full force before she has strength to bear them ; and love and grief together rend and shatter the frail texture of her existence, like the burning fluid poured into a crystal vase. She says very little, and what she does say seems rather intended to hide than to reveal the emotions of her heart; yet in those few words we are made as perfectly acquainted with her character, and with what is passing in her mind, as if she had thrown forth her soul with all the glowing eloquence of Juliet. Passion with Juliet seems innate, a part of her being, “ as dwells the gathered lightning in the cloud ;” and we never fancy her but with the dark, splendid eyes and Titian-like complexion of the South. While in Ophelia we recognize as distinctly the pensive, fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter of the North, whose heart seems to vibrate to the passion she has inspired, more conscious of being loved than of loving; and yet, alas ! loving in the silent depths of her young heart far more than she is loved.
When her brother warns her against Hamlet's impor. tunities
* In the Edipus Coloneus.
“For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
she replies with a kind of half consciousness
“No more but so? Laertes. Think it no more.”
He concludes his admonition with that most beautiful passage, in which the soundest sense, the most excellent advice, is conveyed in a strain of the most exquisite poetry:
“ The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
When her father, immediately afterwards, catechises her on the same subject, he extorts from her, in short sentences, uttered with bashful reluctance, the confession of Hamlet's love for her, but not a word of her love for him. The whole scene is managed with inexpressible delicacy: it is one of those instances, common in Shakespeare, in which we are allowed to perceive what is passing in the mind of a person without any consciousness on his part. Only Ophelia herself is unaware that while she is admitting the extent of Hamlet's courtship, she is also betraying how deep is the impression it has made, how entire the love with which it is returned....
We do not see him as a lover, nor as Ophelia first beheld him ; for the days when he importuned her with love were before the opening of the drama-before his father's spirit revisited the earth ; but we behold him at once in a sea of troubles, of perplexities, of agonies, of terrors. Without remorse, he endures all its horrors; without guilt, he endures all its shame. A loathing of the crime he is called on to revenge, which revenge is again abhorrent to his nature, has set him at strife with himself; the supernatural visitation has perturbed his soul to its inmost depths; all things else, all interests, all hopes, all affections, appear as futile, when the majestic shadow comes lamenting from its place of torment“to shake him with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul!" His love for Ophelia is then ranked by himself among those trivial, fond records which he has deeply sworn to erase from his heart and brain. He has no thought to link his terrible destiny with hers: he cannot marry her: he cannot reveal to her, young, gentle, innocent as she is, the terrific influences which have changed the whole current of his life and purposes.
In his distraction he overacts the painful part to which he had tasked himself; he is like that judge of the Areopagus who, being occupied with graver matters, flung from him the little bird which had sought refuge in his bosom, and with such angry violence that unwittingly he killed it.
In the scene with Hamlet (iii. 1), in which he madly outrages her and upbraids himself, Ophelia says very little : there are two short sentences in which she replies to his wild, abrupt discourse :
“ Hamlet. I did love you once.
“Hamlet. You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so ' inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.
“ Ophelia. I was the more deceiv’d.”
Those who ever heard Mrs. Siddons read the play of Hamlet cannot forget the world of meaning, of love, of sorrow, of despair conveyed in these two simple phrases. Here, and in the soliloquy afterwards, where she says
“And I of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows," are the only allusions to herself and her own feelings in the course of the play; and these, uttered almost without consciousness on her own part, contain the revelation of a life of love, and disclose the secret burden of a heart bursting with its own unuttered grief. She believes Hamlet crazed ; she is repulsed, she is forsaken, she is outraged, where she had bestowed her young heart, with all its hopes and wishes; her father is slain by the hand of her lover, as it is supposed, in a paroxysm of insanity: she is entangled inextricably in a web of horrors which she cannot even comprehend, and the result seems inevitable.
Of her subsequent madness, what can be said? What an affecting—what an astonishing picture of a mind utterly, hopelessly wrecked !-past hope-past cure! There is the frenzy of excited passion-there is the madness caused by intense and continued thought, there is the delirium of fevered nerves; but Ophelia's madness is distinct from these : it is not the suspension, but the utter destruction of the reasoning powers; it is the total imbecility which, as medical people well know, frequently follows some terrible shock to the spirits. Constance is frantic ; Lear is mad; Ophelia is insane. Her sweet mind lies in fragments before us-a pitiful spectacle! Her wild, rambling fancies; her aimless, broken speeches; her quick transitions from gayety to sadness-each equally purposeless and causeless; her snatches of old ballads, such as perhaps her nurse sung her to sleep with in her infancy—are all so true to the life that we forget to wonder, and can only weep. It belonged to Shakespeare alone so to temper such a picture that we can endure to dwell upon it:
“ Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour and to prettiness."