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Hamlet and Ophelia
The following article was originally published in William Shakespeare. Georg Morris Cohen Brandes. London: William Heinemann, 1898.

There is nothing more profoundly conceived in this play than the Prince's relation to Ophelia. Hamlet is genius in love -- genius with its great demands and its highly unconventional conduct. He does not love like Romeo, with a love that takes entire possession of his mind. He has felt himself drawn to Ophelia while his father was still in life, has sent her letters and gifts, and thinks of her with an infinite tenderness; but she has not it in her to be his friend and confidant. "Her whole essence," we read in Goethe, "is ripe, sweet sensuousness." This is saying too much; it is only the songs she sings in her madness, "in the innocence of madness," as Goethe himself strikingly says, that indicate an undercurrent of sensual desire or sensual reminiscence; her attitude towards the Prince is decorous, almost to severity. Their relations to each other have been close -- how close the play does not tell.

There is nothing at all conclusive in the fact that Hamlet's manner to Ophelia is extremely free, not only in the affecting scene in which he orders her to a nunnery, but still more in their conversation during the play, when his jesting speeches, as he asks to be allowed to lay his head in her lap, are more than equivocal, and in one case unequivocally loose. This is no evidence against Ophelia's inexperience. Helena in All's Well that Ends Well is chastity itself, yet Parolles' conversation with her is extremely--to our way of thinking impossibly--coarse. In the year 1602, speeches like Hamlet's could be made without offense by a young prince to a virtuous maid of honour.

Whilst English Shakespearians have come forward as Ophelia's champions, several German critics (among others Tieck, Von Friesen, and Flathe) have had no doubt that her relations with Hamlet were of the most intimate. Shakespeare has intentionally left this undecided, and it is difficult to see why his readers should not do the same.

Hamlet draws away from Ophelia from the moment when he feels himself the appointed minister of a sacred revenge. In deep grief, he bids her farewell without a word, grasps her wrist, holds it at arm's length from him, "peruses" her face as if he would draw it -- then shakes her arm gently, nods his head thrice, and departs with a "piteous" sigh.

If after this he shows himself hard, almost cruel, to her, it is because she was weak and tried to deceive him. She is a soft, yielding creature, with no power of resistance; a loving soul, but without the passion which gives strength. She resembles Desdemona in the unwisdom with which she acts towards her lover, but falls far short of her in warmth and resoluteness of affection. She does not in the least understand Hamlet's grief over his mother's conduct. She observes his depression without divining its cause. When, after seeing the Ghost, he approaches her in speechless agitation, she never guesses that anything terrible has happened to him; and, in spite of her compassion for his morbid state, she consents without demur to decoy him into talking to her, while her father and the King spy upon their meeting. It is then that he breaks out into all those famous speeches: "Are you honest? Are you fair?" &c.; the secret meaning of them being: You are like my mother! You too could have acted as she did!

Hamlet has not a thought for Ophelia in his excitement after the killing of Polonius; but Shakespeare gives us indirectly to understand that grief on her account overtook him afterwards--"he weeps for what is done." Later he seems to forget her, and therefore his anger at her brother's lamentations as she is placed in her grave, and his own frenzied attempt to outdo the "emphasis" of Laertes' grief, seem strange to us. But from his words we understand that she has been the solace of his life, though she could not be its stay. She on her side has been very fond of him, has loved him with unobtrusive tenderness. It is with pain she has heard him speak of his love for her as a thing of the past ("I did love you once"); with deep grief she has seen what she takes to be the eclipse of his bright spirit in madness ("Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!"); and at last the death of her father by Hamlet's hand deprives her of her own reason. At one blow she has lost both father and lover. In her madness she does not speak Hamlet's name, nor show any trace of sorrow that it is he who has murdered her father. Forgetfulness of this cruellest blow mitigates her calamity; her hard fate condemns her to solitude; and this solitude is peopled and alleviated by madness.

In depicting the relation between Faust and Gretchen, Goethe appropriated and reproduced many features of the relation between Hamlet and Ophelia. In both cases we have the tragic love-tie between genius and tender girlhood. Faust kills Gretchen's mother as Hamlet kills Ophelia's father. In Faust also there is a duel between the hero and his mistress' brother, in which the brother is killed. And in both cases the young girl in her misery goes mad. It is clear that Goethe actually had Ophelia in his thoughts, for he makes his Mephistopheles sing a song to Gretchen which is a direct imitation, almost a translation, of Ophelia's song about Saint Valentine's Day. [1] There is, however, a more delicate poetry in Ophelia's madness than in Gretchen's. Gretchen's intensifies the tragic impression of the young girl's ruin; Ophelia's alleviates both her own and the spectator's suffering.

Hamlet and Faust represent the genius of the Renaissance and the genius of modern times; though Hamlet, in virtue of his creator's marvellous power of rising above his time, covers the whole period between him and us, and has a range of significance to which we, on the threshold of the twentieth century, can foresee no limit.

Faust is probably the highest poetic expression of modern humanity--striving, investigating, enjoying, and mastering at last both itself and the world. He changes gradually under his creator's hands into a great symbol; but in the second half of his life a superabundance of allergic traits veils his individual humanity. It did not lie in Shakespeare's way to embody a being whose efforts, like Faust's, were directed towards experience, knowledge, perception of truth in general. Even when Shakespeare rises highest, he keeps nearer the earth.

But none the less dear to us art thou, O Hamlet! and none the less valued and understood by the men of today. We love thee like a brother. Thy melancholy is ours, thy wrath is ours, thy contemptuous wit avenges us on those who fill the earth with their empty noise and are its masters. We know the depth of thy suffering when wrong and hypocrisy triumph, and oh! thy still deeper suffering on feeling that that nerve in thee is severed which should lead from thought to victorious action. To us, too, the voices of the mighty dead have spoken from the underworld. We, too, have seen our mother wrap the purple robe of power round the murderer of "the majesty of buried Denmark." We, too, have been betrayed by the friends of our youth; for us, too, have swords been dipped in poison. How well do we know that graveyard mood in which disgust and sorrow for all earthly things seize upon the soul. The breath from open graves has set us, too, dreaming with a skull in our hands!

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  1. OPHELIA: Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's day,
    All in the morning betime,
    And I a maid at your window,
    To be your Valentine.
    Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes
    And dupp'd the chamber-door;
    Let in the maid, that out a maid
    Never departed more.
    MEPHISTOPHELES: Was machst Du mir
    Vor Liebchens Thür
    Kathrinchen, hier
    Bei frühem Tagesblicke?
    Lass, lass es sein!
    Er lässt dich ein
    Als Mädchen ein
    Als Mädchen nicht zurücke.
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