Searching for Ophelia in the Archive

Paul Hecht

What does the archive offer for the exploration of Shakespeare in the digital age?

Introduction

One of the most powerful and iconic moments from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is when Queen Gertrude announces and then describes the death of Ophelia. But it can also be a challenging moment to apprehend or even to take seriously. Why? Because in many ways this speech epitomizes what is both most appealing and most strange about Shakespeare’s theatre. It is a prominent example of reported action, where a pivotal event in the play is described to us rather than presented—something that in our culture of naturalistic film and television, almost never happens. It is richly written verse, perhaps ornamented “wildly” as Ophelia herself, and beneath its description we might be aware of both the Elizabethan passion for rhetorical “flowers,” as well as the pastoral tradition that sees poetry and nature as having a deep and ancient bond. And it is a moment of both feminine despair and special feminine power. Despair because, so it seems, Ophelia is a casualty of the spiraling violence that will soon consume all the play’s major characters, and apparently unable to manage the twin blows of Hamlet’s rejection and her father’s murder. The play muses afterward on whether she is to blame for her death, and whether it is a suicide. But it is also a moment of feminine power because it is Gertrude who shapes this unforgettable passage, and for the moment arrests the machinations of vengeance being prepared by her husband and Laertes.

What are some of the resources available at the Newberry Library to open up and explore the challenges and the power of such a moment? In this DCC we will take two primary paths. One is the textual history of Shakespeare. As with so much else, such history is easy to access in this day and age, when considered as information—as in what choices between varying and conflicting Shakespeare texts editors have made over the centuries, or what pieces of context editors and commentators have seen as most important to understanding a given passage. But at the Newberry we can examine and handle these versions of Shakespeare ourselves. And clearly there is something remarkable about this. Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” explores the concept of “aura,” the special quality that resists reproduction and that inheres in the thing itself—whether it be a natural sublimity in a landscape, partially captured in a landscape painting, or the presence of an actor in a theatre, that resists being captured by camera or video. Archival materials also have this quality, whether it is what Benjamin calls “the testimony to the history which it has experienced” that is visible in subtle details—paper, ink, binding, marks of prior owners—or other arresting and alienating effects of objects from the nearer or more distant past. So despite this being a digital collection of archival materials from the Newberry’s collections, the collection is particularly interested in the effects of handling these materials and encountering them “in the flesh.”

Essential Questions:

  • How is our sense of a Shakespeare passage changed by examining editions from previous centuries?

  • What clues to the meaning and emotional impact of a passage or character are contained in these editions?

  • To what extent does spending time with these editions reverse Ben Jonson’s claim that Shakespeare was “for all time” and instead help us understand how “Shakespeare” has been molded to the interests and sensibilities of many times?

  • How is our sense Gertrude’s speech, and our sense of Ophelia’s death, changed by placing it in more distant contexts afforded by the Collection, specifically thinking of her death as a metamorphosis, and examining responses like those of Charles Nodier and Richard Strauss?

Let the Editing Begin

There are no fully authorized texts of any of Shakespeare’s plays: no manuscripts in his hand, no printed editions definitively tied to his oversight. And so when, in the eighteenth century, something called English literature started to come into being, and Shakespeare began to be revered as England’s national author, a series of editors began to take on the task of stabilizing and authorizing the texts of Shakespeare’s plays. It was a wild time, with editors not necessarily using consistent or scientific methods, and often “emending” the text of the plays if the editor suspected the text to be “corrupt,” or if it simply didn’t make sense to him (and they were all men). It was also a time when the market for Shakespeare was growing. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is now known mostly for his erudite satirical poetry, but he made a living from publishing translations of Homer, and from an edition of Shakespeare that took more liberties than even his contemporaries could bear. However the list of subscribers below shows the extent to which the rich and powerful wished to be associated with an edition of Shakespeare created by the foremost poet of the age.

The edition of William Warburton (1698-1779) also became famous for its aggressive editing, but in the case of Gertrude’s speech, Warburton found little cause for intervention, except with the inclusion of a note about a satiric response to the speech. But this is interesting: does Warburton hint that this speech was hard to take seriously? That it approached the maudlin? Another interesting feature of this edition is the quotation marks around parts of Gertrude’s speech, indicators of a passage the might be worth copying out into a journal or “commonplace” book.

By the nineteenth century there were so many editions that a special code was developed so that textual choices and their origins could be indicated in a compressed and consistent form. H. H. Furness’s edition is the first Shakespeare “Variorum,” which attempts to supply, mostly in footnotes, all of the most significant comments, suggested corrections and emendations, for every line of every play. Such editions established the serious and “scholarly” approach to Shakespeare editing that persists in such editions as the Arden Shakespeare and others. But less attention has been paid to the aesthetics of packaging the text in this way.

Questions to consider:

  1. Rowe’s edition of 1709 is the earliest “complete” Shakespeare edition. What is the effect of seeing signatures of previous owners from 1776 and 1796?

  2. Does Warburton’s note hint that Gertrude’s speech might be hard to take seriously?

  3. How does it change the way we read the speech to see indications that it is particularly famous or worthy of memorization?

  4. With Pope, does the text still seem luxurious today? Fit for a king to read? What are some of the aspects of the book design that seem to indicate this?

  5. What effect does it have on Gertrude’s speech to see it surrounded by the notes and commentary of the Variorum edition?

Rowe’s edition: Title page

William Shakespeare. From The works of Mr. William Shakespear; : in six volumes. Adorn’d with cuts. Revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author. By N. Rowe, Esq;, 1709.

Image of Rowe’s edition: Title page

Rowe’s edition: Title page

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Rowe’s edition: Title page
Publication Title The works of Mr. William Shakespear; : in six volumes. Adorn’d with cuts. Revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author. By N. Rowe, Esq;
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1709
Call Number YS 07
Location General Collections

Pope’s Edition, Title Page

William Shakespeare. From The works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and corrected by the former editions, by Mr. Pope ..., 1723.

Image of Pope’s Edition, Title Page

Pope’s Edition, Title Page

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Pope’s Edition, Title Page
Publication Title The works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and corrected by the former editions, by Mr. Pope ...
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1723
Call Number folio YS 072
Location General Collections

Warburton’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

William Shakespeare. From The works of Shakespear: in eight volumes., 1747.

Image of Warburton’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

Warburton’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

Image of Warburton’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

Warburton’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Warburton’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech
Publication Title The works of Shakespear: in eight volumes.
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1747
Call Number YS 0747
Location General Collections

Furness Variorum, Gertrude’s Speech

William Shakespeare. From A new variorum edition of Shakespeare, edited by Horace Howard Furness ..., 1871.

Image of Furness Variorum, Gertrude’s Speech

Furness Variorum, Gertrude’s Speech

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Furness Variorum, Gertrude’s Speech
Publication Title A new variorum edition of Shakespeare, edited by Horace Howard Furness ...
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1871
Call Number YS 087
Location General Collections

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The Folio, and Ghosts

We cannot get to the moment of Shakespeare writing his plays, or rehearsing the death of Ophelia speech for the first time with one of the boy actors in the Lord Chamberlain’s men. And we cannot get to Shakespeare’s manuscripts, or a prompt book of Hamlet with annotations by members of the company. The closest we can get are the quarto and folio texts that form the extremely complex textual origins of this play. And at the Newberry, for this, and for most Shakespeare plays, the obvious place to start is with the Folio of 1623.

I recently took a group of students to the library to look mostly at books related to Rome, but we included the Folio because there were several students who are fans of Shakespeare. And I was astonished to see their reaction, as the lit up with fascination before the famous title page and image of Shakespeare, and the helpfully clear Roman numerals indicating the date: 1623. Compared to the spacious presentation of Pope’s text, we might find this to be rather busy and congested on the page. But perhaps this is part of its power, its strangeness. Looking closely at the lettering and lines separating columns one sees places where the ink is thicker, signs that seems to tell of what we know to be the case: Elizabethan printing was on a much smaller scale, and books were error-checked and corrected during their printing. The light but durable paper (such that the Newberry is content to let “the great variety of readers” touch its pages) has visible fibers, especially light red ones. The effect is of an “artisanal” production, something that displays a technique of reproduction that seems evidently unmodern, and just the historical distance, and strangeness, seems to generate intimacy, to bring us closer to the people who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries, who knew him, and who directed the production of this book.

If one has paid careful attention to the passage, there are also some differences that are striking, especially at the end, where Ophelia’s garments are “heavy with her drinke,” not “their” drink, and her “melodious lay” is replaced with “melodious buy.” As well, the capitalization and punctuation, along with the spelling and lettering of “s” in particular, all cast a further sense of strangeness. If we look at the quarto of 1611, the third such edition printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime but not, as far as we know, under his supervision, we find here a reproduction with a more recent but still antiquated technique, from early in the twentieth century, rendering the text in ghostly white letters, and adding an additional layer of strangeness. But the text itself is much closer to our modern expectations, and the language at the end conforms to what most editors, from Rowe onward, have embraced, contra the Folio. And the Newberry does have examples of the kind of theatrical texts that we would long to see, as in the prompt copy from a production in London’s Drury Lane Theatre in the mid nineteenth century, complete with stage positions, sound effects, and innumerable other details of performance that are so lacking in Shakespeare’s text. It may serve here to highlight all that we continue not to know about Shakespeare’s stage.

Questions to consider:

  1. What does it do to the understanding of Shakespeare to examine texts that display subtle and not-so-subtle differences in wording, spelling and punctuation?

  2. The eighteenth-century editions of Shakespeare in the previous section seem sometimes to flatter the tastes and expectations of the readers of their time. Do the folio and quarto editions from Shakespeare’s age do this as well?

  3. What kinds of differences in the use of books and their place in culture might be visible from comparing Shakespeare texts from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries?

First Folio, Gertrude’s Speech

From Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies., 1623.

Image of First Folio, Gertrude’s Speech

The Folio of 1623, Gertrude’s Speech

Image of First Folio, Gertrude’s Speech

The Folio of 1623, Gertrude’s Speech

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title First Folio, Gertrude’s Speech
Publication Title Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies.
Publication Date 1623
Call Number VAULT Case oversize YS .01
Location Special Collections

Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

William Shakespeare. From The works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and corrected by the former editions, by Mr. Pope ..., 1723.

Image of Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

Image of Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

Image of Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Pope’s Edition, Start of Hamlet, with Illustration
Publication Title The works of Shakespear. In six volumes. Collated and corrected by the former editions, by Mr. Pope ...
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1723
Call Number folio YS 072
Location General Collections

Rowe’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

William Shakespeare. From The works of Mr. William Shakespear; : in six volumes. Adorn’d with cuts. / Revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author. By N. Rowe, Esq;, 1709.

Image of Rowe’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

Rowe’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Rowe’s edition: Gertrude’s Speech
Publication Title The works of Mr. William Shakespear; : in six volumes. Adorn’d with cuts. / Revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author. By N. Rowe, Esq;
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1709
Call Number YS 07
Location General Collections

Macready Prompt Copy

William Shakespeare. From Prompt copy, cut, marked and corrected as acted [at] the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, during the season 1842-3 ..., 1842.

Image of Macready Prompt Copy

Macready Prompt Copy of King John

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Macready Prompt Copy
Publication Title Prompt copy, cut, marked and corrected as acted [at] the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, during the season 1842-3 ...
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date 1842
Call Number Case YS 737 .8
Location Special Collections

Reproduction of the Quarto of 1611

William Shakespeare. From The tragedy of Hamlet, prince of Denmarke ..., Circa 1926.

Image of Reproduction of the Quarto of 1611

Early Twentieth-Century Reproduction of the Quarto of 1611

Image of Reproduction of the Quarto of 1611

Early Twentieth-Century Reproduction of the Quarto of 1611

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Reproduction of the Quarto of 1611
Publication Title The tragedy of Hamlet, prince of Denmarke ...
Creator William Shakespeare
Publication Date Circa 1926
Call Number Case YS 719 .611
Location Special Collections

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Ophelia Metamorphosed: European Precursors and Descendants

In the last section, we take a few more possible paths into the archive to expand the context and interpretive possibilities for Ophelia’s death. One is to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE), most famous for his collection of myths in continuous narrative verse entitled The Metamorphoses. This book is among the most persistent influences on Shakespeare’s imagination, not surprising considering its centrality in the Elizabethan grammar school curriculum and in European culture. One possible context for Ophelia’s death are the fates of various maidens in this book, as in the nymph Daphne who in requesting protection from the pursuit of Apollo, was transformed into a laurel bush, or Syrinx, who escaped Pan by being transformed into reeds. One notes that these transformations “save” these young women in peculiar ways, and although they do not die, they are “indued” with natural elements with a permanence that might as well be death. An Italian translation from the sixteenth century indicates the ongoing European fascination, as well as a metamorphosis scene of Daphne that anticipates sculpture like Bernini’s.

As well, the Newberry has many paths by which one approach latter-day readers and responders to Ophelia and other Shakespeare characters that are not editions of the play per se. Included here are a collection of what might be called fan fiction, imagined scenes with various suicides, including a scene of Ophelia’s death that we are not granted in the play by the French writer Charles Nodier (1780-1884). And finally the great German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) provides a twentieth-century imagining of the “old tunes” or “old lauds” that Ophelia might have sung.

Questions to consider:

  1. What are some interpretive dimensions of Gertrude’s speech highlighted by earlier and later contexts?

  2. How much can we read Ophelia’s death as a metamorphosis, one that merges her with the flowers that madly fascinate her in her final scenes on stage?

  3. How much does Shakespeare’s art reward not just reading, not just staging and performance, but other artistic responses, extending the lives of its characters, or giving a musical response instead of an interpretation?

Ovid Title Page

Ovid. From Tutti gli libri de Ouidio Metamorphoseos : tradutti dal litteral in uerso uulgar con le sue allegorie in prosa ..., 1522.

Image of Ovid Title Page

Title Page of 1522 Italian Translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Ovid Title Page
Publication Title Tutti gli libri de Ouidio Metamorphoseos : tradutti dal litteral in uerso uulgar con le sue allegorie in prosa ...
Creator Ovid
Publication Date 1522
Language Italian
Call Number Case Y 672 .O9647
Location Special Collections

Ophelia Fan Fiction

Charles Nodier. From Les tristes; ou, Mélanges tirés des tablettes d’un suicide, publiés par Charles Nodier., Circa 1806.

Image of Ophelia Fan Fiction

Ophelia Fan Fiction

Image of Ophelia Fan Fiction

Ophelia Fan Fiction: A Page from a Nineteenth-Century French Riff on Ophelia’s Death

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Ophelia Fan Fiction
Publication Title Les tristes; ou, Mélanges tirés des tablettes d’un suicide, publiés par Charles Nodier.
Creator Charles Nodier
Publication Date Circa 1806
Call Number Y 762 .N6722
Location General Collections

Strauss Ophelia Lieder

Richard Strauss. From Sechs Lieder für eine hohe Singstimme mit Klavierbegleitung, Op. 67 / von Richard Strauss., 1919.

Image of Strauss Ophelia Lieder

Richard Strauss Sets Ophelia’s Songs to Music

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Strauss Ophelia Lieder
Publication Title Sechs Lieder für eine hohe Singstimme mit Klavierbegleitung, Op. 67 / von Richard Strauss.
Creator Richard Strauss
Publication Date 1919
Call Number VM 1621 .S909s op. 67
Location General Collections

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