Classics · My Poetry · Shakespeare

Two Answers

I didn’t realize until I’d already written both of these poems how well they mirror each other, and believe it or not, it wasn’t intentional. But it makes sense, in a way, because they both relate to Hamlet’s infamous question and tell the stories of two characters who represent very different answers. Anyway, I decided they work better together than apart. The first one is written from Ophelia’s point of view in Act IV of Hamlet, and the second from Horatio’s viewpoint at the end of Act V.

Not to Be

Remember me with rosemary
And daisies in my hair
Their petals wilted, innocence
Now lost beyond repair

Remember me with rosemary
I’ll give you columbines
And fennel, too, some rue for you
But this one must be mine

Remember me with rosemary
And let me slip away
I’ll live on in your memory
Remember, love, I pray

Remember me with rosemary
And keep me in your thoughts
My violets all have shriveled up
And in the earth they’ll rot

Remember me with rosemary
I’m choosing not to be
Let others ask the questions now
Remind them, love, of me

To Be

You asked a question
A question I will answer
Your last command still echoes in my mind
In life I served you faithfully
In death – your death – I do the same
My prince
Among the bodies buried here today
Why was it I who lived?
No, that’s not the question

You asked a question
In the depths of grief
When reason fled and left you craving some release
My prince, goodnight
After the war you waged within your soul
In sleep of death may you at last find peace

You asked a question
I think you found the answer in the end
When words like yours came spilling from my lips
You stayed my hand and took the poisoned cup
My friend, I shall obey thy final wish
I’ll live
While yet I breathe, thy memory I keep
Thy story shall I carry far and wide
And unto all who lend their hearts and ears
I’ll tell thy fate

You asked a question
I’m living out the answer day by day
I choose to be, I choose to carry on
Let life’s outrageous whims do what they may
And words preserve forever what I say
So we may be remembered when we’re gone

Book Reviews · Shakespeare · Young Adult

Book Review: Ophelia

I love a good retelling of a classic story, especially when it provides a new perspective instead of just repeating the plot. When I saw that the play I’ve just finished (Hamlet) had been retold as a YA novel, I just couldn’t resist. After all, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the plots of his plays on his own – they come from history, mythology, and other writers’ work – but he gave them the language and the form that we know today. It seems fitting that we continue to reexamine these stories and tell them again.

The novel is Ophelia, by Lisa M. Klein, and as you can probably guess from the title, it’s told from Ophelia’s point of view. Its plot takes quite a few liberties with Shakespeare, which I don’t want to get into too much and spoil the twists. But I will tell you Ophelia survives this version, which is hardly a spoiler since it’s revealed on page 1. This is actually one of my biggest criticisms of the book. I would rather have assumed it would keep the tragic ending and been surprised by the bittersweet one than know from the start it would be changed.

The part of the play dealing with Hamlet and his uncle is only about a third of the story, which is divided into three parts. The first of these deals with Ophelia’s childhood and family, as well as the beginning of her relationship with Hamlet. It’s a bit chilling to see things like young Hamlet and Laertes sparring with wooden swords, knowing what’s to come. This section does a good job of fleshing out Ophelia’s character, making her a bit of a rebel who was allowed to run around with the boys and encouraged to study as a child, before suddenly being expected to act like a proper lady. The flowers from her final scene are woven in throughout the story, so that by the time she hands them out, the reader understands just how significant they are.

The second part retells Hamlet – the play – focusing entirely on Ophelia’s perspective as she watches Hamlet’s transformation and falls into despair herself. However, here, she is able to save herself. The book then follows her as she finds a new path. Ophelia’s identity develops over the course of the story: she grows from an unruly child; to a dutiful lady-in-waiting; to a naïve, lovesick young woman; to someone who has suffered and forced herself to survive. It’s a joy to watch her grow up and find her place in the world. What happens in the epilogue might be unexpected to some, but I thought it was sweet and fitting.

Elements from others of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the story. Like Juliet, this version of Ophelia fakes her death and subsequently loses her lover; like Viola and Rosalind, she travels disguised as a man. However, it also bears elements of today’s fiction. It takes the point of view of a teenage girl exploring romance and independence for the first time, like much of the Young Adult genre.  It’s impossible to classify as a tragedy or a comedy; Ophelia loses much along the way, but the ending offers hope. The language is updated to be easy for the modern reader to understand, and an anonymous guard is developed into a menacing villain. Not all the changes are good ones (the death of Ophelia’s father, for one – I’m still not sure how he got from where we last saw him to where he was killed. I’m also not sure about inserting Ophelia into “to be or not to be?”). However, these are minor complaints. Overall, the story was great.

I found Ophelia to be a good blend of old and new, its lead character well-developed beyond who she was in the play, and the section following her faked death a realistic hopeful alternative to her tragic fate in Shakespeare. I would definitely recommend it!

Artwork · Uncategorized

Faceless Shakespeare: Ophelia


When I first got the idea for these faceless Shakespeare pictures, I thought I’d do the iconic hand-holding-skull image for Hamlet. And maybe I still will. But it was Ophelia’s scene with the flowers that really captured my imagination, and as I looked into historical interpretations of Ophelia, I was … surprised. I hadn’t imagined her smiling and dressed in white, lingering casually by the stream or lying in it peacefully as if simply taking a nap. In my mind, she was somber, distracted, and desperate. And since she just lost her father, it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be wearing black in those scenes. So, here’s my Ophelia. It’s not how the character is usually drawn, but the beauty of literature – and especially plays – is that each person can bring their own perspective and interpret the story in their own way.

Classics · Shakespeare

A Garden of Hidden Meaning: Ophelia’s Flowers

Much has been made of Ophelia’s scene with the flowers in Act IV of Hamlet. Since the scene doesn’t include any actual stage directions, it’s all up to interpretation who she gives the flowers to and why. However, I couldn’t help noticing that no matter who gets the rue and who gets the columbines, all the flowers speak to greater themes explored by the play as well as the individual characters’ faults.

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.

There’s so much about memory and remembrance in Hamlet. Whether she gives this flower to her brother Laertes, or to an invisible Hamlet who is only there in her imagination, there is so much for Ophelia to remember. Obviously, there’s her father, who was killed by Hamlet. There’s also Hamlet himself and the days when he made her believe he loved her. “Ah, woe is me!” she cried when he rejected her, “To have seen what I have seen, see what I see”. Hamlet, as well, mourns for his father long after his mother and uncle start pushing him to move on with life. Meanwhile, the queen has forgotten her first husband too quickly. Lack of remembrance is condemned.

And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.

The pansies are usually interpreted as going to Laertes, which makes sense: both his and Ophelia’s thoughts are with their deceased father. The play as a whole puts its characters’ conflicted thoughts to the forefront with long, contemplative soliloquies such as the famous “to be or not to be?” It explores the emotions of its main characters and the complexities of the human mind in great depth, devoting far more time to this than to advancing the plot directly.

There’s fennel for you, and columbines.

Again, there’s a standard interpretation to these lines: the fennel (flattery, deceit, used to ward off evil spirits) and columbines (faithlesness, adultery) are given to Claudius. I could make an argument for these going to Gertrude instead, particularly the columbine. She’s the one who quickly forgot her first husband and remarried to his brother, and perhaps the fennel is even meant to call her out on her own deceitful nature, or even to protect her from Claudius’ evil influences – but then again, it could be thrust at the king like a weapon meant to harm him, and he’s hardly an innocent where the columbines are concerned, having seduced his brother’s wife. Either way, these flowers’ meanings are also central to the story’s themes and hint at the sources of corruption in the Danish royal court.

There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it “herb of grace” o’ Sundays. – Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.

The rue, traditionally given to Gertrude, represents sorrow and regret. Gertrude may very well feel regret for her marriage to Claudius, but if so it’s barely even been hinted at. Perhaps “wear your rue with a difference” means that she doesn’t yet regret anything, but should and will, while Ophelia already does. On the other hand, Claudius has shown regret over murdering his brother, but although he prayed for forgiveness, his behavior has not changed. He’s still concealing his crime and plotting against his nephew/stepson. If it were given to him, “wear your rue with a difference” could mean that his regrets aren’t strong enough, whereas Ophelia’s are too strong.

There’s a daisy.

The daisy is confusing, because they symbolize innocence, but no one there is truly innocent, except possibly Ophelia herself. Given the hints that she’s slept with Hamlet, even she would not be innocent by the standards of the time. Some people have suggested that the daisy had another meaning, like faithlessness. But columbine symbolizes faithlessness as well, and innocence is the most widely-known meaning for the daisy. I think it’s possible the flower represents Ophelia’s dead father, who was an innocent mistakenly killed in place of the guilty one, or even the general loss of innocence explored by the play. Perhaps she doesn’t give it to anyone in particular.

I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.

Violets stand for faithfulness and love. Ophelia once believed very strongly in these, but first Hamlet’s rejection, then her father’s death left her unable to anymore. She feels horribly betrayed and alone. Furthermore, early in the play, her brother told her to think of Hamlet’s love as:

A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.
No more.

By referencing the same flower, Ophelia implies that love is fleeting, easily destroyed by time, death, or simply a change of heart. The withering of a flower with such a positive meaning goes hand-in-hand with her own fall into insanity and Hamlet’s transformation as he becomes more and more wrapped up in his quest for revenge.

Later, after her death, her brother references the flower again:

Lay her i’ th’ earth
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!

The violet, which was once said not to last, and then described as withered, is finally mentioned as sprouting from Ophelia’s grave, bringing the metaphor full circle. More than anything else – aside from perhaps Hamlet’s insistence that Horatio tell their story – this offers a sense of hope that the world will go on after these characters meet their tragic ends, and that the values they lost sight of still exist.