Sunday, July 10, 2011

Shakespeare's Ophelia

The tragic figure of Ophelia in "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is believed to be based in fact. In the play, one of the king's advisors - Ophelia’s father - is killed by the lead character in a terrible accident. Loyal to both her father, who disapproved of her relationship with Hamlet, and to the man who killed him, Ophelia goes mad. She drowns in a pond (1st image, an updated version of the famous 1852 painting by John Everett Millais), although whether this is by accident or suicide is left unclear. Several local drownings during Shakespeare's youth have led researchers to speculate whether any of these women was the inspiration for one of his most memorable characters:

Jane Shaxspere

Jane drowned accidentally at the age of 2 1/2 while picking corn marigolds. It happened in 1569 at the mill pond at Upton Warren, Worcestershire, U.K. (2nd image, the Moors Pools in Upton Warren). This was 20 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon where a 5-year-old William Shakespeare - who may have been her cousin - lived. The coroner’s report (photo here) renders a verdict of "misfortune." "Even if Jane Shaxspere were not related to the playwright, the echo of their names might well have meant this story stuck in his mind," said Oxford’s Emma Smith.

Katherine Hamlet
Researcher Edgar Fripp translated from Latin the 1569 account of a coroner's inquest into the death of a spinster, whose burial was thereby delayed for weeks. Katherine had gone to draw water from the river Avon in Tiddingston when she "...suddenly and by accident slipped and fell into the river aforesaid...[and so] was drowned, and not otherwise nor in other fashion came by her death." Shakespeare would certainly heard about the case.

Margaret Clopton
Margaret lived at Clopton House, a grand residence on the outskirts of Stratford. She and Shakespeare were both age 5 when she drowned at home in a spring or well. There is no documentary evidence about this accidental death.

We're 400 years too late to ask the bard himself. To use Ophelia's own words (about her father, Act 4, Scene 5) and taking some liberties, since he is buried indoors:
"He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;

At his head a grass-green turf,

At his heels a stone...

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