Searching for Ophelia

After a ridiculously busy few weeks, I’ve just completed my second essay. I’ve consulted six different editions of Hamlet (including three separate texts) and four of The Taming of the Shrew. Getting too close to Shakespearian textual studies is a sure way of making your head explode. My brief was to avoid getting bogged down in the arguments about authenticity and choose two plays, then comment on the way that multiple texts affects the staging decisions available to directors. In the process I was quite surprised to find out how often the plays we see on stage are a conflation of two or more texts, and nobody really knows how authentic they are. Shakespeare might well not have cared anyway, since it was part of his job to rewrite according to the demands of different productions.

I think the best possible preparation for all this stuff was reading "The Writer’s Tale." That gave me such an insight into the reality of a writer’s life in the fast-moving world of popular entertainment. Okay, it’s telly rather than the theatre, but the demands of resources and deadlines don’t really change all that much. Reading RTD has blown any ivory-tower concept of a literary Bard out of the window for me. I’ve learned how frequently adjustments have to be made, how often there’s a gap between the writer’s ideal and what makes it onto screen or stage.

In fact, I’m surprised how welll my fandom activity prepared me for this MA in general. I have learned to look very carefully at evidence when I’m writing my meta, to base an argument on what’s there in the text rather than some biographical fantasy. I’ve developed a keen sense of exactly  how much you can say in 3,000 words. I’ve found out about factions and arguments and how their fierceness can seem to develop in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject matter to the world at large. And I’ve learnt about what David Baddiel describes as the "aftergasm" – that’s the emotional response you get after encountering a piece of writing that you know is manipulating your emotions but does it so brilliantly you don’t care. In fact, you revel in it. Doomsday, anyone?

….was a great experience.  That’s the last of the three teaching sessions for the Intro module of my course. It’s rather a pity that just as we’ve gelled as a group, we’re all going on separate journeys. It really felt like coming home to a group of people who understand you and are stimulating and enjoyable to be with. We went out to dinner together, saw the RSC in As You Like It (Maria Gale as Celia – remember her as Ophelia last summer?) and just bonded. Also it happened to be Shakespeare’s Birthday Weekend, so there were celebrations galore.

For me the highlight of the whole weekend was a workshop on Hamlet with Vivien Heilbron, who is not just a distinguished actress but also an inspiring teacher. After being warned to beware of interpretation, for three glorious hours we threw the academic rulebook away and did nothing else. We looked at Ophelia, the way that the men in her life – Laertes, Polonius and Hamlet himself deny her a voice and abuse her emotionally by taking control and micromanaging every detail of her interior life. And how Laertes is stuffy and too old for his years – trying so very hard to be like Polonius. We workshopped a couple of scenes, starting with the one where L says goodbye to her and warns her not to trust Hamlet. And we speculated on the possible nature of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. We mimed him coming into her chamber ‘his doublet all unloos’d" and realised what a powerful, scary encounter that was – and we recognised that madness was the only freedom available to her.

I found it all surprisingly emotional. I shared a few insights from my own childhood, with three emotionally abusive adults all playing their games and using me as a pawn, patronising me and denying me a voice. I remember saying at one point, "not that I was abused…" and then realising I had been, and I was responding to parallels between Ophelia’s story and my own.  By the end of the afternoon I wanted to go off and write Hamlet and Ophelia fic, to fill in the spaces in Shakespeare’s account of their relationship, and to give Ophelia her own soliloquy as she responded to Hamlet’s extraordinariily hurtful behaviour towards her. I wanted to give her the mother figure she lacked – an Emilia or a Paulina. She must be the loneliest of all Shakespeare’s heroines. Gertrude could have done so much to help her, but she never really did.

On the academic front, I’ve done reasonably well with my Henry V essay, so I’ll be coming back for the Summer School. Since it’s the first assessed piece of work I’ve done for over 20 years, that’s a great relief.


3 thoughts on “Searching for Ophelia

  1. I’m so grateful you’re blogging about your experiences, because it’s bringing home to me all the memories of my own time in grad school, and how much I bloody miss it. You sound like you’re having an absolutely fascinating time! I can’t wait to meet up with you once I’ve moved there (because I WILL MOVE THERE, DARN IT) and have a good chin-wag. I miss talking to you more often!
    I was reading this entry and thinking, “Wow, I’d LOVE to do that”–and then realising I’d need to have what you have, i.e. a partner who makes enough that I don’t need to work, in order to do it. But it’s a lovely thought, and perhaps a possibility for the future; who knows?
    😀 Do keep blogging when you’ve the chance–I’m so pleased for you!

  2. Thanks – I think you’re probably the only person still reading it but that’s my own fault for being invisible on LJ these days.
    It’s great fun, but also an enormous juggling act. I work part time myself, and that’s getting busier, and the family responsibilities don’t go away. But it’s done a lot to clear up my depression and general malaise.

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