Quick, what’s the saddest line in Hamlet?
Maybe you went for “Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” Horatio’s final words to his dying friend (often spoken while cradling Hamlet’s head in his lap). I have to admit, that’s a good one. But it doesn’t tear me up like it used to. [If you’re going to stake out the final lines of a Shakespearean tragedy for sadness, give me Lear leaning over his dead daughter, believing that she’s still speaking to him.]
For me it comes earlier, and it comes from a different character.
“I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died. They say he made a good end—”
That’s spoken by Ophelia, whose boyfriend Hamlet (apparently crazy in his own right) has killed her father Polonius. Hamlet is now banished to England. Her brother Laertes, for what it’s worth, is off back to school as well. So she’s quite alone to deal with this turn of events.
Ophelia has lost her mind by this point (in stark contrast to Hamlet’s “feigned” madness that still has method in it, Ophelia makes little sense at all) but it’s clear that her father’s death has hit her very hard. Though much of her song is about Hamlet (and being tumbled before being wed, whatever she’s alluding to there…), most is about “being dead and gone….will not come again….” and "lay him in the cold ground…at his heels a stone….”
I’m intrigued primarily by the second half of that sentence. They say he made good end. Well technically no, he didn’t – he was run through quite unexpectedly and unfairly when he was hiding behind an arras in the queen’s bedchamber. Never even had a chance to defend himself. I suppose you could argue that he stayed in the room at all in an attempt to protect the Gertrude?
Question – where at this point do you think Ophelia’s line comes from? Do you think somebody actually told her the circumstances of Polonius’ death, and if so, do you figure they embellished? I suppose that’s the likely answer - “Your father gave his life to protect the queen, when Hamlet, clearly mad, attempted to do her harm.”
Do you think she knows the real story, and this is something of a denial – she’s tells herself, out loud, that he made good end as a way of coping with the unfortunate circumstances that really occurred? Refuses to believe that her father was taken away so quickly and cruelly in such a pointless manner?
[We haven’t done one of these in a while, and I should really post more like this. This is the stuff I like. Some people love to dig into punctuation and “form” and such, but for me it’s the psychology of the characters I find most fascinating. I could forever read between the lines of what Shakespeare does not tell us.]