Harris, Arthur John. “Ophelia’s ‘Nothing’: ‘It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter.’” Hamlet Studies 19.1-2 (Summer-Winter 1997): 20-46.


While exploring what J. Max Patrick calls “the ‘erotic estimate’ of Ophelia,” this essay argues that audiences “are to suspect Claudius himself as the principle cause of Ophelia’s madness and death; specifically, that at some point shortly before her madness there has been a liaison between the two, that she has been sexually abused, and that he has been not only the sexual predator but also the one who ‘dispatched’ (1.5.75) Ophelia to her grave” (21). In Hamlet, Shakespeare creates “a world that one senses is somehow thoroughly contaminated” and a pervasive “sense of uncertainty, suspicion, and doubt” (22). The ambiguity surrounding Ophelia contributes to this aesthetic project. For example, the “sexually suggestive language” of her mad songs (e.g., tricks, hems, beats, spurns) encourages audiences to “suspect misfortune” (24). In addition, her statement, “It is the false steward that stole his master’s daughter” (4.5.171-72), strongly implicates the King as the thief. Upon hearing these words, Laertes suspects “This nothing’s more than matter” (4.5.173). But the King, Ophelia’s frequent interrupter, attributes Ophelia’s behavior to excessive grief. In actuality, the mad scene presents evidence that Ophelia has been sexually abused by the King (31). Further proof appears in “the curious (and obvious) stress upon sexual imagery” in Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s drowning (35), the gravedigger’s exposition on the uncertainty of the death and cryptic ballad (which seems intentionally altered from the original to raise suspicions), and the priest’s oddly timed stress on Ophelia’s chastity. Perhaps “the formation of suspicions—without sufficient evidence as proof—is exactly what Shakespeare intends to elicit” (24). But, while Horatio is responsible for telling Hamlet’s story, audiences are responsible for “‘hearing’ Ophelia’s story” (42).

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Jenkins, Ronald Bradford. “The Case Against the King: The Family of Ophelia vs. His Majesty King Claudius of Denmark.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 17.3-4 (Aug. 1996): 206-18.


Narrated by the attorney representing Ophelia’s family, this essay presents the jurors (a.k.a. readers) with evidence that King Claudius seduced, impregnated, and murdered Ophelia. First, the prosecution establishes the King’s character for the court: Claudius is capable of murdering his brother, of plotting to kill his nephew/son-in-law, and of seducing his sister-in-law/wife. Although Ophelia is praised by several respected “character witnesses” (e.g., Campbell, Vischer, Coleridge, Johnson, Hazlitt, Jameson) (208), evidence emerges that Ophelia was not a chaste virgin. For example, Polonius and Laertes feel the need to warn Ophelia about protecting her chastity, and, in response to their cautions, “Her lack of indignation is puzzling” (209). According to the prosecution, Ophelia’s lack of chastity leads to her impregnation by Claudius. Hamlet and Gertrude learn about the scandalous pregnancy, and both shun the young girl. But Ophelia and her unborn child pose threats to the throne. Adopting the disguise of madness (like Hamlet), Ophelia uses sing-song ramblings and symbolic flowers to accuse her seducer. Claudius responds by ordering two men to follow her, and then she suddenly drowns, “accidentally.” Aside from the Queen’s enthusiasm to report the death of her rival, the description of events reveals that Ophelia’s garland was another attempt to accuse Claudius with symbolic flowers; also, the cumbersome clothes that drown Ophelia seem out of place for the warm season but appropriate for the concealment of her pregnancy. Aware of the unborn child, the church grudgingly provides a grave-side service for the unwed mother. In closing arguments, the attorney articulates Claudius’ motives for murdering Ophelia and “begs simply that justice be done” (218).

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Loberg, Harmonie. �Queen Gertrude: Monarch, Mother, Murderer.� Atenea 24.1 (June 2004): 59-71.


Using behavioral research and feminist theory, this article proposes that Queen Gertrude is involved in Ophelia�s mysterious �drowning.� It discusses strategies of human aggression (e.g., indirect, verbal), debunks resilient sex/gender stereotypes (e.g., the weaker sex), and uncovers textual evidence (e.g., Gertrude�s dying with all of the play�s male murderers, her marital and psychological union with King Claudius, the suspicious drowning report scene). While arguing the Queen�s guilt, this study also maintains that Gertrude is innocence of accusations that a �lustful libido� motivates her hasty marriage to Claudius (63); �rather, the need to secure her roles as monarch, mother, and wife seems the primary catalyst in her decision� (63-64). Unfortunately, Ophelia poses a threat �to of the Queen�s roles. Her presence destabilizes the social order of the caste system, and �her father�s death� is a catalyst for the political revolt against the throne (emphasis added 4.5.77). Ophelia also endangers the Queen�s title of mother with the potential of Hamlet�s yet-unborn child� (67). �The Queen�s hostility towards Ophelia initially appears through sophisticated strategies of aggression, but the increasing dangers force stronger defenses. Whether resulting from physical action or ethical stagnation, the Queen is culpable in the death of Ophelia� (68). After challenging the dogma used to exonerate Gertrude (e.g., genre definitions, suicide preference, lack of confession), this article asks, �are we capable of evaluating the evidence against Gertrude without being influenced by her sex/gender? Can we escape stereotypes and social myths? Are we ready to acknowledge the awesome paradox of femaleness: the simultaneous potential for birth and death?� (70).

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Ratcliffe, Stephen. “What Doesn’t Happen in Hamlet: The Queen’s Speech.” Exemplaria 10 (1998): 123-44.


With a concentrated focus on Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s drowning, this article explores “how something that doesn’t happen in Hamlet happens, how action that takes place off stage happens in the words the play uses to perform it” (125). The underlying hypothesis is that the drowning report suggests Gertrude’s involvement with Ophelia’s murder. Every word of the speech receives meticulous dissection and analysis—from the opening word there, which directs the audience’s attention to the play’s exterior, to the last word, as Ophelia vanishes in a “muddy death.” Plural meanings implied by audible homonyms and stark shifts in verbal descriptions appear when the progression of the lines is slowed to a snail’s pace. As each studied word provides suggestion and direction to the audience, a case against the Queen builds. For example, ‘the language of flowers’ used by Gertrude in the drowning report and by Ophelia in her madness creates “a relationship that in effect places them in close proximity” to each other, as the first is the speaker and the latter becomes “the object of her gaze, the person she herself [Gertrude] watched beside the stream” (130-31). Although the critic humbly acknowledges the inability to prove (or disprove) speculations about off stage events, a singular certainty remains: Gertrude, as the reporter of Ophelia’s demise, “removes her—in effect kills her—from the play” (144). Ophelia’s death provides a paradigm of all off stage events, in “a world of words” called the theater (144).

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All information Copyright © 2002-2007 Harmonie Blankenship
Contact the author at h.blankenship@hamlethaven.com