Ashes of laughter
The ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear?
Please darken my door.——“Ophelia”, The Band
I know what you are thinking. Shakespeare sucks. I hate Shakespeare. I can’t understand Shakespeare. But what if Shakespeare didn’t suck? What if I could tell you a story to make Shakespeare not so intimidating? Can you, for a moment, get past the thous, thees, iambic pentameter, and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to? Stop for a moment and think of the story of Hamlet, the prince, not in just the confines of the play. Here, I’ll start, you just read: Once upon a time, there was a man and woman, and they had a son. The father’s name was Hamlet, Sr., the mother was Gertrude and they had a kid named Hamlet. Hamlet was a college student. Hamlet had a girlfriend, Ophelia. One day he loved Ophelia, the next day he said he never did. Sounds simple enough, right? It really is that simple; however, you are a modern reader, and sometimes the everyday stuff is just not exciting enough for you, is it? How ’bout I fancy it up a little bit: Hamlet Sr. is the king of Denmark, his wife, Gertrude, is the queen and that makes Hamlet, Jr. a prince and they are loaded. That’s better right? What if Hamlet Sr. dies under mysterious circumstances, then in less than two months, Hamlet Sr.’s brother, Claudius, marries Hamlet Sr.’s wife. The son, Prince Hamlet, is all confused because one, his dad is dead and Hamlet Jr. should’ve been the next king, and number two, his uncle is now his step-dad and his mother is now his aunt? Plus, his girlfriend, Ophelia, a commoner, well, she’s acting all hot and cold, rejecting his letters, acting all coy. She may even be a pawn in an attempt to spy on him. What is up with that??? Suddenly, it seems compelling, intriguing, disgusting. And a story like this can easily be thoroughly modern.
I’ve found a book for you, anti-Shakespearean: Falling for Hamlet by Michelle Ray takes a modern spin on the tale of Hamlet, placing it firmly in the 21st century and telling it from the point of view of one tragic character from Hamlet who has never gotten a fair shake: Ophelia, the girlfriend of Hamlet. Ray establishes a compelling story and creates an Ophelia who is strong willed, but Ray keeps most of Shakespeare’s story intact. Told as a first person narrative from Ophelia’s point-of-view, Falling for Hamlet places the action properly in Denmark, but the story is filled with references to celebrity mania that is ever present in our daily lives with gossip shows and papers obsessed with royalty, celebrity, and pseudo-celebrity. In Falling for Hamlet, the Danish royal family is followed by paparazzi at every turn, and many events play out on live television. Ophelia is a celebrity by association and the pressure and flashing lights take their toll. These people are not exactly like us; sure they like to lie and love, but Shakespeare never told us common tales of common lives. Ray’s presentation of the pressures of fame is very plausible and her choice to keep the characters out of our league is wickedly entertaining.
I’ve often pondered what Ophelia really thought about her relationships with her father, brother, and boyfriend. I’ve wondered if the king and queen of Denmark thought that Hamlet was slumming with Ophelia, simply sowing his royal oats. Shakespeare was a master at writing such excellent lines for his characters, leaving much of it up to interpretation by the audience. Shakespeare gives us so little and so much about Ophelia, but we never know why she did what she did in his version of events. We only know her as a pawn and a tragic flower, ruined and drowned, with barely a Christian burial.
In Ray’s version, Ophelia is very much alive and very much a fully developed character. She is a girl in love and she is dating a hot prince. She is a celebrity in her own right. Certainly, she still does what many teenage girls do, and she puts up with Hamlet’s insanity and mood swings, as well as the doubt and the uncertainty of the relationship she has with Hamlet. Ophelia is the observer and reporter of what happens in the castle with Queen Gertrude and the new king, step-dad-uncle, Claudius. Ophelia submits to questions from detectives investigating the death of Hamlet, Sr. Ophelia is also caught in the expected tug-of-war between what her father and brother want from her, and what her lover wants. Ray fills in all the gaps and tries to answer all those questions that you may have asked about Ophelia’s life: what is she thinking? How does she really feel? How deep of a relationship does she really have with Hamlet? Even with all the invented details, Ray does not stray too far from her source material. The sexual tension, the violence, the betrayal– it all remains.
I was thoroughly entertained by Falling for Hamlet; it is a good read. I would recommend it for young adult readers who just may seek out the text of the play or even the movie versions. I also suggest the book for older readers looking for a good story who already possess some knowledge of Hamlet. I do believe for a different age group, an author could have explored gender issues and sexuality more in depth, but this story, while not necessarily a classic, is valuable in its own right.