Hamlet or in its full title; The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is Shakespeare’s great revenge play. Believed to have been written between 1599 and 1602, Hamlet is story of a son seeking vengeance for the murder of his father. The play opens with the appearance of the ghost of the dead king. He later tells our protagonist Hamlet, that he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius. Claudius has just married the dead king’s wife and hamlets mother, Gertrude. This news and pushes the already grief-stricken Hamlet to the edge. His behaviour becomes erratic and feverish and his mind consumed with killing his uncle.
Hamlet, in an attempt to kill his uncle, accidentally kills Polonius, the chief counsellor to the King and the father of Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia. Following the murder, Hamlet flees to England only to discover that Claudius is trying to have him killed. Ophelia whose father is now dead is left devastated and descending into madness.
What has just happened?
Moments before this monologue, Claudius has been plotting with Ophelia’s brother Laertes to murder Hamlet. Laertes had left Denmark earlier in the play but has just returned after hearing of the news of his father death. He blames Hamlet not only for Polonius murder but also for Ophelia turning mad and is keen for revenge himself.
Claudius discusses with Laertes how they will full proof Hamlet’s death. Laertes will challenge Hamlet to a duel, with a poisoned sword tip. Even if Laertes fails to strike Hamlet, Claudius will offer Hamlet a drink from a poisoned goblet of wine. As the two are plotting, Gertrude enters the scene and relays the heart breaking news that Ophelia is dead.
Now I’m going to break down this monologue into beats and thought changes:
Space = New beat/idea
, or ; = build on a thought
One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow: your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.
Laertes: Drown’d! O, where?
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream:
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread wide
And mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element.
But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
One sadness comes after another,
So fast it follows: your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
Laertes: Drowned! Oh, where?
There is a willow tree that grows leaning over a river,
Whose whitish leaves look down into the transparent stream:
She came there with wreaths
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That rude shepherds give a cruder name,
But modest maids call them dead men’s fingers.
While climbing on a hanging branch to drape
Her garland of flowers, an jealous branch broke,
And down she fell with her flowery wreaths
Into the weeping brook.
Her clothes spread out
And like a mermaid, they kept her floating for a while,
And she sang fragments of old hymns,
As someone unaware of the danger she was in,
Or like a creature that belonged
In the water.
But it wasn’t long before
Her clothes, heavy and weighed down with water,
Pulled the poor soul from her singing
Down to a muddy death.
Unfamiliar words & Phrases
Aslant: On a slant, leaning
Grosser: Cruder, ruder
Coronet: Crown, garland
Envious Sliver: An envious branch (envious that it wouldn’t have the wreath placed on it)
Weedy trophies: The wreath made of flowers
Indued: Endowed with qualities
While this monologue seems quite simple and straight forward there are many who interpret Gertrude’s choice of words of this speech to hold a lot of subtext.
When approaching this speech, it’s important to think about why Gertrude tells the story of Ophelia’s death the way she does. Why doesn’t Gertrude simply come into the room and tell Laertes bluntly? Why does she paint this serene and beautiful picture of Ophelia singing and floating mermaid like? It’s important that the actor makes a choice; was the scene in fact like something from a dream or is she saying this for Laertes benefit? Did Gertrude witness the event or is she relaying the news?
There are some who believe that Ophelia in fact committed suicide and that Gertrude is trying to soften the news by making it seem more peaceful and beautiful. Note that before Gertrude launches into the speech, she says that this tragic death is following that of Polonius, so she is aware that it’ll be especially difficult for Laertes to hear.
There are quite a lot of images of flowers and nature in in play. It reminds us of the continuing themes of life, death and returning to the ground. In the last scene we saw Ophelia, she was sorting through flowers she had collected. The image of Ophelia dying while surrounded by nature, flowers, floating in the river like a mermaid, conjures a sense of innocence and virtue. Gertrude speech makes Ophelia’s death not only more beautiful and tragic to the characters listening but also, to us the audience.