By The Way, Ophelia Is Pregnant

Has anyone noticed that Ophelia is pregnant? In all the productions of Hamlet that I've seen, she is interpreted as an innocent girl in love with the doomed Prince. He breaks her heart, and her sanity goes with it. She drowns herself out of madness.

But I think her madness has method to it. In Ophelia's first scene (I, iii), her brother Laertes warns her to beware of Hamlet's affection for her:

"For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood...
no more."

In other words: the Prince is toying with you. Ophelia demurs ("No more but so?") but appears to submit to her brother's wishes.

Later in the same scene, Ophelia's father Polonius complains,

"'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous."

That is, "You've been spending a lot of time alone with this guy." Ophelia, in the time-honored fashion of daughters, claims the relationship is completely innocent: "he hath importun'd me with love / In honorable fashion."

In II, ii, Hamlet mockingly warns Polonius that "Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive - friend look to't'. [Thanks to reader Winnie H for this point.]

Then, as Carol Malone notes in her blog post about this very article, Polonius observes,

"How pregnant sometimes his replies are!" (II.II, 220)
If the audience thinks Ophelia's pregnant -- having her put her hand on her belly once in Act I will do it -- then having Hamlet pun on "conceive" and then having Polonius obliviously say Hamlet's replies are "pregnant" -- well, the groundlings are elbowing each other in the ribs at this point.

Act III kicks it up a notch. In III:i, Hamlet probably overhears the King and Polonius setting Ophelia to spy on him. (I say probably, because all that's needed is for Hamlet to enter seven lines before he speaks; that explains why he turns on her.) Ophelia listens to his famous so-called soliloquy. Then he pretends to notice her for the first time, and says, with beautiful poetry and really amazing viciousness:

Nymph, in thy orisons
be all my sins remembered.

Orisons are prayers: "Girl, remember all my sins in your prayers." This could mean just, "Pray for me," but Shakespeare's slyer than that. How can she remember his sins, unless they sinned together?

(It's not a soliloquy, as David Ball notes in his excellent book Backwards and Forwards; it's a monologue. Hamlet knows she's listening. He calls death, "The bourne from which no traveler returns" but he knows better. His whole problem is that his father has bloody well returned from it!)

Hamlet really lays into Ophelia in III:i, ending by telling her, "To a nunnery, go!" In high school they tell you that "nunnery" was slang for a whorehouse, but it is also, more literally, an excellent place for a family to send a pregnant, unmarried noblewoman. The nuns will take care of her, and keep her out of sight, and the baby can be handed off to someone else to raise.

But it is the mad songs that Ophelia sings in IV:7 that really give away her secret. More than half of her songs are songs of mourning; after all, Hamlet has just killed Ophelia's father. That might be why Ophelia warns, "Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be." After all, she is no longer the daughter of the King's chamberlain; she is now only the daughter of a dead old man. But perhaps she knows all too well what she soon may be, for shortly she sings:

Tomorrow is St. Valentine's day
All in the morning betime
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose and donn'd his clothes
and dupp'd the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

Why is Ophelia singing about a maid seduced by her lover? Aside from the songs of mourning, all her songs are songs of betrayed love. A few lines later, she is singing an even more pointed song:

Quoth she, "Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed."
He answers:
"So would I ha'done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed."

It is hard to avoid the thought that Hamlet has seduced and abandoned her.

When Ophelia returns, she has gathered herbs. "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you love, remember..." The various herbs have symbolic meanings well-documented in the scholarship, but the only herb she intends for herself is rue: "...there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o'Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference."

The symbolic meaning of rue is regret. Ophelia has much to rue, but the symbolic meaning is not the only one. The herb rue (ruta graveolens, aka Herb-of-Grace) is a powerful abortifacient. My herbiary notes that rue is "Lethally toxic, do not use during pregnancy."

Herbal abortifacients are mild poisons. You poison yourself to the point where your body decides it's too sick to support the growing embryo, and rejects it. If you miscalculate in one direction, continued pregnancy; in the other direction, you die. No one would take rue as a poison; it's an ugly way to go. Presumably Shakespeare would have given Ophelia something painless if she had intended to poison herself; hemlock, say.

A girl who has been seduced and abandoned need fear nothing but a broken heart, provided there is no evidence of her shame. But if she is pregnant, then there is no way to hide what she has done, unless she can abort the child, or kill herself. And, indeed, shortly thereafter, Ophelia drowns herself.

The conventional interpretation is that Hamlet has broken her heart and killed her father. But the play seems to suggest strongly that Hamlet has seduced her, and to hint that she is pregnant as well.

It is not hard to imagine Ophelia falling in love with the romantic Prince, and giving in to his passions. He has promised to marry her, and it is not an impossible promise. The Queen later says of Ophelia (V: 2) "I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." Ophelia might well have hoped to become Queen when Hamlet ascended the throne, as his uncle Claudius has promised.

Hamlet has been away at Wittenberg long enough for Claudius to murder Hamlet's father and then to marry his mother Gertrude, and then for the news to reach Hamlet. Presumably this would be a few months at least, long enough for Ophelia to know she's pregnant. When he returns, she is hoping he'll do the right thing.

But Hamlet rejects her, kills her father, and to destroy all hope, is sent by King Claudius to England to be executed. What will become of the mother of the doomed prince's bastard? There is only one way to preserve her honor, and she takes it.

The point is, the next time someone puts on Hamlet, Ophelia really ought to be showing. Okay?

NOTES: A reader writes in to remind me just how specific Gertrude is when she later describes Ophelia's suicide -- as if she saw it, but did nothing about it. That would make perfect sense if Gertrude knew Ophelia's problem, and agreed that suicide was her only real option.

Amy Aldro writes in to point out that the heroine of The Rape of Lucrece "kills herself after Tarquin rapes her to preserve her honour." So it's a theme Shakespeare is familiar with.

Autumn S points out that during the play Ophelia says it has been "Twice two months" since his father's death.

After four or more months of being pregnant, would people not begin to notice the pregnant belly that she had?
It could be that Ophelia is showing, and people are pretending not to notice; it could also be that Ophelia's pregnancy is not particularly obvious in an Elizabethan dress.

Jack K writes in:

Parts of what is said to the queen by a gentleman may also imply that there is talk of Ophelia being pregnant with Hamlet's child. Especially if she is singing in public the things she later sings in that scene.

She speaks much of her father; says she hears
There's tricks i' the world, and hems, and beats her heart;
Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,
That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.
'Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew
Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.

He's saying, "her crazy talk is giving people ideas; tell her to cut it out." He's a bit vague about what sort of ideas, but note the "ill-breeding minds." Shakespeare was super fond of double-entendres. Getting knocked up is the sort of thing ill-bred people do -- but more importantly, breeding is exactly what Ophelia's been doing, and that's the problem.

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