One could suppose that few women, high-born or common, would be loath to find themselves in the favor of a prince. Ophelia is not common but she is not uncommon; fair, it's said, and even more, daughter to the Lord Chamberlain, but perceived power, beauty and modesty are not exactly enough to stop her from allowing him to catch her eye.
Of course, this is what her father wants. This was encouraged, if not outright expected. Laertes accepts it without comment -- privately, before the letters and gifts, he'd told her of Prince Hamlet's less-than-kingly cleverness and thoughtfulness, that he was no man of action, implied that he was not the man that might be needed to protect Denmark from the wars like the one waged now. Laertes says nothing out loud now, in private or not, but he doesn't need to -- his glances to her as she reads his letters or stands beside her prince say everything that he might, and more briefly.
Ophelia has no intention to speak aloud at all, she is a modest girl if anything, but just as privately she assures herself that Laertes (just in this instance) is wrong. Hamlet's cleverness and thoughtful disposition are no weakness; they are a strength.
They're what she comes to expect, to await in his letters, to admire, to love.
It's for the best, she thinks, that Hamlet went to Germany and Laertes went to Paris, and especially that Laertes is not there to glance over her shoulder as she reads. In the times when he returns to Denmark -- Hamlet, not Laertes -- he's content to be the prince, act according to his station, but there are soft looks, briefest touches, words, poetry, smiles, all in an attempt to draw out a blush. All it takes is one letter, one less than modest letter, and all those blushes strike her at once.
No, Ophelia decides, and folds the letter neatly, composing herself and only leaving her room when her thoughts are not so obvious in her cheeks. Few women would hesitate to find themselves in the thoughts of Hamlet, prince of Denmark.
Overnight, the kingdom changes. Ophelia may not be clever but she can feel the difference in the earth beneath her feet, the once-familiar Denmark now something else, something disconcerting, perhaps even something wrong. This is only to be expected, she supposes, at the death of a king.
Denmark mourns, but the Queen and Prince Hamlet most of all. The whole of the kingdom mourns for the king, as does Ophelia, but her heart breaks for the prince (her prince). She watches and waits for him to reach out to her first, offering one brief letter and touch of the hand for solace, but no words.
There is one thing she knows about her prince: when the words come to him, he will use them. Hamlet hardly hesitates to speak (at least, until he knows for certain what he means to say). She has no doubt that soon enough, he will write to her, meet with her, speak with her, and she might be able to ease his mind, once he has consoled his mother enough.
As always, Denmark moves on. Hamlet continues to wear his mourning black. The queen's tears dry, but her son falls into thoughtfulness, idleness, a sort of silence. Ophelia watches and waits: Laertes follows her gaze, looks to her more frequently with his pointed glances, but he isn't what she's waiting for.
The head of her prince, so long downcast (properly, she reminds herself) lifts, and his eyes meet hers, across the room. Ophelia offers the slightest of smiles and modestly lowers her own gaze.
More letters. A few soft discussions, never in private, never that far. More letters of love, desire, well-spun passion. Her prince starts to leave behind his melancholy, if slowly, (Laertes was wrong, she knows it now, Hamlet is not too thoughtful) and begins his return to her.
The landscape changes again. Denmark looks the same as it always has, beautiful if war-like, but four months after the death of King Hamlet, it is announced that the queen will wed once more. Claudius, brother to the late king, is to be her husband and king.
Just like the rest she accepts the marriage and says nothing of the change in the air, the state of Denmark, as Queen Gertrude trades her black dress of widow's mourning for a wedding dress, to marry her late husband's brother.
Ophelia supposes it's only practical. Claudius was half a king as it was, skilled with power, or so says her father. Really, they're just lucky to have a king again. Laertes approves, and not only for the sake of the kingdom. He says nothing of Hamlet to her, but his gaze says, This is a king.
At the wedding, it is not hard to find her prince. Among those all dressed in the traditional white, Hamlet is the only one in black. Hamlet is the single mourner at the wedding.
She realizes that -- they all realize that -- and the change in the air -- the change in the landscape, the land beneath their feet -- it all becomes too obvious, disconcerting, and the wedding guests turn their heads away, assure themselves the prince is mad. She can see it in their faces, they think her prince is mad, and perhaps he is, but there is something in the air, and though they can't see it, it is choking them.
No. Her prince speaks against his uncle, step-father, king, and spares no glance for his Ophelia. This is all between the king and queen, and the crowds retreat, even Ophelia, as she takes solace in Hamlet's own words.
I am too much in the sun.
Momentary madness. Melancholia. It will fade, once he accepts Claudius as his king. Or so she supposes. His glances all go to his mother, darker ones to the king, and it is no longer proper for her to linger. Laertes, after all, is to leave for France.
Only now does her brother speak, and cruelly, what she suspects, what she doesn't need (want) to hear. Hamlet's love is not real -- will fade, has faded, never existed at all? -- that's what he has to say. Even if it is, his marriage will not be a choice, as Claudius will choose a bride for him.
He asks she protect her chastity. All she can think to say is to suggest the same for him.
Easy as that. Hamlet's favor is questionable, his attentions inconsistent, and his station perhaps too high above hers. She says nothing, writes nothing, simply watches and waits.
(Though her fear remains that her chastity might ever be protected by the distraction of her ever-mourning prince.)
Still. Laertes's protectiveness is honorable, but not easily dealt with, not for a woman burdened as she is, and her father is wise -- or, at least, he is her father. She is young, she is a woman, and that makes it only right for her to tell him, and affirm the rumors.
It goes as it always goes; men suspect all men to be less honorable than them, even moreso if the other has more power than they. Ophelia knows of Hamlet's honor, his virtue, that he is a good man, a good prince. Lost now, perhaps. But she must defend him, or they would all call him lecherous and dishonest.
So, she does, though her father denies her prince's vows to heaven, she modestly speaks on his behalf (faithful, like a wife) and is rewarded with a father's order.
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth, have you so slander any moment leisure, as to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
He is not her prince, but her lord. He is not hers at all. Ophelia defers. She has no other choice.
The air is choked with rumors, and with every sighting of Hamlet there are reports that he looks more and more distraught, even mad. A letter arrives in Ophelia's hands, and she would like nothing better than to tear it open (or maybe not -- what ramblings of a formerly clever madman might she find? no, no, that's not fair to say) but she hands it back. That, and the next, and the next.
Something is wrong. The distress she felt at the death of the late king, at the wedding and coronation of the new, the changes, disturbances -- something is wrong, and it seems to have struck her prince -- Lord Hamlet, Lord Hamlet now, not prince, not love -- it has struck Hamlet worst of all.
Her door opens, without a knock, without a thought, and her fingers fumble with her needle. Ophelia raises her head and drops her work, startled silent at the sight of him -- the prince -- Hamlet -- Lord Hamlet. But this is not him, not the prince of Denmark, with his clothes in disarray and wild, miserable eyes like a man who's seen hell itself.
She stares into his eyes and he into hers, and slowly he's approached her before she's realized it. He takes her wrist, grips it roughly to hold her back, consider her, and the only thing she can think to say is, Who are you?
This is not her prince.
He stares at her a while and she says nothing, frightened, lost, and heartsick, more than she would dare admit. Her love is gone, wild, lost in grief, and still she must push him away, when she would most like to bring him close in consolation.
He does nothing, says nothing. He leaves, and shaken, she says nothing at all, nothing, until she finds her father.
Lovesick, her father diagnoses with a pitying nod, and she knows better, but she says nothing at all.
Ophelia has long envied the men, the students, and their schooling abroad, but also the school-friends of the prince, her lord, Lord Hamlet (not hers, not to have), but the depth only increases when her clever prince appears again with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, how they report his speech, his gentlemanly composure, and she doesn't understand.
He had no words for her, nothing gentlemanly to offer, no words of love -- not a word for her, and talk of players, plays and merriment for school friends?
No, he was not lovesick at all.
The Queen is fair, fair in more ways than face and words, and Ophelia can see her heart breaking for Hamlet as well. Both are hoping this is lovesickness, for his sake, for her sake, for all their sakes.
The state of the prince is too close to the state of Denmark, the state, the strangeness in the air. Perhaps true. She is uncertain around Lord Hamlet, but how long has it been since she's felt certain? Since the wedding, the funeral, the death?
But her father sets her out as bait, and so she waits in the trap, clutching her book and watching, terrified and exhilarated, afforded the chance to speak with her prince, whoever he has become, good or bad.
Footsteps, and there he is; she grips the book and looks into it, unheeding of the words, patient and prayerful in stance and hoping he won't see her face. She hasn't forgotten his wild eyes, the different man Lord Hamlet has become, but he says nothing to her, nothing, of course nothing.
But he speaks. Not to her.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, the pangs of despised love
New terrors, it seems impossible he could confuse her further with talk of death, more melancholia than ever, but love, the word burns in her mind, love he said, despised love, does he think of her after all?
...when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?
It strikes her then.
The word burns even deeper in her mind, and she hears him speak but she isn't listening, because of the damning word, repeating in her brain. Suicide. This is not the madness they thought. Not love. Not her.
He has her prince's face and eyes and stature but he is not her prince. Some madman instead, in disarray, awaiting the courage to throw himself on a sword, that is not the Hamlet she knows.
Laertes might say... but never mind Laertes.
Hamlet approaches; Ophelia does not say what she might (does she have anything to say?) and just does as her father asks, her father and the king and queen, for Hamlet's own sake, she assures herself. Her hand shakes as she offers him a letter, but steadies as he refuses them -- letters she never saw, that her father opened and read.
Are you honest? he asks. Are you fair?
Questions her prince would never ask her, knowing better. Knowing her, like she knew him, but did she?
Worse and worse, he corners her with words, all sharpness and disdain. I did love you once... I loved you not.
What is she supposed to say? What did they expect her to do, placing her here while hiding like conspirators, watching, watching as the madman who loved her once (loved her not) and who she loved (loves) tears her apart.
He looks as though he might like to spit on her, but maybe pained, in pain, carrying an intolerable burden, but he won't let her close enough to help, no, just to hurt --
Get thee to a nunnery.
He leaves her shaken, broken, words caught in her throat, like she has caught his sickness, yes sickness, from him. It had nothing to do with love at all, no love at all, no, this sickness is something more, something worse, something that has corrupted him to the core.
Her father, the king and queen, they discuss, something about sending him to England -- she doesn't listen. Her gaze falls to the letters, one of them folded back, and it says:
Doubt thou that the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
but never doubt that I love.
He loved her. Once.
The prince is fond of players, plays, and court life being what it is Ophelia must attend the prince's pleasure. Cruelly, if properly, she is set to sit near to him, even despite their last meeting, but it is not her place to say something against Lord Hamlet.
It gets worse. (It always does, it seems.) Further merriment, his words are sharper, nastier.
That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.
What is, my lord?
Coarse words, ribald, insulting words to a maid who gave him her first and only kisses, briefest shows of affection, words meant more for a bawd than for a modest woman. He makes her blush, not for the first time, but for the first time in shame.
At least there's a distraction, so more than the prince can find themselves distracted. The play is a dumb-show, no words, and seems a strange choice, a story of a poisoner, and even Hamlet seems less than satisfied. When she answers him, he gets in one last barb.
'Tis brief, my lord.
As woman's love.
Laertes is right; her prince is not so clever. Woman's love is hardly brief at all.
The earth has changed beneath her feet, the air began to choke her, and now finally the world has fallen apart, into pieces, pieces she barely recognizes. There is a garden, a queen, a brother, a father, dead on his bier, a lover, a lover who has taken her virtue and fled with it. There is a king --
rosemary, that's for remembrance; pansies. that's for thought
A father dead, but all the violets withered when he died, else she would have one to give.
And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead:
Go to thy death-bed:
He never will come again.
He never will, her prince, her brother, her love, her father, they will never come again, all gone, all to be remembered but never be hers.
"God 'a mercy on his soul," she sings, "and of all Christian souls, God buy you."
The rivershore welcomes her, she rings herself with garlands and like the swan, she sings before she closes her eyes and slips into the water.