Of all Shakespeare’s female roles, Ophelia is one the most misunderstood. Too often a director and actress portray her as something of a wet blanket, torn by the machinations of the men in her life, her father, brother, Claudius and Hamlet, no more than the forerunner of the kinds of later female roles in both theatre and film that just exist to reflect the masculine uncertainties of the male lead. It’s true that the brevity of her role does lend itself to that reading, and she does spend the bottom half of the play out her wits.
But a careful scrutiny of Shakespeare’s text reveals her to be much more subtly intelligent figure, well read and educated, assuming you take the more contemporary view that the content of a character’s speech reflects their intellect as well as the playwrights. I've only rarely seen this reflected in performance. It’s there in both of the Branagh productions in Winslet and Thomson and most pronounced in the Naxos audio starring Lesser with Emma Fielding as a very modern Ophelia. It’s also the Ophelia who tells her story in Lisa Klein’s fictional autobiographical interpretation of the play.
Klein’s book opens with a ten-year-old Ophelia joining Hamlet Snr’s court and becoming a maid in Gertrude’s household, moving up the ranks as a lady in waiting. From a young age she’s desperate to read Ovid and though she’s informed that she won’t get anywhere with men if they think she’s more intelligent than they are, it’s precisely her wit which leads to her gaining Hamlet’s attraction, the one thing which sets her apart from her bitchy court rival Cristina. Slowly events edge towards the action of Shakespeare’s play but it's quickly apparent that not everything will be as it seems.
There’s a danger in these first person retellings that a Mary-Sue element will encroach on proper storytelling and though the book (as the cover might suggest) does employ some of the idioms of the bodice-ripper, hearts beating in chests and an undercurrent of emotional desolation, Klein works hard to make Ophelia a credible figure. Written for teens but at no point lacking in sophistication, the language is of cod-poetic style which in the wrong hands could have come across as parodic but much of the time has such commitment it's easy to imagine that this is exactly how the character would have communicated her adventures.
The world of Elsinore, Klein through Ophelia conjures is very much in the mood, thanks to the thorough descriptions of fashions and furnishings of the late-Victorian or early Edwardian painters and the author has even included an image from W.G. Simmonds's The Drowning of Ophelia on her website. But time captions sets the play in and around the turn of the 17th century and it's possible to recognise the machinations of the court of that period following the hints in Shakespeare's text that he's writing as much about the English monarchy in his own lifetime as a far off place he's reputedly never visited.
Klein steers a steady course between adapting that play and as she suggests in the acknowledgements making sure that “Ophelia now has her due”. Unlike Stoppard who worked with the irony of two peripheral characters with little idea of the events they’ve tumbled into, Klein sometimes does have to strain to keep Ophelia aware of the darkness in court which is shaping her life. She’ll be hiding behind furniture and doors snatching glimpses and phrases, wedging them with rumours and gossip in an attempt to piece together how safe she remains in court, even resorting to some of Hamlet’s tactics in order to survive.
That means that Klein rarely simply novelises the play by-rote and even when we are in the midst of one of Ophelia's big scenes, we're more pre-occupied by Ophelia's thought processes than the action. Similarly, the author uses our hindsight knowledge of the plot to create a Hitchcockian tension even in those moments of high explostion as we await Ophelia's reaction. But the book is at its best when it's making its own course, as in those moments when Ophelia finds herself in some fairly deep philosophical discussions that seek to extrapolate the themes of the play in another form.
Ophelia also isn't the only character to gain weight in Klein's treatment. Horatio becomes her confident as much as Hamlets and Gertrude too is given a mountain of rational for her actions, of the kind which an actress would usually employ to underscore her performance in the hopes that the audience will see behind the her general silence in places. That's probably the best way to view the novel; like any theatre production Klein isn't attempting to piece together a definitive version of the story, just her interpretation of what's there already.
What also makes this a richer read than some Shakespeare prose adaptations is that it refuses to treat the his text in isolation. There are veiled references to plenty of other plays, most specifically Romeo & Juliet. As well as Ovid, Ophelia’s knowledge of botany is from the same sources Shakespeare is presumed to have read and it’s clear that this was much a scholarly exercise as an act of fiction. But it’s also a very imaginative reading especially in the surprising final third which sends Ophelia on an even greater emotional journey than the play allows.
Ophelia by Lisa Klein was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. RRP: £5.99. ISBN: 978-0747587330